Course description (from JFK website):
“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 night before the race I was pretty torn on what to wear. Temperatures were forecasted to start in the mid-20's and peak in the mid-30's. Since I hadn't yet run in tights this fall, I didn't really feel like trying something "new" for such a long run. Besides, I've got some meat on them bones so I figured the cold couldn't be too bad. Hmmm... remember that for later.
I met up with the MCRRC crowd at Boonsboro High School for a group picture and then the pre-race briefing. After the briefing we made a short 5 minute walk to the start line just around the corner. It was 19 degrees out at 7am. The masses crowded together for some synergistic warmth and within a few minutes the gunshot went off and we were off running.
Miles 0 - 2.5 (Boonsboro roads): I ran most of the first few miles as the roads climbed towards the Appalachian Trail. Most others seemed to be doing the same. I also hesitated about the "walk every hill" mantra because I didn't want to get stuck behind any slowpokes on the trail. Keith Knipling had warned me about this since there are so many runners in JFK and many don't have vast experience running on trails. At a few points it got really steep and everyone seemed to wise up and slow to a walk. Do as the masses do, right? Well, if you're a newbie like myself you do.
Miles 2.5 - 15.5 (Appalachian Trail): Oh trails. How I love thee. As I stepped onto the AT I felt right at home. In the past few months I had heard horror stories from everyone about how bad and miserable the rocks were on the AT. Don't get me wrong, the rocks were everywhere. I mentioned to someone that they should rename one of the sections Detroit Rock City because the path was 95% jagged rock / 5% dirt. But there is something about technical terrain that gets me going. I like to focus my brain, forget any fears that may linger about falling and flow right over it. It's fun, it takes skill and it gets my adrenaline going. All in all, the AT was my favorite part of JFK. I only wish there were more miles on it's rugged terrain. We ended the AT with a series of downhill switchbacks that led us to crowds of cheering spectators, crews and volunteers at Weverton Cliffs. I stopped at the first of three MCRRC aide stations, filled my water bottle, had some salted boiled potatoes and wasted no time in getting back to running.
Miles 15.5 - 42 (C&O Canal towpath): I started the first few miles of the towpath running with Kari Brown, the 3rd overall female finisher. She was cool and definitely had a good pace going, but as the miles ticked away I decided it would probably be a smart idea to take 1-minute walking breaks after each aide station (about one station every 4 or 5 miles) and let her and the others pull ahead. With the Potomac River to my left and miles and miles of towpath to come, I chugged along keeping a 9:00 - 9:30 pace.
Mizuno Breath Thermo gloves that warm up with moisture. For looking like a pair of regular, cheapo, knit gloves they provided plenty of warmth. My legs on the other hand became more and more red as they got pounded by the blistering wind. About halfway through the towpath I realized that it wasn't going to warm up and shorts probably weren't the best choice for the day. Oh well. You live and you learn. I think for future reference my temperature cutoff for shorts will be around 30-35 degrees.
The second MCRRC aide station at mile 27 thought they would be funny and taunt us with signs with slogans such as "If this were a marathon you'd be home by now", "What kind of nut are you?", and my favorite "Free limousine service to Williamsport, courtesy of MCRRC (Sun-Fri only)". If nothing else the signs were something to laugh about in addition to the thoughts of "holy crap am I really running 50 miles?" and "when will this God forsaken towpath end?"
Miles 42 - 50.3 (roads to the finish): If you read the course description at the beginning of this entry, you see that they mention "gently rolling" roads. No. After 42 miles, these roads were not "gentle" to my already beat up legs in the slightest. The first hill right as you exit the towpath is biggest of them all. Needless to say, I walked it. As I was walking up I saw a familiar silver van driving down. It was my Dad, a couple minutes ahead of schedule (as was I) hoping to find a parking spot to see me finish the towpath. Lucky for him I was right there, so he pulled up beside me, rolled down his window and started hootin' and hollerin' in typical Dad form. He asked how I felt. "I've been running all day. How do you think I feel? I feel like death. But I'm way ahead of schedule and kicking ass!" He yelled more encouragements, pulled away and met up with me at the next aide station. I did the usual water bottle refill, grabbed miscellaneous food and this time opted to take 2 aspirin since I was offered some and it previously hadn't crossed my mind. I just figured the pain was something that was now permanent for the remainder of the race. I was wrong about that one because the aspirin dulled the pain after a couple of minutes and I was able to slightly pick up my pace.
As I came to the second to last aid station at mile 46 one of the volunteers came out ahead, started running with me as I approached and asked what I needed. "I need the finish line! Nothing for me thanks!" I had plenty of water to last me the last few miles and I knew that stopping for aide now would mean going through the slow and difficult process of getting moving again. Full speed ahead to the finish! Well, maybe just regular speed. Either way, I passed through the final aide station, dodged a bike cop that nearly ran into me (I thought they were there for our safety?) and knew that there was nothing that could stop me now. As I approached the finish line at Williamsport Middle School I could hear the announcer calling my name from quite the distance back. I wondered how he knew who I was. Clearly he couldn't see my bib number from this distance. Then I squinted and saw Dad standing next to the announcer - he was cheating! Sweet. More glory for me! I jumped up and did a heel click as I approached the finish line (I've always wanted to do that) and finished my first 50-miler in 8:23:32.
Post-race: I wasn't overwhelmed with teary-eyed emotion like I was after my first marathon, but I was extremely happy to be finished and the sense of accomplishment from finishing my first 50-miler in such a great time still boggles my mind. I headed inside for some pizza, Endurox and a nice warm shower. Man that change of clothes felt good! During my post-race socializing in the gym I met up with Bryon who just finished pacing a friend 35 miles while wearing a 15 lb backpack (he's training for Marathon des Sables next year, bad-ass!). I also met up with Mike, a friend from the Reston Runners who I met at the PHT 50k. Now in case you were wondering how cold it was, check this. Mike had to drop at mile 34 because his CORNEAS FROZE OVER! Yeah. He started losing sight, wondered why the towpath was getting all foggy and had to pull over for a medical check. Let that be a lesson to all of those who don't use protection out there! (Eye protection, duh. Wear some sunglasses people, especially if it's cold and windy!)
All in all, I am extremely satisfied with how the day turned out. I sacrificed a lot to get to where I am today, and the sense of accomplishment of not only finishing a 50-miler, but finishing in 8:23 (well ahead of the 10:00 my coach told me to shoot for) goes to show that it was worth every sacrifice. I seem to have found a sport that I'm relatively good at, keeps me in great shape and I thoroughly enjoy. This is just the first of many more ultras in my future! Thank you to everyone who made this event and my involvement in it possible!
*Sigh* <-- the sound of satisfaction
(Photo credits: Brightroom, MCRRCphotos.com, and my camera)