Edited by: The Great Meg McNew
Be forewarned: this will be long, but since it was my first real ultra I want to capture everything so I can look back one day. What I ended up with was a day where I missed what I thought I was capable of running and almost quit halfway through. I was in a really bad place. But thanks to friends I was able to salvage my day, finish my first 50 miler and have a very positive experience. Like I try to explain often, sometimes it’s more than just your overall time goal that matters in running and this race is a perfect example.
Looking back, after 15 weeks of training and more miles than I‘ve ever run in consecutive months, I can pinpoint a 10 day window where I caused some overuse injuries that plagued my taper and race day. I ran the entire Baltimore Marathon as part of a relay team, blazing the last 10k, then followed it up with an 84 mile week. After that, I ran a PR marathon in Atlantic City, ugh. In retrospect, I can see how dumb it looks, but in the moment I got carried away. It’s a mistake I shouldn’t have made. I try to never let myself get carried away when training is going well. It’s the easiest time to push too hard when you feel on top of the world! But I digress to the race.
I had my plan all figured out and my crew ready to go. 2 scoops of Tailwind in my water bottle and 20 ounces of water I’d drink at crew stops, and I’d fill up with Gatorade and water at all other stops. I had some GU’s on me, chew-able salt tablets, some shot blocks and some Advil. I am a terrible technical trail runner so I expected to get burned up on the Appalachian Trail (AT), come down the Weverton Switchbacks, hit the C&O, and start reeling people in since running a consistent pace for 26 miles felt like something I could do. On Friday I headed out to Boonsboro and hit massive amounts of traffic, man Frederick how do people deal with that mess! Got to the hotel around 6:00 and opted for a night in to relax and keep the mind calm. Slept horribly as I always do at hotels, but whatever, I slept well the night before. I set about 7 alarms for 4:20 am and I was ready to go.
For once, I had a really good breakfast before a race: an oatmeal, a GU wafer, a Starbucks Frappucino in a bottle and half a power bar. About 800 calories before the race is a win in my books. Pete and Meg were nice enough to offer me a ride over to the race start, and it was much appreciated since I was stressing a bit on morning race logistics, where to park, pre-race meeting, how to get back to my car at the end of the day etc. So I met them in the lobby and off we went. Pete, as a veteran of these types of races, and having run JFK before, did a fantastic job calming my nerves. As we walked down to the starting line it seemed like we didn’t have a lot of time until the 6:30 start and were pretty far from the line. When we heard the National Anthem go off, it became a bit of a rush to get to the line. So I threw my clothes off, rushed to tie my shoes, and we sprinted up the sidewalk to
the front with about 45 seconds to
spare. Then I heard Pete screaming
“Nick, you forgot your water bottle!” Man, what a mess! Got my water bottle and Meg and I started
side by side next to a Panda… Spoiler alert: who knew 7 hours and 2 minutes
later we’d also finish side by side? (Meg and me, not the Panda).
The gun went off and I did some dodging around people and caught a chase pack. At 3 minutes into the race, Jim Walmsley was already 30 seconds ahead. All race long it was nice to hear people tell me I was 10, 20, 30 minutes behind the leader; he destroyed the race, as expected. A nice group of 9 of us chatted as we ascended the climb to the AT. There were some interesting dudes in this group from all over the US telling some funny stories. We hit the AT still mostly together 2.8 miles in, only 47 to go! The first bit of the trail is pretty easy so I wasn’t shocked I was able to hang with the pack. After that portion of the trail we began to climb the last 2 miles before we hit the AT, where we would have climbed 1200 feet before entering it. We hit a pretty steep portion here and I felt I was working a bit hard so backed off and let a group of about 4 people go. Finally we hit the rocky AT, which I knew would be my weakness, so I figured I’d get dropped. In the next 4 miles I mostly held my own to my surprise (turns out I was probably working too hard though) and I really enjoyed having someone in front of me to show me the best way through the rocks. At about 9.5 miles I dropped the pack of 4 people I was with and hit up the aid station. I filled up with water/Gatorade, had my 2nd GU and saw 6/7th place entering the second half of the AT. Six miles until we are out of the AT, that’s all I had ahead of me. For most of these 6 miles I saw 2-7 places up ahead and
it felt like I was gaining on them. Then at around 14 I caught
the pack, but 2nd and 3rd place had already taken
off. The trail at this point gets very
rocky and I watched someone turn his ankle really bad right in front of me so I
slowed down a bit. Another runner and I
descended down Weverton Switchbacks together in 5/6 place and were careful to not
fall down the side. As I rolled out of
AT in 5th place, I found my crew and it took 3 minutes to get all
settled. Grabbed 3 GU’s, a new water
bottle and for some reason retied my shoes… no clue why they were pretty
tight? I figured looking at past years
if I came out of AT at 2:10-2:15 (hours) I’d be very happy. My watch showed
1:58, I found out later that was 3 minutes faster than Graham last year. Yeah…. Oops.
