Thursday, September 4, 2008

JFK 50M Nov 07

After taking two weeks off to let my feet and spirit heal following the Arkansas Traveller 100M Race, I knew time was not on my side to get ready for this next adventure. Some experienced runners say you need 6 weeks to allow your body to fully recover following a 100 mile race. This also depends on the individual, level of training, and your ability to recover. I decided to default to the old saying “Best to arrive at the starting line under-trained than with injury.” I only had a few weeks to train which was not enough to get any long runs in, but I did manage a few shorter runs to maintain my current fitness level and allow my confidence in my new running shoes to increase. Not having any long runs between races did not bother me as much because endurance is slow to build and slow to lose.
Laura ordered my Injinji socks and Montrail trail shoes. The socks have individual sleeves for each toe to prevent blisters from toe rub. We went to a running store and got a new pair of Asics size 9 with my feet mysteriously growing a half inch overnight (actually over the summer time – go figure). I also got a new pair of inserts to replace the generic inserts which come with your shoes: more padding and shaped to distribute the pressure across the foot vise on a specific point. I talked to this guy selling shoes and hiking boats and he said the inserts that come with most shoes provide little padding and support. He told me about his background as an experienced hiker including some trails out West and the Appalachian Trail. I told him what kind of racing I do and he said he has heard of it but never met anybody that did it. He said I really needed inserts for the mileage I travel and couldn’t believe the distance I covered with the original inserts. The shoe store had a computer to measure the pressure on the bottom of your foot as you stepped to determine the type of inserts to distribute the weight more equal.
Unfortunately, I was not able to get the miles on my two new pairs of shoes to break them in before race day but figured less mileage was better than torn-up feet. The plan for JFK-50 was to wear trail shoes for the first 16 miles along the Appalachian Trail (AT) and then switch into my road shoes for the remainder which was on dirt roads and pavement. The Montrail shoes were heavier than I was accustomed to but provided more protection and had a good feel. I really wanted to get a good long trail run on these first, but would only have time for some shorter 10-15 mile training runs.
A lot of the runners I read about usually raise money for some charity and will dedicate a race for this reason. They get sponsored based on the number of miles covered. I thought about this but did not want to extend myself until I knew I could race these distances. Laura and I talked about it and decided we would like to help out some local children in need of some support such as cancer treatment. Then I remembered one of my Operators at work (Southern Nuclear Co. - Plant Vogtle) who had a child with a serious viral infection in the brain and was currently undergoing treatment in Atlanta with little progress. Unfortunately, this mom (Jayme) had used up all her sick days and vacation time and had to take time off without pay to travel to Atlanta to check on her 8 year old daughter Sidney.
The first part of December, Sidney is flying to Minnesota to the Mayo Clinic because one of the best neurologist doctors in the country agreed to take a look at her condition. I approached Danny (a friend of mine at work which keeps close tabs with Jayme on Sidney’s progress) and asked him what he thought about using my next race to raise some money to help Sidney. He immediately thought it was an awesome idea and we approached Jayme for her approval to help Sidney. I told Danny that I would do the race and he could collect the money. We only had two weeks to get this going and raise as much as we could before race day. Before long, word was on the street about the fund raiser for Sidney and the money started to flow in for this great cause.
I don’t usually tell people about my races and only keep it among family and close friends. At the time, I was only thinking about how best to raise money for Sidney, but didn’t think about the hundreds of questions I would get from my co-workers about how does a human run 50 miles and live to tell about it. For some, I didn’t dare to tell them that it’s not on smooth flat ground like most Marathons, and that some do 100 mile runs and beyond. They had a difficult time comprehending anything beyond a marathon.
The part that tore my heart out was when I ran into Sidney’s grandfather in the Maintenance shop (he works at Plant Vogtle also) and he told me about how Sidney would run up to him and hug his leg and say grandpa I love you. Now when he sees her, she does not remember him and treats him like a stranger. As he was telling me about her condition, a tear welled-up in his eye and rolled down the wrinkles in his face. I told him that we would keep Sidney and her family in our prayers.
My research into the race and the course indicated an easy 50 mile run consisting of 16 miles leading to and including the Appalachian Trail (~500’ climb), 26 miles along the C&O canal, and 8 miles on a rolling paved road into Williamsport. This race is held the weekend before Thanksgiving every year. Some of the comments from previous years were: “The AT is very rocky and a real hazard to feet and ankles.” “The C&O Canal was flat, smooth, and uneventful.” “Eight mile run into Williamsport was a welcome sight after exiting the canal.”
