Earlier this year as I began to contemplate turning 50 next February, I knew I needed something special to commemorate it. I wouldn't have my 50 states done, I'd already done 50K (although not as an official race), so the next logical step seemed to be 50 miles. Which race to do though? Most ultras are on trail, and I'm not really a trail guy. I thought about potentially doing a timed event where you go as far as you can in a specific time frame and choosing an event where I would be likely to be able to complete 50 miles. That didn't sound like as much fun though. Having heard of the JFK, I decided to look it up and see what it was all about.
The original idea came from JFK himself:
In 1963, the initial inspiration behind the event came from then President John F. Kennedy challenging his military officers to meet the requirements that Teddy Roosevelt had set for his own military officers at the dawn of the 20th Century. That Roosevelt requirement was for all military officers to be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to maintain their commissions. When word got out about the “Kennedy Challenge”, non-commissioned military personnel also wanted to take the test themselves as did certain robust members of the civilian population.
Ok, that's pretty cool. If I finish, I could have been a kick butt officer under Teddy Roosevelt!
The course is also unique:
The first 5.5 miles (starting on road surface and joining the Appalachian Trail at 2.5 miles) gains 1,172 feet in elevation. The course from 2.5 to 15.5 miles is on the Appalachian Trail (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles). This section of the AT is very rocky in sections as it rolls across the mountain ridge. At approximately 14.5 miles the course drops over 1,000 feet in a series of steep “switchbacks” that then crosses under Rt. 340 and connects with the C&O Canal towpath. The “Canal” section of the JFK 50 Mile is 26.3 miles (from 15.5-41.8 miles) of almost totally flat unpaved dirt/gravel surface that is free of all automotive vehicle traffic. The JFK 50 Mile route leaves the C&O Canal towpath at Dam #4 and proceeds to follow gently rolling paved country roads the last 8.4 miles to the finish. The Boonsboro start is at an elevation of 570 feet. The Williamsport finish is at 452 feet above sea level.
The idea of mixed terrain sounded more attainable than an all trail race and the fact that the trail portion was on the iconic Appalachian Trail was a draw all on its own. I thought it over for a while, consulted a couple of my pacing friends I discovered had run it, and then convinced two friends from my running group to join me. When we registered my training partner had not yet run her first marathon, and I was mid-spring race season. I was just about to have some major IT band issues.
I got a training plan from one of my friends who had done it before. (http://www.scrunners.org/ultramarathon-training-schedule-generator.html) I knew the basic idea of how training would go with a long run on Saturday and another shorter long run on Sunday. This was the same way I had trained for my previous "double" weekend where I ran marathons in NY & CT on consecutive days. I modified the plan in a few different ways: I added in other races (races are more fun than long training runs and help me earn new states), I put the longest midweek runs on Tuesday and Thursday (making it easier for me schedule-wise to split them into a morning and evening run if needed), built up the long run distance quickly so that I could get in two 20 mile runs before my first fall marathon, and accomodated my training partners needs by alternating build-up and cut-back weeks in a two week cycle rather than something longer. I also began doing a trail run every other week to work up my familiarity with trail running technique.
The beginning of the summer consisted of recovering and rebuilding. We started our 18 week plan on July 16. Training went well as I got some experience trail running and built up my long runs.
The summer was a hot one that made all of the long miles challenging. Finally I hit 4 weeks of peak training that I refered to as my "29 days of Crazy!" This consisted of 5 marathons, a half, and a Ragnar relay. The first marathon was the next to last weekend in September. The weather was perfect! It was a repeat state that I used as a training run and had an awesome time pacing a first time marathoner!
It was still reasonable the next weekend when I ran two marathons and earned two new states. The first weekend of October bit back again when I joined a group of about 10 runners for a 10 mile run connecting 7 different brew pubs in 82° heat! The following weekend cooled off again, but got rainy for the Bourbon Chase relay and the Iron Horse half. To close out the 29 days I ran two more marathons in new states in great weather.
With my road racing season completed, I had just 4 more weeks until race day. The first week went smoothly concluding with an 18 miler on Saturday and my first trail run in a month on Sunday. The second week personal tragedy struck! On Monday I took my wife to the hospital for pancreatitis. We dealt with this about 3-4 times a year, so it felt kind of routine. What wasn't routine this time was the extreme nausea and vomiting. On Tuesday morning she aspirated vomit and less than 24 hours later passed on. Running, on my own or with a group, was my primary connection to what still felt like normal. I was blown away by the number of runners that came out to support me when I moved a 16 mile run to Friday morning because the funeral was on Saturday.
