JFK 50 Miler

2nd Annual Jason Bui Ultra Marathon - Lowell to Auburn (50 Miles)

"I must now go a long way...I must face a fight that I have not faced before. And I must go on a road that I do not know.” - Gilgamesh

After the events of the 1st Annual Jason Bui Ultra Marathon (Lowell to Worcester - 35 miles), the thought of another run towards the Worcester area was the last thing I wanted to do in 2009. 2008 brought single digit temps, bone chilling wind, and worse of all, a pissed off spouse.

Although it had been one of the dumbest things I had ever attempted, the first JB Ultra did indeed show me how much more training I needed before I was ready to tackle a true ultra run closer to 50 miles. With the first ultra attempt still fresh on my mind as the 2009 running season rolled around, I had one goal in mind: To become the best all around runner that I could be.

2009 brought PR’s in every distance imaginable, from the mile (High St Mile – 5:17) to the marathon (Maine Marathon – 3 hr 7 mins), plus taking part in some pretty wild “adventure” races (Mudhog Race, the NE Mountain Series, and of course, RTB Ultra). I had accomplished everything that I had set out to do for the year, with the exception of one, an official ultra marathon. I had my chance with the JFK 50, but due to circumstances beyond my control (there were fewer procrastinating registrants this year), I was outside looking in once again for the 3rd year in-a-row.

I checked out the other ultras in the area, but they were either sold out or conflicted with one of my other races. With the running season and weather window of opportunity quickly coming to a close, I cleared my race calendar and kept an eye on the weather. Sunday, Nov 15th was going to be the day. Weather.com predicted temps to reach the upper 50’s with a 30% chance of rain. I’ll take that any day after the freak freezing temps that occurred in the prior year.

With unseasonably warm weather and the spouse halfway around the world, I was ready to set off on the 2nd Annual Jason Bui Ultra Marathon. Fortunately, my stooopid brother had to go and move 13 miles further away to Auburn, MA. This was going to be a true test of my fitness (and stupidity), and the closest I’ve ever run to the more common ultra distance of 50 miles.

There was actually one main reason why I wanted to complete an ultra run closer to 50 miles. I wanted to know what it felt like. Yeah, I could have had someone take a hammer to feet and strap a piano to my back, but mostly it was for the mental aspect. If I was going to provide support to three fellow Masssoles at the JFK 50 miler a week later, then I wanted to be able to relate to what they were feeling. The experience would also help me prepare for them what I wish I had on my own run, like toilet paper and a lot of anti-septic hand wash.

This year’s route was similar to last year’s with the exception of the last, and additional, 15 miles. The start departs from downtown Lowell along route 110 (Chelmsford St), leading into, ready for this, Chelmsford. Branching off of 110 at mile 4 is route 27 (Acton Road). Continuing the theme, this 11 mile stretch of road takes me to and through Acton. Mile 15 puts me onto Stow St, and yep, this takes us right into Stow. Although I’m going to bash the fact that I brought along my Garmin GPS (car version, not watch) on this run for peace of mind, it really did help me get through the next 12 or so miles where the shortest route required me to go “off road” and onto a lot of side streets, before reconnecting with a major road. That major road being route 20 (SW Cutoff, Hartford Pike, & Washington St), and as the name implies, it doesn’t take me anywhere but through Shrewsbury, Milbury, Worcester, and finally to the finish line in Auburn at mile 48. Phew. I’m tired from just writing that!

Utilizing all of the race prep experience that I had gained from my running in 2009, I was much better prepared than I was in the previous year (see supplies list below), plus I actually trained for this attempt. In the weeks leading up to this attempt, I had run 35 miles at RTB, the Applefest Half-Marathon, Maine Marathon, Hartford Marathon, (vacation), NYC Marathon, and gained 8 lbs with the excuse of bulking up for the ultra. I love tapering for an ultra.

