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JFK 50m Race Report

Published Nov 27, 2013

I returned to the JFK 50 Mile race following a valuable learning experience on the course two years ago. In 2011, I signed up for JFK as an ultra-marathon rookie, and then immediately became sidelined by injury for two and a half months, unable to run a step. I began easing back into light running just three weeks before JFK, doing light running with walking breaks, following advice from my PT. I just didn’t make it a big point to tell him about this 50 mile run I had coming up. I ended up making the trip to Boonsboro with low expectations, which I certainly met. On that November day two years ago, I felt strong until the marathon mark, and then bonked like never before, and ended up shuffling through the second half of the race to a 7:13 finish.

While that was a humbling experience, I learned a lot about the course, and about ultras in general. I knew I wanted to try the 50 mile distance again sometime when I was better prepared, and I was so impressed by all aspects of the JFK race that I knew I’d be coming back the next time I was ready to take on the 50 mile challenge.

Well, now it’s 2013 and I survived a successful summer and fall of training. I showed up in western Maryland a day and a half before the race feeling rested and much more confident than last time. I got in six hours of quality sleep on the eve of the race, and easily awoke at 4:45 am. I greeted the day experiencing dizziness and a pounding headache, as if I’d guzzled a half gallon of cheap red wine the night before (I didn’t). Not how I’d hoped to start this day, after months of training, but I tried sticking to the script. I ate a banana and an English muffin for breakfast, got dressed, and soon we were on our way to the start. I asked Kelly to drive, as I was feeling a bit queasy. This feeling didn’t exactly abate during the ride along hilly country roads, and before I knew it we were arriving in Boonsboro. I bolted out of the car and quickly lost my breakfast. Great … puking before the race has even begun. I have no clue where this sudden, violent illness came from, but I was worried that I was in for another long, painful day at JFK.  

I regrouped, stayed calm, and relaxed as I walked to the start. I was feeling remarkably better already, with hopes that I might recover in time. At the last minute, I pulled off my warmup jacket and pants, and stepped into place one row back from the starting line. It was a cool, breezy morning, and I was wearing shorts, short sleeves and gloves. Almost everyone else was wearing long sleeves or arm warmers, but I felt comfortable as the air didn’t have enough of a chill to affect me.  

And then we were off at 7 am sharp. Since I’m still fairly new at ultras, I can’t wrap my head around the thought of running 50 miles. I have to break it down into fathomable chunks. The first 15.5 miles would be my warm-up, as it includes significant climbing on paved roads, and about 12 miles of rocky terrain on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Next, the course reaches the C&O Canal Towpath for a flat marathon (26.3 miles to be exact). That would be the crux of my race. Then the final 8.4 miles are on hilly paved roads, and I hoped to still have enough left to be competitive there. I settled into a comfortable pace, remembering that I was just beginning my 15.5 mile warm-up (never mind that I would normally consider 15.5 miles to be a long run by itself). As we ran along the initial 2.5 mile highway section, I watched a large throng of runners pull away further into the lead than I had hoped. I kept to a comfortable pace, which turned out to be about 7:30/mile (slower than I had hoped). 

But I was reassured to be running alongside Emily Harrison, the favorite to win the women’s race. Her 2:32 marathon PR is a couple of minutes faster than my PR, and plus she’s an established ultra runner. She knows what she’s doing, and so if the pace is good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. Emily and I and another guy worked our way up a long climb before we reached the AT.   The other guy asked some questions about the 50 mile distance, and about this course, as it was his first time. I dispensed some advice, and he seemed silly enough to listen. One of his questions was whether there would be any more climbs like the one we were in the middle of. I explained that there would be ups and downs, but nothing else quite this severe. Oops. We then reached the AT, ran along single-track trail for a bit, and then onto a single lane paved road that went straight uphill seemingly forever as it gained the ridge crest that we would be following for the next ten miles. Now that was a steep grind that I somehow didn’t remember from 2011. A couple of runners ahead were even walking brief parts of it. I ran the whole thing, but I had a 9:00+ mile split, which I didn’t expect. That guy must have been cursing me after I promised that the worst of the climbing was done. But I later saw that he ended up in the top 25, which seems like a promising debut. 
 