I had been running 40+ mile weeks (peaking at 77) for 7 weeks in a row. I decided to run the race in her memory, and ordered a commemorative bib from races2remember.com to wear on my back.
The Sunday before the race I had scheduled to be a pacer for another half marathon. I had chosen the 2:45 slot as a pace that would be easy for me, but give me a fun way to get in my last double digit training run. It was a cold start, just 25°! The course was a simple out and back on a paved bike path, 6.55 miles out and then turn around and come back. There was also the option for a full, which was 13.1 out and then back. There was a young woman who was hanging out with my group who was doing her first full. There was no 5:30 pacer, and I really wished there would have been an easy way for me to spend more miles with her. I had a copacer and if it hadn't been race week I would've spontaneously run the full with her the whole way. I grudgingly turned around at 6.55. I finished the half on time and feeling like I'd barely done anything. I was ready!
Stalking the weather forecast and the official race Facebook page made us a little nervous during the week. It snowed on Thursday, giving us concern about conditions on the AT section. They even posted a picture of snow being cleared off of the finish line that night. The weather actually looked decent for Saturday, but course conditions were a big cause for concern.
On Friday we flew into Baltimore, just about an hour drive from our hotel in Hagerstown, which was also the race headquarters.
We were there a little early, so we relaxed until packet pickup started. At the pickup there was some general merchandise, but it was mostly JFK themed apparel and products by Altra (the primary sponsor of the race). I got a JFK50 magnet for my car.
We inquired about tickets for the "Legends" pasta dinner and found out that it was primarily through pre-reservation, but we could stiil get in because there had been cancelations. In this process I got to meet the race director, Mike Spinnler, who had won the race in 1982 & 83. One of our primary reasons for going to the dinner was to see if we could meet someone to recruit as our crew for the race. (There was crew access at 3 different points along the course.) This didn't work out, but we got a history lesson in JFK50 participants. We were introduced to runners who had completed the race 30, 40, or even 1 person who was going for his 50th finish!
We were up early on Saturday, since we still had to drive to Boonsboro and gather for the pre-race meeting in the school gym at 5:50.
We were introduced to some "on the spot" pacers and then it was time to walk downtown to the starting area. Bathroom access had been crowded and when I got down to the start line I noticed a few runners heading into the local barbershop. It looked like a quick and easy stop, so I went in too. It was decently quick, but I missed the actual start and there was no timing mat so I started out about a minute behind.
We started down the road out of town, going along at a decent pace until we started heading uphill. The climb started to get steep fairly quickly. With a steady stream of traffic cones down the center of the road, I started walking two cones and running two cones to help conserve some energy. At 2.5 miles in we made a right turn onto the first mile of the AT. This section leveled out a bit and was wide enough to run 2 people side by side. We were quickly back on a paved fire road and resumed climbing.
It got pretty steep until at mile 5.5 we reached the highest point of the course and were back on the AT, over 1100 feet of climb from the start!
This began what would be the "usual" for the rest of the trail section: narrower, rocky, sometimes muddy, sometimes REALLY muddy, and undulating up and down. Sometimes you'd be stuck in a line of people, and other times it would start to get spread out a bit. This was tough going and my longest trail run ever. Around mile 9 we came out into a park and there was an aid station. I grabbed some pretzels and walked for a bit as we climbed back up out of the park. Still several miles to go before reaching the steep switchbacks down off of the trail and onto the towpath. I was ready to be done with the trail, expecting a much easier time on the towpath. As I was getting closer to the switchbacks I heard a noise that I thought maybe was a train (I'd read that there was a RR crossing around the start of the towpath) but it turned out to be some guys with cowbells cheering people on as they started the switchbacks.
While going down the switchbacks I caught up to a runner who was an amputee. He had one of the "blade" running prosthetics and I had no idea how he was managing all of the snow and mud. After coming down the rock steps at the bottom of the Weverton cliffs, there was a crew area that also had a few portapotties. I quickly ducked into one and noticed that I had been letting myself get dehydrated.
There was still a short section of trail left to go to connect to the towpath. It went right up under a highway overpass that felt a bit strange. Finally we hit the aid station that was right by the start of the towpath section. I was a little nervous about what the conditions on the towpath would be like so I decided to wait on changing my socks, I'd only brought one extra pair and we still had a long way to go. I spent some time refueling and rehydrating and crossed onto the towpath right before a train came through.
