JFK 50 2015 – Eric’s First Run
Although I have completed a number of marathons over the past few years, 2015 brought a new challenge; ultra-marathons. Early in the year, I completed two 50k’s (North Face Endurance Challenge in DC, and the Singletrack Maniac in Virginia) with hopes to move on to greater distances by the fall. With high expectations, I went ahead and registered for the JFK50. Why the JFK50? Although it may not be as popular as some of the races out west, just about every ultra-runner I know is familiar with the JFK50, so I figured it would be a great starting point for the 50 mile distance. Plus, as an Active Duty Air Force member, I have a connection to the race history.
I feel my JFK50 training was a bit unorthodox as it was really designed for the marathons I ran in September (Air Force Marathon) and October (Marine Corps Marathon). I didn’t have a single run over 26.2 miles, but with a 3:15 marathon time, I figured I could scale it back and survive the 50 miles. With the Marine Corps Marathon on the 25th of October, and the JFK50 on the 21st of Nov, I had less than four weeks to transition from marathon running to ultra-marathon running. To make things even more difficult, I scheduled corrective eye surgery in between the two races, which kept me from running for about a week and a half. After all was said and done, I was able to log about two and a half weeks of transition running, to include my taper. During this transition, I focused on slow trail running while wearing the gear I planned to utilize during the JFK. My goal was to keep my heart rate in the high 130s, which meant a much slower pace than my usual marathon tempo running.
Before I knew it, it was time to pack for the big day. The weather forecast called for sunny skies with lows in the low 30’s and highs in the low 50s. My plan was to dress for the 50’s, not the 30’s. Starting from the top down, here was my gear for the day: Pearl Izumi thermal beanie (swapped at mile 16 for a Nike Dri-Fit hat), Pearl Izumi custom tech-t (US Military Endurance Sports, USMES.org), Cannondale thermal arm warmers with Head running gloves (both ditched at mile 16), RecoFit arm coolers (worn under the arm warmers), Sugoi Pace 5 shorts (my favorite running shorts in the entire world), CEP calf sleeves, Outdoor Research gaiters, Injinji trail socks, and Pearl Izumi Trail M2 V2’s. However, the true star of the show was my Ultimate Direction SJ 2.0 ultra-vest.
The morning of the race arrived, and we were fortunate enough to have a hot breakfast prepared for us at the Holiday Inn Express in Hagerstown, MD. You don’t find many hotels that will start serving breakfast at 4am, even if they are the “race hotel”. Once we filled our stomachs, we made the short drive to the Boonsboro High School where we gathered in the gymnasium for the standard ultra-marathon safety briefing. The race director recognized our military veterans and those who have completed the JFK50 multiple times. It was kept short and sweet because we still had to make the trek from the school to the starting line in downtown Boonsboro (about a 7-10 minute walk).
As we exited the school, the cool air was crisp enough to make you shiver; the anticipation factor didn’t help things either. After losing massive amounts of energy from shivering for an hour at the 2014 Bataan Death March in New Mexico, I knew I had to stop shivering to conserve energy… a few deep breaths did the trick. I chatted with friends on the way to the start and watched runners relieve themselves in every hiding spot they could find. I couldn’t help but imagine being arrested for indecent exposure only minutes before the start of the big race. Although I too needed to go, I knew we were a few minutes behind and the race was going to be starting soon. We arrived at the start as the national anthem was being performed, and then it happened…… BANG! We were off and running; literally.
I think we were about mid-crowd; it took us probably 30-45 seconds from the gun start to actually cross the starting line (which is really just an intersection). I hit the start button on my Garmin 920XT, gave myself a few silent words of encouragement, took a couple deep breaths, and slowly picked up the pace with the rest of the crowd. The energy amongst the runners was awesome… but that wouldn’t last long. Although the road is paved, it ascends about 500 feet in the first two miles. It wasn’t long before my bladder reminded me that I made a horrible decision to start without making a pit stop. So, like 50 or so of the other runners, I opted to find the nearest hiding spot to recycle the morning’s coffee. For the record, I don’t condone urinating in public… but I also don’t condone running an ultra-marathon with a full bladder. Once the bladder was empty, it was time to do work.
My friend, Brian, who had completed the JFK50 in 2014, was at my side. Brian has quite the ultra-running resume, and having him keep me under control at the start was one of many keys to my overall success. About 1.5 miles into our 50 mile journey, we took our first walking break as we ascended a steep climb. I’m not always the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to “starting smart”, but I knew I couldn’t make stupid mistakes during this race if I wanted to survive. Brian did his part to make sure we didn’t push too hard, yet still moved with a purpose. We continued to walk the steep inclines, and take advantage of the flats and declines. After about 2.5 miles of paved climbing, we reached the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Having never run on the AT before, I really wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I had heard about the “bounding from rock to rock”, but you never really know what to believe since some running stories sound like most fishing stories. It only took seconds to realize two things; the stories were true, and I had a long 13 miles of AT ahead of me. The jagged rocks were plentiful, yet almost invisible thanks to the thick layer of freshly fallen leaves. Having to run with more “agility” in your stride can be foreign to those who aren’t used to the unstable terrain. This foreign movement can eventually cause early muscle fatigue, something I would experience before I left the AT.
