Going into the JFK 50 miler I had only one goal...Finish! Last year I was told by EMS to drop at mile 34.4 due to vision loss, brought on by mild hypothermia. My DNF has been an annoying little monkey on by back for exactly one year.
I kept my goals for JFK realistic. Two weeks earlier I had a tendonitis scare at the Mountain Masochist 50 that caused me to hike the last 10 miles of the course. After the race, I was so sore, I really questioned if I should even attempt JFK. I had no clue if two weeks was enough time to heal from my MMTR wounds, but I knew I was not going to be 100%. Two weeks later, I found myself back in Boonsboro, Maryland for the 47th JFK 50 miler. My body felt well rested, I certainly felt recovered, but I knew it could all change by mile 30. Conservative was going to be he name of the game.
After the usual pre-race gathering the Boonsboro Education Complex, we make the long walk to the start. There's a bank we walk by with a digital thermometer, and every year I compare race morning temperatures. In 2004 it was 32 degrees, 22 in 2005, 19 in 2008, and 43 in 2009. The forecast called for mostly cloudy skies and a high near 60. Today looked to be the most ideal running weather since 2006 (I did not run that year), and the best weather I have ever had for JFK.
At the start I hammed it up with Hal Koerner and Scott Jurek. I had hung out with Hal at the finish of American River earlier this year. I had talked about doing some west coast events, and he shared how he really wanted to return to the east coast. Hal's a pretty fun, low key guy. Scott, on the other hand, was very focused and quiet. He's listed as being 6'2", but towered over everyone at the start. These two guys account for 8 wins at the Western States 100.
At 7am we were off. The lead pack started suprisingly slow, as I managed to hang with them for the first mile. I had no intention of keeping their pace, but wanted to be clear of the mid pack field before hitting the trails. As the road gradually turned up to the mountains, the front runners were long gone. I hit the Appalachian Trail head in 20:59, which was one second faster than last year. I kept telling myself "be conservative". I was running all the climbs, but consciously backing off a bit on the downhills and flats. Slowly, I started picking my way past runners who were unacustomed to running on wet, leaf covered rocks. The AT, is my favorite part of the course.
Gathland (mile 9.5)- I arrived in 1:25. Five minutes slower than last year. I didn't think I was going that much slower, but apparently I was.
Weverton(mile 15.7)- Arrived in 2:28. Seven minutes slower than last year. The conservative pacing was working well, but I was a little concerned that I was too slow getting to Weverton. I had taken much of the downhill off the AT slow. I ran behind a group of four guys, and fought off the urge to pass them. I knew I had to save the legs for the 26.3 mile towpath.
The strategy worked liked a charm. My legs felt fresh as I hit the towpath and soaked in the views of the river. I started knocking out some quick miles, and in retrospect was probably going too fast. However, I was pleasantly able to maintain the pace, and pretty soon I was in full cruise control. Before I knew it, I had ran a 3:59 marathon split to start the day, and arrived at Antietam (mile 27.1) in 4:08. This was 2 minutes faster than last year. I ran the first 11.4 miles of towpath 9 minutes faster than last year. Wow! But, was it too fast?
Once again the miles kept clicking away. I hit my 50k split in 4:46. Pretty soon, I was reunited with my "old friend" Snyder's Landing. This was the location of my DNF last year. After a quick in and out of the aid station, I said "So long sucker, you won't stop me this year!" Again, I hit cruise control and powered through a few more miles.
Bonk! Around mile 36, or 37 I starting getting very sleepy. I knew this was a calorie issue, not a sleep issue. I quickly attempted to eat a handful of m&m's that I had stored in my pockets. While chewing the m&m's I realized I didn't have the stomach to swallow them. I spit most of them out, and took a swig of gatorade to force down the rest. Red alert! Houston we have a problem! I arrived at the aid station at mile 38.5 and picked up my pacer Janet. I was desparate to get some calories in, but my stomach was in full on barf mode. A cup of coke was all I could muster, and we made our slow walk down the remaining three miles of towpath. I was now getting passed regularly by many runners, including Reston Runners teamates Dennis Kelleher and Doug Berlin. Both would finish in a quality time of 8:06.
I tried the occasional jog, but was quickly forced into a speed walk. I knew if I ran the last 12 miles in 2 hours, I could break 8 hours by about 4-5 minutes. The bubbling and churning in my belly told me that breaking 8 hours would have to wait another day. The last leg of the race was ugly. Janet was a great pacer, and if anything we were having a good time. Here and there I would run(and run hard) sections of the road. The legs felt great, the stomach not so much. I talked to some of the cows about the benefits of compression socks. No I wasn't loopy, just trying to find humor in this moment of discomfort. At mile 45, I was passed by my friend Frank Probst. At age 66, Frank ran an astounding 8:18.
At this point, I wasn't sure if I was going to break 10 hours. I had been walking for a couple of hours now. My JFK personal best was 9:31, and it didn't seem I would top that. I kept expecting to see more and more runners from my Reston Runners team pass me. I would look behind me for those bright yellow Reston Runners shirts, but saw nothing. They must be really struggling I thought to myself. The weather was so perfect, I couldn't imagine why everyone was running so much slower?
With 2 miles to go, I had a revelation. I was doing my math all WRONG! For whatever brain fart reason, I kept thinking 4pm was a 10 hour finish, but it was a 9 hour finish. I had only been looking at the minutes on my watch, not the hours. I was going to finish closer to 8:30! Janet and I picked up the pace, again with nausea still being an issue, and rounded out the last two miles. We made the turn, and with the finish in sight, I began to pick up the pace. I was all smiles crossing the finish in 8:32. I had walked almost ALL of the final 12 miles, and finished in 8:32! Was I a little upset at not breaking 8 hours? Maybe a little. However, the monkey was finally off my back, and my 2008 DNF was redeemed. I thank my friend Janet for pacing me during those nasty, stomach sick, 12 miles. It was great to have company during the lowest point of my day. I thank all the race volunteers, but especially my Reston Runners team for making JFK a special event.
Final Thoughts: This year's field was stacked! I ran about 40-50 places behind last year, eventhough I ran faster splits. Last year one woman broke 8 hours, this year I believe 10 women did. Two woman ran under seven hours. Five men ran times that would have won prior races. Four of them broke 6 hours. Perfect weather definitely aided the blazing times.
Other performances that stood out:
Dee Dee Loughran- 8:37 PR, and she's over 50!
Frank Probst- 8:18 at 66
Anna Bradford- 9:29, huge overdue PR
Jim Ashworth- 8:37, another overdue PR
Mike Vance- 6:59. He's a 2:40 marathoner who ran his first ultra
Jack Tozier- finished after a disappointing DNF last year at mile 44
Mary Klaff- 9:22
Dennis and Doug- 8:06, both may have even broken 8 hours
ClosingOn November 20, 2004 I finished the JFK 50 miler in 10 hours 39 minutes. It was a cold, wet, and dark trudge to the finish. My longest run prior to that day was six miles. Exactly five years later, my 50 mile personal best is a 7:54, and I finished JFK over two hours faster (on a rough day). Five years ago, I could barely walk after running 50 miles. In 2009, I felt like a million bucks.
We all had a starting point. We can never forget where we started. Five years ago, I went from being a casual 3 mile jogger to a 50 mile ultramarathon runner..in one day.