Overall Time: 7:42:09
Place: 53rd of 863 finishers (921 starters)
AG% : N/A
Weather: 30, overcast, mild wind
Start Time: 7:00am
The JFK 50 Mile race is the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the US. Every November around 1000 people set off from the town of Boonsboro, Maryland on their way to Williamsport via the Potomac River, and this year I was excited to be one of them.
I had two “A” races this year: The Boston Marathon and the JFK 50 Miler. These two races are very different, but I had just as much ambition for each: I wanted a PR for each. Boston wasn’t a guaranteed PR, what with the hills in the latter half. JFK on the other hand would almost be impossible not to PR on. The other 50 milers I’ve finished have been relatively difficult with decent total elevation gain, while the JFK course is just about as easy as they come, so a simple PR wasn’t enough — I wanted to chop off a full hour from my previous 50-mile efforts. My goal for the race was to hit somewhere around a 7:15 finish. If things went incredibly well maybe I’d inch closer to 7:00, and if things were tough I might creep toward 7:30.
As far as most trail runs go, the JFK course is flat. It’s broken up into three major sections. The first 15.5 miles are on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Much of it is rocky, and you gain 1200+ feet of gain in the first 5 miles alone. If there’s a part of the course than can be considered difficult, this is it. Following the AT, there is a 26.3-mile length of towpath along the Potomac River. After the towpath, there is a 8.4-mile section of gently rolling hills on paved road toward the finish in Williamsport.
On race day morning I woke up with my friends who had traveled with me from New York, and we checked to see what the weather would have in store. At 5AM it was only 34 degrees, which wouldn’t be so bad once the sun came up and we were moving along the course. But curiously the air temperature was set to drop down to 30 degrees by the 7AM race start and I noticed a wind would be settling in as well. I was suddenly glad I had brought my arm warmers.
In addition to the arm warmers, I had brought a few basics to have along the course. I had approximately 1000 calories of Endurox drink mix to consume on the course, some candied ginger (~300 calories), and my Orange Mud Hydraquiver backpack to carry it all in. I normally figure that I don’t need calories for anything less than a marathon (26.2 miles), so I’d just need to restock enough to get me through the last 20+ miles of the course.
Carrying 1300 calories, I’d only have to consume a little bit from the aid stations along the way — somewhere around 1000 calories total spread out over the 50 miles.
We drove to the start but not in time for the 6:20AM course briefing that I was told would be unnecessary. Finding parking wasn’t an issue and we had just enough time to use the john and jog to the start about a mile away. I was surprised to see that the start was actually on a main road through the town of Boonsboro. While I knew the race started on paved road, I figured it’d be a small side street or possibly sidewalk. To be honest it was pretty cool to be running right through town for the first half mile.
Typical for just about any race, a lot of very slow people had pushed their way to the front. Before the gun went off, I thought I had placed myself near enough to the front that I wouldn’t be weaving around people. I was wrong. The incredible inconsiderateness of some people will always astound me, and it certainly irritated me that morning as I restrained myself from pushing people out of the way to try and get around them. The roads were fairly wide but with almost 1000 people stampeding along, a slow runner in front can really be annoying and possibly dangerous.
It took a couple of miles to get decent position in the field while we were still on paved roads, and soon we were on the AT. I could tell a lot of runners ahead of me didn’t quite have the trail experience of typical ultramarathoners and saw a face plant within the first 4 miles along with a lot of general inability to navigate through technical rocky sections. I did a bit of passing out of necessity, but tried not to get overzealous considering that I still had 45 miles left to cover. The AT section of the course is interesting. Friends had told me about it and I had built it up in my mind that it was basically a mine field of sharp rocks sadistically hidden by leaves. I was surprised to find out that none of the rocks seemed painful to my feet and that there was also a random two-mile section from 3.5 to 5.5 that was on completely paved roads. That makes a majority of the first 10 kilometers on paved roads and this supposedly was the “hard” bit.
Miles 6 – 15.5 were finally on proper trail, and none of it seemed too difficult. If you’re a road runner who doesn’t feel comfortable on trails, then I could understand how it could be tricky — especially navigating some of the downhill portions. But for those with a bit of experience and not afraid to actually run it wasn’t half bad. In this section there wasn’t a lot of jockeying for position, although I did pass a lot of people on the downhills. I started eating some of the ginger I had brought along, but the air was so cold that I couldn’t feel my fingers and it was a substantial physical and mental exercise trying to open the Ziplock bag. I must have spent a few minutes trying to run while opening the bag, eating, closing the bag, and putting it in the shoulder pocket on my backpack. It wasn’t my most elegant moment, but my fingers just weren’t working in the cold.
Unfortunately I lost a bit of time when I tweaked my right ankle pretty seriously midway on the AT. I had done the same thing back in late September on a run in Prospect Park, and my ankle has never quite healed fully. It was problematic in the Tesla Hertz Run in October and has given me the ocassional issue even on the road. I was nervous that it might mean a DNF for me, and I was really focusing on trying to get off the AT without causing any major damage. At the Tesla Hertz Run, after tweaking my ankle in the same way around mile 20 I continued to do it at least a half dozen times for the next two mile. It was beyond painful and I wasn’t about to repeat that. I gingerly made my way through the rest of the AT and made it down the switchbacks in approximately 2:35. It was 15 minutes slower than I had wanted, but I lost a bit of time that I wasn’t going to risk injury trying to get back.
Sadly I can’t report that I didn’t fall in this section. With just a few hundred meters left before getting off the AT, my left foot got caught on something and I went down pretty fast. After a two second self-analysis to make sure nothing was broken I got back up, brushed myself off, and continued going down without having lost my position in the field.