Just when you get used to the uneven footing, the first section of the AT ends and you find yourself back on pavement for about a mile or so. Usually I would be happy with a little pavement and use it to my advantage to bank some time. Unfortunately, this one mile segment just happens to be the steepest incline of the entire journey. From about mile 4 to mile 5, you find yourself gaining another 500 feet while winding through the trees on a paved road that seems to go nowhere. As we did leaving Boonsboro, Brian and I walked the steep sections and ran where we felt we weren’t wasting energy. Finally, as we crested the top of the hill, we were directed back onto the AT.
The first segment of the AT had me a little concerned. I don’t get to run on many rocky trails back home, so I don’t have very strong ankles. Little did I know, the first section was just a mild preview of the ankle carnage to come. There is only one way to describe it; a mine field. The single track trail had been beaten down by a few hundred people ahead of me, so some of the leaves had been cleared or crushed, making the rocky terrain a little more visible. However, in order to pass a person, you had to venture into the unknown, which made you think twice or even three times about passing. With Brian still on my heels, we continued to walk the difficult stuff, and run when it made sense. It was on the AT that we caught up with another friend and fellow US Military Endurance Sports teammate, Gayle. Gayle and I have similar marathon finish times, and I knew we would make a great duo once we hit the C&O Canal tow path. The three of us pressed on, one foot in front of the other.
I usually don’t trust the weatherman, but this guy nailed it! Clear skies and crisp air; you really couldn’t ask for better ultra-marathon weather. I had made the perfect choices when selecting my gear, and I couldn’t help but think about how miserable I would have been if I had worn a jacket. I did encounter one issue along the AT; the sun. Laser eye surgery performed three weeks prior to the race had left my eyes extremely sensitive to light. I had my sunglasses on, but the sun blasting through the leafless trees as we continued down the AT was like a cross between a strobe light and a welder’s arc. I used my hand to block it when I could, but that hand was also needed for balance on the rocky trail. I sure was glad to exchange my thermal beanie for my dri-fit cap at the first crew support area!
Continuing down the AT, I could hear the shouts and cowbells. Either there were some very happy cattle farmers in the vicinity, or we were approaching our first aid station. I had heard the aid stations would be well stocked, and the stories were true. Gatorade, water, chips, cookies, pretzels, candy, PB&J sandwiches, and soup were the norm at most, if not all, of the aid stations throughout the entire 50 mile course. With “real food” as an option at each stop, I finished the race with most of the Honey Stinger gels I started with.
Brian, Gayle, and I remained together, or within shouting distance, for the remainder of the AT. I knew we were approaching the end of the trail when a volunteer had informed us about the Weaverton Cliffs ahead. Most of the JFK50 veterans I had spoken to about the AT had told me how dangerous the decent is, but I don’t think it was too bad. We had hit one last bottleneck as we started the decent, and everyone was going so slow, so it didn’t feel very treacherous. We continued single file down the switchbacks, carefully placing our feet to avoid “the fastest way down”. The last two miles of the AT include about 1,000 feet of decent; something my quads won’t soon forget. Right around mile 16, we reached the end of the AT, and I couldn’t wait to get onto the C&O to stretch my stride and make up some lost time.
Joshua, aka “Dewey”, had originally signed up to run the JFK50 with me, but had to cancel due to health issues. Being the good friend that he is, he offered to come provide crew support. He was there waiting at mile 16ish with my bag of stuff and a huge smile on his face. It was nice to see a familiar face, and knowing he would be supporting me along the way took so much weight off of my shoulders. With temps in the mid-40s by this point, I opted to ditch the beanie, gloves, and arm warmers. I gave him a high five and moved on to the nearby aid station to get another dose of chips, pretzels, cookies, M&Ms, and a small cup of chicken broth.
Brian had moved a couple minutes ahead of us since he opted not to stop at the support crew area, but Gayle and I eventually reunited with him. The three of us had made it to the tow path and it was time to discuss a game plan. I had a few personal goals for the C&O section; don’t waste time at the aid stations, keep the heart rate low, move with a purpose, and stay hydrated. I informed Gayle and Brian about my 9 minute run / 1 minute walk plan, and they said it sounded good. Although Brian has the endurance of a Himalayan Sherpa, our pace was a little too quick for his liking, so he eventually began to fall back. Gayle and I continued our 9/1 routine, holding a 9:20 pace when running, and a “brisk” pace when walking. It seemed to work out perfect; the 9 minutes wore us out, but the one minute allowed for a quick recovery. Gayle and I wouldn’t see Brian again until after the race.
