The 46th Annual JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon was held this past Saturday November 22, 2008. It is the oldest 50 Mile Ultra in the USA. Ultramarathon –noun: any footrace of length greater than a marathon.
It was my first 50 Mile Ultra. Previously I had done one 50K, a few marathons and a few very long training runs. Some thoughts on the road, trail, towpath, and road to the finish …
The field is limited to 1000 runners across two start times, 5AM (optional, about 250 runners) and 7AM, with an absolute finish time for everyone by 7PM. And yes, more than 1000 would do this if allowed.
The Course (as described on the JFK 50 Miler website), maps:
“The first 2.5 miles are on a well-paved road that climbs up 500 feet to meet the Appalachian Trail. The next 13.0 miles basically (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles) follow this rolling and sometimes very rocky section of the famous North-South footpath. At approximately 14.5 miles the course goes down 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 surface that is free of all automotive 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.”
Expected to be cold and windy between 23 to 35 degrees across the day … and yes, you are out there for most of the day. So the question becomes what do you wear? Most people had crew who could help them adjust clothing for weather changes, and provide anything else they needed. I was running solo so I had to make a decision on what to wear for the whole day. I ended up with a light hat, gloves, long sleeve tech shirt, light wind vest, loose tights over running shorts, my trusty NB 790 trail running slippers, my water belt and most importantly some borrowed speed wings (aka arm warmers … thanks Diane!) which saved me. Without them my arms, and likely me, would have been very cold. All things considered, I was dressed well for the conditions. I don’t remember feeling very cold or overheated at any point. Call it luck if you want.
To the Start:
A 1/2 mile walk from a high school staging area to the start in downtown Boonsboro, MD. The temp on the bank sign said 19 degrees … luckily we walked, stood for about two minutes and started right away.
The first section is 2.5 miles to the beginning of the AT. All uphill with one dip and then up a very steep hill. At about mile two, it got really steep and most of the people around me starting walking. Being a 50M and JFK50 newbie, I took their lead and did the same.
The Appalachian Trail (AT):
For the next 13 miles you are on the AT. At first, some single track, not too technical but some congestion blocking your view with some more cautious trail runners. Then out onto a paved park road for about 2 miles. On the road, there were a number of very steep hills and again the people around me started to walk and I followed suit. At mile 5.4, we head back onto the single track until we pop out briefly at an aid station at about mile 10, then back onto the single track. The single track was a rolling trail with varying steepness and technical degree. At points it seemed like there was 100s and 100s of yards of nothing but rocks, boulders and very few ‘safe’ places to put your foot down. It was the most technical trail I have ever been on and required constant attention, which was mentally exhausting. There was also more congestion at times which blocked your view. We started to come up on some of the 5AM starters which added to the congestion as people were trying to safely get by. The trail rolled along a ridge with some decent winds. Rumor has it that the temp on this portion of the AT was 13 degrees. At mile 14.5 the trail heads down a very steep decline. Eighteen switchbacks … some of them you had to physically lower yourself around the turn. Impossible to run much of it, congestion ahead of you limiting your view and footsteps behind all making you just a bit uneasy. At the bottom of the switchbacks was a small field with many crew and spectators. We then went about a quarter mile along a single track to the aid station at the beginning of the C&O Canal Towpath. My goal was to get here feeling relatively ‘fresh’. I felt good, but I could tell the AT took much more out me both mentally and physically than I had expected. It was just so hard to stay both mentally and physically relaxed. As my mind settled at the aid station, I could really feel the tension that had built up in my body.
The C&O Canal Towpath:
Snaking NNW along the river, the towpath is very flat, dirt, and about one lane wide. The wind was mostly a brisk headwind for this 26+ mile portion of the course. Every time I looked to the left at the river I could see the wind on it. About every three or four miles there was an aid station. I started just focusing on getting to the next one. After coming off the AT, it was clear I still had a very tough day ahead of me. I started to do a run/walk at about 6/1, sometimes 5/2 in the heavier wind, sometimes 10+/1. When I ran I felt strong and held good form but wanted to make sure I managed my energy level. All along the towpath and to the finish, I ate a lot at each aid station; maybe too much. I had some food with me but opted for the occasional chicken broth, half a banana, a few pretzels and a few other things I usually don’t eat. I was concerned about losing my energy and having my temp drop. I knew if I got cold at any point the day would get much more complicated.
The Roadway to the Finish:
The last 8.4 miles was on rural roads and had a lot of hills. Call them ‘gently rolling’ if you want, but not after 41.8 miles. Still working on just the miles to next aid station, at each one I ate a bit and kept moving forward. At one aid station, they had boiled potatoes; it was like a mirage when I saw them and they provided a mental pick-me-up. As the sun was getting lower in the sky, you could really feel the temp start to drop. It was again very windy on this portion of course. At one point a gust stood me straight up so I walked a bit until it passed. At about a half mile to go, you make a right turn and just up over the a small hill you can see the finish line. The sun was setting to the right and there was a slight tailwind for the first time all day. There was a group of people standing in the cold cheering people in. As I crossed the line, a woman put my medal around my neck. She got a big hug and a thank you in return.
The Aid Stations were well stocked and full of hearty volunteers. I think I might have been warmer than many of them were, and they got a lot of thanks from me for being there. Support from volunteers, crew and spectators across the course was beyond any expectation. Everyone was so supportive, almost everyone I passed looked me straight in the eye and offered some type of encouragement. Runners would encourage each other as they passed AND if they were passed. Many runners on a run/walk would leap frog each other. I did that with a number of people.
There is much to be grateful for and a lot of thanks to offer. For now I will offer them directly and provide some information in future posts. Where I was … medically this past summer, at three years ago injured often and frustrated, at ten years ago able to do very little physical activity at all without pain … you can’t get here from there without a lot of help. In the end, it is about making choices and taking action with a lot of support. I think a lot about just a few simple words from one of my personal development mentors Jim Rohn … “If you don’t like the view, change it. You are not a tree”.
Special thanks and congratulations of course go to my two fellow Jersey Shore Running Club teammates who also took on this adventure. Susan (left) and Marge (right), thank you for all the support and encouragement. I don’t think I would have attempted or could have completed this if not for the two of you.
I learned a lot; about myself and about my running. My goals were mainly non-time goals. I thought I might have done better on time(*), but in the end the time is just a number. If its a number or a lesson, I take the lesson any day for it will serve me for the rest of my life … and something I get to pass on. As it says in the ChiRunning Book on page 41, “I had a [very] good running [and life] lesson” yesterday.
Why did I take on this particular challenge? More on that next time [now posted here].
[* If you really need to know the numbers: total time: 9:19:45, average pace: 11:10, 216th out of 925, 64th out of 249 age group]
Thoughts on this post? Leave your comment or question below and join the discussion …
David Stretanski is a holistic health, fitness and wellness coach and Certified ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Instructor. For more information on David, please see his About Me, Contact page or his website at http://www.eChiFitness.com.
ChiRunning® and ChiWalking® are registered trademarks of ChiLiving, Inc.