Monday, November 30, 2015

(Philly) Marathon Love

Exactly one year ago today, I started working with my coach, Jason Kilderry, and we decided to make the Philadelphia Marathon our goal-race. So in a way, every run in the past year has led up to Philly, all 3,482.8 miles. In the process, I got back on the track, knocked down personal records (PRs), ran long, built base, and trained harder than ever; all for Philly. It's not that I considered Philly my destiny exactly, but more so that I just love long distance racing, and I consider it my calling/(obsession) as a runner. My long term plan is to spend the next few years getting as fast as I can in the marathon before I turn my focus back to ultramarthons.

So, although I enjoy shorter races, (and know their importance in gaining fitness) nothing comes close to the rush of the marathon (and longer). Not only does it provide a new realm of variables and challenges, but it takes you to an entirely different mental and physiological state. For the same reason that I love mountain running, I love long distance racing (even better together). This multidimensional challenge is at the root of my obsession, it allows for such a narrow margin of success, that when it occurs, it's as if I've achieved the impossible. Everyone who's ran a marathon/ultra has went from thinking (at some point) that running this distance is impossible, to going out and doing it. And anyone who's experienced this knows that there's nothing more addicting or compelling. It's at the root of every long distance (and especially ultra) runner.

Focusing on one race has it's challenges, and a week-out from the race, my nerves had the best of me. So I got into the details; worked on my race preparation (i.e. studied the course, laid out my plan etc.) and wrote about the race. I was confident in my fitness, but was struggling to accept the variability of the marathon. I'm too rational to block-out the possibility of failure, so instead, I envisioned it. I laid out the absolute worst that could happen, and realized that the world wouldn't end, and actually, not a whole lot would change. No matter the outcome, it'd eventually become a footnote. That was the ticket. And a few days out from the race my nerves (mostly) disappeared.
Photo by Bridgette Keenan
The goal for Philly was around 2:28, and definitely sub-2:30. My plan was to average 5:40 pace for the first half, hold it on the way out to Manayunk (mile 19.5 turnaround), and give it everything I had left coming back. Race morning arrived, and I got it to the start with time to spare, wished my girlfriend Cara the best in the half, and went to my corral. Starting lines are great for runner reunions, and I enjoyed the company while I waited for the start. The first half of the race went close to plan. The marathoners and half-marathoners start together, so the start was crowded but smooth. My GPS was a little screwy in the city, but I seemed to be averaging close to 5:40 per mile  (all my GPS splits are listed below). I was excited to have others to run with because the wind seemed like it could be a factor. But I never really connected with anyone's pace. I drafted off a pack or two, but had to keep passing them. I'd rather hold my pace into the wind then slow down even slightly with a pack. I expected the hills at miles 7 and 8, but not the wind. Another taste of what was ahead. I thought those miles were a little slower than expected (5:51 & 5:45), but I was still on pace, and I mostly got it back in miles 9, 11, and 12 (5:38, 5:38, & 5:35 respectively). I also got to watch 3 women battle it out for 4th place in the last few miles of the half, and I was happy to (silently) spectate.
I came through the half in 1:14:29 (5:40.9 pace) and in 22nd place. Slower than expected, but still close to goal pace. Plus, I was confident with the effort and believed I could come back faster in the 2nd half. That's when it got tough. I found myself alone on Kelly Drive fighting the wind. There was a pack of runners about 30 seconds in front of me but they held their pace until the turn around around mile 20, and I wasn't gaining ground. Also, Rob Ahrens, another runner I knew well seemed to be ~30-40 seconds behind me for the whole race. Huge missed opportunity for both of us to work together. Miles 14-17 were 5:46, 5:45, 5:41, and 5:47. Major setback. It was time to start dropping my pace and hold mid-high 5:30's, but instead I put out that effort plus some, just to run a slower pace. I was still in good spirits, I was waiting for the wind to die down, but it held. I kept my mind off it at the time, but wind has been an achilles heal of mine in racing. In shorter races I struggle to breathe, and I always fall apart running against the wind. I wasn't breathing as hard at marathon pace, but it was still miserable running through it. The wind speed in Philly was 14-18 mph at the time of the race, with gusts up to 29 mph. Then, at mile 16 I saw a big "Cheering Section" sign, and not a soul in sight. I remember thinking how funny this will be after the race, but now it seems more like a bad omen. 
Photo by Bobby Longnecker
Miles 18-20 got even tougher. I ran 5:51, 5:55, and 5:56 per mile. The Falls Bridge turnaround was kind of frustrating (runners cross a bridge, go downhill to a turnaround, then back across to Kelly Drive). But it was good to see the rest of the runners at the turn around, and the crowd support was great. Then the wind and hills joined forces on the way out to the turnaround in Manayunk (~19.5 miles). At that point the forces against me just felt excessive. The race was starting to seem too hopeless, and I stopped thinking about it. I turned my focus to the mile I was running. Checked my pace often, and tried to get it back down without overdoing my effort.

