What did you do on Saturday night? I ran in an ultramarathon.
This was not at all how I expected my evening to turn out.
As I explained yesterday, I was helping as a crew member for the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon. I was posted at two different aid stations – mile 17 and then 38 – and I was scheduled to be done at around 4pm. I had every intention of leaving after my duties to go drink heavily at my friend’s going away party.
And then first-time ultramarathon runner Amy sat down at mile 38 and pleaded, “Is there anyone who can run with me? I’m not going to make it.”
Looking around, I was the youngest crew member by a solid 30 years and no one else was jumping at the opportunity. I had worn running clothes that day because I planned on going for a run during my down time but had never gotten around to it. In retrospect, I guess that was for a reason.
So there I was at mile 38, lacing my shoes up tight and getting ready to run 12 miles with someone I had just met who was moments away from breaking down completely. I’m used to running against the clock to meet my goal time, but Amy was racing the clock in a completely different way: she was only 15 minutes ahead of the cutoff time (when they start pulling runners off the course and say better luck next year) and had to keep up her pace if she was going to cross the finish line before the 7PM cutoff.
I just couldn’t imagine coming this far and actually being told that you are not allowed to run anymore.
So we started running. Amy told me she doesn’t talk much when she runs, but somehow we struck up a pretty consistent conversation getting to know one another. With a mix of running and walking, we made it to the next cutoff point at the end of the C&O Canal with 15 minutes to spare. Even though technically I wasn’t supposed to be on the course, the volunteers gave me a reflective vest to wear on the road for safety (rule-bending when it helps a runner finish = okay in ultras).
We started up a very secluded, very hilly back road. We came across some interesting sights, including everything from cows to goats to sheep (I swear the sheep sounded like they were cheering, they were so noisy!). The 2-legged locals were also very supportive with free beer and hugs (though we didn’t have time to stop for either).
I think it was around this point when the temperature started dropping. In my rush I didn’t have the foresight to bring a sweatshirt or gloves, but I didn’t dare to say anything to Amy. We were walking more than we were running (like I said, this part was hilly!) and I was a little nervous about meeting the next cutoff. Unfortunately, Amy had ditched her GPS watch because it wasn’t working and all I had on me was a nearly-dead cell phone, so we didn’t really have a way to track our pace.
We walked through the next aid station at mile 44 (dubbed the “Oasis” and complete with Jimmy Buffett music) when someone driving by yelled out, “30 minutes to the next cutoff!” Normally running two 15-minute miles wouldn’t be an issue, but with 44 miles under Amy’s belt already this was going to be far from easy.
I can’t put into words how much Amy impressed me at this point. Talk about digging deep! As soon as we did the math and realized she wasn’t going to make it if we walked anymore, she was a woman on a mission. We made it to mile 46 – and the last cutoff point before the finish – with a few minutes to spare. My fellow crew member and carpool buddy Will (poor guy! He was supposed to be done at 4 too but had to wait for me!) met us here so I could put on some warmer clothes, but Amy kept trucking along and I caught back up with her. This time when she said she probably wasn’t going to want to talk much, I believed her.
The next couple miles were a blur. I was constantly doing math in my head trying to make sure we would be on pace, but mile markers were few and far between and I doubted their accuracy at some points so I was never exactly sure how much farther we had to run. Finally, we had one mile to go and I was pretty sure we were going to make it unless Amy’s body completely shut down.
Coming up the final stretch, we could hear the announcer calling out the names of finishers. He then told the crowd, “These are the final finishers everyone! They’re going to start pulling runners off the course.” I started swearing in my head, thinking I had messed up the math but apparently the announcer was referring to the runners a little farther down the stretch. Someone else at the finish must have realized the panic the announcement would cause, because the announcer quickly corrected himself: “If you’re coming up the final stretch and can see the finish, you’ve beat the cutoff and are going to make it!”
Even with the end in sight, I could tell Amy was still struggling but she kept moving forward (at one point she tried to walk and I said, “You don’t want to cross the finish line walking! Let’s go!”). Since I technically wasn’t in the race, I didn’t want to cross the finish line so when we were close enough, I peeled off to the side and started cheering like crazy for this woman I had just met 3 hours ago. Watching her cross the line was such a thrill for me… I cannot even imagine what she was feeling after running for nearly 14 hours!
Even though my afternoon (and evening – I never made it to the going away party) went slightly different than planned, I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. It was such a great experience helping Amy achieve her goal, and is just another testament to the camaraderie among runners that I love so much. Congratulations to all the JFK 50 Mile finishers!
[I found out the next morning that Amy was running the JFK 50 to raise money in honor of World Prematurity Day, making her finish even that much more important! Read her blog post to learn more about her cause.]