A First-Timer’s Perspective Skating the Athens to Atlanta Ultra-Marathon
A2A was last October, and I still can’t quite believe it happened. This post has actually been months in the making because, quite frankly, it’s all a damp blur. What I do remember is that it took place in the middle of a tropical depression, that I was alone the majority of the race, and lying in the fetal position in a puddle screaming in pain at the end. I also remember all of this being entirely worth it and one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.
I don’t remember when I first found out about A2A
…but there was never a time after I discovered it when I wasn’t determined that I would skate the entire distance. With a few running marathons under my belt, some that I had finished under the worst conditions (rain, broken hip, severe gastrointestinal distress (yes, that means exactly what you think it does), I was confident and determined that I could finish. However, I made more than a few mistakes along the way, and I would have very much appreciated a blog post like this to help me out before I crossed that starting line.
5 Things I Did Wrong at A2A…
I didn’t start training as early as most.
I came at it from the perspective of a running marathon, and modified my usual running marathon training schedule to what I thought would be appropriate for skating 87.9 miles. This year, I started training with long skates in April, and will continue this throughout the season. My goal this year is “an A2A every week”–ideally, I’d like to skate at least 90 miles total throughout every week.
I stopped going to social skates
Thinking that the time would be better spent training in Central Park or doing hill repeats instead, because social skates take breaks pretty frequently (TNS even infamously stops for a mid-skate beer halfway). Because of this, I often ended up practicing alone, which meant I didn’t have people around me to encourage me or push my pace. Since I don’t listen to headphones when I skate, I couldn’t go into the same “zone” that I do when I’m running.
Social skates would have been a great way to train as well, because even though they take frequent breaks, that makes for great heart rate training because you get going again quickly in a short burst. This year, I’ve made NYC’s Tuesday Night and Wednesday Night skates a very important part of my training regimen. Additionally, we’ve got a really enthusiastic and strong weekend crew going out on longer, harder, and hillier skates almost every weekend. This has made training way more fun and productive, because you’re not only training alongside your best friends, you’re encouraging each other when you want to quit the most.
I tried skating on new skates
Yes, I know this was dumb. I was coming off of a surprisingly fast time at Duluth and I thought if I could just go a *little faster*, then I could reach my goal time at A2A. This meant upgrading from my Rollerblade Macroblade 90s to Seba Trix2 110s. I got my new setup in Boston from Gabe at Thuro Shop a whopping two weeks before A2A, and slapped some green Superfeet in them to help with the break-in process. It wasn’t that I didn’t break them in properly–I simply wasn’t used to skating on that large of wheels, and my feet were pronating, causing pressure on the inside of my feet and majorly slowing me down.
And I wasn’t just slowing down–I was slowing down during the only part of A2A when it wasn’t raining, making the time I was losing even more precious. I had pre-arranged for Jake, my boyfriend and A2A support person, to bring my Rollerblade Macroblades with him, and had I not done that, I absolutely would not have finished A2A. I changed into them at checkpoint 2 and my feet were happy the rest of the way. This year, I’m practically living in those 110s, so when I’m on the starting line at A2A, my feet will feel at home.
I didn’t stick to my usual nutrition plan
It’s hard for me to avoid snacking when I’m skating, probably because I’m used to carrying a backpack with me and we tend to eat a lot before/after/during social skates. Because I wasn’t as careful with what I was putting into my body, and because skating puts on way more muscle than running, I raced a whopping 10 pounds heavier than my usual racing weight. That might not seem like a lot, but on a 5′ 0″ frame, that’s a quite a bit of extra body weight.
This year, I participated in sober January, which helped kick start losing that extra 10 pounds. I also only skated sporadically for the first couple of months so that I could focus on nutrition, and was able to successfully drop that extra 10 pounds. Now that I’m in the height of training season, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to lose 5 more to be extra light for this year’s A2A. Whenever I approach a meal, I remember Des Linden, winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon’s, words in my head, “food for function, not for fun.” This has helped me prioritize what I should be eating and drinking (plenty of veggies, proteins, and healthy fats), and say no to things that add nothing to my training plan (alcohol, white carbs, and fried foods).
I didn’t think about cramps
There’s nothing like rounding that corner to see the “finish” sign and a bunch of your cheering friends. I had been on my skates for over NINE hours at that point, so the first thing I did was stumble over to a chair where I was offered pickle juice (which helps with muscle cramping). “Pickle juice?!” I thought, turning it down while reaching for a bag of Cheetos (again with the poor nutrition).
I didn’t get far, because just about then my entire body turned into one giant, radiating muscle cramp. I shot out of that comfy chair, crying out in pain, straight into a puddle, in the fetal position–no dignity left. Eventually I got my Cheetos, but only after a hefty helping of pickle juice. I couldn’t even take off my own skates! This year, I’ll be incorporating some sort of muscle-cramping deterrent into both my training and race day nutrition.