After another windy hill, the course eased up at the turnaround. Coming up to the turnaround I was feeling spent; "is this the wall?" But after turning around, everything lightened-up. Manayunk had awesome crowd support, and it felt incredible to run downhill without wind. I passed a couple runners, and ran 5:38 for mile 21. I wanted to get it back. I was trying to do the math, and realized that sub-2:30 might not be out of the picture. That was toughest at the time. It was still physically possible, but would require a herculean effort. In my endorphin overloaded brain, part of me wanted sub-2:30 to be out of reach, so I could ease-up. F**k that part of me. I hated myself for that, and that hate got me through it. Self-loathing can be a marathoner's greatest asset. It's like I was so ashamed for wanting to ease-up that I wouldn't let myself do it (at least mentally). And this did't just happen once. It happened over and over again until I crossed the line.

I kept fighting to hold pace, with Jason close-by on his bike yelling at me to leave it all out there. That was huge, he was my reminder of how much I put into the race, and my increasingly cloudy thoughts kept fighting my fatigue. I held a 5:43 for mile 22, as I passed another runner. Then another runner, Eric Bang, came up on me and I hung with him. He could've been holding a 2:29 sign. Somehow I knew he was my last shot. I can't remember how long I hung with him, maybe half a mile or so. But I couldn't hang. So I watched 2:29 slip away. I was slowing down, and felt like I was falling apart. I was probably more beat up than expected by the wind, and maybe fought it too hard. But I was still passing runners. In the last 10k I passed 6 runners, and was only passed by Eric (who was the last sub-2:30 runner in 2:29:46). The crowd support was huge in the last few miles too, and I couldn't have been more thankful. Miles 23-26 were 5:51, 5:54, 6:05, and 5:59 (kicked it in with a 5:35 pace .2 mile). I finished in 17th place overall in a time of 2:30:55.

2:30 was hard to swallow. I'm proud of my performance with the conditions, but those aren't the numbers I wanted. I'm now a 2:30 marathoner. Not a 2:30 marathoner into this wind, on that course, on this day, who would've/should've been a 2:2x:xx marathoner. I spent a year training to run a sub-2:30, and I didn't dot it. But I will, and it wasn't all for naught. After all, that's what I said I loved about the marathon, isn't it? It's the difficulty of the challenge that makes it so addicting, that's what keeps me coming back to it. I love that nothing is guaranteed in distance running. Sure, I'm disappointed that I didn't reach my goal (though this was a 4-minute PR). But I'm happy and thankful that I tried, and I can't wait to give it another shot. It's only been a week and I'm already looking for my next marathon. 

