“Visualization” is a common training technique practiced by athletes at all levels. Coaches teach you to imagine, in fine detail, succeeding at the task ahead again and again, ingraining the lesson to help make it reality when the big day arrives.
For a basketball player, this might mean picturing a smoothly stroked free throw with the game on the line. For a baseball player, it could be unleashing a perfect swing with the flawless timing and mechanics needed to launch a 95 mph fastball out of the park. For a distance runner, it is holding the perfect pace, form intact at the edge of exhaustion, on a brilliantly sunny, cool, clear autumn day.
A day like Saturday.
It is hard to imagine a better start to the 50th JFK 50-Mile run than the one I enjoyed as I stepped to the starting line in Boonsboro, Md., with about 150 other runners in the 5 a.m. wave. (Another 900 swifter participants would follow us at 7 a.m.). It was 30 degrees in the pitch blackness, no wind, no rain. I had trained for months and was in good shape. I had even managed to get a few hours of sleep, which usually eludes me on the eve of a race, before rising at 3:15 a.m. to prepare for the longest run of my life.
I felt strong and comfortable as we trudged up the long hill that leads out of town to the Appalachian Trail, occasionally chatting with others bound up in the challenge of the nation’s oldest and most famous ultramarathon, but often alone in a bubble of light from my headlamp.
I picked my way cautiously but confidently along the trail, running where the terrain allowed, slowing to a walk when I encountered fields of jagged rocks below my feet. I welcomed daybreak high on the spine of South Mountain, where I had to stop for a moment to admire the view. Four and a half hours later — 30 minutes sooner than I’d expected — I was a half-mile from conquering the most difficult 15 miles of this arduous race as I skittered down the steep, treacherous switchbacks at Weverton Cliffs that would take me to the flat ground of the C&O Canal towpath.
You weren’t expecting a fairy tale, were you? Good.
Because that’s where one rock, one small bump of granite, reached up from its insignificant place in this great, wide world and grabbed the big toe of my left foot. Suddenly I was airborne, arms out ahead of me like Superman diving out a window, then skidding on my chest along the trail and slamming my left hand into something I don’t remember.
Then I tumbled off the trail a few feet down the steep embankment into a thick, cozy bed of dry leaves, where I decided to stay for the rest of my life.
Trail runners call this a “face plant,” but it was my left hand and the left side of my rib cage that hurt badly. The guy behind me tried to drag me back up the embankment by my right arm, like one of those tiny fishing boats winching an 800-pound tuna onto its deck in stormy seas. Eventually I climbed back up by myself.
As I began to run again, the bones in my left hand clicked with each step and my ribs ached with every breath. About six miles later, I stopped at a rest station for first aid, where a nurse told me my hand was broken and offered to splint it with cardboard. In the end, she just taped it up firmly. There was nothing she could do for my ribs.
The JFK is a timed event — one of the few I’ve ever run. You must meet certain deadlines along the way and finish by 7 p.m. or they take you off the course: Nice try, but no medal. I had hoped to cross the line in 12 or 13 hours, but that was impossible now. I had lost too much time.
But all distance events are exercises in mobile problem-solving, and I’ve run more than a few. When you’re not doing well, you must diagnose the problem and figure out a solution, even as you keep moving. Feeling woozy and weak? Drink more Gatorade and eat more sugar at the next aid station. Muscle cramps? More salt tablets and chicken soup. Busted hand? Gulp all the Tylenol you can find. I was carrying eight pills in a bag in my pocket.
The canal path ended at Mile 42, where I donned the Day-Glo orange, reflective “vest of shame,” mandatory for those of us who would finish in darkness on small-town roads. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said to the woman who helped me into the crossing guard’s uniform. “This totally clashes with my [green] fleece. I just didn’t plan ahead.” She told me I was “fashion forward” and sent me on my way.
I had about 21 / 2 hours to cover eight miles. Exhausted and stopping every once in a while to stretch a cramping hamstring, I was losing precious time. A small group of us, knowing we were right on the edge of failure, began to run together, cheering one another on. Police officers and bystanders at every intersection were telling us we would make it. Soon it was just me and two women I had met on the trail. Then I was alone. Other runners — men, women, young, old, thin, fat — kept passing me. I didn’t care. It was just me against that clock.
The thought of working this hard and coming away empty terrified me. So although I had to walk the uphills, I would break into a sprint on every downhill and flat of the undulating road. I was pumping my legs as hard as I could but getting nowhere, treading water on a sea of asphalt. Cars and trucks flew by in the darkness, their headlights illuminating the endless path to the finish.
The JFK results page proves that I made it with six minutes and 36 seconds to spare, a pace of 16:41 per mile, fourth from last of the 964 runners who crossed the line before 7 p.m. Another medal has joined the collection on a hook in my closet. And I raised $1,755 for Girls on the Run of Montgomery County, my designated charity for the event, with help from members of that nonprofit organization.
Just like I visualized it.
Read past columns by Bernstein and Vicky Hallett