Overall Time: 7:26:05
Place: 35 of 912
After the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon in October I started feeling a little burnt out. Instead of ending my racing season in December this year, I decided to cut things short and end in November. I need some time off before I ramp up my training for Boston, so the JFK 50 on November 22nd would be my final real race of 2015. I had high hopes for the race, although with the realization that my training hadn’t been focused on anything longer than a marathon.
When I ran this last year I was slightly disappointed with my time (7:42:09). It wasn’t a miserable failure, but I certainly thought going into the race that I could do much better and break 7:30. Part of my failure last year was not realizing how slow the first 15.5 miles would be. The other part was then losing mental focus somewhere on the never-ending towpath along the Potomac and slowing down when I didn’t have to.
For those not familiar with the JFK 50 Miler, it starts in Boonsboro Maryland and ends about 15 miles west in Williamsport. From Boonsboro you head south for 15.5 miles along the Appalachian Trail to the Potomac River. Once at the Potomac, you follow it west and north for 26.3 miles. After the stretch along the river you jump back onto roads as you head 8.4 miles to finish at Williamsport Middle School.
Like last year I would be racing without a crew to meet me along the course. There are so many aid stations that additional support isn’t really required, except that many people prefer to run the opening 15.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail with trail shoes and then change into road shoes for the final flat 34.7 miles. This means two things: 1.) Yes, your math is correct. The race is actually 50.2 miles and 2.) changing shoes requires a crew to meet you off the AT to perform the swap.
Sans crew I would have to decide between wearing trail shoes or road shoes for the entire haul. I decided on a pair of Adidas Adios 2 figuring that they were light yet had enough protection for any unseen rocks along the AT. As long as my footing and basic trail footwork was up to the task, the Adios 2 would be sufficient for the AT and then perfect for the flat sections to follow.
In terms of other gear, I kept it minimal: I had my handheld water bottle, two Clif Shot Bloks (200 calories each), and 3 pre-measured 200-calorie bags of HEED energy drink that I would mix with water along the course for liquid energy. With almost a thousand calories in my pockets, I’d just have to worry about grabbing a few additional snacks and drinks located at the aid stations on the course.
My race plan was fairly simple. In an effort to better last year’s time, I decided to avoid losing as much time on the Appalachian Trail (AT), and then fight as hard as I could -mentally and physically — to maintain an 8:00 pace per mile for the final 35 miles.
My first goal was to split around 2:20 for the AT section of the race. If I could maintain that 8:00 pace the rest of the way I would hit a finish time of around 7:15 taking aid station stops into consideration. My goal became to keep it under 7:30, and possible threaten 7:15 if the stars aligned.
I liked my plan — it seemed uncomplicated and achievable — and felt like the equipment (shoes, hydration, calories) was effective enough to get me to the finish line with a smile on my face. The only thing left to do was execute.
The morning of the race was cold. A sign outside leading to the front indicated it was 15 Fahrenheit. Brisk. I made my way to the start with a couple of additional layers that I planned to throw away as soon as (or if) I warmed up along the course.
When the gun went off, I had been unable to make my way to the very front of the start. There were roughly a hundred morons ahead of me whose self-entitled and ill-informed egos demanded that they start at the front of the race only to powerwalk when the race started. They became obstacles and I felt no sympathy for any shoulders bumped or elbows thrown getting around them.
After about two and a half miles of uphill road, we hit the first section of the AT. I’m not the best trail runner, but I’m fairly proficient and very comfortable on them. Immediately a lot of the people who charged out fast on the opening road miles were coming back to me. I was surprised how poorly some relatively fast people can run trails.
Mile 4 is always interesting because it has a paved section of the AT, which sounds easy and runnable — but it’s at some ridiculous incline that everyone slows to a powerwalk getting up it (no use in tiring yourself up running up something so steep with 45 miles left to go!). The highest point of the course is just after mile 5. It looks intimidating on the elevation profile, but in all honesty it doesn’t seem that bad when running it. It’s a fairly steady incline leading to the summit, and if you can get into a good solid groove it never feels unbearable.
Summiting the top of the trail, there was a fairly consistent and runnable (but still rocky) downhill section for about 4 miles. I was looking forward to making up some time lost on the earlier uphills, but soon became frustrated at the congestion ahead. It was just my luck that I got stuck behind a long train of people with pretty poor trail skills. Passing became difficult because there wasn’t just one person to get around — there were at least a dozen and each time I passed one or two I would have to stop for someone else in front of me gingerly going downhill. I wish I could have pushed them to the side, shouting, “RUN DAMMIT!” but of course that’s not very nice (or legal).