Safety was priority #1 this year as I ran for about 2 hrs last year (in the dark) a’scared of being Stephen King’ed. I went and picked up anything that glowed in the dark. My hat was neon green, my shirt was neon green, my night vest was neon green, my pants were yellow (later in the run). I also managed to stuff all of my supplies into my water-filled Camel Bak (also neon green; the pack, not the water):

- Cash (dark green)
- Credit card
- License
- Cell phone
- 2 Protein bars
- 4 Packs of GU
- 4 Advils, or what I like to call, adult Lifesavers.
- Garmin GPS (the car version, not the watch)

The Garmin GPS device set to pedestrian mode was the difference maker this year. I no longer had to worry about getting lost (even though I did), and that peace of mind in and of itself reduced the unnecessary caloric burn off of worrying about getting lost (even though I did), which in the end negated the positive effects of having that peace of mind. So, it was a waste of space to bring it along. Not really, as noted above and below.

The hardest decision before leaving was deciding on which pair of sneakers to wear. I had a couple of pairs to choose from, but they were either all worn out or were more suitable for racing. I made the fateful decision to choose a pair that I had rarely worn, but had already broken in. I couldn’t remember how much mileage I had on them, but they still looked new.

Once again, a pair of Injinji Performance socks, which had already gotten me through RTB and three marathons without a single blister, was the sock of choice. No doubts or trepidation about that decision. Thanks Double D for turning me onto these wonders!

After letting the “kids” out to use the yard and making sure I had everything I needed, I was on the road by 5:30AM, about 30 minutes later than I had planned. The weather would have been perfect if not for the slight drizzle. The air was cool with an occasional warm breeze. I felt that I was overdressed with three layers up on top, long tights down below, running shorts, head band, and running gloves. Fortunately, the running experience kicked in and I decided not to shed anything. I continued on with my planned attire.

My plan was to set out at roughly an 8 to 9 minute pace for at least the first half, which would get me to Hudson, at Mile 24, by 9:00AM. I felt great going down Chelmsford St. I had a liver full of carbs, and a stomach full of partially digested pasta. There’s something to be said about early morning runs when the streets are empty, and the air is truly fresh. It’s a rarity for me to enter such a high level of comfort on my runs that I was thrilled to be already in the “zone” this early. The run went on like this for about six miles when I suddenly realized that I had missed a crucial split in the road about a half mile back. It must have been the Twilight Zone that I was in.

This detour literally threw me for a loop, and there’s nothing worse for morale, on a run like this, than getting lost. The guy part of me wanted to keep going, hoping that I was on the correct route. The girlie side of me kept on nagging, so I pulled over and turned on the Garmin. Just as I had feared, I had missed the split about a mile back that would have taken me onto route 27 into Acton. Fortunately, the Garmin indicated that there was a side street about ¼ of a mile away that could get me back on track. The urge in this type of situation is to pick up the pace to make up for the lost time, but I was just racing against myself, so I stayed focused on keeping at my goal pace no matter what happened. The thought of getting lost and losing precious energy continued to gnaw at me for many more miles.

Thanks to the Garmin I managed to find myself on route 27 heading south towards Acton. Nathan, a fellow Masssole, met up with me at about Mile 15 where the route got a little tricky. I didn’t want to spend time checking my Garmin, so Nathan acted as my sherpa throughout this stretch of the run. This was Nathan’s neighborhood and he knew it well, taking me off of my originally planned route in the hopes of finding a shortcut. Mission accomplished. Thanks, Nathan!

I had never had a pacer before and I found it hard to keep up with Nathan, even at a 9 minute pace. My brain was just telling me to slow it down every time my legs wanted to speed up. I guess there is something to be said about how the brain goes about protecting the body when it senses a lot of suffering up ahead.