This is one of the oldest and largest Ultra races in the country (~1200 runners) and was created from President Kennedy’s challenge to military personnel in 1963. I had a lot in common with this race with President Kennedy being my Mom’s favorite President; I was born in 1963, and had retired from the Navy with 24 years of service.
Before I knew it, Thursday was here and the kids were excited to be a part of this race as we (Laura, Josh, Letice and I) hit the road for Columbia to pick up Tammy and continue to Hagerstown Maryland. The plan was to drive around Friday to locate all the crew access points so Laura, Tammy, and the kids would be familiar with the directions. Friday afternoon was race packet pick-up followed by a nice pasta dinner somewhere and a good night rest before race day. Driving around Friday we saw some awesome countryside and some beautiful houses. Hagerstown is a good size city in itself, but when out in the surrounding countryside, it’s hard to believe you’re in Maryland. It looks more like Vermont with the rolling hills, farm land, and small communities nestled in the valleys. Josh was really enjoying himself with the area being so rich in civil war battlefields.
We found the entrance to the Appalachian Trial and Josh and I walked a short distance along it to get a feel for what I was up against. We rode down to the C&O Canal and I checked the running surface which half the race would be run on (smooth dirt surface surrounded with colorful trees and the Potomac River always in close sight).
Everything was on schedule as we headed back into Hagerstown for the packet pick-up. Afterwards, the hunger pains started to kick in as we found a large Mall with a food court and everything but pasta. We decided to go ahead and eat and Letice and I shared some fried rice from a Chinese fast food place. By this time it was dark and the Friday evening work traffic was in high gear.
While traveling back to our hotel, we came upon a car accident. I initially did not see it until Laura pointed it out. Nobody stopped to help this young lady out of her smashed car in the middle of I-70 in Hagerstown so we pulled over to the side quickly and I ran over to get her out of the badly damaged car in the middle of a 3 lane interstate. The front of her car was completely smashed into the firewall but thankfully her airbag deployed (and seatbelt on) which really kept her from getting seriously injured. My wife called 911 to get some help on the way. Eventually the fire department, police, and ambulance arrived to do what they do best.
I was just amazed at the thousands of motorists on the interstate who did not stop, which gave me the impression, the only thing they cared about was how they could get by this mess and not be late for their next appointment or getting home. Nobody offered to help until 15 minutes later when some salesman from a car dealership ran over after hearing about the accident.
After all the excitement, we found a fast-food Italian restaurant, ordered some pasta and meatballs, and we took it back to the hotel. Now was time for my night before the race routine, and lo and behold, it was only 9PM and ready for bed - This was a first. I actually slept well all night long! Before long, time to awake with the morning routine of coffee, bagel, and banana and we were out the door and on our way to the Boonsboro’s High School for the brief.
With this being the largest and oldest Ultra race in the country (1200+ runners), the traffic was thick and the number of runners and crew members made for a very crowded gym. We missed the brief (which was not that important with the race so organized) with standing room only outside the gym doors. The air was cold (~33 deg) at 7AM but the weather forecast called for cloudy skies with no rain. This was the first time I would be wearing running pants (look and feel like tights). Laura picked them up a week ago thinking it might be cold this time of the year in Maryland. I’m glad I had them.
A buddy of mine (James) who ran at Old Dominion last spring was also doing the race and we agreed to meet in the morning and start off running together. He gave me some good intel about the race and heard that you should get ahead of the crowd before hitting the AT. Otherwise, you will run into a log jam on the trail with some impassable sections. Most Ultra events have few participants and finding another runner is not a problem, but with 1200 runners, this was a problem. We waited outside the gym doors while the herd exited and hoping to catch James but no sign. After a short delay, I heard a voice that said “Looks like you grew your hair out over the summer.” It was James. He was very grateful to have found us because he had no crew and knew Laura would be there to crew for me. He asked if he could leave some gear with Laura to be picked up later at an aid station. Laura said immediately that she would also crew for him providing we were not running too far apart. James was greatly relieved but had to make a quick trip to his vehicle to get his gear. Although we had a 1/2 of a mile to walk from the gym to the starting line in downtown Boonsboro, and time was short, we waited for James so we could start together. He finally showed-up and I gave the kids and Tammy a hug and Laura a kiss and said “See you at the first aid station.”