Coming to mile 9 I decided to finally get a few calories in. With the cold morning temperatures and the relatively slow pace of the opening miles, thirst wasn’t really a factor for the first hour but I knew I’d need sugar now to delay running out of energy later on. My plan was to save the Shot Bloks and HEED until the section along the Potomac, so I filled my bottle with Gatorade, which was all I needed for the entire stretch of the AT.
Most of the rest of the AT was a simple pattern of gently bouncing uphill behind people, and then passing them on the downhills.
The shoes were holding up great. There was no foot pain from any of the rocks on the trail, even small ones hidden under leaves. Most of the big rocks were clearly visible; as long as my eyes and feet were quick enough I could dance on and around them without any harm. Any doubt I had previously about wearing a road racing shoe for this race went away.
If (like I have done in the past) you’re reading this because you’re doing JFK in the future and haven’t decided on what to wear, my advice is this: if you’re light on your feet and have decent trail experience, road shoes are 100% fine. If you’re a little delicate and question your ability to skillfully run on top of rocks (especially going downhill), you are a prime candidate for trail shoes for the race.
I got off the AT in 2:36:59 — about 15 minutes slower than I would have liked. To be honest I was a little disappointed in this. But with the trail congestion and a couple bathroom breaks, I can’t really say there was a whole lot I could have done about this. Next year I should position myself a little closer toward the front of the pack when getting on the AT so I don’t get stuck behind so many slow people.
Hitting the flat stretch of the Towpath, I tossed my army-green long sleeve top that I had started with. One of the kid volunteers looked at me with amazement, asking, “Aren’t you cold!?” I just smiled and ran along. Now the long road was ahead of me. Time to go to work.
I settled into my 8:00 pace but had to calm my competitive nerves from getting the better of me. A lot of people were coming off the AT and started passing me in the first mile or two along the towpath along the Potomac. One boy/girl combo that passed me was especially irritating, although for no really good reason. Girl was wearing a purple (fuchsia, really) running jacket and Boy was wearing a neon yellow long sleeve top. They had been talking near me earlier in the race and Girl had started singing to him at some point (WTF?), which was sort of irritating because I don’t care to overhear that sort of chipper BS during a race. It was the same type of irritation that occurs listening to some NYU student gab at 100 decibels to her friend on the subway during morning rush hour when the rest of the train is silent and still waking up. Of course I’m sure it’d be different if I knew her and she was talking / singing / whatever’ing to me, but the fact is that it just seemed like a banshee-like distraction that I didn’t want to listen to. Then she remarked something about how good she felt at the point (approx 25 km). You see, she explained, normally she feels tired at the 25 km mark of her weekend long runs but today she felt great!
I wanted to yell at her. “Great! Fucking fantastic, but you still have more than 55 kilometers to go so shut up!” I wanted to race them right then and there. I knew better and stuck to my plan. I had 35 miles to worry about passing them. At this point all I wanted to do was enjoy the scenery (and then put my head down and grind out miles once I got bored of the scenery).
Let’s get two things straight about the 26.3-mile section along the Potomac: 1. It’s beautiful. 2. It’s boring and flat. My description of this leg will be boring and flat as well — I ran and kept an 8:00 pace.
It was undramatic. Over the next 26+ miles I ate both my Clif Shot Blocks spaced out fairly evenly (total calories: 400) and had one 200-calorie mixture of HEED. Other than that for nutrition, I stuffed my mouth full of potato chips somewhere around mile 35. This means I ended up discarding more than half the HEED I brought. Of the 3 bags on me, I used only 1.
Beyond those lovely details of what I ate and drank, the only thing to say is that I ran right around 8:00 pace for all 26.3 miles. It wasn’t always easy — running that far never is — but I never felt in danger of hitting the wall of totally imploding. I knew I would be in pain when I hit the final 8.4 miles on the rolling hills toward the finish, but pain is expected and I knew there was still enough in the tank to keep motoring on.
There was a volunteer or some crew person whose timing always coincided with mine. Every 7 or 8 miles he would pop up on the trail and say, “Looking good! Real smooth!” He was obviously leap-frogging his way toward the finish and after the fourth time seeing him I joked, “Are you stalking me?!” He laughed and repeated what he’d been telling me all day.
“Looking smooth! You’re going to catch up with a lot of people hurting pretty soon!”