Nathan was also doing a fantastic job of keeping my mind on other things, but some earlier tightening in my calves and hamstrings were beginning to really become painful at about Mile 17. I had definitely chosen poorly in my choice of sneakers for this run. I also chalked the tightening in my legs to remnants of my struggle at NYC two weeks prior. My calf and hamstring pain at NYC was so debilitating that I had to check into medical, for the first time ever, shortly after I crossed the finish line. I had hoped that the two weeks of light exercise and rest in between NYC and this ultra would have been enough to recover. Apparently not.

Going against my original plan, I began my run/walk strategy (run the downhills/flats, walk the uphills) at Mile 18. This was a lot sooner than I had hoped for, which made me a little concerned. I even mentioned to Nathan that it was going to be a long day. This strategy was all that I could do to prevent my legs from completely locking up, and my brain from completely shutting down on me this early on. Based on past experience, if my legs went, then I would all but be done and would have to DNF this year’s attempt at about the halfway mark in Hudson.

By the time Nathan left me at Mile 21, at the corner of Hudson St. and route 117, I felt completely exhausted. Not surprisingly, this is when most distance runners hit the wall in a marathon. Unfortunately, I still had a marathon to go! My legs were tight, my ankle was sore (remnants of my Wapack Trail Race injury), and I kept on thinking about the distance, a sign that I was on the verge of bonking. I knew I had taken enough fluids since I was still sweating at a steady clip. I wasn’t too cold or overheating. I didn’t feel hungry since I wasn’t thinking about food. I just wanted my damn legs to start working again! Like an engine that just won’t start.

I paused my Garmin 305 and sat down to do a quick map and inventory check. Garmin indicated that I was still on track, and Sherpa Nathan had managed to shave off about a half mile from my original route, which gave me a nice little morale boost. I went through my pack and at the bottom were four little friends named Advil. I figure that if Advil couldn’t stop the pain, then I might as well call it quits in about three miles. I downed one Advil and got right back up and started down the path towards Hudson, the point of no return.

By the time I reached Mile 24 in Hudson at about 9:45AM (about right on schedule considering the late start and detour) I was starting to feel “normal” again. The Advil kicked in and my legs finally loosened its death grip. I went to my pack and snarfed down one of two protein Power Bars while power walking up the first of many steep and steady hills. I stopped at a convenient store at the top of one hill and picked up some Gatorade, and to unload some extra “baggage”. Before taking off again, I refilled my Camel Bak with the remaining Gatorade, which tasted awesome after 24 miles of just water.

I was once again able to run at a steady 8 min pace as I left Hudson. Passing the halfway point in the run was very uplifting, and I used every psychological trick in the book to keep going. I told myself that if I were to turn back now, then I would be running the same, or more, mileage. I had my cell phone on me, but using it to call my brother for a pick up was the very, very, very last option. I didn’t even want to think of it as an option at that point. 24 down, 24 to go.

An old friend named 495 greeted me at Mile 26, and his friend, route 290, cheered me on at Mile 27. Yeah, I was starting to get a little delirious at this point. At times I was thinking about some really strange sh*t, and I even got a little emotional when I was presented with a wide view of some of the surrounding farmland at the top of a very steep climb. This was why I was really out here. To experience sights like this:

The one portion of the course that I was truly dreading was the stretch between miles 30 and 40. A number of factors played into my dread. From what I’ve heard and read from other ultra experiences, people tend to enter, what I would call, a “dead zone” after 30 miles. I’m not talking about the Verizon Wireless type either. This is the one where the brain says, “no mas”. A case of an overload of “WTF AM I DOING” moments. The other factor was that I had never run any distance greater than 35 miles in a span of 24 hours. Not at Reach the Beach, not on any of my long training runs over a 24 hr period. Not ever. I was about to enter uncharted territory.

Mile 30 brought me into Northboro and the start of the longest stretch of my run, route 20. I was going to be on route 20 for the next 16 miles, bringing me literally right up to my brother’s doorstep. My legs were feeling tired again and I was running low on Gatorade, so I decided to make another pit stop. I took my second Advil of the day in the hopes that it could work its magic once again. I refilled with water, sticking with the plan to alternate. The mix of water and the remaining Gatorade in my pack was actually a pleasant taste.

