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What it is Like to Train and Run your First 50 Miler, by Gina Bartolacci Miller

What it is Like to Train and Run your First 50 Miler, by Gina Bartolacci Miller


The Why


Most people know me as Gina, the girl that runs a lot of marathons. This is a very true statement, and many are aware that I trained hard during 2014 and 2015 in preparation and with hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials in L.A. Unfortunately, running a sub 2 hour and 43 minute did not pan out and that is okay. I am just now finding a bit of solace in this, nearly one year later. I can say now that I am very proud of my 2 hour 45 minute and 17 second marathon.

After missing the eventual cut-off to the trials by 17 seconds, I was pretty disappointed and I guess that is to be expected. I didn’t quite allow myself the recovery my body needed after running four marathons in 2015 in an attempt to qualify. I jumped back into running too quickly for my body’s liking. I ran with a lot of emotion, and neglected my recovery. I developed Peroneal Tendonitis and pain in my feet that ended up keeping me sidelined for nearly 5 months. These five months were very rough. It is quite amazing how much of my daily happiness depended on putting one foot in front of the other and swinging my arms. I cross trained for a majority of the time I was sidelined, but it was very hard knowing my fitness was slipping the more time I was not able to run.

When I finally was able to return to running, I did something I was not able to do during the years that I was training under a coach. I began running in a group. I was enjoying miles again. I wasn’t worried about pace and the stress of missing a mile split. I found that I really just love to go out in the mornings and run the pace that my body feels like going. I also love being able to catch up with friends on the run, and the miles just seem to fly by. I remember vividly the morning that the idea of running a 50 mile race was first put into my head. A friend of mine and I met early one Saturday in June and she mentioned that she was kicking around the idea of completing a 50 miler. I knew that if she was serious and was going to sign up, that I was going to train and run it with her. Just a couple weeks later, we both pulled the trigger and we were signed up for the JFK 50 mile, the oldest ultra-marathon in U.S. history.


I am one of those people that will set a goal (i.e completing my 1st 50 miler) and work really hard towards achieving that goal. The goal of making the Trials didn’t pan out, but I got pretty close. I worked with a coach during my marathoning the last couple years, but when I started running after my injury I was just enjoying running for myself and I decided I would be my own coach for a change. Once I was signed up for the race, and it was real, I found what would be my training plan on Google. The training was really quite simple and I followed the schedule stubbornly to a T.
The most important aspect of the schedule was the back to back “long run sandwiches” that took place on the weekends. Mondays and Fridays were rest days to prepare and recover from the back to back long runs. On these days, I did yoga alongside my husband and core exercises. I really fell in love with yoga and yoga will absolutely be an exercise I continue to do in training. I slowly built up the length of my runs and time on my feet during my weekend runs. I did two 5 hour runs, and several (too many to count) runs between 3 and 4 hours long. My longest run was 38 miles and I felt confident that with all of the time I put on my feet, that I would be ready to tackle 50 in a day.

Running the JFK 50 mile has by far been the toughest running race I have ever completed. I finished the race 6th Overall woman, which is still unfathomable to me at times. Never again, will I go into a trail race or ultra-marathon without more of an idea of the course. I had no idea how technical the first 15 miles on the Appalachian Trail were going to be. Of course, I had looked over the elevation profile and knew there were some serious steep climbs and descents, but I didn’t know how rocky the terrain was going to be and just how much elevation change there would be over such short distances at time. Had I known this going into the race, I would have trained differently and really focused on strength work in addition to my running. Instead, almost all of my training was done on a flat canal towpath, which closely mirrored the last 35 miles of the JFK race.

The A.T. portion of the race was the type of trail that people hike with walking poles, and we were running it. There were several instances where I said to myself: “Who do you think you are? You have no business running in this race right now”. Since time on my feet was more of my focus during my build up, I didn’t incorporate the strength training that I should have, and I was extremely unprepared for this section of the race. When I exited the trail at mile 15, my legs hurt far worse than they did in any marathon and it was hard to swallow that I had 35 miles left to go. With so much elevation change, I felt like my quads were constantly flexed, and by the time I was done the trail, my legs were already completely shot.

I expended a lot of energy during the first 15 miles. I was more tired at mile 15 than I was after my 5 hour long runs and I went through all of the fuel I had on me. I should have had more fuel with me, but I just did not know what was in store. I found that I was competitive with the top women going uphill, but lacked the confidence to go as fast on the downhills. I think this is something that comes with practice and this being my first ultra and real trail run, I now know this is something I definitely need to improve on.

During my solo training runs, I ran with music. Not being able to race with music was challenging. I guess I never thought I would be running alone for as much of the race as I did. There were times where I literally counted my steps from 1 to 8 over and over again, just to distract my mind from the amount of pain my legs were in. I saw my husband at 3 points during the race – at mile 15 exiting the A.T., at mile 27, and at mile 38. He admitted to me after the race that at mile 27, as I whimpered by in agony, that there were doubts in his mind as to whether I would be able to finish.

In my mind, I always knew I would push through my pain and finish – I just was very discouraged about how long it might take me. Going into the race, having trained primarily on relatively flat land and very easily averaging ~8 mins a mile for as many as 38 miles, I naively thought I could average about that for 50 miles. Going into the race, I decided I would be very pleased with a time of 7 hours. I didn’t know, however, that it would take me almost 3 hours to get through the first 15 miles. I remember looking down at my watch at times on the trail and seeing mile splits of 10 minutes and a half minutes, and I was going as fast as I possibly could.

I ended up finishing the race in a time of 7 hours and 43 minutes. I am proud of my fight and will to finish despite how much pain my legs were in. Also, because of how much I did struggle, this is one of the most satisfying finishes of mine to date. I have a lot of take-aways from the race and I can tell you that recovering for an ultra is far different and much longer than any marathon recovery I have ever experienced.

I firmly believe the daily use of cocoa flavanols along the way, helped me. I am very fortunate to have had the arsenal of Cocoa Elite products as part of my training.

Happy Running!!!





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