JFK would be my second 50 miler. I ran my first 50 miler last summer, the North Country Trail Run 50 miler in Michigan. My friend Lisa had run it the previous summer and somehow convinced me it would be a good idea. It was two 25-mile loops on trails in the Manistee National Forest. It was hot, hilly and hard. I remember with about three miles to go thinking that I could just walk and be done in an hour, and then nearly crying because I couldn't stand the thought of being out there for another hour. It took over eleven hours but I finished and I swore off 50 milers.
Spring came and I started thinking about JFK. The JFK 50 has a history - it has been going on since 1963. "Never again" turned into, if I did another one I would do JFK, because it's right here in Maryland and well, it's JFK. I decided to send in the entry form. I posted that on facebook and I got several "you will love it", "I am jealous, I want to run that" comments, and I got several "too much money, there are better races in the area" comments. But I was doing it because it was JFK, not because I necessarily wanted to run another 50 miler.
Last year I followed a training plan I found online and then modified to add in a couple 50Ks as training runs. This year I was focusing on my fall marathon, so I just adapted by running a marathon or so a month as a long training run, and overall running more miles. I got to the start line healthy and in one piece, but with absolutely no time running on trails and unsure of what I could do. My plan was to take it easy on the Appalachian Trail (the first 15.5 miles), with my number one goal not to fall, and then pick up the pace once I got off of that and onto the towpath and roads. I threw out a goal of "between 9 and 10 hours".
I woke up Saturday morning at 3:30, ate some oatmeal and hit the road. I detoured through DC and picked up my friend Jeff, who was also running. We got to the school right around 6 a.m. Hit the porta-potties and then I wandered into the high school gym, where I found my friend Laurie. She has run this seven times now and is just a phenomenal runner. I knew once we started I wouldn't see her again (she generally finishes around 8 hours and went on to win the 40s age group in 8:06). Jeff and I joined the other runners and walked the 1/4 mile or so to the start in downtown Boonsboro. It was cold, about 33 degrees. I was wearing tights, a short sleeve shirt with arm warmers, a vest and gloves. I had a throwaway jacket which I planned to leave at the first aid station. I warmed up nicely and dropped the jacket on the side of the road after about a mile and a half.
The first couple miles are on the road, and I was all happy. We turned onto the trail and it wasn't bad. Then it started getting rockier. I slowed down. I was slipping on giant rocks, nearly tripping on rocks and roots, landing sideways on my ankles, etc. And I swear, it got worse and worse. At one point I was talking to another guy and sort of running, sort of walking, and I just looked ahead and said "people actually run on this crap?!?" I like trails, but I think I'm more of a hiker than a trail runner. I'm just horribly slow on trails, I'm tense when I try to run which makes my entire body hurt, and I just don't enjoy it. If I were out for a leisurely hike I think I would have enjoyed it, but at the beginning of a really long race I was just stressed out and worried about falling and hitting my head on one of those giant rocks. Eventually we passed a guy who told us we were about a mile to the switchbacks. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I assumed the switchbacks had to do with going downhill and getting down off this damn trail. It was scarier than I imagined. I wish I had a picture. People skidding down steep downhills, slowing enough to make a 180-degree turn, then doing that again and again and again. We were all walking at that point. The good part about that was that it was almost the end of the trail, and I made it without falling. But my shoulders hurt, my back was really hurting, my hamstrings hurt, and I was mentally and physically beaten down.
I got to the aid station, refilled my water bottle and grabbed some food and headed off down the towpath. It took me three and a half hours to get through the first 15.5 miles. The next 26.3 miles is on the flat, unpaved C&O Canal towpath. I told myself to relax, this is the easy part, I could run like this all day. Then I laughed and reminded myself that I was going to run like this all day. My Garmin said 16.5 miles, and instead of questioning that (because the AT portion was only 15.5 miles), I assumed magic and went with it. I started doing math in my head, which kept my mind occupied for most of the towpath (I think I have a little bit of Rain Man in me, what can I say?). 50 miles in 10 hours is a 12 minute/mile pace. So I figured how many minutes I had to cut off that AT time to average 12 minute miles, then each mile I would congratulate myself for making up xx seconds or minutes towards the overall goal. I decided to walk about a minute every mile or mile and a half to give my legs a break from the flat, repetitive towpath. I continued with Gu every 5-6 miles, refilling my water at aid stations when needed, and just eating whatever sounded good at each aid station. Cookies, pretzels, chicken noodle soup, PB&J sandwiches, coke, whatever sounded good. Surprisingly, my stomach never got upset the entire day.