Photo by Bobby Longnecker
Mile Time 1 05:36.3 2 05:40.3 3 05:33.3 4 05:39.1 5 05:44.6 6 05:39.4 7 05:51.5 8 05:45.1 9 05:38.8 10 05:46.9 11 05:38.0 12 05:35.7 13 05:44.1 13.1 1:14:29
14 05:46.2 15 05:45.4 16 05:41.4 17 05:47.3 18 05:51.1 19 05:55.1 20 05:56.4 21 05:38.3 22 05:43.3 23 05:51.9 24 05:54.5 25 06:05.3 26 05:59.0 26.2 01:07.0 26.2 2:30:55
(*Splits were estimated by GPS & mile marker laps I hit in the race)

Thank you; Jason-my brilliant coach, Jerry & Eileen at Optimum Health for keeping me running fast and injury-free, Cara-my incredible girlfriend (who PR'd in the half!), my mom & older sister (who both ran the half!)my dad & younger sister & Mark- for being out there on the course, the Philadelphia Marathon Race organizers including Ross Martinson of Philly Runner, Meghan & Kate-for hosting us, Tom & Amanda & Philly-for hosting/post-race drinking with us, La Sportiva-for the awesome kicks & gear, Bobby Longnecker-for the photos, John & Noah-for the support & time off to race, and everyone who supported me during/before/ after the race, and everyone else who helped (or I bothered in preparation for this marathon, then bothered more by forgetting to thank you - really sorry!).

Monday, November 16, 2015

Philly Marathon, Finally

The Philadelphia Marathon has been a heartbreaking missed connection for a few years. We first made eyes in 2012, brushed shoulders in 2013, and just missed each other in 2014. 2015 WILL BE MY YEAR.
2012 Steamtown Marathon
I first signed up to run Philly in 2012, just a few days after my first marathon (Steamtown), and a month out from the race. I was head over heals for 26.2, and couldn’t wait to run the distance again. I spent the better part 2012 trying not to get dropped on runs with Matt Byrne (many times unsuccessfully), and became a 2:35 marathoner. I couldn’t wait to give it another shot and feed my budding distance addition. A couple weeks later, I sprained an ankle on a run, and Philly was out of the picture. I still went to the race with Byrne, and met my current coach, Jason Kilderry, along with many other runners at the heart of Philly’s scene.
2013 Jupiter Peak Steeplechase
Another year later I was ready, once again, for the 2013 Philly Marathon. I spent the year getting acquainted with mountain running, and racing all over the country in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup. I felt like I was in shape early-on, so I jumped in the Rochester Marathon; ready to take a stab at the elusive sub-2:30. Instead, I got a (3-bathroom break) 2:35:20. All good. That’s why I jumped in Rochester. To blow out the tubes and feel-out that 5:43 pace. A couple weeks later, I got shingles. Yeah, shingles. Probably from a sleepless hell week entrenched in a grad school (without backing off running). 
 Mile 14 of the JFK 50 Mile
And another year later, I just wasn’t ready for the 2014 Philly Marathon. I had backed-off from training in the summer to focus on work/school, and I just couldn’t catch-up, or fake my way through a marathon, it’s too honest. My lack of training would’ve showed. So, after stringing together some high mileage weeks and back to back long runs, I ran the JFK 50 Mile. I finished the race (mildly) satisfied with my 6:15, and completely in love with the distance. The next day was the Philly marathon, which I spent in Philly with good company, drinking away post-ultra-leg-pain, and watching the Philly marathon speed by me, once again. 
Randall's Island - Ichan Stadium
The next week, I started working with Jason Kilderry of ETA Coach. He steered me away from ultras (for the time being), and got me back on the track. I have since improved on every personal record (PR) from the mile to the 10k, and ran just off half-marathon PR pace in an 18-miler. Over the past couple months, everything has pointed to Philly. I’m excited to toe the line on Sunday. I’ve been waiting for a marathon PR since 2012, and I’m happy that it will happen this weekend.
The work’s done. As of writing this, I’ve run 3,168.2 miles in 2015, and I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in. I’ve already earned my PR. I’ve been chipping away seconds from it for months. I can’t wait to get to the starting line and hear the gun go off. Now, after elevating the importance of the race, I'm keeping a few things in mind. In all honesty, it doesn't really matter how I do on Sunday. I've received more support than I deserve from my friends and family, and that support isn't contingent on numerical success. In the long run, it'll hardly be noticeable whether I kill it or tank it. There'll be plenty more marathons, and this race just one of them. I'm excited for the opportunity go out an run on Sunday because I love to run. Thank you all for the support!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Helios SR: Shoe Review

