Monday, November 21, 2011

The Race Within a Race- JFK 50 miler 2011

About a month ago I told Anna Bradford, a 16 time JFK finisher with the Reston Runners that I wanted to volunteer for the team this year. I also stated a desire to pace a first time JFK runner, and preferably first time ultra runner. Little did I know what the day would have in store for me.

It was a day of course records, personal worsts, and the dramatic fight for both. It was a day that started off like the most idyllic of autumn days. Perhaps it was the cool chill of the November morning, the sun rays beaming through the swaying trees along the C&O canal, or boisterous crowds of Weverton and Antietam. It was a day that began like so many others, yet finished like none that came before.

It is 5am and breezy 32 degrees. Just about par for the course, as far as JFK 50 weather goes. The 5am wave starts and disappears into the dark, low lit, empty streets of Boonsboro. A couple hours later the 7am runners follow the same path, but are instead greeted by the glow of the early morning sunrise. Today, I am pacing Tom Buck, a runner who is back at JFK after a DNF at mile 27 last year. Not more than a few hours into the day the phone buzzes. Tom dropped about 5 miles into the race due to sever cramping. He was freezing and alone on the Appalachian Trail after all the other 5am runners passed him. He waited a while and had been yelling for help when a nearby boy scout troop finally found him. It appears potential food poisoning was the culprit that knocked Tom out of the race early. Looks like I wouldn't be doing any pacing today. Or would I?

As the day progressed I made my way around the course to help crew and cheer on runners. At mile 15 everyone was still peppy and happy. At mile 27 people were showing signs of fatigue, but were still generally happy and moving well. For most folks that warm fuzzy feeling starts to fade after the 30 mile mark, and when they arrive at mile 38 the day is almost sealed. It was at Taylor's Landing, mile 38, that this story begins.

Anna Bradford is having one of her slowest JFK races ever. She arrives at mile 38 ONE minute under the time cut off. One minute from getting pulled from the vent, and ending the streak. After 16 finishes, a PR of 9:29 in 2009, she is well aware of the situation, and what needs to be done if she wants finish JFK number 17 today. That's when the call comes in. It was like a major league baseball manager calling to the bull pen for the closer to come in and get it done. I was summoned to pace Anna to the finish and help turn the situation around. However, it wasn't just Anna! There was another Reston Runner, Pat Brown, who was flirting dangerously close to the cut off as well. I now had two people to get to the finish. Could they both maintain the pace needed to cover the last 12 miles in 3 hours? Would they fade on the rolling country roads of Williamsport? Would one get dropped as the other got stronger?

We get down to business, and start running. We know we don't have the luxury to walk it in, and any time running is minutes in the bank for the finish. It's a mix of running and walking on the remaining 3 miles of C&O towpath. Pat is looking good and he catches us and eventually passes. The sun is dipping lower on the horizon, and provides one last reminder that we will be running into the night. The sound of the dam signals the end of the notorious towpath, but the beginning of the final 8.2 miles of hilly roads. We grab our reflective vest, make our way onto the road, and begin the final push.

Eight. We pass the first of the mile markers that indicate the final eight miles of the course. For now it's a matter of maxing out the stretches of running between the inclines. I pick out visual markers, like a telephone pole, or a sign, and ask Anna to run until we get to them, and even beyond if she can. Though the effort is draining after 42 miles of running, Anna pushes, and good old Pat Brown is still hanging with us. It's not long before we pick up a few other runners looking for some guidance. We're on in the same boat, all trying to make it under the 12 hour cutoff. As the new "peloton" charges through the remaining six miles we pass dozens of other runners. Many of these folks were in their own fight for the finish, and for some of the 5am runners, and those hurting bad, we understood the sad reality that they would not finish in time. Sometimes the reality of a DNF is motivation enough.

Five miles to go, and 90 minutes to get there. It seems as if we are in a "safe" place to finish, but there's no point in cutting it close. All it takes is a random car accident closing down a road, train crossing, or twisted ankle, and you don't finish in time. I tell Anna, "better to finish 10 minutes under, than 1 minute over. Let's not get too relaxed." We are running impressive stretches of a quarter mile, half mile, and taking walking breaks as a nice "reward" for the tiring effort. I am paying close attention to everyone's breathing, cadence, and foot strikes. These folks are on heavy legs and tired lungs, but they maintain.

Downsville, mile 46. We roll through the last aid station, and Anna pushes hard. Our small pack of women drop back, to which I explained that they are still doing fine and there is no need to hold Anna's pace. We have 75 minutes to go four miles. The dark roads seem endless. The monotony of the pitch black is occasionally disrupted by the blinding glare of oncoming head lights, or the illumination of the road by vehicles behind us. It's us, the road, traffic cones, and silent grit. Is that coffee, or the smell of a skunk? Does anyone else smell the intense odor of pot? Ah, the odiferous scents of an ultra experience.

We're down to 63 minutes to go 3 miles. We keep truckin' to the same old beat. We arrive at the final water stop with 1.5 miles to go. Anna and Pat are tired, but there's no stopping for us. We are running fast, and our peloton is down to just us three Reston Runners. ONE mile to go! I take one more glance back to see how far behind our new friends are, but much to my surprise/delight, they have held Anna's pace and are bringing it. We are a well oiled machine motoring our way to the finish. We make the final right hand turn, push up the last little hill, and lock onto the finish line. Anna and Pat have made one of the most epic late mile turn arounds I have ever seen. They finish with Amie, a first timer who hung with us to the end, and another runner named Jenny. 11 hours and 35 minutes. Anna and Pat made up a 24 minute gap with the time cut off in just 12 miles. Two minutes per mile gained beginning at mile 38. Wow!

In my five years running the JFK 50 miler I have had experiences that have allowed me to see aspects of this race that most runners will not. I have DNF'ed the event after being pulled, and I have completed the run with basically every pace group from 11 hours to 7 hours. Up until this year, the only runner groups I had not run with were the sub 6 and 7 hour elites, and the 11 to 12 hour runners. This year, that all changed.

It was truly an awe inspiring experience to watch the 5am starters and follow the physical and emotional genesis of the back of the pack group. There is so much team work and motivational effort that comes together within this particular population, so it was amazing to see it first hand. I don't think many elites, or middle of the pack runners, realize how much more it takes to run 11-14 hours for fifty miles. The solidarity, determination, and comradery I witnessed was truly humbling. I am so proud of Anna and Pat for really shifting their bodies into an untapped gear when the going got tough. I am also grateful for the ultrarunning community, and groups like the Reston Runners for really being the embodiment of the ultra marathon spirit.

Congrats to all finishers, newbies and old schoolers. You all remind us that even our least stellar runs can produce the most motivational and gutsy performances.

See you next year!

-Mike Bailey (aka "frozen eyeball guy", "marathon costume guy", "lost all the time guy", "Asian guy with long hair guy"...etc)

1 comment:

ultrarunnergirl said...

Loved your account as a back of the pack pacer. It sounds like it was really inspiring to be able to watch and help those runners get to the finish.