Monday, November 23, 2009

Why Every Second Counts

"Every Second Counts" -

Since I started CrossFitting last winter this phrase has been a reoccurring mantra for me. It' a common theme in CrossFit and the title of the documentary from the 2008 CrossFit games. I practice "every second counts" in my daily training/life in a couple ways 1) make each second of my workout count by giving it my full attention, care, focus and effort and 2) in timed WOD's (Workout of the Day) I make an effort to be as efficient as possible in each movement, to waste no time, and to complete the assigned tasks as quickly as possible. While I have learned how this phrase applies to daily life in various ways, it wasn't until Saturday that I realized it could also relate to running an ultramarathon.

With a couple days between me and my failed attempt at running my first 50 mile ultra, I've had some time to process the experience and I plan to share what I have learned as I feel the lessons apply to far more than just running a race.

This being my first 50 mile race, I laid out a race strategy based on my goal which was to finish the race in approximately 11.5 hours; the JFK 50 has a cutoff time of 12 hours and I wanted a little wiggle room. Based on my previous races, I felt anything under 11 hours was a little unreasonable for my first 50. A 12 hour finish equates to a 14:24 per mile pace, not lightening fast compared to the winners who finish in 6 hours or less (a 7:12 pace or less for over 50 miles!). My plan was to average around 15:00/mile through the Appalachian Trail (AT) section (15.5 miles), then 13:00/mile for the tow path portion (26 miles) and then 14:00-14:30 for the last 8.5 miles of rolling pavement to the finish.
Just before the 6:20am pre-race briefing. The vibe was calm and relaxed.

While I had planned for the AT to be difficult (thus the 15:00/mile predicted pace), it was a little tougher than I thought. Two of the climbs, while on paved roads, were longer and more steep than I envisioned; everyone in the main field hiked them, only the elites ran them. I've never climbed so high that my ears popped on the ascent and decent, yet it happened on Saturday. Not exactly the Rockies, but these were certainly mountains.

Much of the AT was littered with limestone of varying shapes and sizes; some slabs you could step on with caution, yet much was asymmetrical chunks inviting an ankle to twist with a few sharp bits peppered in between. Pointed stones protruded just enough to trip you or punch the sole of your foot with an occasional jab or a haymaker if you weren't paying attention. Throw in the fallen leaves and it made for some interesting running and hiking. I enjoy this sort of running, yet I was exercising caution as more than one runner had their day end early with a twisted ankle. One of the more runnable sections of the AT.

Mistake of the Day #1: Failure to bring my watch. Of all my gear that I packed the only thing I left in Dover was my watch. As a result I did a piss-poor job of tracking my pace and really knowing where I was and how long it was taking me to get there. I did have my phone in my CamelBak but didn't want to carry it in my hand while running. This lead to...

Mistake of the Day #2: Trusting others for splits, time checks and pace - refer to "Mistake of the Day #1". I would occasionally ask other runners or aid station attendants for the time, but, again, I did a piss-poor job of calculating my minute per mile pace or knowing where I was in relation to my time goals.

At the mile 4 and 9.5 aid stations I actually thought I was ahead of pace. Yet, when I arrived at the 15.5 mile station I was able to discern that I was actually behind pace with an average of a very sucky 16:00/mile average. This meant that I would have to make up time on the tow path yet I was confident I could make it happen. Plus, I knew that I had factored in 1/2 hour of wiggle room; not where I wanted to be, yet I was still in the game.

By pushing the pace a little on the tow path, I was finding it a little difficult to fuel and hydrate as much as I would have liked, yet I was getting down enough to keep pushing forward. At the 25 mile aid station I determined that I was almost back on par for a sub 12 hour finish. This awareness inspired me to settle into a sustainable pace and I planned to recalculate at the mile 30 and and 34.4 aid stations.