The original Helios was my go-to trail shoe since it came out in 2013, so I was excited to try out the updated Helios SR, which came out in Spring 2015. The Helios got me through my first ultra, and treated me well over every distance and terrain from the Cascades to the rugged trails of NYC. It's weight and versatility ensured that it was almost always on my foot in all conditions. My first impression of the Helios SR held my excitement. I felt that La Sportiva made multiple improvements to the shoe without adding any weight or majorly changing the fit.
Original Helios
Helios SR
Tech Overview:
Weight:  ~8.1 oz  / ~230 g
Fit: Medium/ Wide
Drop (MM):  2mm (Heel:16mm | Toe: 14mm)
At ~8.1 ounces, the Helios SR is well into the lightweight trail category. That category comes with multiple benefits and some sacrifices. You're not going to get the protection of a 11 ouncer, but I've found that the Helios SR offers much more protection than it's weight reveals. No matter how rocky the trail, it provides me with enough protection. I personally prefer less weight over more protection, but I've found that this shoe packs a moderate amount of cushion and protection, without sacrificing weight. The main reason why the Helios SR is my go-to shoe is the last. I have a flat foot, with an arch that doesn't over-pronate or require extra density. However, I do benefit from arch-ground contact, meaning I do best in shoes that are slightly wider under the arch. So although the Helios SR is relatively flexible, it offers support through it's ground contact. In addition, the Medium/Wide last acts as a guard against ankle sprains (which I'm personally prone to). You can feel this upon putting on the shoe and attempting to roll your ankle, it just doesn't roll until your weight is well over the side of your foot. This has been a lifesaver for me, and it's one of the main reasons that I love both the Helios SR and The Vertical K. The Helios SR is relatively low to the ground as well, with 16mm in the heel and 14mm in the forefoot. That also reduces the risk and consequence of turning an ankle. I also prefer a shoe with a lower drop, so I was happy to see that La Sportiva now has a 2mm option. If that's a lower offset than you're used to, I'd advise caution rather than avoidance. Take them out on easier runs, just once or twice a week, while closely monitoring your Achilles tendons and calves for soreness. If you feel any initial soreness, make sure you're fully recovering between runs in the shoes, before you gradually increase the frequency and length of your runs in the shoes.

My love of this shoe certainly stems from my foot-type, but I wouldn't call it a game-changer if you're considering this shoe and have a different foot-type. I know mountainrunners with average arches and foot width, who prefer the Helios SR. However, I do think that someone with a narrow foot would be more likely to gravitate towards a shoe like the Bushido, which has a more narrow and snug fit. Still, its difficult to classify shoes in this manner. Everyone's feet differ in so many ways that it's difficult to predict how any shoe would fit without feeling it on your foot. I always advise finding a local retailer and trying on any running shoe.

MorphoDynamic™ Injection Molded EVA/ Endurance platform EVA insert
One of the new features in the Helios SR is the forefoot rock guard - Endurance platform, which adds more protection in the forefoot than the previous version. I've found that the rock guard provides more than enough protection, and compared to the original Helios, it's noticeably more comfortable over rocky terrain. As some other reviews have mentioned; one possible weakness in the shoe is in the wave platform (dips) which are less protected, and I felt the similarly about the original. However, the upgraded rock guard in the SR has prevented the ache from a bad foot placement over a sharp rock. I'm certainly not saying that the shoe is impervious; it's still an 8.1 oz trail shoe. But I've found that the rock guard does an impressive job of avoiding that feeling of discomfort.