When we finally made it to Main Street, and 500 yards to go, the race started with the two of us at the very back of the pack trying to catch-up. This normally would not be a problem, but based on the intel of being up front before approaching the AT, this was trouble. We started to pick up our pace faster than normal as we climbed up the paved road for a couple of miles until we reached the AT. We caught up with the back-of-the-packers and managed to pass a good number of runners, but still had hundreds in front which would prove to be slow going on the trails. The first couple of miles of the AT were mostly uphill but on very run-able smooth trails. It felt great after coming off the hard paved roads. The leaves were very colorful and littered the ground which made for a picture perfect background as the trail ascended to the top of the ridge line. A lot of the runners I ran into were apart of a military team (Naval Academy, West Point, VMI,…) or running club which mostly ran together for this once a year event to compete with other teams for bragging rights. There was never a time where I found myself alone. James and I took advantage of the earlier stage of the trail, which was a little more generous in width, and passed more runners. Before long, the trail turned into a single path with occasional rocks to step around. The rocks became more abundant and the leaves often made it challenging to gauge the landing. I heard a good number of runners complaining about the rocks and some whining about how unfair the trail was. For me this was a walk in the park compared to Arkansas Traveller, as I slithered by the cautious runners and negative comments. I told myself if they only knew just how bad it can get – and this was considered a non-technical trail. Although attention to detail was required to keep from twisting an ankle, the trail was still very run-able. James and I stayed together for the most part, as we took time leading and making progress along this very beautiful trail. The legs felt great, the temperature was perfect, and the trail was fun to run. What more could a runner ask for?
The first crew access aid station (Gathland Gap) was 9 miles into the run where the trail dipped down into a small opening next to a main road. After driving by this area yesterday, Laura said, “Don’t be surprised if I don’t make this one due to the small area and limited parking.” It was very crowded and congested. As it was only 9 miles into the run, it was not a problem. I didn’t expect to see them until the 16 mile aid station (Weaverton Cliffs) just before entering the C&O canal. As we entered the aid station I got my number recorded and bottles filled. I had my outer heavier shirt tied around my waist with the temperature a little higher (10 degrees) than when we started. I heard my name being called in a loud unfamiliar voice from the left side of the crowd and saw a face in the distance that resembled my sister, Toni. My first impression was “What is Toni doing here in Maryland?” It could have been her twin. Just to her left stood Laura, Tammy, and the kids and I started to walk towards them in a daze still wondering who this person was. She called my name like she knew me which puzzled me even more. As I approached she said she was helping Laura get my attention and started to yell “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, over here.” When I realized this was not Toni, I said thanks for your help and told Laura that I was really glad to see her. I handed her my shirt that was wrapped around my waist and said I was good and really enjoying the run. The kids and Tammy snapped a couple of pictures and my Crew Chief said “Time to go”. I gave them a hug and a kiss and thanked them for being there. I was pleasantly surprised to see them which made this near perfect morning of running even greater.
James and I dashed out of the aid station trying to reel-in some more runners for the 2nd half of the trail section. This part was a little more rocky but still manageable. We saw some bloody knees and elbows, some limping runners, and a few more bad attitudes. We checked our time and still on track for a 9 hour finish despite the slower trail section and late start. The last part of the trail had a steep descent with a series of switchbacks and boulders to maneuver over. This was a log jam which made waiting in line at Disney World a welcome sight. It would be just my luck that I would get stuck behind a foul mouth middle aged woman who complained the entire trip down (Too many rocks, why so steap,....) I was thinking to myself why did she sign-up for the race in the first place knowing this was not a pleasure trip around the local park. I could not wait to get away from her and her pessimistic outlook.
We ran into some boy scouts and hikers on their way up the switchback and they politely pulled over to the side to allow this long line of runners by. I said good day to them as they looked at us like “Where in the world did they come from?” and “What are they doing?” It reminded me of the Boy Scout club I belonged to back in Northfield, VT and the wonderful times I had camping. I thought of this one particular time when we camped in the middle of winter and woke the next day to sub-zero temperatures.
The series of switchbacks dropped directly into the 16 mile aid station where my crew was waiting. The plan was to change from my trail shoes into my road shoes (lighter) for the remainder of the run. They had a chair setup and Laura directed me into the chair - Josh ripped my right shoe off, while Laura pulled my left shoe off. It was obvious she had a plan laid out and all I had to do was drive into the pit stop as they changed my tires and checked the fluids. They were great. Tammy made sure I was good on gels and water. Laura said I was behind in my time which came as a surprise to me. The last section of trail must have slowed us up more than we realized. We were not too concerned because we could make up time on the flat wide dirt road along the canal. I told Laura I was feeling great despite my close encounter with this woman who hated life today. Another quick hug and off we were.
The canal section was perfectly flat, smooth, single lane dirt road (no vehicle traffic – only people and bikes allowed) lined with tall trees with half the leaves fallen. The Potomac River was flowing against us on the left hand side and always in view, just a rock-throw away. Every now and then, a kayaker would pass in the muddy colored water or we would see a biker out on a Saturday ride as the swarms of runners passed by.
