This is a brief tale of why the hell I decided to run 50 miles. Yeah, in one day. With my feet.
Running 50 miles for me was/is a journey and to understand how/why I decided to do something so irrational, we need to rewind a bit.
By early 2010 I had lived in Baltimore City for nearly 3 years and had never had the need to see a personal physician. However, a bad cold forced me to google ‘family doctor: Baltimore, MD’ and I found Vincenzo Grippo, MD. During my first physical with my new eastern European Doctor, I had a very simple interaction – he diagnosed my illness and prescribed meducation. He then glanced at my charts and asked me a series of questions:
‘Mr. Gowen do you smoke?’
‘Mr. Gowen do you drink?’
Yes, socially (that’s an aggressive socially between you and me).
‘Mr. Gowen do you exercise?’
When I can (never)
‘Mr. Gowen how old are you?’
‘Mr. Gowen you are kind of fat. A young guy like you should be more healthy. You need to exercise, ok?’
And there it was – my new eastern European Doctor, who I had just met, told me I was fat. It wasn’t great to hear, but the reality was accurate – I was fat. I had seen pictures of myself over the last year and thought ‘man, those cameras make me look puffy.’ Turns out it wasn’t the camera but the amount of things I was shoving into my face while doing little to no exercise. I mean, I was working for a food distributor and part of the job is tasting the food, and tasting the food, and tasting the food (French fries are so damn delicious but do we need to try all 30 kinds Jon?). As I left the exam room that day I caught a glimpse of myself in the full length mirror and immediately made a decision to change my lifestyle forever.
So what was I going to do to get in shape? Well anyone that knows my family knows that running is a way of life. Both of my parents are accomplished ultrarunners and distance-running evets have been part of my life since I was a kid in the mid-90’s. So, diet and running, the answers to my problems.
Lets be honest, running isn’t that much fun especially at the beginning. Starting out I could only make it to Henderson’s Wharf (about .5 miles) from my house in Fells Point before I had to stop and rest. Along my waterfront runs I would pick a lamppost just a little farther away each day to run to started setting daily and weekly mileage goal. Pretty soon I was skipping happy hour to get my runs in (ok, just going to the bar a little later) and was knocking out 5-6 miles pretty easily.
The act of alone running didn’t get me to my goals – it was a combo of diet and exercise (imagine that!). Around this same point in time I came across an article on Deadspin.com written by Drew Magary about his recent battle with weight gain.
If anyone needs motivation to make a diet change in your life, give that a read. The style of humor and personal humiliation resonated with me and maybe it will with you too. Really its just basic stuff. Instead of chips – yogurt. Instead of french fries – grapes. Instead of a sandwich – salad. It wasn’t hard and by October 2010 I ran my first half marathon and my second came soon thereafter.
Fast forward to 2014.
My running had progressed. I was coming off a good year in 2013, running my first marathon in October in a respectable 3:20. I began to realize something about running: it made me feel good. The physical act of running certainly didn’t, but the sense of accomplishment that came with achieving goals gave me an undeniable rush. I had completed my goal of running a marathon, so that was next?
SIDEBAR: In November of 1996 my dad competed in a little race called the John F. Kennedy Memorial 50 Mile Race, or JFK. Turns out JFK this is America’s oldest and largest ultramarathon, dating back to 1963. Since then he has finished JFK 16 times and my mom has 7 finishes under her belt. JFK is held annually the Saturday before Thanksgiving and has been a large part of my family’s fall tradition for two decades now. It’s a pretty great event.
JFK 50 finish with my Dad, November 2014
At this point I had found myself spending the past few years of JFK Saturdays ‘pacing’ my dad along the 26 mile section of race still with no desire to complete the race on my own (‘pacing’ is just running along with a competing runner to help them stay motivated and on pace to the finish). However, 2014 was going to be my father’s 15th JFK which would put him in the 750 mile club (50 miles x 15 years, you can do the math) which is a hell of an achievement.
For my old man, his running had recently been plagued by personal health issues and I knew that if I ever wanted to run JFK and finish alongside my father, this would be the year to do it.
SOOO, fast forward to November 22, 2014 at 7:00am in Boonsboro, MD yours truly crosses the start line in the cold (I mean really fucking cold) with my mom, sister, and pregnant wife cheering me on. The race climbs quickly to the Appalachian trail and 14 miles later descends to the C&O Canal where you get the pleasure of running 26.4 miles along the flat and seemingly endless towpath. About 8 miles before the finish the race moves to the road, winding past farms and fields until eventually ending in Williamsport, MD. I won’t bore you with the details of the day, but I will say two things: 1) It was not easy. It was actually really, really hard and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to quit at times. It’s a long, agonizing struggle to get your body to keep moving for 50 miles and the pain starts to take a toll. 2) I will never forget it.
I shared a ‘passing of the JFK torch’ moment with my dad on the towpath section (he started the race at 5am instead of 7 so he was ahead from the beginning). I had the Gowen-family cheering section at the aid stations motivating me to the finish. And I spent hours alone on the trail wondering why I had decided to attempt this shit.
Seriously, somewhere past 35 miles going to the DMV sounds enticing. However, NOTHING in the world has given me the feeling of accomplishment like cresting the hill on Clifton Drive in Williamsport and seeing that finish line.
I had really fucking done it – I ran 50 miles.
I ended up finishing 155 place out of 906 starters in 8 hours and 45 minutes. Now if you’re still reading I need to wrap this up somehow so…… what did I learn from all this? Well, as cliché as this is (and its really cliché but that’s why I’m a sales rep not a writer) running 50 miles taught me that through setting goals, anything is possible (if you read Greg’s post last week about powerlifting you’d see a very similar theme. Wonder why we are friends?). When people hear I ran 50 miles (maybe even you right now), they most often react with ‘you’re crazy, I could never do that’. Well, the crazy part may be partially true but the reality is that most of you/them could, it’s just about motivation and what goals you set out to achieve. Running taught me that goals are a huge driver for my personality and in turn goal setting has helped me succeed in my work and personal life as well.
So here I am in December of 2016 as the proud expectant dad of a second child and reveling in the glory of my 3rd JFK 50 finish 3 weeks ago. Do I love running now? Short answer: no. But it changed my life and there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing on the Saturday before Thanksgiving than slogging through the woods of Washington county chasing another JFK finish line.
The image of the blog is the 2016 JFK finish. It was sleeting with temperatures in the 30s. I’m just that tough.