HyDrain Mesh/ Wicking EVA AirMesh /Poly Grid™ / TPU Lacing Harness
Highly breathable hydrain mesh upper for superior draining and comfort
Lining: Wicking EVA AirMesh (heel only)
Photo By Michael Carli

I've found that the TPU lacing Harness, hydrain mesh (yellow), and gusseted tongue, really improved the fit and feel of the shoe. The SR is slightly more snug than the original, but I've found that it hugs my foot more consistently. Rather than making the laces do all the work, the mesh give the shoe a sock-like feel that needs a bit of help from the laces to secure your foot. In addition, the SR seems to have lost a little bit of volume in the toe box, but I was able to comfortably keep the same size. Even though I have wider (but still D-width) feet, I prefer the fit of the SR over the original Helios.

FriXion® AT/ VA Wave
Sticky FriXion®  XF Rubber on the forefoot and resilient FriXion® AT Rubber on the heel
Forefoot rock guard endurance platform for excellent protection on rocky terrain
SR is for Sticky Rubber, and FriXion® XF is "[La Sportiva's] proprietary sticky climbing rubber formula." The grip is certainly impressive, especially in wet conditions. It was noticeably better than the original Helios in the snow, where rubber seemed to make all the difference. I was originally concerned about the rubber wearing out easily, as sticky rubber is designed for grip over durability (there's 2 miles of pavement between my apartment and the trail), but I haven't found this to be the case, the wear pattern and longevity of the shoe seemed comparable to the original; which I'm estimating to be 300-400 miles before I switched pairs.

I'm a size 10 (US) in most running shoe brands, though I sometimes size up to a 10.5. In the Helios SR, and most other La Sportiva Mountain Running shoes, I wear a size 44.5 (Euro). So, to use the Size Chart; I size-up a whole US size (up to 11), then convert it to Euro. I personally prefer a whole thumb-width in the front of my shoe, and I've found the 44.5 to fit the best for me. If possible, try this shoe on at a local running shop to be sure of the size and fit. La Sportiva's site also has a Dealer Map of local carriers. Also be aware that this shoe softens-up slightly after a couple runs. I originally thought it lacked some forgiveness when I tried it on, but it quickly became more responsive after the first run. 


Photo By Michael Carli

Monday, June 1, 2015

2015 Midnight Half Recap

For more on my race, see my Post-Race Interview with race director, Joe DiNoto.

The Midnight Half is an iron maiden of a race. It takes away all the comforts of road racing, and challenges runners to navigate through traffic, over bridges, and around all else NYC has to offer. The race is simple; the first one to hit 4 checkpoints (in order) then finish, wins. Runners can take any route, and nothing is off limits. Apart from the dedicated volunteers and spectators, no one knows or cares that you’re in a race, and you have to fight for every second. To have a shot at doing well, you need to do your homework to plan fast route, and take everything into consideration.
Pre-race shot with  Cara Notarianni (2nd Place Female).
I found the Midnight Half to be somewhat similar to mountain races, as it requires the same race mindset. It stems from the baseline reactive attitude, and willingness to fight for every step. It’s no road race; you can’t just zone out and hold your pace. You have to be constantly planning your next turn or street crossing. It’s painfully exhilarating. Out on the streets of NYC, I found the same rush I get from speeding downhill at the edge of control.
Pre-race briefing. Photo by Manuel Barenboim
The checkpoints were sent to runners a week before the race, and remain publicly unknown. Generally speaking, the race started under the Manhattan Bridge (LES). The next checkpoints required runners to go out to Red Hook, then back to the start, then just east of the Manhattan Bridge (Brooklyn side), and then the race finished in the LES.
On our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by David August Trimble
Early on, it was clear that Jerry, Mac, and I (photo above & below) would be the contenders that night. Within the first half-mile, we separated ourselves from the field as we made our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. But as we approached the turn for the pedestrian stairwell (around mile-1) Jerry and Mac ran right past it. I turned for the bridge, and pushed the pace. I was surprised to have the lead that early, and I wanted that gap to hurt. But I didn’t expect it to last 12 miles.
Photo by David August Trimble
After the Brooklyn Bridge, I headed towards Red Hook, and started to realize that the heat would be a factor that night. It was rough, but the worst of it passed after Red Hook. Apart the stairs and hills, the bridges were a welcome sanctuary from the heat. The first half of the race went relatively smoothly, I maneuvered around traffic and had no major problems until after the second Brooklyn Bridge crossing. I ran into a 4-lane street with cars flying each way, and took it lane by lane, clearing the street with only one near miss.
LES-bound on the Manhattan Bridge. Photo by Tracksmith
Though Jerry and Mac ran different routes, I spent the next 12 miles imagining them on my heels, and at most of the checkpoints, they were. The second half of the race was hell. My legs felt cooked and I was doing everything I could to hold onto first place. I saw Jerry closing on my lead me with 2-3 miles to go, but somehow managed to hold him off back to the LES for the win (more details in my Post-Race Interview). I was still in disbelief right after the race and the realization took some time. I'm incredibly psyched to be the 2015 champion.
Finishing photo by Victoria Lo
Thank you Joe DiNoto, David August Trimble, Pavel Marosin, and everyone else involved in bringing it to life. It's an exhilarating format that‘s difficult to compare to any other type of running race.
Photo by Alex Muccilli of Joe DiNoto and I, just seconds after I won.
Everything from the race photography and documentation, to the smooth registration and late night after-party were put together to create an electrifying experience for runners and spectators alike.