Coming into the mile 30 aid station, though feeling some of the effects of running/hiking 30 miles, overall I felt pretty good. The mental stress of getting back on pace, trying to do the math, and feeling like I was running on borrowed time really sucked, but otherwise I was okay and even a little motivated since I had passed some folks on the tow path. As a side note, I never spent more than 60 seconds at any one aid station, so after the mile 30 station I quickly hit the path with my sites set on the next aid station at mile 34.4.

Mistake of the Day #3: Not knowing the cutoff times at all aid stations.

A couple miles out of the aid station a bike patrol volunteer road up behind me and said something to the effect of "you have about 15 minutes to cover the next 2 miles".

"WTF are you talking about?!?!" is what came to my tired mind, but I think I said something along the lines of "Come again?"

He told me it was nearing 2:45pm and there was a 3:00pm cutoff for reaching the 34.4 mark. Talk about a kick in the nuts! At the JFK if you blow off the course officials you are banned from future JFK's so I knew there was no negotiating the issue and my day was done. I was mentally and physically crushed after that, the weight of the last 30+ miles hit me. All the months of anticipation and preparation had come to an abrupt halt. Within minutes I was hit with a wave of emotion and physical pain. I walked the last couple of miles to the aid station and this gave me time to process my feelings. In that last mile I pretty much went through the whole grieving process - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

A view of the C&O Canal tow path. After finishing 15.5 miles of AT and climbing, racers spend the next 26 miles running the tow path. The gentleman in the yellow jacket was my "Grim Reaper" as he is the one who informed me that my goose was cooked...

While I have several lessons that I learned on Saturday, "Every Second Counts" is first on the list. With a clear mind, earlier today, I reviewed a couple of splits that I could recall along with the time that my race came to an end. At the point I was pulled from the race I had an average pace of 14:24/mile, exactly where I needed to be to finish in 12 hours and I was cutting off more time as the race wore on. However, and this is where "Mistake of the Day #3" comes in, to avoid the cutoff at mile 34.4, you needed to have averaged 14:00/mile. I had been 24 seconds per mile slower than needed to avoid the cutoff. With just over 15 miles left in the race, a scant 24 seconds per mile kept me from seeing what was further up the trail. To have finished in under 12 hours I would have needed to average the same 14:24/mile for the last 15.6 miles. Could I have sustained the effort and finished all 50 miles? I'll never know. Could I have gone 24 seconds per mile faster in the previous 34.4 miles? F#*K YES!

So what I feel I can take from this experience is that every second truly does count! You never know the difference a few seconds might make in your life, whether it's the difference between finishing a race or not, or the difference between winning a race or not. It can mean the difference of taking a second to gaze deeper into your child's eyes, or not. It can be the difference of being in the moment with a loved one to connect, or not. It can also mean the difference between digging and pushing so deep that you touch your soul or not. On Saturday I just don't think I went that deep and I believe those 24 seconds/mile is what separated me from that experience. And that, my friend, is why I will be at the start line of another 50 miler in the near future.

Thanks for reading, I know it was long winded.

Thanks also for those who supported me in one way or another and to those who contributed to the Wounded Warrior Project, we are nearing the $1200 mark!

Coming soon:
  • Why I hate tech-y crap like GPS watches and why I'm ordering one as soon as I get home
  • How I feel my training and preparation worked or didn't work for this race
  • My "pros" and "cons" of the JFK 50 Miler and would I consider doing it again
  • Project: BTWG updates - our recruits are in the final stretch of their 12 week program!
  • And much more...


Cole said...

OK Chris,

You and me are going to have a long talk about that AT. Having hiked hundreds of miles of that sucker and having lived with a man who hiked the entire thing (and who then subjected our sons to hiking almost half of it before the tender age of 10... not all at once, but a 400 mile stretch thru Northern NH and all of Maine), I may have some lessons to share with you. I am sorry your experience was a DNA but it is really, really hard to train for the AT in this part of the country. There is nothing around for hundreds of miles that begins to resemble the AT. I'll see on Saturday for sure. Tender Mercies to you dear Friend. Alison

Anonymous said...

it takes amazing strength of character to go through what you did and then share it as a learning experience. you are a great coach. thanks. nina