Now onto the 5 things I did right at A2A…
I asked anyone who had ever done it before questions about literally everything
I asked, asked, and then asked again, “What did you do for nutrition?” “Are the hills really as bad as everyone says?” “Ok but how much hardware should I carry with me?” “What if it rains?” And I asked these questions again and again, multiple times, to anyone who would answer me. I was a sponge soaking up knowledge; I even had a notepad in my phone dedicated to writing down advice people gave me. In addition to learning valuable training and nutrition information, I also learned about the logistics of getting to and from the starting point.
I had a backup plan
There are six checkpoints along the A2A route where you can get refreshments, stock up on water, or simply sit down and rest your feet. If you’re wanting a specific snack, think you might need some extra hardware or a fresh pair of socks, you can put these things into a Ziploc bag and drop them into a bin for each checkpoint at the starting line. In addition to my Ziploc bags, I also had Jake bring exact copies of each bag to each checkpoint. That way, if something got lost, or if Jake got stuck in traffic and didn’t make it to a checkpoint, one of the two options was likely to work out.
One of my most genius moves was having Jake stash away an extra pair of skates in his car, so when my feet were shot (see mistake #3 above), all I had to do was text him so he quickly had them ready to go when I needed them the most. In addition to snacks and extra skates, I also had extra wheels with bearings in them, extra tools, and direction cards. There are over 100 turns at A2A, and they’re marked, but it’s helpful to have things written down so you can reference street signs in case you miss a marking. You also can’t rely on your phone, because it might die, and in my case, it was so rainy that I wasn’t able to really use the touch screen anyways.
I got a good night’s sleep two nights before
This is something I picked up from my running marathon days. The first marathon I ever ran, the New York City Marathon, I didn’t get hardly any sleep the night before because I was so nervous about the next day and worried about sleeping through my alarm. I remember curling up on a trash bag next to the Dunkin’ Donuts tent in the starting village trying to catch up on some extra z’s before my wave was called, which was about as productive as you can imagine.
Before my next race, I read somewhere that you probably can’t count on getting a good night’s sleep the night before a race, and instead you should opt for a solid 8-10 hours TWO nights before your race. I’ve employed this practice ever since and it has never failed me. I wake up well-rested for my race, no matter how many pre-race jitters I was up late with the night before.
I had experienced less-than-ideal conditions before Athens to Atlanta
My first running marathon in the rain was the Newport Marathon in October of 2016. It absolutely sucked, especially since I specifically chose to run Newport because it was supposed to be such a beautiful course. I hadn’t had much practice actually skating in the rain, and I even declared at one point that if it was raining, I wouldn’t do A2A.
That changed about a month before in Duluth (see my post on that here), when the conditions were rainy and wet. I was concerned about participating in the rain, but I hadn’t taken a flight, rented a car, and paid an entrance fee not to race. So when conditions were looking rough for A2A, I had the advantage of knowing what I could expect. If you’re a first-timer considering A2A, I would highly recommend getting some marathons under your belt first, because it’ll give you a much better idea of what to expect, and how to handle difficulties that might arise on race day.
I didn’t let anyone tell me I couldn’t do it
And they tried to, believe me. It was especially upsetting when one of my coaches, someone I trusted and looked up to, told me I wouldn’t be able to finish Athens to Atlanta. I appreciated his concern and he did have several valid points, like that I would probably be alone for most of the race (I was), and I would be up against a lot of traffic because the roads weren’t closed (also true). But I knew I could finish, and as a street skater, I was used to dodging traffic, bumpy pavement, and less-than-ideal racing conditions. He told me I wouldn’t be able to finish in less than 10 hours, and I finished in 9 hours and 14 minutes, alone, in the middle of a hurricane, securing a third-place overall finish, thank you very much.
I chose not to let his words get to me, although there were times when I felt incredibly defeated by them. My advice to people considering A2A for the first time is to listen to yourself, your body, and your training. Only you know if you have the mental and physical fortitude to complete a challenge like this. And there are six checkpoints, so if you need to bail in the name of safety, there’s absolutely no shame in it. But if you at least try, you just might be quite surprised at what you can accomplish.
I’m not an expert at A2A by any means (yet), and I’m sure I’ll be writing a similar article next year on what I did wrong at A2A 2018. But what I can tell you is that A2A is one of the accomplishments of which I am the most proud. Some people view it as a race, but as Henry Zuver, its longtime organizer, will tell you, it’s a road skate. You can focus as much or as little as you want on your time. If you think you can do the entire distance, go for it!
The worst that will happen is you end up stopping at a checkpoint. If you’re not ready for 87.9 miles, there are 49 and 38-mile distances to get you started. This is the longest running road skate in the US and the longest in terms of distance, so your participation cements your place as a part of a skating legend. I hope to see you all there skating alongside me this year!
If you’re thinking about going to Atlanta to skate A2A, go to a2a.net and check out the facebook group Athens to Atlanta Road Skate Chat for everything from places to stay, skating advice, and rides to/from Athens. You should also read the article “Athens to Atlanta 87-Mile Ultramarathon Recap by Parker Bugg“.
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