Photo by Alex Muccilli
Additional thanks goes out to ETA Coach for the fitness and La Sportiva for the all-terrain kicks.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Having A Coach

Since I've started working with Jason Kilderry, of ETA Coach, I've broken every personal record from the mile to the 10k. Most of them by a substantial amount, including taking 59 seconds off my 5-mile/8k, and this is just the beginning. My perceivable goals have grown exponentially, and I'm excited to see where my legs can take me as I move up in distances. My improvement is as multi-dimensional as Jason's approach. It's not only the evidence-based training and careful physiological monitoring, it's having a coach who believes in me.

I was a head case through high school and college. I lacked the confidence to actualize my potential, and was consumed by failure. I would start to stress weeks before races, and dump my adrenaline stores before stepping on the starting line. I'd race as a shell of myself, then get personal records in workouts, and run stretches of long runs faster than I raced the day before. It was an awful cycle. After college I began breaking it, and made some significant gains. It helped having a faster mentor to train and race with, but I still struggled to race in some situations. Since December 2014, I've been coached by Jason, and I've had a completely different experience. 

Having a coach behind you makes all the difference. I think runners are inherently unable to coach themselves. As a competitive runner, you have to detach yourself from pain, discomfort, and reason. You need to ignore physical fatigue in order to get through a workout, or conquer a race. You need to believe that you're capable of what seems impossible. Because of this mental state, it's difficult to logically step back and train yourself. Many runners end up overtrained or undertrained, and doubting their own ability. Only having yourself as a guide will inevitably limit your potential.

The most prevalent example of this principle is the story behind the first sub-4 minute mile. Going into 1954, John Landy was arguably the best miler. Over a period of 2 years, he ran the mile in 4 minutes and 2 seconds on six occasions. After Landy's sixth repeat performance in December, 1953, he famously said:
"Frankly, I think the 4 minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it's like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the 4-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don't think I can."
Five months later, on a rainy day in Britain, Roger Bannister arrived at the track for his sub-4 minute attempt, and told his coach he wasn't going to run. His coach, Franz Stampfl, replied by telling Bannister that he could run a 3:56 mile, and if he had the chance and didn't take it, he would regret if for the rest of his life. Bannister ran 3:59.4 that day. And in doing so, he fulfilled Landy's prophecy (at least partially). 46 days later, John Landy ran the mile in 3:58.0, a new world record. Landy's record was nothing short of incredible, but he needed someone to break down the "brick wall" first. If you haven't already guessed, Landy was self-coached. As it seems, all he needed was a coach to tell him he could. But instead, Landy needed Bannister to prove it was possible.
A coach is uniquely able to provide an athlete with the confidence to achieve the impossible. Coaches understand you, have been there for your training, and have an expertise above your level. Without a coach, you're reduced to your own expectations, and self-prophesied beliefs. Getting coached by Jason has done this for me. It's allowed me smash personal records and re-establish my perception of my potential. I'm more excited to see that potential actualized.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014 JFK 50 Mile Recap

