“Finesse is stronger than force.”
Saturday, 17 November, 56th Edition of the JFK 50-Mile Run: Near Hagerstown, MD. Approximately 900 runners. This event includes 12 miles of paved roads over rolling and sometimes hilly terrain, 13.5 miles of technical single track on the Appalachian Trail, 26.5 miles of flat unpaved tow path on the C&O canal. Finish 12:17:43, 25/45 in age group.
Transition: Shower, quick massage, shuttle back to start line, drive to hotel, reorganize gear, some food, 2.5 hours of sleep, depart at 2:15 AM, solo drive 3 hours to Philadelphia.
Sunday, 18 November, 25th Edition of the Philadelphia Marathon: Throughout the city of Philadelphia. Over 12,000 runners. This event is all paved, mostly flat, touring the city, with thousands of spectators, dozens of musical ensembles along the course. Finish: 5:59:37, 158/178 in age group. And then, the 4-hour drive home.
I have been intrigued with running these two events on consecutive days for years. Along with the obvious endurance challenge of completing both of them on consecutive days, and the logistics and travel between, I was curious about juxtaposing two events with such different character and atmosphere: The quiet, remote and natural environment of JFK with the big city atmosphere and activity of Philadelphia.
The JFK-PHL Double offered an opportunity to challenge my craft as an endurance artist. To complete this double (at age 61) would require finesse. It draws upon the Four Vectors of Kaizen-durance Mastery. These four vectors are the essence of the slogan “Finesse is stronger than force”:
I want to briefly share with you something I have been contemplating throughout this 2018 endurance season: displaced people seeking asylum. Please take a moment to read these reflections. And then, for those interested, I offer the details on my preparation for the JFK-PHL Double, and the actual experience. I conclude with a tribute to a friend and endurance brother.
Migration and Asylum
For months now – in my daily training, and during these endurance events I am so fortunate to experience – I have contemplated the migrants who travel great distances to seek asylum here in the US. While we as endurance athletes choose to participate in events with much support, fanfare, glory and a hero’s welcome at the finish, the displaced migrants of the world have a much more difficult journey.
Asylum seekers often flee their homes and nations due to violence – domestic, gang, military – as well as poverty and hunger. We are privileged with so many resources and the stability in our lives to actually prepare and train for a scheduled and chosen event. Fleeing migrants have no luxury or choice to train or to prepare for a desperate journey that is much longer than even our longest endurance events with no knowledge of what awaits them during the journey, or at the “finish line”.
Their journey is not along a clearly defined and safe course lined with aid stations and cheering spectators. There is no finish line with an announcer, a finisher’s medal, food, and the promise and certainty of retreating to a secure and comfortable refuge after the finish. Instead, their finish line is just the start of even greater uncertainty and risk. They are scorned, rejected, detained, often separated from their family members, and possibly deported back to the situations they were so desperate to escape.
What Can We Do?
As endurance practitioners, what can we do? This is a question I invite you to consider as you train and race, as you choose to endure. I welcome your insights here in the comments section. I will return to this in a future blog.
For now, as you train and race, put yourself in a displaced migrant’s shoes making the desperate journey. Imagine what it must be like. And please consider supporting the Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project.
JFK-PHL Details: Training
Prior to running Cat’s Tail Trail Marathon (29 September), I was experiencing a slight overuse injury to a metatarsal joint in my right foot. This event exacerbated it, so I took two weeks off from running after completing it. Cat’s Tail is not your typical marathon. It offers over 7,000 of climbing (sometimes on exposed rock faces), rough technical trails, few aid stations and just one road crossing (at 9.5 miles). Entry for this event is stringent, since you can’t drop out after Mile 9.5, without walking out.
In the 2-week break from running, I swam more and continued with strength work, along with some cycling. On 12 October, I resumed running 3-5 times a week. – my typical 40-90 minute off-pavement run sessions in Vibram 5-Fingers. And then… 22 October, as I was doing Box Jumps, I injured my shin when I failed to clear the height of the box. I sustained a moderate wound over the bone of my shin, with a lot of bleeding. And the next day I had dental surgery (a bone graft). As a precaution for the surgery, I was required to go on antibiotics. (Heck, at least I didn’t have to worry about wound infection in my shin.)