During the early miles on trail, I gradually moved past about a half-dozen runners, and soon found myself all alone. I took in the solitude, enjoying a pleasant run through some nice woods on a quiet morning. At one point, a line of deer darted across the trail about 50 meters in front of me. So peaceful. This is exactly what I hoped for, as I wanted to float along the AT and expend as little energy as possible. Some parts were flat and easily runable, while other parts were littered with jagged, leaf-covered rocks that required constant attention and fancy footwork. At around 7 miles I was surprised to pass Michael Wardian, who had suddenly slowed. I tried to figure out if he was planning on dropping out. But a couple of miles later, as I descended into Gathland Gap aid station, I was not surprised to see Michael bounding out of nowhere, making his way down the steep rocky trail behind me. I stepped aside and waved him by. He said “thanks, bro”, and that’s the last I saw of him. 
 
After the aid station, there were more miles of rocky trail. My trail miles were ranging from the low seven minute range to the mid-eights, depending on how rocky, rooty, and steep the terrain was. By this point, I was also passing a LOT of early starters, who began the race at 5am. Soon I reached the steep descent off the ridge and toward the Potomac River. The AT makes a series of switchbacks over this longish, moderately technical and steep descent. I took it easy on this downhill, not wanting to wreck and end my race trying to save a few seconds. Two guys were eager to get by me, and I told them to pass me if they were “good at this stuff”. They opened up a big gap on me during the descent, but I continued taking it easy. My last two miles on the AT were each above 9 minutes as I essentially did a fast downhill hike.

Once off the trail, I was greeted by a huge crowd. This is the one place on the course where you momentarily feel like a rock star. I ran through a narrow corridor between screaming fans, and saw Kelly among the pandemonium. She told me that I was in 13th place, and I felt like that was a good place to be. I put on my game face for the start of the marathon on the flat tow path. It was time for the real racing to begin.

Almost everyone dreads the 26.3 miles on the tow path, but I love it. I’m here to race, and this long run on a flat path is a golden opportunity to do just that. I settled into a 7:00 mile pace, which I knew I could sustain ad infinitum. Over the next couple of miles I passed the two guys who blew by me on the switchback descent, and I kept pushing onward. After a while, I passed an early starter who confirmed that I was in 11th place. As an afterthought, he said that 10th place was ten minutes ahead, which gave me pause. I was hoping it would be closer, but I didn’t panic and stuck to the game plan. I’m learning that these races require infinite patience, and I trusted that good things would happen if I stuck to this comfortable pace. As a marathon runner, I’m not accustomed to running 7 minute miles while racing, but this is an ultra, and 7 minute miles are the new 6 minute miles.

As the miles passed, I caught a glimpse of a runner ahead who didn’t appear to be an early starter. I gradually gained ground and eventually overtook him. I was excited to crack the top ten, but the race was only half over, so it was not a time to get too excited. So this is pretty much how it went. I kept coasting along at my comfortable pace, and kept peering far ahead along the tow path hoping to catch sight of another runner ahead. Once every few miles I would pick up another place, moving further into the top ten. I passed a couple of runners who appeared to be having as tough of a day as I was having back in 2011.  I braced myself for the worst as I crossed the 30 mile mark. I recall the deep despair I experienced during the awful 30-40 mile section two years ago. Back then, I was drowning my sorrow with Coca-Cola at every aid station. I just slogged along the intervening trail sections, counting down the miles until I could lose myself in another succulent three ounces of sugary, caffeinated bliss, losing touch with my aches and pains for a few precious seconds.
 
What a difference two years can make. As I rolled through the dreaded “thirties”, my only despair was worrying about keeping my mile splits from drifting up to 7:10 between miles 35 and 40. I reached the mile 38 aid station in 7th place, and felt confident about the 12 miles that lay ahead; I recall that two years ago mile 38 was the lowest of the low points. As I neared the mile 42 aid station, I began slowly gaining on yet another runner (Daven Oskvig), and once at the aid station I was told that I was suddenly in 6th place. Someone had dropped out! (Rob Krar, as I later learned.) I covered the 26.3 mile tow path section in 3:04, about 25 to 30 minutes slower than I could have raced it all out that day.