This section was a 26 mile stretch before exiting the canal onto the paved road leading into the town of Williamsport. James and I decided to kick it up a notch for this easy running section. We talked about the past summer and shared some military experiences (He was in the Marines). James is also a cancer survivor – he jokes about how he can run faster now with some of his organs removed. We have a lot of the same beliefs and interests in common. James told me about the North Face Challenge Race and running with Dean Karnazes last summer. He asked about how I was dealing with the DNF at the AT-100 last October and how does one get over it. I said, “I’m not sure if you ever get over it, but it makes you stronger in the long haul.” He knew a day would come when he would not be able to complete a race and wondered “How do you internalize it and get past the next race?” I responded that “As long you don’t give-up on yourself and in your heart, you know that you gave it everything you had, then it wasn’t a failure but an opportunity to gain experience and fuel the fire for the next time.” I was surprised at how great I felt considering the short recovery time between races.
It was about 5 miles into this section when I started to feel a little tired and weighed-down. I went over my mental checklist and had taken in plenty of water and electrolytes. I had a few gels to keep my carbs intake up along with a couple handfuls of chips (nothing out of the ordinary). Then it hit me that this was the 20 something mile wall I was running into. At least I was hoping this was what it was and didn’t jinx myself about feeling great and my recovery from the last race. It was too early and too many miles to run for this to be the case.
I told James I was feeling the wall and just had to push through it. I told him not to let me slow him up and to go ahead if he felt strong: I would see him at the finish line for sure. He said he wasn’t feeling that great either and wasn’t going to leave me behind: Must be the Marine coming out in him, and I greatly appreciated his friendship and brotherly attitude. Our pace slowed down as a couple of the runners we passed earlier started to pass us. We saw one guy with half his face and head wrapped: Must have been a bad fall, but good determination on his part to finish. After a couple more miles, we entered the next aid station, with the Porto-potties just off the beaten path, which snagged my attention. I told James to go ahead and fuel-up – that I might be a few minutes. With some relief, I was thinking this might have been my problem and felt a lot better.
We started on our way to the next aid station determined to make up some time and kick it up a little. The first mile went by fairly quickly as we approached this young cadet in his last year at the Naval Academy with the hand-written words on the back of his shirt “You have just been passed by a submariner.” We slowed down a little to chat with him. We said enough and went past him as James and I turned and said “You have just been passed by a Marine and a retired Navy Chief.” We all laughed as the C&O Canal scene keeps repeating itself. At first it was really beautiful but now it was starting to get old. I couldn’t wait to get off this section and on to anything different.
It wasn’t long before I started to feel sluggish again and slowed down. My stomach was upset and the thought of another gel or food made me want to throw-up. I had two Tums in my emergency kit just for this reason. After topping the bottles off, we hit the road on our way to the next aid station. I lost track of when I would see my crew the next time. Fortunately, it was within the next 4 miles.
Antietam Aqueduct – mile 27 – and my crew was waiting with supplies in hand. I told Laura about my stomach problems and that I did not know what was going on. She did get a laugh out of me when she told me about this runner that went by and they yelled out his race number and said “good job”. The runner was confused and asked how she knew what his number was. She replied “It’s pinned on your leg.” I said, “Thanks for the laugh. I just hope the Tums will do the trick.” With the usual hugs and a “See you at the next aid station,” we were back in running form.
The cadet caught up to us and we kept passing each other for most of this section. The canal just kept going . . . and going . . . and going. I was not able to get any more food or gels in me and was just sipping on water trying to not lose it. The Tums may have helped but I didn’t notice. I still felt bad and keep getting worse as the day went on. I kept telling James it was okay to go on but he insisted on not leaving me. I thought about Sidney and the pain she and her family must be enduring during their troubling times and said to myself “Who am I to be complaining about my momentary issues?” James asked me if I was okay and I replied that nothing would keep me from crossing the finish line this time – even if I had to crawl the last few miles. There was no way that I was going to let Sidney down. It was the next to the last aid station (Taylors Landing – Mile 38) before getting off this bloody road when we saw my crew for the last time before crossing the finish line.
I told Laura my stomach problem was worse and that I could not take anything in. At this time the urge to purge hit me again but twice as bad as before. There were two permanent wood framed bathrooms along the side of the road so I immediately bolted over to stand in line. I picked door number 1, but still had to wait forever for the person inside to finish. I thought about going behind the wood building for the call of nature was not going to wait. Just then the door opened as the lady says “It’s really nasty inside.” She was not kidding, and it smelled bad too.
