The 49th Annual JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon was this past Saturday November 19, 2011. It was my 4th consecutive JFK50 (see previous year’s summaries: 2010, 2009, 2008). This year’s training approach resulted in a course PR by 38 minutes over last year.
Preparation this year was very different than in previous years. My training for this event began way back in May when I started a 3-4x/week core strength training program. The main focus was core strength, but I also did a lot of overall strength training. The core training consisted of exercises like planks, Bosu ball and exercise ball balances, TRX suspension to name just a few exercise types. I could feel as I was getting stronger I was using my legs less while increasing pace. Most of my fall run training focused on aerobic base via a low heart rate (See Phil Maffetone’s Article on Aerobic Training). I also scheduled two long events 7 weeks (Blues Cruise 50K) and 4 weeks (Bimblers Bluff 50K) prior to the JFK50. My last long run was two weeks before at 25 miles. My goal was to again train on technique and not do too many miles or too many long runs. I tapered about one week with a 15 mile week.
Another main area of focus was fueling. I have had many problems with bonking in the past so getting my fuel right and getting my body to burn fat was a key consideration. I was experimenting with UCAN, plus continuing to use a supplement called ASEA that supports the body at the cellular level. I also tested Hammer Endurolyte for electrolytes.
Race day started with 6 oz. of ASEA and a packet of UCAN in 16 oz. of water.
The Course (as described on the JFK 50 Miler website), maps:
“The first 2.5 miles are on a well-paved road that climbs up 500 feet to meet the Appalachian Trail. The next 13.0 miles basically (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles) follow this rolling and sometimes very rocky section of the famous North-South footpath. At approximately 14.5 miles the course goes down a series of steep “switchbacks” that then crosses under Rt. 340 and connects with the C&O Canal towpath. The “Canal” section of the JFK 50 Mile is 26.3 miles (from 15.5-41.8 miles) of almost totally flat unpaved dirt surface that is free of all automotive traffic. The JFK 50 Mile route leaves the C&O Canal towpath at Dam #4 and proceeds to follow gently rolling paved country roads the last 8.4 miles to the finish.”
The weather started overcast with temps between 30 (start) and 55-60 degrees. At one point on the towpath section there was a brief headwind as the path weaved its way along the river, but for the most part it was a calm day.
Again this year I was also very lucky to have my father join me as my crew so I had the option of changing gear along the course. I started with a tech hat, gloves, long sleeve tech shirt, light wind vest, shorts, running pants, NB 110 trail shoes, Garmin FR60 footpod/HRM watch, my water belt and a backup Hammer Gel.
The first section is 2.5 miles of road to the beginning of the AT. An uphill with one dip and then up a very steep 500′ hill. Using a low (ChiRunning) gear with an energetic breath/arm swing focus I went right up the hill with little effort. I remember getting near the top and noticing I was breathing very comfortable. The uphill split at the AT was a least a minute faster than last year.
The Appalachian Trail (AT):
The next 13 miles you are on the AT; this year with the leaves were just down adding a bit more challenge. At first, some double then single track. At mile 3.5 there is a fluid aid station where you move onto a paved park road for about 2 miles. On the park road, there are a number of steep hills. This year I ran more of these hills very comfortably. A few very steep short sections I decided to walk. Actually I Chi-Walked (ChiWalking) them for efficiency. At mile 5.4, you go back onto the single track until we pop out briefly at an aid station/crew location at about mile 9.3. I was able to unload my pants here to my Dad; and had 2 oz. of ASEA. I packed away more ASEA and UCAN for use later. From there we go back onto single track for the next 6 miles.
This second section of single track is extremely technical in spots. Lots of rock fields which can be mentally exhausting; but this year I was able to stay much more relaxed. I really focused on feeling the strength of my center with each step. kept my cadence up and always opted for a shorter step. At about mile 14.5 the trail heads down a very steep decline. At this point I paused, had two Hammer Endurolytes electrolyte tablets with water, and started again in a space where no one was close behind me. I remember noticing about half way down the 18 switchbacks how loose I felt and thinking how much my “center” focus and strength training had allowed this.
My goal was to get off the AT at the 15.5 mile aid station between 2:30 and 2:45. I arrived at 2:36 and left the aid station a few minutes later after 1 oz. of UCAN mixed in water and a sip of cola.
The C&O Canal Towpath:
The towpath is upriver (read slightly uphill) for 26 miles. Again the leaves were just down adding some distraction but it was fairly safe with only a few rough areas. At the beginning I felt more relaxed than in any of the previous years; and started out running about an 8 min/mile pace very comfortable. I knew this was too fast at this point in the run. My goal was to run a 4 hour marathon on this section which is about a 9 min/mile. But I was having trouble slowing down. I came off my lean to stay relaxed but kept creeping back to this pace. I decided to stop fighting it and just try to run comfortably between 8:30-9:00 on average including short intervals of (Chi)walking.
About every three or four miles there was an aid station on the towpath. I stopped briefly at most of them to refill my water bottle and for a sip of cola. Here was my other intake on this section (approx distances):
- Mile 20: 2 oz. ASEA
- Mile 27: Met up with Dad, had a small piece of dark chocolate, he gave me a water bottle with 1/2 coconut water and 1/2 water.
