JFK 50 Race report:The Power of Naming Your Challenges

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The day before I stepped onto the line at the JFK 50 miler I happened to have a conversation with Runner’s World editor Christine Fennessy, which served as a great source of strength during the race. I have had a rough race year – a case of Rhabdomyolysis almost killed me on my second fifty miler, and a sprained ankle pulled me out of my first try at 100 miles. I described to Christine that I was more worried about JFK because of problems I face with panic attacks in the winter; I have problems with climatological triggers of PTSD. Specifically that I have panic attacks in thick cold air when my heart rate increases. My first two short tours occurred in the winter and I have been exposed to combat mostly during the winter. The combination of the cold and elevated heart rate is precisely what combat felt like for me and I tend to have panic attacks on winter runs.

After describing my concerns to someone else I found it much less scary in the morning. Like always I could not breath after less than ten minutes of running, which frustrated me significantly. In my experience panic attacks are like a sadistic combination of asthma and a heart attack.  My body feels like it is in danger and does whatever it can to make me get away from what is frightening it. Despite the frustration I remembered a key aspect of finishing the JFK 50 miler, that you can’t win on the AT but you can lose. I swallowed my pride and walked until I felt better. I was happy that a Team Red White and Blue Teammate Heather Ficke was walking precisely at the same time and we were able to stick together for the first 27 miles.

Though initially intimidated I just decided to take the race one step at a time and hopefully I would not have to face another panic attack. Thank God because I did not. Heather and I were doing really well and keeping a great finishing pace but we crossed the 25-mile mark at about 5:45. My goal was to run a Western States Qualifier and I thought that I could still take a stab at it so I said goodbye to Heather.

It’s funny how you meet the right people at precisely the right time. My talk with Christine helped me put words on something I had experienced, and that was so powerful in the moment. Heather had run 100 milers before and her expertise on nutrition and previous finishes was exactly what I needed for the first half of the race. When I started to break out in search of a sub 11 hour finish I met a couple, I can’t remember their names, but we were all trying t get to the line at the same time.They asked me if I knew what mile I was at and how fast we needed to go. I am thoroughly embarrassed because I have always made fun of bravado but I must confess my response was “I have no idea but I am all in.” Certainly I had run a good race in terms of nutrition and pace but I had an incredible burst of energy and motivation. I had to run my fastest 25-mile split on an ultramarathon to meet my goal but why not go down swinging.

I don’t know how it happened but the second half of the race was the best run of my life.  I kept hitting my splits and I was so insanely pumped up. I got to the last mile at 10:35 and it hit me that I was going to make my goal. It was such an emotional experience. I had literally almost died running this year and everyone, except my wife Rachel thought I was insane to keep running ultras, I had a series of injuries, and I was beginning to doubt the value of running ultras. I sobbed like a schoolboy who is denied recess, and crossed the finish line at 10:45:50.  I followed up with the couple that I met and discovered that they finished before 11 hours, and Heather ran an 11:06 (almost an hour better than her PR). It was one of the best experiences of my life.  In the beginning, I did not know how I was going to make it, but I found a way by focusing on the present and on each individual split. I was thrilled that in spite of my initial problems I had recovered and ran the best race of my life.

There is no panacea for PTSD but there is power in naming it and overcoming one challenge. Today when I stepped outside and went for my first run since JFK – guess what happened – I had panic attacks from the very beginning until the very end, even the rescue inhaler did nothing to stop the symptoms. The important thing wasn’t that the attacks went away because they didn’t. The most important thing was that I felt angry because of the panic attacks. I wasn’t frightened, intimidated, broken, and I was not down on myself; I was annoyed by it. I hope naming my problems will inevitably help alleviate my symptoms, but if they don’t I will always be able to remember how I came back from them at JFK and ran the race of my life. At JFK my weakness caused humility and in that humility I found strength. I accepted my PTSD and found a way to make a resource of it instead of letting it control my life. Even if I have panic attacks for the rest of my life, who cares, that is my lot, and I know how to overcome it. Ultra Running is the best therapy money can buy because it helps you find strength when your body is pushed to its very limits.