Approaching the towpath and flat 26.3-mile section ahead, I decided it was time to start with the energy / hydration plan. I filled up my water bottle with some Endurox mix immediately exiting the AT… and I immediately dropped it and spilled it all on the ground. 500 calories wasted. Yikes. I tend to eat / drink minimally in races, so losing these 500 calories made me hope I wouldn’t need them later to postpone a late-race bonk.
The towpath was a welcome relief coming off the AT. Going down the AT the pace slowed a bit and I caught up with traffic (even despite my gimpy right ankle) that I was unable to pass because of the narrowness of the course. Now on the open towpath the course was much wider and completely flat. I was able to enjoy the sight of the Potomac on this cold November morning, and with the sun properly up now I was beginning to regain feeling in my hands. By mile 20 I had started to sweat, which meant that it was time to ditch the arm warmers.
My pace along the towpath was fairly consistent 8:10s, plus or minus a few seconds here or there. Before the race I had wanted to hit 8:00 flat or just a few seconds faster, so seeing these splits on my watch was disappointing. Worse, I took a realistic look at how the effort was and whether speeding up was in the cards. It was not. I was fairly sure that if I tried to increase the pace just a little bit, I would be walking at mile 40. This was my pace on this day, and I was going to make the best of it.
Things got a little difficult shortly past the halfway mark. The sun hid behind the clouds, and I started to notice the wind a bit more. A few people had mentioned the wind earlier in the day but I didn’t give it much thought at all. But by halfway it was making me cold and slowing me down. I regretted having thrown away the arm warmers, and became a little concerned that a short-sleeve shirt in overcast and windy 32-degree weather wasn’t quite ideal.
Miles 30 – 42.5, the end of the towpath, were a struggle. I guess in a 50 mile race they always are. It was near this point that I just wanted to be done. I had only been able to pour one more mix of Endurox into my water bottle after beginning the towpath, meaning that I was in some massive caloric debt zone. I had probably burned nearly 4000 calories and consumed only 700 during the entire day. I had stopped at one of the aid stations near mile 35 to try and get in some sugar (Mountain Dew and Coke!) and also some hot soup broth. While it tasted fantastic, I was a tad too aggressive with it and I could feel it sloshing in my stomach for the next two miles. Ugh.
Worse, having stopped at that aid station to eat / drink I noticed that my knees were getting painfully stiff. I looked down and saw dried blood from the fall that occurred shortly before exiting the AT. When I got moving again, they were swollen and painful and I was jogging at 11:00 pace at best. It wasn’t for another half mile that the stiffness went away and I could run properly again, but by the point my pace had slowed to around 8:35 per mile. I made the decision that between the sloshy stomach and the painful knees, I wouldn’t be making any more stops at aid stations until the finish. I would just run through them, calories be damned!
I got off the towpath and onto the final stretch of paved road and soon there were mile markers alerting us how many miles left to go until the finish. “8 miles to finish.” The rolling hills ahead were really slowing everyone down who I had in sight. I felt tired but put in a final surge just to see what I had left. My legs protested but I quickened the pace back down to just under 8:00 pace and began catching up with a lot of people ahead who had been reduced to jogging after 42 miles. I could see them struggling up the hills, which gave me more desire to hunt them down and pass them. I made a deal with myself to pick up the pace again when I hit 6 miles left. 7:40 miles became 7:10 miles, and the last 5 kilometers was well under 7:00 pace. I wanted to stop but even worse I just wanted this to be over. I passed people like they were standing still, which was exhilarating. With one mile left to go I managed to pass two more people, one of whom I only edged out in a sprint finish that made me want to vomit when I stopped just beyond the finish line.
My final time was 7:42:09, which was a little bit slower than I had expected but not entirely off the mark. The conditions were a little cold and windy, and to be honest I may not have had my best running day. But I did still manage a decent race and a PR at the distance.
I’m writing this 5 days later, and I’m still reflecting on the race. It’s a bit amazing to me that in my 50 milers I actually consume so few calories. During all of JFK I had maybe 800 calories during the run and still had energy to pass at least a dozen people in the final 8 miles of the race. While I would never recommend to anyone else to have so little fuel, this strategy seems to have worked for me for my past three 50 milers. While it makes me nervous to go into a race with this plan, at the same time it relaxes me knowing that I don’t really have to carry much (if any) food on me.
Looking back at the course if I do this again, the first 15 miles I will have to attack a little faster and watch out for my right ankle. The towpath is very beautiful but monotonous, and unfortunately the race doesn’t allow iPods so I’ll have to find another way to distract myself. If I can run the last 8 miles like I did this year, I’ll always be a happy camper so that’s a good goal to try and hit again. Ironically, what I think was a little difficult was the relatively easiness of the course – the last 35 miles were so flat that there was no reason to walk any bit of it. For most races you’ll get a good uphill that you have to walk up, and you use different muscles and break up the rhythm of the run a bit. It’s a good mental and physical break. But with the JFK course you have to be constantly running and running and running the entire time. It’s a relentless assault and you have to stay motivated the entire time. It’s hard!
If it weren’t for the relatively steep entry fee ($200), I’d say that I’d do this race again next year for sure. Instead, it might have to wait another year or two but I will be back to tackle this course. It’s a great end-of-season race and could be easily integrated into fall marathon training. Best of all, there’s a great sense of camaraderie that isn’t lost despite the event’s size. The towns along the course and the support / cheering is fantastic. The atmosphere is electric from the race start in Boonsboro to the end in Williamsport. It’s a big and historic event, and yet it has managed to remain fairly low key and enjoyable. What a great race.