My first ultra was an incredible experience! My hubby, the runners, RD, volunteers, spectators of the JFK 50 miler were amazing.
The race course:
Rolling hills, local roads; Appalachian Trail (AT), single track, somewhat technical; Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) packed gravel and dirt path.
Warm and sunny to start = T-shirt.
At mile 39, rain and sleet = 2 jackets and frostnip on my exposed wrist around my GPS watch.
Tech shirt and leggings; homemade arm sleeves; Underarmour hooded jacket; Nike waterproof jacket; waterproof trail shoes from The North Face; cheap headlamp.
The sun just came up and I said goodbye to my husband, Stephen. I was nervous and excited for my first ultra. All of the runners gathered down the center of the road in town, surrounded by small businesses and homes. Families and local residents stood along the sides to watch the start. After The National Anthem, we were signaled to begin.
We ran on windy paved roads and onto a service road. There were rolling hills and runners chose to either walk or run / walk them. People were chatty and sharing about races they’ve done and making acquaintances. I joined in occasionally and spoke with a veteran of the race. When he found out that it was my first ultra, he told me that I’ll never forget it and that it won’t be my last. To this day, it is true and I tell other runners who want to run an ultramarathon the same thing. I was in a pleasant mood, in fact, for the entire race. My goal was to finish and to enjoy the day and experience.
We arrived to the AT, where we had to run single track and be mindful of passing one another. 90% of this section is rocks, they ranged from the size of a football to pebbles. The loose rocks were the ones to watch out for the most because it would be easy to roll an ankle. Fallen leaves covered the rocks, making them slippery. I ran through Runner’s Knee pain and said multiple prayers for it through the first half. I was a little concerned what the distance might do to my knee. I saw people tripping and falling on the rocks. One lady who fell broke her arm. Runners were checking on her and a paramedic was treating her on the side of the trail.
After the AT, we came down a hill out of the woods and towards the C&O. I picked up pace, it felt amazing to not worry about footing and to lengthen my stride. The sun was partly out and I had a huge smile on my face. Crews and volunteers were clapping and yelling at their runners. This was the chance to grab aid from your crew. We were guided by cones and ribbons. At first, I couldn’t spot where my husband was waiting for me, but then I found him.
My amazing husband, Stephen, was my crew and he happened to set up next to Walmsley’s crew (who I didn’t see because Jim obviously passed through hours before I did!). He took pictures of me and I didn’t really need anything from him. He checked to see how I was feeling, and I responded that I was feeling well. I continued down the C&O, knowing that it could be boring from the lack of terrain change. My Runner’s Knee still slightly bothered me, but wasn’t as noticable, I was thankful and continued to smile.
I leap frogged with a handful of runners, we were all running the same pace. I did a walk / run, only what I felt like, not intervals. The other runners chose the same strategy. It eventually became annoying playing the game. I also felt somewhat annoyed being stuck near a group of chatty women, who were having annoying conversations. Every time I ran ahead, they caught up. The trail was pretty and lined with trees. I didn’t see much wildlife. I plugged away at the miles and still felt strong. I was taking it easy and kept to my goal of enjoying the race. I noticed runners struggling with cramping in their legs in the grass off to the right. One man was using a tree to help stretch. Not far past them, I decided to stop along the side and stretch, myself. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to stretch during an ultra, but thought, hey, whatever happens, happens. It ended up being painful, but good.
When I reached mile 38, I checked in at the aid station. A man informed me about some weather coming in, he had a serious tone to his voice. At the time, the weather was still alright, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. He asked me if I had more layers to wear, the weatherman predicted freezing rain. I said that I had a jacket and heeded his warning. I continued down to Stephen. I stretched again. My Runner’s Knee pain completely dissipated. Endorphins were kicked into gear, though I was experiencing sore muscles and aching joints. I grabbed what I needed from him and put on my two jackets. The performance layer (Underarmour) I wore zipped, and the waterproof layer (Nike), I left open for ventilation.
[Inserted from Facebook what Stephen posted: “I’m crewing for Shannon as she runs the JFK 50 mile. As you see she was so strong at miles 15 and 27 she didn’t need her food … that makes it fair game at mile 38, right?”].
Continuing forward, the timing was perfect because the weather abruptly changed. There was a cool breeze and sprinkle. It wasn’t long and it was freezing rain and sleet. I continued on positively, the weather didn’t bother me, and I knew that I only had a few miles remaining. I reached the next road section, leaving the C&O. Police and safety volunteers guided us in the correct directions. There were a few hills, but they were much shorter than the hills in the first few miles of the race. I felt like my pace improved ever so slightly due to having a new setting and knowing I was nearing the end.
Lady runners were walking and I passed. With about 5k to go, I sure as hell didn’t want to walk. It was dark and I was using a cheap headlamp. There were streetlights, so it didn’t seem completely necessary. I was aware that my watch wrist, which was a tiny bit exposed to the weather, was tingly and numb to touch. Damage done, I thought to myself, but decided to worry about it later. I could hear the finish in the distance and began to recognize my location. Sadly, no runner’s high this entire race!! There were big flood lights and the finish ahead. Runners were announced as they came in. I imagined my name being called. I was so happy, like almost ugly face cry happy. I held back tears.
As I ran down the finisher chute, I’ll never forget the emotions that swept through my mind. I was almost overcome by tears of happiness as I grinned ear to ear. People were cheering, even though the weather was cold, rainy, and it was dark. The announcer boldly called my name and pronounced that I finished as I crossed the finish line. I physically felt my legs start to give, but not collapse, as a wave of numbness shot downwards through my body. It reminded me of a computer being shut down. The race director and two others rushed over to present me with my medal and make sure I was feeling okay. My eyes were glazed over, but I comprehended what was going on. They grabbed each of my arms to make sure I stayed upright as I took wobbly steps towards Stephen, who was coming towards me. Stephen and I were shown where to go inside to get warmth and food. They told him to take care of me.
Inside the building, I could barely walk, but still grabbed a few things to eat, Stephen assisted. We sat in the cafeteria, surrounded by recovering runners. Holy cow, my first ultra was in the books. There were a lot of things for me to process. Praise God for that experience! – and surviving. Post race, I was hallucinating in the car on the ride home, just pure exhaustion. I think at one point, I was sleeping, dreaming, awake and hallucinating at the same time, I thought the car was diving off of a bridge. I yelled and was startled. I’m surprised Stephen didn’t actually wreck the car. I think I also dreamt about a lion. The next day, I could barely move. I hobbled around and scooted up and down the house steps.
I projected my finish time to be 12 hours tops and finished in 11:34:36.2 (50.2 miles).
53 runners did not finish the race for various reasons… Injury, weather…
*fun facts* 114,424 steps taken according to my GPS watch; 5,987 feet incline; 6,112 feet decline.
Jim Walmsley made himself known and broke the course record that day. Look it up!
I talked Stephen into becoming an ultrarunner. He completed his first ultra, Badwater Cape Fear, 51.4 miler THAT SPRING! I’m grateful that he’s taking this journey to the next level of crazy with me!
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