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JFK 50 Mile Ultra 2009 Summary

The 47th Annual JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon was held this past Saturday November 21, 2009. It is the oldest 50 Mile Ultra in the USA.  It was my third 50 Mile Ultra Marathon and my 2nd JFK50 (see last year’s JFK50 Mile Ultra Marathon Summary here).  Some new thoughts on the prep and then road, trail, towpath, and road to the finish …


Preparation went very well this year relative to last.  In the seven weeks since the North Face Endurance 50 Mile Ultra, I ran between 30-45 miles per week with four runs in the 20s (longest was 27 miles).  My goal was to train on technique and not do too many miles or too many long runs.  I tapered a bit with a 30 and a 14 mile week.

On the few days leading up the JFK50 I felt a little ‘off’.  Just a little lower energy and stiffness.  In the car drive down I was feeling a little nauseous.  I think this was from not driving and reading/letting my eyes wander.  I am not used to that in a car.

The day started with water, then two bananas.

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.”

The Weather:

This year the weather was much better than last year with temps between 45 and 60 degrees.  At times on the towpath section there was a brief headwind as the path weaved its way along the river.

This year I was also very lucky to have my father join me as my crew so I had the option of changing gear which I did on two occasions.  I started with a light hat, gloves, long sleeve tech shirt, light wind vest, shorts, my trusty NB 790 trail running slippers, and my water belt.

The Start:

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 so I kicked into super low ChiRunning gear with a new technique I have been practicing; and motored right up the hill with almost no effort.  Last year I walked much of this hill.  At the top of the hill I removed the wind vest; and attached it to my water belt.

The Appalachian Trail (AT):

For the next 13 miles you are on the AT. At first, some double then single track, not too technical but some runner congestion. At mile 3 there is a aid station, mostly for fluids.  Then you move onto a paved park road for about 2 miles. On the road, there were a number of very steep hills; many of these I decided to walk. At mile 5.4, back onto the single track until we pop out briefly at an aid station and spectator/crew location at about mile 9.3. I was able to unload my wind vest here to my father.  From there we go back onto single track for the next 5+ miles.

This section of single track was again 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. Many of these rock fields were on a downhill making it very challenging to keep the pressure off my legs (no quads and relaxed lower legs).  As I said after last year, it is the most technical trail section I have ever tried to ‘run’ and required constant attention, which was mentally exhausting.  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. My goal was to get off the AT at the 15.5 mile aid station in 3 hours, which was 20 minutes slower than last year.  Last year I arrived at this point very tense and mentally exhausted.  I arrived right at 3:00 and left the aid station about a minute later. I felt really, really good here; and started out running about an 8:30-8:45 pace very comfortable.

The C&O Canal Towpath:

Last year I reported that the towpath is very flat.  This is not true.  The towpath is a gradual uphill for much of the 26 miles.  About every three or four miles there was an aid station. I started running to each aid station and walking briefly out of them as I had a banana. Later on, whenever my 12 minute countdown timer went off I would stop and walk a few steps while a took a mouthful of water. I did this for most of the towpath section. Later on I walked a little more focusing on relaxing some tension that was building up.  I saw my father again at the mile 27 and mile 38 aid stations. It was a big boost to see him and walk a bit out of the aid stations with him.  At the mile 27 aid station I also had two full cups of broth for sodium.  At the mile 38 aid station we could both feel a cool breeze setting in; he suggested I add a dry short sleeve shirt under my long sleeve.  This was a great call and kept me warm for the rest of the way to the finish.  He also suggested I carry an extra half banana and have it later if needed. From there I had 3.5 miles to get the end of the towpath section.  I ran most of this section looking forward to the end of the towpath.  Just before the aid station, I ate the half banana.  When I arrived at the aid station, they did not have any bananas.  I don’t remember eating much here.

The Roadway to the Finish:

The last 8.4 miles was on rural roads and had a lot of hills. Per last year “Call them ‘gently rolling’ if you want, but not after 41.8 miles.” I started off the towpath running well and passed a lot of people.  I arrived at the first aid station at mile 44 and was disappointed they did not have the boiled potatoes at this station like they did last year.  They also did not have any bananas.  I was looking for fuel but did not really ‘see’ any options.  So I had two cups of broth for some more sodium.  My mistake here was not taking in any carbs.  I had a few very ‘processed’ options but did not consider them.  This created a bug issue later down the road.  I remember running out of this aid station feeling really good and again passed a number of people running up many of the hills.