Expedited Race Report
On November 22nd, I ran the JFK 50 Mile, the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the country. I finished in 6 hours and 15 minutes for 6th place. Being my ultra debut, I learned a ton, and was pleased with the result. Here's how I felt throughout the race; alright, then good, then really good, then alright again, then bad, then really bad, then even worse, and then relief it was over.
A photo posted by Pat Casterline (@patcasterline) on

Extended Race Report
It seemed to be the natural progression, I just started moving up to longer distances sooner than most. I've always gotten comparatively better as I've stepped up in race distances, and I love mountain-trail running. It seemed obvious that my next step would be to try my legs in an ultra.
Photo Credit: Joseph Stretanski
Photo Credit: Joseph Stretanski
As for why I ran the JFK 50 mile; it's a dog's breakfast of rolling-road-hills, rocky-single-track, switch-backs, and a flat-river-trail. Add in the time of year, competitive field, and incredible history; and you have the pinnacle of east coast ultrarunning. The race stages many incredible stories, including a shocking amount of active military and veterans, all acknowledged and identified in the pre-race briefing. I was humbled to be the among the measly few non-military. I happily joined the pack as one story among one-thousand, about to run a previously-unfathomable distance.
My incredible pit-crew.
The start of the race was a cold, 20° F, when the gun went off at 7:00am. I warmed up after a few miles, running with a pack of 8-10 guys. After 3 miles on the road, and 3 more on paved trail, before the course narrows into single-track trail. I hung around the lead pack through mile 9, and in hindsight, it was too early to be pushing the pace to stay with them. This was remedied by having to make a bathroom stop at the mile 9 aid station, where I dropped into 10th place. Exactly what I needed. I stopped pushing myself to stay with the leaders through the toughest terrain. Over the next 6 miles of rocky single-track, I relaxed and paced by feel. My stomach also started cooperating, and I ate 4 gels over the next 6 miles. I also began passing the 5am (2-hour early) starters, and was grateful for company and good vibes.
After easing down the switchbacks, I arrived at the first spectator point, and grabbed a gel-loaded-bottle from Mom. Time for Stage-2; the Potomac River Trail Marathon. Feeling antsy and tired of 10th place, I ran the next 6 miles around 6:30/mi. During that time I caught up to, then ran with, Ryan Aschbrenner (who finished 2nd) for a few miles, then passed 2 people before I let him go. At the mile 27 aid station, I was surprised to hear  I was in 7th place, (Jim Sweeney had pulled-over), and shortly after, I passed James Bonnett (both AdiUltra Team members were having rough days).