I trudged on for the next few miles, continuing the run/walk strategy. The weather turned for the worse around Mile 35 with a steady drizzle. Given the conditions, I was actually feeling the opposite of what I thought I’d be feeling at this point in the dead zone. It was definitely the Advil, but I really felt that I was going to complete this journey within a reasonable amount of time, perhaps right on target. I began to start focusing on one mile at a time, trying to run for at least three-quarters of every mile. This became more and more difficult as the hills of Worcester began to encroach on my walk in the park.

The effects of being on my feet for nearly seven hours, around the 40 mile mark, was starting to show in my posture. My shoulders were heavy from carrying the now nearly empty Camel Bak, and I was dragging my feet with each step. I had nearly used up my water/Gatorade mix, and all that was left for nutrition was a half-eaten Power Bar. I did bring along four GU packs, but I decided early on not to use them for fear of upsetting my stomach, plus they typically require a lot of liquid to properly digest. I didn’t have much water left to spare. Route 20 is basically a long stretch of highway, so I didn’t know when I was going to come across another convenient store over the final eight miles. I started to really conserve the water that I did have left.

By this point I knew I was going to finish, it was just a matter of how long the next 8 miles were going to take. I was hoping to knock down at least 4 miles per hour over the next 2 hours, even with the biggest hills still looming ahead. It was just really difficult for me to get into a rhythm again with more uphills, than downhills, at this point in the course.

Mile 42 brought me through the outskirts of Worcester. I never thought I would be so happy to see an “Entering Worcester” sign, but I definitely was relieved. I had lived out in this area for a year and it SUCKED. Ironically, I really enjoyed the hills when I lived here, but now they were just killing me with every step I took. Anticipating some major pain up ahead, I popped my third and final Advil.

It felt surreal to pass under the Mass Pike at Mile 43, but once again, reality hit me hard over the next mile. The sun was finally starting to come out when I least wanted it to. My water supply was running low and I was at the bottom of a very steep climb up a monster of a hill. I was completely drained by the time I crested the beast at Mile 44. I had nothing left in the tank and I needed some real food and more liquids at this point.

With only about 4 miles to go and at least another hour on the road, I decided to make one final pit stop at the first McDonalds I had seen in over 44 miles! It’s funny what the body considers as “real food” after 44 miles, but trust me, it was the best tasting burger I had ever had!

I left McDonalds feeling strong and rejuvenated (Thanks, Ronald!). A steady downhill from Mile 45 to 46 helped me cruise over and across the tail end of route 290. To think that the last time I saw route 290 was about 20 miles and 3 hours earlier! I knew I was close to finishing because this was the only portion of the course that I recognized from driving to my brother’s place. The end was in sight, but I still had to face, like a villain in a movie, one last nasty hill that lead up to my brother’s house.

The hill began at about Mile 46.5 as I turned off of route 20 (finally!) and onto Prospect St. This hill would have been tough even if I had had fresh legs. I looked down at my watch and saw that it was 2:50PM. With ONLY about 1.5 miles to go, I knew it was going to be difficult to finish before 3PM. I power-walked the last half mile of the hill and continued on as far as I could before coming to a walking pace again.

I managed to run the final half mile at a good clip and reached my brother’s place at 3:05PM. My pleasantly shocked parents and brother came out to greet me with a nice cold glass of Coke. I didn’t know what felt better, finishing the run or downing the Coke.

The only thing left to do now was to take a cold shower…

2009 JB Ultra Route

I will never, ever, EVER do another 50 mile run again!....

This way back to 2010....

Man, that was heavy.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! Congratulations on your run. I know the area you ran through, very well, as I bicycled many times from Lexington to Northboro and back. That's not too hard on a bike...but my hat's off to you for RUNNING it!