The shin injury was slow to heal, although I continued to run. Combined with the malaise I usually feel from the effect of antibiotics, I did not run any longer than 10 miles in a single run leading up to the JFK-PHL Double. The “climax” of my training was on Sunday, 04 November (2 weeks out):
- I ran 10 miles of my “Tour de Cornell” course in the morning – lots of hills and mixed terrain, from home, ascending up to and through the Cornell University campus.
- After a break to eat and work at the desk, I ran another 8 miles in the afternoon on the Black Diamond Trail – a maintained rail trail.
As always, I maintained a regimen of functional strength Pilates-based mat work throughout. Evolved over the past 4 decades, this is an essential part of my craft and the very first thing we explore in the Running Labs that I offer. I largely credit functional strength (especially pelvic and pectoral core, and lateral joint stability of the hips), along with mindful, efficient running technique with my JFK-PHL success.
Again… Finesse is stronger than force.
JFK-PHL Details: Event One
There was snow on the JFK 50-Mile course, slowly melting on race day. Consequently, we all had wet feet for most of the event. (Note: I was well-trained this year for wet feet, given my diet of trail running events – especially Twisted Branch 100K. For that event, we ran in water up our calves and even to our knees for a total accumulation of 2 miles, and thick mud above our ankles for over 30 miles.)
The melting snow and mud slurry actually “smoothed” the rocky sections of the Appalachian Trail (13.5 miles), making the running seem easier than all of the past years – a welcomed surprise. The C&O tow path also included several wet and muddy sections, though nothing like Twisted Branch.
Knowing that I planned to run a road surface marathon the next day, the theme of the day was soft and gentle. This may seem like a paradox: How can running 50 miles – or even two miles be soft and gentle? This is possible through a harmonious alliance with gravity.
Gravity is our curse and our blessing.
The real paradox is this: Gravity is the source of impact that leads to fatigue and injury, and yet we cannot run without it. It is our curse, and our blessing. Indeed, this is the runner’s dilemma – one resolved by mindfully cultivating a harmonious alliance with gravity.
As with past years, I was patient on the AT so I did not fall or injure myself. (Note: I learned this the hard way during my first JFK, in 2005. On the AT that year, I tweaked my left knee and ruptured the bursa sac. I was barely able to finish that year.) This year, safely off the AT, I patiently settled in to a 9:00/3:00 run/walk cycle for most of the 26.5 mile stretch of the flat and uniform C&O tow path. At some point, I switched to a 7:00/3:00 cycle, which made the math a bit easier in my delirium.
I began to feel some soreness in my left hip and IT around 38 miles. I did not let the discomfort adversely affect my most efficient technique. Deviating technique to alleviate discomfort will usually cause injury. The 8 miles of rolling hills comprising the final road stretch to the finish line offered variety that enabled me to vary my technique and spread the fatigue. With patience and grace, I reached the finish line. My time of 12:17 was over an hour slower than last year.
During the entire event, I consumed 150-200 calories and hour – a little more than usual, in anticipation of Philadelphia.
JFK-PHL Details: Transition
At the finish, without delay, I showered, got a brief message and took the shuttle bus back to the start. I arrived at my hotel room at 8:40 PM. It took me a little over an hour to reorganize – selecting my gear and nutrition for the next day and packing everything else for a quick and early departure. I ate some granola with whey protein and bananas and finally laid down at 10:30. As anticipated – due to high cortisol – I slept about 90 minutes, and then ended up laying on the floor with my legs elevated on the bed, resting as best I could until 1:45 AM.
I departed at 2:15 AM for Philadelphia to meet Dave Weiss at 5:15. The roads were desolate, and the weather clear. Dave had picked up my race packet and instructed me on where I could legally park on the street, just a half mile from the race start. Meeting with him, and sitting together for a few minutes in his car made the arrival and critically important transition (read “Reality Check”) much easier. Our walk to the start enabled me to loosen up my legs for another run, while our conversation helped me compose my attitude and approach.