I blew through the aid station, and at this point the course loops back as it returns to paved roads, just before it reaches the dreaded long hill. There is a view back toward the aid station through the trees, and I could see another runner coming in. I couldn’t see who it was, but clearly he was gaining ground on me. I later learned that it was Mike Bialick, with 5K/10K PRs of 14:30 and 30:30. Definitely not someone you’d want a minute behind you with eight miles to go. Luckily, I didn’t know this, and just focused on trying to catch up to Daven ahead of me. I slogged up the steep hill as we began the final 8.4 mile road section, and was glad to run up the long climb this time, after being reduced to a walk two years ago. I caught up to Daven about a mile later,  and he offered kind words of encouragement. I now had 5th place to myself, and I guessed (correctly) that 4th place was well out of reach. In fact, 4th place finisher Iain Ridgeway was probably two miles ahead of me by this point. I continued hammering away the miles slightly above or below 7 minutes each, not realizing that two challengers (Mike Bialick and Ken Janosko) were lurking not far behind.

I kept it up, feeling immense relief each time I reached a mile marker. Before I knew it, I was at the 1 mile to go marker. I didn’t look back for fear of telegraphing a sign of weakness to anyone who might be in pursuit, and instead began kicking it in. I decided that anyone who wanted to challenge me would have to work at it a bit. Finally, the finish came into view, and I charged ahead, closing with a 6:28 50th mile. I might have been good for about 6 minutes flat if I needed to defend 5th place. Who knows if that would have been good enough, but it was nice knowing that I still had plenty in reserve. I hit the finish line in 6:13:25, improving 1 hour and 8 seconds over my time from 2011.

It is rare that I finish a race feeling this content with how things went. I had a plan to warm up for 15.5 miles, run a marathon at a steady, sustainable effort, and have enough left in the tank for a hilly 8.4 miles after that. My race unfolded exactly according to plan, which, for me, is a rare accomplishment in itself. I maintained enough pacing discipline so that I never felt close to hitting a wall. And now I feel like I have raced 50 miles, since I didn’t come away with that feeling after my long, painful grind to the finish in 2011. It felt good proving to myself that I could race effectively at this distance, as I had serious questions about whether I could. The 50 mile distance is an interesting challenge, and I’ll be trying it again to see if I can continue pushing my boundaries. Maybe I can open it up a bit more and not constrain myself to 7 minute pace. I would most definitely return to run JFK, as I was once again proud to take part in such a well-organized event. Thanks Mike Spinnler for once again making this race such an overwhelming success!

NUTRITION
I didn’t do anything differently from what I’d do in a marathon. I had a sleeve of black cherry shot bloks over the course of the AT section, and a sleeve of margarita shot bloks between miles 30 and 40. I ate three vanilla Gu packs, one espresso Gu pack, and two cinnamon apple-flavored gel packs, which were an all-natural alternative to Gu. I didn’t carry any fluids, instead just relying on the aid stations. I drank a cup of water at each station, and starting at about halfway I drank a cup of Poweraid in addition to water. I kept my aid station stops as minimal as possible, barely breaking stride as I grabbed fluids. I never even looked at all the food that was spread out, but I had heard good things about it. Oh, and I never had to drown my sorrow in Coke this time!

MILE SPLITS
I missed the first few tenths of a mile, since I was still fumbling with my watch when the gun went off, and then I didn’t get the timer started until things opened up a bit and I could play with my watch while running. The race course is 50 miles and change, so I still ended up with 50 mile splits:

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1 – 7:29 Road
2 – 7:56 Road
3 – 7:09 Road, Start of AT
4 – 7:56 
5 – 9:21 Long, steep climb on paved road
6 – 7:53 Back to AT
7 – 7:51
8 – 7:15
9 – 7:58
10 – 7:24
11 – 7:53
12 – 8:30
13 – 8:04
14 – 9:00 Technical Section of AT 
15 – 9:24   Technical Descent on AT
16 – 6:55   Start of Tow Path
17 – 6:59
18 – 6:59
19 – 6:58
20 – 6:53
21 – 6:56
22 – 6:51
23 – 7:25 Restroom Stop
24 – 6:46
25 – 6:58
26 – 6:50
27 – 7:12
28 – 6:53
29 – 6:57
30 – 6:57
31 – 6:58
32 – 6:57
33 – 6:45
34 – 6:54
35 – 7:06
36 – 6:44
37 – 6:56
38 – 7:08
39 – 7:23 Short pause at aid station
40 – 7:03
41 – 7:11
42 – 7:50 Steep climb at start of road section
43 – 7:14
44 – 6:54
45 – 7:08
46 – 7:10
47 – 7:11
48 – 6:59
49 – 6:56
50 – 6:28

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