- Mile 30: (2) Hammer Endurolytes plus 2 oz. ASEA
- Mile 32: Hammer Gel
- Mile 34: 1 oz UCAN mixed in water.
- Mile 37: (2) Hammer Endurolytes
- Mile 38: Met up with Dad, had another small piece of dark chocolate, he gave me another water bottle with 1/2 coconut water and 1/2 water.
- Mile 41: Hammer Gel
Mile 41.8 is the end of the towpath. There is an aid station there and a huge dam across the river. I paused for a moment taking in the view and thought how did I get here? It was 6:57 into the run, the fastest I had ever been to this point.
The Roadway to the Finish:
The last 8.5 miles is on rural roads with hills. Per last year “Call them ‘gently rolling’ if you want, but not after 41.8 miles.” … but this year they actually felt like gently rolling and not like “hills”. I was happy to be off the towpath and started comfortably around an 8-9 min/mile pace. My energy and focus was consistent as a ran well but (Chi)walked a bit to release some tension focusing on my midback pivot point. As the tension released, I was able to run more and with more pace. My run pace increased between 6:45-8:00 over about 5 min intervals with about a minute walk depending on the terrain. I made sure I fueled well to keep up my energy for this push to the finish:
- Mile 44: Sip of cola and a cup of boiled potatoes with salt
- Mile 44+: (2) Hammer Endurolytes
- Mile 46: Sip of cola
- Mile 47: Hammer Gel
- Mile 48.5: Sip of cola, a few M&Ms
From Mile 48.5 I started off downhill, really let myself go and let my stride extend out the back. One turn and a last little uphill and then you can see the finish line.
The overall result: A course PR(*) by 38 minutes.
How did this happen? In a word, Efficiency. I became more efficient in some key areas:
- ChiRunning Technique Efficiency: I was running more from my center through core strength which allowed my legs/arms to relax and move freely. My hill and trail technique was also focused on this same concept of balance/relaxation over your “center”. Less muscle, less tension creeping in. I also used a few mental tricks to energize myself. One of them is related to syncing your breath with your cadence/motion; which is very powerful particularly on the uphills. More on that in a future post.
- Fuel Burning Efficiency: I had trained my body to run aerobically at faster paces/stress levels so that I could still burn fat.
- Fueling Efficiency: I found a fuel (UCAN) that helped me manage my blood sugar so I could burn fat longer. I also modified my daily diet to focus on stabilizing blood sugar. After I did that my daily energy and running endurance increased dramatically.
- Cellular Efficiency: I had supplemented my body to support efficiency at the cellular level with both ASEA and the Hammer Endurolyte tablets. My cells were able to generate energy and process the exhaust of my activity quicker.
The Ongoing “Practice”:
As always there are potential improvements to be considered, tested and implemented to further enhance my running and overall health:
- #1 Mistake: Taking that sip of cola at mile 15.5, ugh. I am convinced that without that decision I could have run even better with more blood sugar balance. At the time I was programmed to avoid the bonk and keep the brain fueled at all costs. That one little sip led to one at each aid station which became a blood sugar roller coaster ride. I think it is very possible I could have run the whole event on UCAN alone, but I could not trust that just yet. Next time … (yes Mom, there will likely be a next time).
- Arm Swing: When I get onto technical trails (or mud, snow, ice), my elbows wing out. This happened on the AT and it took me some time to get my elbows back down on the towpath. When I get a little tired, my arm swing range of motion reduces and they start to dance more than swing. Without the balance of the arm swing, I lose balance and tense up. The focus of syncing my breath/cadence with my arm swing fixed this, and I kept coming back to it in the later miles.
- Tall Posture: Had to keep reminding myself to extend the back crown of my head up. Most of that comes from writing long posts like this …
- My right foot likes to run tense. The typical blister started to form again “suggesting” I relax my toes. Thank you, got the message. At the same time, my right inside heel felt a twinge. Definitely got that message. Relaxed the foot and both disappeared.
Similar to last year with different lessons, “You can’t help but learn a lot in 8 hours of ‘practice’. You also learn a lot about yourself …”. Mr. Jim Rohn used to say “Set your goals not to achieve the goal itself, but to become the kind of person you need to be to achieve the goal.” The goal is temporary … who you can become lasts forever.
The volunteers and spectators across the course were again beyond any expectation. Plus the support from my family, friends and colleagues was great. The previous weekend’s meeting with my ChiRunning colleagues and then all the notes/online posts really had my energy high. Many of you were out there with me during the run. Thank you all.
Another very special thanks to my Dad for making the trip with me and providing the support to help me implement a plan and once again experience a great running/health/life lesson.
Update: In the days that followed I have felt good physically, but tried to rest more after not sleeping much the night after the run. On Monday I ran to the gym, did a roll out/stretch out and then ran around town for a few miles; about 3 total. Feel really good, almost freaky good. A few tight spots which are good indicators of what to work on, but overall very little recovery.
Ran again Wednesday about 5 miles around town; and then again Thursday about 10 miles on the trails.
[* If you really need to know the numbers: total time: 8:17:49, average pace: 9:58. Finished 121 out of 941 starters/864 finishers. 33rd out of 223 AG. That’s top 15%!]
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David Stretanski is a holistic health, fitness and wellness coach and Certified ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Instructor. For more information on David, please see his About Me, Contact page or his website at http://www.eChiFitness.com.
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