Just when things couldn’t get worse, there was no toilet paper on the roll and I had left my waistpack with my emergency toilet kit with Laura. It must have been my expression that I needed help NOW, when I stuck my head out the door to Laura, 40 yards back at the aid station. Josh had wet-ones in hand in a full court sprint towards me.
Needless to say, the deed was done but I did not sense a lot of relief. After a few knocks on the door by other runners in need, or just concerned about the noises behind the door, or if anybody was still alive, I said next, along with a “good luck it’s kind of nasty in there”. Laura asked if I felt any better and I said a little but will just have to suck it up.
I told her the good news was that my feet felt great with no blisters. The ½ size larger shoe and double socks really paid dividends. She said, “See you at the finish line.”
James and I continued on to our last stretch before getting off this never ending road. It was still light out but would be dark soon. The last aid station was handing out reflective safety vests but James and I said no thanks. This guy started to tell James he needs one as he starts to block him from going by. James faked one way and spun around the other as we were both able to dodge the vest. Our feet finally hit pavement which was a welcome sight for it meant no more C&O Canal.
We checked our watch and realized the possibility of breaking 9 hours was long gone and we were looking more like 11 hours if we picked-up our pace. It was about 2 miles into the last 8 mile section when I started to feel better. This section was on gentle rolling hills in the evening as the sun had set and darkness was on the horizon. We picked-up our pace as James said his main goal was to finish strong ending the year. He checked his Garmin and said we were holding an 8 minute per mile pace.
It was like this breath of fresh energy hit me as we kept passing packs of hurting runners. We would pick someone out as we crested another hill and said “Let’s pass them before the next hill.” Before we knew it, a familiar saying on the back of a shirt was just in front of us as James looks at me and says “Let’s put this one behind us for good.” No words were exchanged as we dropped the hammer and flew by the cadet for the last time. I wished I had felt this good earlier, but better late than never. All of the runners that had passed us earlier were down to a crawl as we kept passing more and more which just kept fueling the fire.
We finally hit the final stretch as the announcer says congratulations on completing the JFK50 (Time – 10:57). The finisher’s medal felt most rewarding when placed around my neck considering the unexpected stomach problems I had to overcome, but not as rewarding as knowing we had helped Sidney. After crossing the finish line, I said “This one’s for you Sidney”.
Thanks to my crew (Wife, Tammy, and Kids) who offered excellent support and kept me going when I needed a lift. It was a day that started on a high and turned into an emotional seesaw. Seeing my crew throughout the day really gave me something to look forward to and always gave me an emotional boost. They waited patiently in the breezy cold air all day only to take care of my needs for a brief minute. That’s love.

Note from my Crew Chief:

Now I'll cut to the chase....he finished...had some tummy troubles, but still pushed thru and finished after starting in the dead last position (he and his friend took time to find each other, so we could get James' stuff and crew for him too). Tammy, Josh, Letice and I were the best crew at the JFK 50, but they don't give medals for loving your man, standing in the cold, walking forever with all of this stuff that he never needs, driving around the entire city to get to the next aid station, or even going pee-pee in the woods (a personal big one for me). Thomas has the best disposition of them Tammy says, "Thomas always has a smile on his face when he see us!!!" Then I get a big sweaty kiss, and he's gone again. James had never had anyone crew for him before...he's hooked. Thomas tries to explain how it feels to see his family watching for him at every possible place, I can only equate it to seeing him running in and we all start yelling...Thomas, Thomas, over here!!!!!! What can we get u??? Food, water, change of clothes, wet ones (again the tummy troubles...runners don't need laxatives as much as Imodium, Pepto, a cork, etc).

It was a great trip with another adventure added to my life. Looking back, I could not pinpoint what caused my stomach problems and sluggish feeling. I’m not sure if it was something I ate, not fully recovered from my last race, or a combination of both. The adjustment to my footwear made for happy feet and no blisters. I was a little sore the next day but not as bad compared to previous races. I was able to drive 600 miles back to GA the day after the race.
The money raised for Sidney helped pay for her expenses in Minnesota. Sidney is undergoing treatment and making progress towards recovery thanks to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The infection has been isolated using steroids and the brain scan identified hot spots where the antibodies were currently causing problems. Once this is under control using the steroids, the problems in the brain can be stopped or reversed. Her speech and memory is still not clear, but the family is positive Sidney will be healed.
The remainder of the year will be to spend some good quality time with my family, recovery, and letting my body heal. 2008 will be a challenging year with a busy work schedule and a couple of 100 mile races on the horizon. Time will tell.

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