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The AYD Challenger Club

The plan was simple. I would start at the end of the pack and I would go out nice and easy, trying not to get caught up in the rush of excitement. I would focus on the ground, and not worry about the many runners that were starting in front of me. I would run my own race; and aim to cover about 4 to 5 miles each hour for roughly 11 hours. I wanted to finish the 50 miles in under 12 hours.

I had run a 50K race two years before, and finished with a respectable time; and did so a few days after Hurricane Sandy left a few inches of rain on the course. My feet slid out from under me after each step, and I found myself wading through knee deep water at some points on the trail. So naturally I thought I could handle another 19 miles in solid conditions. Boy was I wrong.

My race started out great. I kept a nice slow pace and kept to my schedule. The course had us running out 15 miles, run a 7-mile loop three times, and then 14 miles back to the Start/Finish line. I covered the first 15 miles in a little over 3 hours. I felt great. I was well fed and well hydrated. I walked the hills and jogged the straightaways. Then came the first of three 7-mile loops. To say I hit a wall was an understatement. At the end of the first loop, I was done. I wanted nothing more to do with the run. My legs were killing me. Runners were flying by me on both sides. And my hands were swelling up (Which caused me to see a medic who recommended I run with my hands above my head. This worked but it was incredibly awkward). As I finished the first loop and entered the aid station for some food and drink, I seriously contemplated quitting. I had 28 miles left and I felt miserable.

After a few minutes of pondering quitting and yelling at myself for my lack of training (more on that later), I pulled out my phone and called my wife. She answered the phone with a voice of excitement. She was on speaker with our 5-year-old son and they were excited for an update. The excitement quickly subsided as she could feel my pain coming through the phone. I explained to her my condition and waited for her to tell me to quit. I didn't tell her I wanted to quit...I wanted her to tell me to quit. I felt that would be easier. But those words never came out of her mouth. Instead, she asked me how long until the next aid station. I told her 3 miles and she told me that I should get to that aid station, call her again, and then let her know if I still wanted to quit. And that's exactly what I did. When I got to that aid station, I felt as if I accomplished a small goal. Mentally, that was a big win for me.

We repeated that process for the next over the next 25 miles. I'd get to an aid station, call her, and we'd chat for a minute or two. Soon enough, the quick chats became my lifeline. The pain never went away. In fact, it intensified. As miles piled up, I could barely run for more than 20 yards at a time. My legs throbbed and every step was excruciating. It also didn't help that I had someone from the race staff following me on his bike telling me to hurry up or I would DNF (Did Not Finish). I did take some comfort knowing I wasn't the only one suffering. I passed by one individual who was sitting on a log crying. And then there was a young woman who was carrying her male friend (yes, you read that right).

For all the physical pain I was experiencing, mentally, I was getting stronger. Those quick chats with my wife were what ended up getting me through those 50 miles (granted as a DNF because I didn't finish within the allowed time). Instead of looking for the finish line that was several miles away, I thought of each aid station as being the finish line. Then I would speak with my wife and son, share some laughs, and be on my way. I was getting physically beat down with every step but was being strengthened with each phone call.

I remember the straightaway to the finish line. It was a few hundred yards and I could clearly see my wife and son waiting for me. It was a weird sight as hardly anyone else was around. The race staff was cleaning everything up and outside a few other stragglers, you never would have known that hundreds of people spent the day there running various race distances. When I spotted my family, I picked up my pace, moving faster than I had all day. I remember feeling a jolt of energy and a release of pain throughout my body. It was as if the pain completely melted away from my body. But, that was short lived. I crossed the finish line, gave them hugs and almost immediately collapsed. My legs were gone. The pain quickly came back. But, it didn't matter. I finished the race. I did something I didn't think I would have been able to do just a few hours back. Mentally, I felt great!

Lessons Learned

The one hour ride home left me plenty of time to think about what had just happened. I was mostly happy with what I had just achieved. I know that tens of thousands of people complete ultra-marathons each year; but completing a 50-miler was a first for me. It was something I never thought I could do just a year back. I learned that I could push myself beyond what I thought were my limits. I learned the POWER of a support team and how unbelievably beneficial it is to have people by your side as you encounter challenges. But, I was disappointed in what I did during the three months leading up to the race.

My training, much like the race, started out real well. Unfortunately, I strayed too far from my training plan as I got closer to the race. My goal was to get in two training runs of 30+ miles. That never happened. When I did attempt to get one in about 6 weeks before the race, I lasted 20 miles before my right foot began throbbing with pain. I couldn't run for the next two weeks. Three weeks prior to the race, we took a family trip to VA Beach. I spent the first three days laid out on the couch, sick with a stomach bug. Seven more days without running. So, I went into the race severely unprepared. Even though I was happy with the fact that I fought through the pain for 13 hours, I was mad at myself for not preparing properly. The pain, to a point, was self-inflicted due to my failure to prepare. It's been something that has bothered me for quite some time. What would have been the end result if I would have trained properly?

I've decided to give the 50 mile race another shot. On November 14th, I will be participating in the Stone Mill 50 in Gaithersburg, MD. I know I can complete the race; but this time around, the challenge for me is whether I can properly train. The completion of the training program will be my top priority, not completing the race. Yes, I want to complete the race; and I want to do so in less than 11 hours. But I know that the only way to get that done is if I properly train. Many athletes reference "The Process". In many cases, games or events or competitions are won or lost in the preparation. They are not one time 'things'. Winning or success is a process. Failure to embrace the process usually results in defeat.

The Birth of the Challenger Club

Forbes magazine published an article in 2017 titled "5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Will Improve Your Focus." The third reason on their list, Goals Sustain Momentum, is the one that resonates with me the most. Setting, and then achieving a goal can become addictive; regardless of the size of the goal. The more you do it, you begin to seek out more to accomplish. As Forbes mentions, the dopamine that releases in your body after you achieve your goal gives you a sense of pleasure. You then want more of it.

We've established the Challenger Club as a means to get our youth to better understand the power behind goal setting; and the effect that accomplishing a goal can have on future behavior. Though disappointed in my preparation for the 50-miler, completing the race showed me that I can mentally push through so much. We've structured the Challenger Club in a way that also provides support to those that are seeking to accomplish a goal. As I came to realize during my 50 mile run, I needed the support of my wife and son. Without them, I wouldn't have finished. It's easy to quit something when no one knows what we are trying to do. It's easy to quit something when we do not have a support structure in place. Everyone that participates in the Challenger Club will be supporting each other. I will need the other participants and their support just as much as they need mine.

The Challenger Club will have youth participate in weekly discussions where they will learn the positive effects of goal setting. They will also provide a brief update on their status to their goal, identifying progress they've made over the last week as well as any obstacles they have encountered. We will also bring in guest speakers. These will be individuals that have accomplished a goal in the past and/or have fought through obstacles to achieve something great.

We want kids to understand that they can accomplish great things in life; and what better way to help them develop that growth mindset than through a program that encourages them and supports them in their efforts to achieve great things.

Register today for our inaugural Challenger Club!

Jason Aquilante

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