I arrived at the mile 46 aid station still feeling really good.  Again, no bananas so I had some more broth.  I was again looking for fuel but did not really ‘see’ any options. As I left this aid station I felt distinctly different and by the time I reached mile 47 my brain was shutting down.  I started to walk and had a very uneasy feeling about my cognitive state.  I walked most of the way to an aid station at mile 48.5.  I was now in survival mode so I had a few things that I have not had in a very long time: a handful of M&Ms, a cup of Coke, two cookies and a few pretzels.  I ate as I continued walking.  About 5 minutes later my brain rebooted and I felt like a new person.  At the same time a runner came up on me and gave me some encouragement.  I started to run with him and felt great.  We turned the corner toward the finish and went through the last intersection.  I thanked him for the encouragement and took off for the finish.  I am guessing at sub-8 pace and I passed about 15 people in the last half mile.  I was greeted by a medal, a handshake and a congratulations.  My father was also there which made the finish that much more special.

Aid Stations/Support:

The Aid Stations were well stocked and full of hearty volunteers. I made it a point to thank them for being out there.  Support from volunteers, crew and spectators across the course was again beyond any expectation.

I do wish the same food options (ie bananas) were available at aid stations 44 and 46.  But in the end you have to know when you need fuel, take the situation that life gives you and adapt to it.  I was stiff and rigid in my thinking towards ‘processed’ sugar.  For me with a history of fuel issues and a body type that does not have enough body fat in reserve, I should have known what the effect of not taking carbs at mile 44 and 46 was going to be. Lesson learned (again).

ChiRunning Focuses:

Almost four years ago to the day I was introduced to ChiRunning.  Simple common sense principles transformed my running.  Period.  I have enjoyed higher and higher levels of efficiency and been running injury-free ever since.  I enjoy these ultra events as a test of my ongoing ‘practice’ to improve my running.

Much of the ChiRunning technique has become subconscious but there is always another level to get to physically and mentally.  It is also very interesting how past habits tend to sneak back into the picture when the body and mind start to fatigue.

On the AT my main focus was on efficient hill technique and staying relaxed on the trail.  Last year I did not do well here; this year was much better which was evident when I started out on the towpath section.  Across the entire course I mainly focused on one general concept: “Let your body (position) do the work”.  Whenever I came back to this point, the tension in my body released and my speed picked up effortlessly.  On the last road section my main focus again came back to efficient hill technique.  I am always amazed at how it is possible to run (fast) without it feeling like any effort at all – it all comes down to putting yourself in a supportive position (alignment) and then allowing it happen (relaxation).  These are the two main concepts in ChiRunning.

Special Thanks:

There is again much to be grateful for and a lot of thank yous to offer to family and friends.  A very special thanks to my father for making the trip with me and providing the support that made a huge difference. It was great to share this endurance event with him.  When I was in high school he was running 3:0x marathons, so he started me on this path even though I never liked running in high school; and it took me about 15 years since then to come back to running and to experience his love for the sport.

Also a very special thank you to the rest of the ultra team; Marge, Susan, Mary and others who I have met along the way.  Also a very big thank you to all my running partners and clients.

The Take-away:

I could be disappointed by my time(*), but 50 miles is 50 miles.  I physically feel very good today with no major aches/pains; which is a primary goal for any run or event.   For me the reason for these events is to learn and experience life through running.  One of my favorite Jim Rohn concepts is ‘to set a goal to accomplish X, but not for the X itself; but for the person you must become to achieve it’.

As I ended my summary from last year’s JFK … As it says in the ChiRunning Book on page 41, “I had a [very] good running [and life] lesson” yesterday … and that is really what it is all about for me.


Brief post event update 11/27/09:  Ran Wednesday 11/25 after the race about 6 miles at about 8:30 pace.  Feel great with little to no recovery; only some minor overall fatigue.  Ran again Friday 11/27 after over-eating all day Thursday.  Did about 4 miles on the trails.  Felt good but I can tell my body needs to rest and detox a bit.


[* If you really need to know the number: total time: 9:39 which is 20 minutes slower than last year.  Where did that 20 minutes come from?  Maybe because of the slower AT section per my plan but I really ran well otherwise.  The last 3 miles certainly added time but probably not much more than last year.]


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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

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Posted on Monday, Nov. 23rd 2009 4:31 PM | by echifitness | in All, Barefoot/Minimalist, ChiRunning, Events, Fitness | 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “JFK 50 Mile Ultra 2009 Summary”

  1. JFK50 Mile Ultra 2009 Summary | Says:

    […] too many miles or too many long runs. I tapered a bit with a 30 and a 14 mile week. Full report at EnerChi Fitness Blog Written by David Stretanski VN:F [1.1.7_509]please wait…Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes […]

  2. 2009 Running Year In Review « EnerChi Fitness Blog Says:

    […] – Hatrun 50K (March) – Turkey Swamp 50K (August) – North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler (September) – JFK 50 Miler (November) […]

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