Soon after mile 27, I realized that I pushed the pace too far. I didn't have the patience for an ultra. As said by Don Draper; "There are snakes that go months without eating. And then they finally catch something, but they're so hungry that they suffocate while they're eating." I had done relatively no racing over the summer/fall, and mostly trained alone. I was hungry for a breakthrough performance, but I lacked the patience to see it thorough. That being said, my mistake in pacing was still minor. I didn't hit the wall, and I consciously slowed down before my legs took over the process.
The wheels started coming off around mile 30, setting myself up for a painful last-20-miles. I stopped feeling like I was holding myself back, and then 7:00 miles were max-effort, then 7:15, then 7:30, and so on. Fortunately, I spent most of the race forcing down fluids and gels, and I avoided any major downs. Unlike most training runs, my stomach wanted nothing to do with food or water, and I had to keep forcing the issue.
As I continued up the Patomic River, I focused on staying efficient. Miles 35-42 felt frustratingly long and lonely. The scenery along the Potomac quickly became redundant, and I couldn't wait to get off the trail, and I became obsessed with getting to the road. I found myself incrementally obsessing over the next point (or landmark) throughout the race. You can't fathom 15 more miles on legs that have run 35. But you can imagine 7 more miles, then 4, and then 4 more. You quickly learn to trick your mind into concentrating on next point, before telling it about the next one. I finally made it to mile 42, just 4 more miles now. Soon after, I was greeted, or rather, blindsided, by the short-but-steep hill at the start of the road. I walked for the first time in the race.
A photo posted by Pat Casterline (@patcasterline) on
The last miles on the road were a blurred with pain. My legs were refusing to cooperate, and I was inconsolably miserable. I was grateful to see my family at mile 46, but I've never felt so distant from them. I barely acknowledged my Mom as she handed me a bottle of flat soda. Subconsciously, I refused to accept their sympathy, or situation as humans, like myself, but not charged with running 4 more miles after 46. I was barely clinging to motion and holding back floodgates. My task was so mentally daunting, that my biggest fear was distraction. It felt like one wrong thought could spiral into dropping out of the race. I desperately clung to the fractions of miles clicking away on my watch, and fought to stay around 8:00 pace. Then with 3 miles to go, my watch died, along with my anchor to reality and forward progress. I checked for anyone in sight behind me, and kept moving, changing my focus to each subsequent cone-course marker. The last aid station and other signs of nearing the finish kept me sane. I finished in 6 hours and 15 minutes. 
I was pleased, but not satisfied with 6:15. I'm not sure how soon, but I'll be back to break 6 hours. Major props to Jim Walmsley (also 24 years old), who ran 5:56 for the win (and debut). I also got to hang with Bobby Longnecker (4th place) and Cole Crosby (5th place) after the race. It was awesome meeting (and getting beat by) other young east coasters, and I'm excited for future rematches.

Additional FAQs

Did you mean to run 50 miles or did you get lost?
I did intend to run 50 miles. Standing at the starting line of the JFK 50, I had no idea what was in store. I'm going to miss that feeling of bliss when I start preparing for my next ultra.

Did you cry?

Eh, not too much. I found some new stages of misery in the last 8 miles of the race. My legs were barely responding, my stomach was tied in a knot, and I was mentally inconsolable; the end couldn't come soon enough.

What'd you wear on your feet?
I wore the La Sportiva Helios. The perfect shoe for the JFK 50. Light enough for the fast flat miles (at 8 oz), and with enough protection to cruise over rocks. The Helios also includes a wide last, making it relatively impossible to turn an ankle.
A photo posted by Pat Casterline (@patcasterline) on
What did you eat?
18 gels and 2 liters of water. I mixed it up with chocolate and fruit smoothie Honey Stinger, salted caramel Gu, and chocolate-raspberry Roctane. All things considered, I'm happy that I was able to keep it all down and avoid major stomach trouble. But still, my stomach has seen better days. I was too full around the start, and didn't start eating and drinking until around mile 10. With 6 miles to go, I gave up trying to force down gels and water. The last few miles of the race were powered by a few sips of Coca-Cola at mile 46.

Did you lose all your toenails and nipples?
I only lost one toenail, but that one had it coming before the race. Besides a few extra blisters on my toes, my feet made it through just fine. Either way, I won't be observing the ultrarunner tradition of taking a close-up of my disfigured feet. And if anyone is concerned, my nipples also stayed chafe-free. Body Glide is a lifesaver.

How do you train for a trail-ultra while living in NYC?
I didn't really. For the most part I ignored the trail, consequently suffering race day. Over the past two years I've raced fairly frequently on the mountain/trail. But, leading up to the race, I didn't spend much time off the pavement. I did get to the Appalachian Trail in NJ/PA for a couple runs, including a 31-miler at the Lehigh Gap.

So, you're a crazy Ultrarunner now?
Definitely. Full on addict.

When's your next ultra?

I'm not sure. I'd love to keep racing ultra distances, but I've got some serious work to do on my short distance PRs. I'm going to focus on speed and shorter mountain/trail distances before returning to ultras. Eventually, I'd like to focus all of my efforts on 50-100 milers, but I'm willing to wait, and put in the necessary work to maximize my potential.