As I anticipated, I had difficulty thermoregulating – staying warm – until my start time. I had dressed very warmly for the walk to the start but eventually had to give up much of my clothing before entering the start corral. Even with two hats, a neck gaiter, light running jacket, arm warmers, gloves and a vest, I was shivering during the 35-minute wait until our start. My already sore hips were aggravated by the tension from shivering. I did my best to keep them loose as I awaited the start of the last wave.
JFK-PHL Details: Event Two
I was relieved and slightly surprised at my ability to begin sauntering along at the start without much “rust” in my joints. I rarely run on paved surfaces in my daily training and was concerned about the added impact, especially after a 50-mile precursor.
My greatest asset for running pavement is that I have evolved my running technique craft to keep my feet soft and supple throughout the stride cycle – especially during ground contact. This minimizes impact, in spite of the firm and minimal Merrell Trail Glove shoes I wore for both JFK and PHL.
By mile 3, my left hip and IT band were sore again. I focused on crafting the gentlest strides I could and again adapted a 7:00/3:00 run/walk cycle. The most challenging miles were from 3 to 10. During this part of the run, I used these sensations to orient me to my gentlest technique. Gradually, much of the acute soreness in the hip and IT dissipated. Relieved, I settled into a very patient and graceful approach with each and every stride, enjoying the “Philly Marathon Experience”: the natural, historic, cultural and architectural sights of Philadelphia, the bands and musicians that came out to play for us, and the spectators in costume, with humorous and clever signs along the course.
I’ve run Philly once before, so I anticipated running Main Street Manayunk along the Schuykill River – miles 17-22. This place has a small town feel, with lots of creative, bohemian spirit and illustrious characters that lift my spirits. I declined all of the offers for beer in Manayunk, as I continued to focus on being as gentle as possible. I ran a very consistent pace: The results show that I ran the first 10K at a 13:34 mile pace, with my overall pace for the entire distance at 13:42.
I enjoyed sharing the experience with such a diversity of participants – feeling humble and grateful to be out there with so many brothers and sisters. I am honored to share this with many who are struggling not only with their marathon journey, but also in their life journey – as we all are. I was able to peer into their personal life challenges as they were revealed in this marathon journey. At the “back of the pack”, this is truly a life quest.
I was able to complete the JFK-PHL Double through the Four Vectors of Kaizen-durance Mastery. I am grateful for the moment-to-moment patience required – not just during the events, but in the transition between them, and the 4-hour drive home afterwards.
The JFK-PHL Double was the realization of something I have been curious about for years. Two times previously I have signed up for both, and then elected not to drive to Philadelphia after completing JFK. There were two circumstances that changed the conditions this year – one I consider insightful, the other heartbreaking:
Insightful: Previously, I planned to drive to Philadelphia just after JFK and then find somewhere to sleep. However, each time I felt too fatigued to drive safely. This year, the decision to sleep for a few hours first and then drive was the key to this critical logistical element.
Heartbreaking: Traditionally, I run JFK with my close friend and endurance brother Larry Lewis – a true legend in the field of endurance sports. Every year, Larry and I share a hotel room, and celebrate afterwards with a feast. (Note: Years before I met Larry, he and Willie Williams completed the JFK-PHL Double.)
2018 was to be Larry’s 20th JFK 50-Mile, and November 4th was to be Larry’s 35th consecutive NYC Marathon. However, on November 1st, he had a minor stroke. Larry and I are the same age. As of this publication, Larry is still in recovery and rehabilitation. He is progressing!
The sobering emptiness offered no incentive to pause for celebration after JFK, even though I was sincerely grateful for the health and capacity to cross the finish line.
Completing this Double this year was far less satisfying and epic than sharing the JFK 50-Mile pilgrimage and reunion with Larry each year. I prayed for him throughout the event, and felt his absence. I will be overjoyed to celebrate our reunion – and Larry’s induction to the 1000-Mile Club – in 2019. There will be no need to head to Philly after that.