Wished I had some opera singer like JD did in Scrubs to sing MISTAKE to
me before I made it.
At this point I knew I was ahead of pace but I honestly felt great. Two people passed me as I hung at the aid station but caught them back on the C&O and started with a 6:57 mile and then proceeded to drop the pace a bit, 6:35’s for the next 2. I felt a 2:55 – 3:00 marathon was something I could do all along so figured I’d settle into that pace. I was now in 5th place, rolling along with 6:30-6:45 miles, all alone. Around 22 I saw 4th place in front of me and it looked like I was reeling him in. I caught him at the mile 24 aid station and as I passed him I heard someone coming really hard behind me. I looked back and it was Michael Wardian and he was MOVING. He flew by both of us and the other guy went with him. I tried to go with him but it felt too hard for 24 miles in so I backed off and then things started going south fast. At around mile 18 my IT Band started to really hurt, not just soreness but like a shooting pain in the hip, then my ankle issue came after that and started to really hurt around 22 and the knee pain came back right at 24. I have been dealing with each of these injuries for the past 3 weeks, but never all together. If I was smarter I would have taken an Advil when the pain started but it was the last thing on my mind at that point. I was too focused on trying to catch 4th place.
At mile 25, it went downhill. I went from 6:45’s to an 8:17 mile. Everything was killing me now. I got passed by two people
back to 7th. I had heard from
experienced ultra runners that there are
points in every race this long where you just feel terrible, but just be
prepared for it and you will eventually feel good again. Even knowing that, I wasn’t expecting to feel
this terrible. After two
more 8+ minute miles and some walking,
I made it to 28 miles and saw Ryan.
I told him “I’m done, throwing in the towel,” he convinced me to jog up
to the crew where everyone was soo helpful to offer me everything and anything
I needed, but I was a MESS. I’m sure
everyone has a funny Nick story from this aid station. I nibbled on a power
bar, I struggled to swallow Advil pills, I chewed and spit out a shot block, I
drank 2 sips of a V8. I was an absolute
disaster, but after 11 minutes or so my crew convinced me to keep going and it
was much appreciated. I’ve never DNF’ed
before and I am glad I didn’t this day.
And off I went, really struggling. At this point all I was noticing
was that my entire left leg was just a useless appendage. Sure, it hit the ground every other step, but
it was providing me no benefit. I could
not get a normal stride going. Everything was constricted, no push off on any
step, every lateral movement hurt like a bitch, and my ankle was on fire, but
NBD only 22 miles to go! 8-9 minute
miles became the norm here with walk breaks scattered in. At mile 30.5 I ran into my old pal Terri and
her aid station. So much energy here;
she was amazing, getting me pumped up, telling me I could do this, even getting
me to take a selfie when I felt like death.
I can never turn down one of those!
I left that aid station ready to go, and I felt great for 800
meters. At this point I realized my last
GU was at mile 18, and had no real solids in me. My stomach was swish-swoshing around and I
was popping chew-able salt tabs like it was my job. So I pulled out this chocolate GU and managed
to get ¾’s of it down. Since we don’t
litter on the C&O I put it in my pocket, and so began “The GU incident Part
2”, but that story or Part 1 is not blog safe.
From miles 30.5 to 34 I still had some run/walking going on, and I was
just getting past left and right. At around mile 34 I heard I was in 22nd
place, ugh who cares I just want to finish and die now. I looked at watch and
figured I had 2 - 2.5 hours to go, ugh these numbers are so big. At 34 I knew I’d see my crew in 4 miles and
started figuring out what I wanted from them. I was going to finish this thing
and I was going to get everything I needed to feel good there.