The C&O tow path is a fairly flat dirt/gravel road that follows the Potomac River. We would follow it for approximately 26.3 miles, just over a standard marathon distance. Many of the veterans I talked to told me how mind numbing the tow path can be, but I found it beautiful. Although the terrain didn’t change much for those 26 miles, the views did. Plus, after not being able to look anywhere other than three feet in front of you for 16 miles, it was nice to look around and take in the amazing fall colors of Maryland.
With the exception of the occasional “potty break”, we continued our forward progress down the tow path, keeping our eye on the prize. During early discussions, I had mentioned wanting to finish in under 10 hours. Having never run 50 miles at once, the goal sounded nice, but I wasn’t sure how achievable it really was. Regardless, we decided sub 10 hour is what we were shooting for. Gayle and I calculated the required pace the best we could (brains don’t work so well after a few hours of running), and constantly monitored our progress. It’s amazing how breaking up the race into 10 minute segments can help pass the time/miles.
Gayle turned out to be my secret weapon. As we leapfrogged the same silent, exhausted groups over and over, she and I chatted about life, dogs, military service, politics, and the usual “bodily functions” that only runners seem enjoy discussing. We also kept each other accountable when it came to staying on pace. If we walked through an aid station, that counted as our one minute walk for that time period. This turned out to be a very important strategy and helped us bank the time we needed. I have said it before, and I will say it again, I could not have run the same race without her. (Thanks, Gayle!)
Dewey met up with us a few times along the tow path, and although I didn’t need much of anything from him throughout the entire day, having him there was so awesome (Thanks, Dewey!). My father-in-law had also made the trip down from Pennsylvania to see me on the course. As a joke, he brought along a reflective vest for me, but I politely declined (more to come on the vest). Knowing he would only see me for about 60 seconds, he still made the trip, which made seeing him on the course that much more special. (Thanks, Buddy!)
Now, about the vest… During the safety briefing at the school gymnasium, they provided us with the cutoff times, and the times you would have to achieve in order to avoid what is commonly known as the “vest of shame”. Don’t get me wrong, I realize nobody should feel any shame in completing an event like this, but we somehow find joy in poking fun at it. Gayle and I did some math and realized if we continued to push hard, we would make it to the 41.8 mile aid station just before the 3pm cutoff, and not have to don the vest of shame! So that is exactly what we did. As the miles ticked away, we realized it was going to come down to a matter of minutes… maybe even seconds. As we arrived at mile 41.8 just before 3pm(according to my Garmin), we realized the aid station was nowhere in sight. As it turns out, the GPS used for the race runs a bit long, and we didn’t make it to the aid station until 3:06pm. With our heads hung low and frustration in our minds, we reluctantly strapped on the vests. It only took a matter of minutes before we realized the vest avoidance wasn’t our real goal for the race, and we still had work to do to finish in under 10 hours. So we pressed on.
The donning of the vest of shame did have a silver lining; we were officially off the C&O tow path and on the paved country roads! The paved roads followed the rolling hills, through pastures and fields of different crops. Since we had to deal with more climbing, Gayle and I ditched our 9/1 plan that we followed for the last 4-5 hours and moved to a new plan. If it looked like a hill, felt like a hill, or smelled like a hill, we would power walk it. Other than that, we would try to continue our 9:20/mile pace across the flats and decents.
After over 43 miles of running, I hadn’t really done a quality self-assessment of my condition. Of course I was sore and exhausted, but my stomach felt fantastic (my stomach is usually my limiting factor). My legs were weak, but I knew they could continue with our run/walk plan. My head was still in the game, which is what originally worried me the most. Coming into my first 50 miler, I wasn’t sure if I had the mental power to push through the pain and solitude of the JFK50… but then again, I didn’t know I would have my secret weapon! This is when it really set in…. I really am going to finish in under 10 hours!!!!!
Gayle and I had small celebrations with each countdown mile marker we passed. 3 miles to go…. 2 miles to go…. 1 mile to go! As we rounded the very last corner of the 50.2 mile route, we saw the finish line in the distance. Never have I felt so relieved, excited, and emotional all at the same time. I could tell Gayle felt the same way as we ran the last half mile towards the finish without saying much of anything to each other. As we got close enough to actually read the numbers on the clock, it was official; we had completed our goal. Gayle and I crossed the JFK50 finish line side by side with an official time of 9:44:46. As I shook the hand of the race director, and had the shiny medal placed around my neck, I was flooded with emotion. Coming into the JFK50, the real goals were to survive and finish… done and done.
Will I come back? Not sure. There are so many other ultra-marathons in the area that I would love to run. But, the more I think about it, the more excited I get about doing it again.