The miles ticked by and I was making excellent progress towards finishing under 10 hours. About mile 34 I was wondering where the aid station was. I'd heard this was the one with Santa, which is why I remembered there was an aid station at mile 34 (Miracle on 34th Street...). Odd that it was at mile 35, according to my Garmin. The next aid station had a sign that said the mileage and the distance to the next aid station. It confirmed my worst fear - my Garmin was 0.7 miles off! Even worse, that meant all my math was wrong! Instead of finishing comfortably under 10 hours, it was going to be close.
The last 8.4 miles are on the road. Therefore, after a certain time, at the final towpath aid station, there are people there with orange safety vests. Chances are you will be finishing in the dark, so you run up to them, they tell you "hands by your sides", and then put a vest over your head. This has come to be known as the vest of shame. For the record, there is no shame in running 41 miles and then having to wear a reflective vest because it might get dark before you finish running 9 more. And I was perfectly okay with the vest. But I was disappointed, because it starts to get dark around 5 p.m., which is 10 hours after the start, which is what I'm trying desperately to beat at this point.
I finally got off the towpath. After 26+ miles of completely flat, the road starts with a big uphill. There was a guy in his driveway giving out chicken noodle soup. He had a yellow lab and I was very impressed the dog was not running around like an idiot with all the runners. Then I noticed the shocker collar, which is pretty much standard issue for well-behaved yellow dogs. We tried one on Jake when he was younger and he would just contort his head and neck so that he could run at top speed and not get shocked until he got out of shocker range. Anyway, the soup was awesome, and I drank the broth as I walked up the hill. I looked ahead and saw people walking along the side of the road as far as I could see. Some were walking the ups and running the downs, but most were walking. I decided that would not do. I started running.
I told myself I'd just run until I was safely under 10 hours. The problem with that was that I'd been running since 7 a.m., my Garmin was still off 0.7 miles, and my math was getting a little fuzzy. So I told myself I'd just keep running as long as I could, time was just that, and there really wasn't that much difference between 9:59 and 10:01. But it was nice that I was still able to run (and actually run faster than I'd run all day, which really wasn't that fast, but still), and it was fun to be able to pass people. I started to feel vindicated when some of the people I was passing were not wearing the vest. I barely stopped at the last two aid stations. I laughed when one of the cops out for traffic control was sitting in her car, and when I ran by cheered for me over her loudspeaker. I thanked the guy on the bicycle that had really really bad music blaring for being out there. The last mile was directly into the wind, and I finally took a couple short walk breaks. I finished in 9:56:42. And then I stopped running and realized how freaking cold it was out!
What do you mean "smile"? Everything hurts.
I hurried into the school, put on every piece of clothing in my checked bag and met up with Jeff for the ride home. Surprisingly, for the first time after an ultra (and most marathons) I was actually kind of hungry. I downed a piece of pizza and a giant burrito in short order, then we headed home. The bus dropped us off at the start line where we parked and even though it was dark when we got there in the morning and dark when the bus dropped us off, we walked in circles a little trying to find my car. And it was so cold and windy. Finally to the car, heater cranked up, and headed home. You could hear the wind howling around the car on the highway. I looked at the clock and realized there were still people out there running. It wasn't yet 7 p.m. I couldn't even imagine.
So now it's a little more than a week later. I'm glad I did it, but I still don't think I want to do another one. Marathons are far enough. And as much as I want to like it, I just don't like racing on trails. I know people that run trails that say once you go from road to trails, you won't want to go back to road. I'm ready to go back to the road. Not saying I won't run trails, but I don't think I'll sign up for any races. I think I'm more of a hiker when it comes to trails. The woods are so beautiful, I want to be able to look around at something other than where I'm going to put my next foot.
I'll leave you with a couple proofs of pictures the photographer got of me. And my splits. Hoover Dam Marathon, and the state of Nevada are next up.