Hearing this random stranger’s encouragement actually helped quite a bit. When I hear things like, “Good job!” or “You’ve got this!” it just passes in one ear and out the other. But something a little more qualitative will stick with me more. If I’m running smoothly, it means I’m not looking like I’m straining too much. I’m not looking like I’m going to cross the finish line a broken man crawling on all fours.
Shortly before the end of the towpath along the Potomac at around mile 41, that volunteer’s statements would come true and I saw what I had been waiting for all day long: sing-songy Girl in the purple jacket who had passed me at the start of the Potomac section. I could tell she was slowing down and maybe 400 meters ahead. Within 5 minutes I had reeled her in; she had succumbed to a run-walk pattern and I knew she wouldn’t be picking it up the final 8 miles like I would. At the aid station at mile 41.8, she stopped and I flew by her to get onto the road to Williamsport. My heart smiled.
Coming off the towpath there is a short (200 meter?) uphill stretch that I’m sure renders even the fastest of runners to a power hike. It’s miserable thinking that you have to scale this mini-Everest so late in the race, but at the same time it’s a great chance to vary the muscles you’re using and give the rest of your body a break from the constant running.
Once I crested the top of the hill the final 8.4 miles challenged me to keep my pace. They are on road, so I was grateful for my shoe choice. They are not 100% flat, which any other time is not a problem. I say “not flat” because I refuse to call them hilly. Here’s a graph to show you what I mean:
First you can see the mini-Everest you scale to reach the top of the road. Then you have a still-quite-runnable section of road that goes up a little, then down a little, then back up, and down…. until you get to the finish. The obvious problem is that by the time you get to these little bumps in the road, you’ve been moving for over 43 miles. Your legs are dead. *My* legs were dead. It’s a constant assault of gravity on legs that are depleted of strength and energy.
At this point I had done some mental calculations and knew that a 7:30 finish time was right around my pace up to that point. With more than 8 miles, I was slightly nervous about slowing down and finishing just over 7:30. I didn’t want to waste any time with any more bathroom breaks or stops to fill up my water bottle with Gatorade. I made up my mind to run the final stretch on road without stopping, and hopefully without slowing.
I knew that if I maintained an 8:30 per mile pace for this final section, I’d slip in right under 7:30. So when each mile kept coming by without me noticeably slowing, I felt more and more confident as I got closer and closer to the finish line. After the uphill onto the road, my splits quickened as I was desperate to finish.
A 7:47 next mile was exactly what I wanted. It was fast enough to pass people and not so fast that I felt like I would die. Next up: 7:49, followed by a 7:46. Awesome. I knew at this point I could jog a 9:00 pace to the end and still be fine.
With a couple rolling hills ahead, my pace slipped just north of 8:00 pace. Miles 47 (8:02), 48 (8:03), and 49 (8:10) were slower than I wanted but at this point I knew I had averted some huge bonk. There would be no walking during this 50 miler and I was free to put in one final solid mile to the finish. Throwing down an uphill final mile of 7:45, I crossed the finish with a big fat smile on my face as the clock read 7 hours 26 minutes and 5 second.
After looking through the results of the other runners, it appears that maintaining speed over the last section is fairly rare, which leads me to think that either I did something quite exceptional or I made a big mistake and should have pushed harder during my time on the Potomac. My guess is that the real answer is somewhere in the middle.
When I started to go through the numbers, I felt much better about my race and pace strategy. Although I got off the AT a little slower than I wanted, that was only a small setback. The numbers showed that when I got off the AT, not a single person who was behind me on the trail finished ahead of me. That’s right — in the final 34.7 miles, not a single person passed me (except perhaps temporarily before fading). I did all the passing.
My time during the 26.3-mile section of the towpath was 3:41:42 (8:25 pace). My time for the final 8.4 miles was 1:07:24 (8:01 pace). Although I kept just over an 8:00 pace for the towpath, the normal occurrence of bathroom breaks crept in and slowed up the average pace. I’m fine with that.
I still have bigger ambitions for this race. I’d love to show up next year in proper 50-mile race shape and threaten a sub-7:00 finish; and maybe one year I’d love to come in swinging for a 6:30 finish. But those sorts of leaps take time and I’m in no rush. This race has been around for 52 years and as long as it’s around for 52 more I’ve got plenty of time.
The winner of this year’s race finished an hour and a half before me. I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m an elite ultrarunner, but I do take pride in my accomplishments and progress. Taking on a distance race (be it an ultra or a shorter distance) takes hard work, smart planning, and discipline to execute everything properly. Having everything come together so well is something that can never be taken away from me, and only inspires me to try and attempt even more.