Rolled up to 38 and could hear my crew shouting a mile away. These people are so amazing. They knew I was struggling and gave me everything they could to help motivate me. I took some Advil,had a Skratch Emergency pack, and politely asked Ryan how our other 2 runners Meg and Cantor were doing, only to have Sean say “Oh look there is Meg now”. They told me to get going and so off I went, to the 41 mile aid station. Three more miles of trail until we hit the roads and a giant hill out of the trail on which I was told to just walk. At this point I was basically taking a cup of coke at every aid station; the stuff tasted so good. At 41 hit the road and up the hill Istarted walking. As I hit the ascent I looked back and saw Meg like 30 seconds back so I decided strength in numbers would be better for both of us to finish this thing, although somewhat thinking she’d probably drop me. She caught me and off we went, 8.5 miles to the finish. Honestly, at this point, just having company to keep me sane and chat with was all that was keeping me going. This road section sucked so badly though. 8.5 miles is so far at this point. All we seeing were more hills, and the mile markers seemed like they were not changing. Meg was in third at this point, so our goal was to make sure no one caught her. I started complaining about my leg just being destroyed at this point and she told me how she basically fell on the trails and devastated her back and probably broke her leg. We were a fun bunch of people at this point. A couple well positioned aid stations with some coke and refills of our water bottles were great. Around mile 46 our nice sunny day started to turn into something else. The wind started picking up and temps started dropping. Around 49 we almost got hit by a car and watched a State Trooper blaze after the guy that almost hit us. As we rolled down the home stretch, we could hear our crew going nuts. 7 hours and 2 minutes earlier Meg and I started this day next to each other with her telling me to pull that Panda’s tail(I didn’t do it) and we finished . 01 seconds apart. (Or as Dave P texted me later .0002 seconds per mile difference!)
I had a really rough day. Looking back, I went out too hard on the AT and was too aggressive early on the C&O, but I just can’t put my finger on how everything fell apart so quickly. Sitting here 2 days later my left leg is still shot and I can’t walk, but I am not in the excuses business. It happened, and I’ll learn from this and not make the same mistakes. But as everyone told me many times, it’s ultra-running and anything can happen. I am beyond blessed my crew got me to keep going and not DNF, and for me it was a very exciting ending to be able to finish with a good friend when she was having an absolutely awesome day. We were both in
terrible pain during those
last 8 miles, and for me it was a great to have a friend to run with and not
end up walking. Plus it made for a
pretty funny Facebook Live video, complete with us all chugging a Jordan Dillen
homebrew about 45 seconds after we finished.
I’ll always say I love running for more than just results, and
everything about this race was that for me.
I went for it and blew up, and when I tried to quit, my friends wouldn’t
let me. I suffered a lot and got to run
it in and finish with a friend, something I could never have done if I’d quit. When I look back at my first 50 mile race I
will always think of it as a positive experience because of everyone who was a
part of it. I missed my time goal; ah
well. But like my prerace post said, one
of my goals was to have fun, and that’s just what I did. When I look back on
this JFK 50 miler, I won’t remember finishing 22nd. I will remember my great friends all together
at the finish line as we all were a part of a 7 hour day of racing
together. And it’s that feeling that
will bring me back to the line to try another Ultra.
I want to thank everyone for their texts, emails, calls and nice words. I am so thankful to have so many people in my life that support my love for running and my adventures.
Because of all their support, I want to shout out a bunch of amazing people that were a part of this:
All my Falls Road Running Teammates, who I train with day in and out thank you for everything. Also to the Falls Road Running Store where almost all the items I used for this race were bought from.
Dave Ploskonka, for all his JFK50/Ultra advice that I ignored 15 minutes into the race!
My amazing wife Kelly Klastava, who allows me to pursue these crazy running adventures while being 8 months pregnant and is nothing but supportive.
Tom Stott - for his great advice when all my injuries hit the fan during my taper. He got me to the line feeling ready to go and calm.
Rich Wilson, Ryan McGrath, Tristram Thomas, Bryn Burkholder, Graham Peck, Mrs. Peck, Sean Caskey, Maggie Smith, Terri Gibbons, and Andrew Cantor for being the most amazing support people on the entire course. I’ve never had a crew before and I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive group of friends.
Pete Mulligan, for being about as helpful as anyone could be and doing it all without a complaint and really without me ever asking him to do it. Not sure how my morning or post-race would have gone without you, but it would have been bad.
And my running partner Meg D: she and I had many funny conversations about who would beat who at JFK50, and after all that we basically tied (but she was the real star getting 3rd overall).