My plan here was to start a pattern of 5 minutes running and 1 minute walking. Conditions didn't seem too bad, so I planned to change my socks at the next aid stop. About mile 17 as I was starting a new run interval my entire right thigh cramped up. It was quite painful and it took over a minute for it to subside so that I could resume moving forward again. When I got to the aid station at mile 19, there was no where to sit to change my socks, so I grabbed some grilled cheese and kept going. There were some big unavoidable puddles and mud right after I left the aid station, so I was happy I hadn't gotten fresh socks wet.
At the next aid station there was an obvious chair, so I sat down to change my socks and immediately cramped up again though not quite as badly. The volunteer directly across from where I was sitting had bananas, so I ate one and never cramped up again the rest of the race. The rest of the towpath was a cycle of aid stations and pushing on to the get to the next one. It seemed like the mud continued to get worse, or at least my attitude about it did. I kept messing with my run/walk intervals to find something I could continue to use. Somewhere around mile 35 I had gotten so tired of the mud that I just shifted into a mostly walk strategy. I was able to consistently maintain a 15 min/mile walk, which I had roughly calculated would still get me in under the 13 hour cutoff. The most memorable aid station of the second half of the race was mile 38, referred to as the "38 Special". One of the traditional treats at this aid station is red velvet cake. I had some of the cake, and it was the last thing I ate on the course. My stomach just didn't want much anymore. I continued to grab some Gatorade or Coke (and I had water in my Camelbak) at the later aid stations, but that was it.
Mile 42 was the last aid station/checkpoint on the towpath. It was here that you had to get a reflective vest if you reached it after a time that meant it was likely that you would finish in the dark. I got my vest and happily left the towpath behind as I now returned to pavement and no more mud! There was a somewhat long hill right at the beginning of this segment and then it turned to some occasional rolling hills. I would sometimes run down the backside of the hills but I was able to calculate when I reached this point that I could finish under 12 hours if I could maintain my 4 mph walk.
8 miles of mostly walking takes a long time, two hours at the pace I going. With about 6 miles left to go I began to be very aware of a small pebble in my left shoe. At first I didn't think I would really need to do anything about it, but the longer I went the worse it felt. There were a couple of problems with trying to get it out though, I needed a place to sit since there was no way I could balance or hold myself up and there was the fear that if I stopped I may not be able to get started again. Even with aid stations every two miles to the finish, finding a place to sit was tough. The pain was getting bad enough that I was nearly willing to sacrifice my sub 12 hour finish. However, I just kept pushing my way through. There were mile countdown signs every mile once we got on the road and eventually I passed the one mile to go mark. I was still managing to maintain my pace and in 15 minutes it would all be over. I could hear the PA at the finish line as I got ever closer. There was portable lighting powered by generators lighting up the area and we were moving toward the light. "Moving into the light" didn't seem like such a bad idea at this point, but not until that medal was around my neck! I heard one of my friend's names called over the PA as she finished, and I wasn't too far behind. I wasn't going to start running again until I actually got in the finish chute, but a spectator encouraged us to start again. I finished and got my medal. 11:54:00 finish! I looked for my friend a little, but didn't see her so I headed inside.
I got changed into fresh clothes, got a massage, and had some hot food. There was pulled pork and sloppy joes.
Post race recovery was a bit different than I'm accustomed to because of the distance for sure, but also the conditions. Over the next few days what hurt the most was my hamstrings. Wednesday was the first day that I could stand up from a seated position without pain.
Overall, I thought the race was a good one. Its longevity and the number of runners that run it every year is certainly a testament to that. The aid stations were incredible with salty and sweet options, hot broth/noodle soup, and Coke available at pretty much all of them. The conditions made it tougher this year than most. A number of runners with MANY finishes were forced to DNF because of their inabilty to make the time cutoffs. For this reason I have no immediate desire to attempt this race or even the 50 mile distance again. Running in memory of Leslie (with the sign on my back) did help me to push through at times, but getting choked up while trying to run was not that helpful. Sometimes people would express sympathy as they passed me. I did end up in a couple of more extended conversations. It was fitting though, to commemorate one of the hardest things I've been through with one of the hardest things I've ever done.
It was worth it, but I think this definitely qualifies as completing Maryland the hard way. It filled my final gap in the mid-Atlantic region. I also officially earned the title, ultramarathoner!