RR: JFK 50

This weekend I toed the line at the JFK50, one of the most prestigious and historical 50 mile races in the nation; if I finished it, it would be my first 50 miler. The race occurs between my current town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and my hometown of Potomac, Maryland and was originally designed by President Kennedy as a test of physical fitness for his military officers.

Pre Race

The days leading up to the race were awesome. My work load was low, I ate carbs like it was my job and received so much outreach and words of encouragement from my friends. One of my most supportive friends was my best friend and neighbor, Ben, who was kind enough to crew for me. Ben and I got a late start hitting the road, and had a great drive with the exception of when the GPS said “turn left in 49 miles.” I seriously almost threw up knowing we were almost an hour from our destination and I was planning to run that far in roughly 12 hours. I am proof that smart people do dumb things.

Lucas, another runner from Pittsburgh who was also running JFK, was kind enough to get my packet for me since we were late. Because he and his dad, Lou (you may remember them from Annie’s Run), are staying at the same hotel as me and Ben we all got together to swap packets, electrolyte pills and talk about the game plan for the next day before going to bed.

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My bib.I’m really doing this.

Race Day

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Me and Lucas before heading to the start

Lou and Lucas follow me and Ben to the start where there is a prerace meeting. The prerace meeting didn’t end in time to give most runners enough time to get to the start and I had only just said goodbye to Ben and Lou (Lucas had split off earlier) as the gun went off. We begin to run and on the sideline I see someone I recognize but can’t place. He yells my name and I immediately realize it’s my friend Ron, who I know through the Marine Corps marathon. It is so nice to see a friendly and unexpected face.

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Ron caught this picture of me at the start.I’m the only one turned around

During the pre-race meeting they said something about “When you go up the mountain, stay to the right.” Did he just say “When you go up the mountain?” Seriously, why do I do this to myself? Before we get to the mountain, I see Ray, the marathoner who carried the American flag during the MCM on the sidelines waving our flag. It makes me proud and I thank him.

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You guys remember Ray from MCM

The Mountain and the AT

The first three miles are effectively climbs that are unrunnable for people in my part of the pack if they want to save their legs. It’s a little frustrating to be walking the first part of the race, but I know I need to play it smart and I befriended some really nice people while we hike the hills.

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A short, steep hill. Most were pretty long

We get onto the Appalachian Trail (AT) and I quickly tuck behind two girls who have the same speed and technical skill as I do on the trails. Their chatter keeps me entertained and I’m so glad I found them. Unfortunately, I lose them at the mile 9 aid station.

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Getting back on the trail after the aid station

As I moved forward on the second section of the AT I got behind Jim and Dave who were not only fantastically interesting, but were incredible athletes. Dave had finished 10 JFKs and Jim was an Ironman; they worked together for years, and didn’t realize they were both running until they saw each other at the pasta dinner on Friday night. They talked about flying planes (something on my bucket list) and were going at roughly my pace so I stuck with them until mile 15.5 where we make the transition from the AT to the towpath. The AT was definitely my favorite part of the race.

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Jim and Dave going down the switchbaks on the tail end of the AT. Still not as technical as Laurel.

At mile 15.5 I met up with Ben and Lou to switch from trail shoes to road shoes. What I’m not sure I’ve made clear is that Ben is brilliant. An Ivy League grad, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate, if I had to trust my life to anyone’s brain, it would be Ben’s. Knowing Ben’s brilliance, I shouldn’t have been surprised that after I explained to Ben that I’d need to switch my shoes and my chip that he would be ready for me. He had me sit in a chair, clipped my chip from one shoe and put it on the other while I changed my socks, and then, while I was putting on my shoes, he put my long-sleeve shirt on the exterior of my pack with an arm sleeve sticking out in case I wanted to reach it to pull it out later without taking off my pack. His efficiency was artful. If I would have trained Ben on how to be the best support person EVER, I couldn’t have trained him that well. He was totally the MVS (most valuable spectator). With some quick hugs for Ben and Lou, I head onto the C&O towpath part of the course, where we will run for 26.3 miles.

The Towpath

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View from the towpath

I hate the towpath. People spread out so I don’t have entertainment. The path is pretty but boring. There are tons of decaying leaves and tiny pebbles which makes gaiters much more necessary here than on the AT. My legs feel good and I run for a few miles, not focusing on how far I’ve run and still have to go, but instead focusing on getting to the next aid station. Every JFK vet I’ve spoken with has told me they use a run/walk on the towpath so if for no reason other than boredom I start doing a 5:1 run:walk. Some vets run by, tell me I look great and that I have the right approach, but I’m so bored. As I come into the mile 27 aid station, I have no idea what happened, but I fell apart. Out of nowhere I felt like I wanted to cry. Again, out of nowhere, and even while keeping a good clip, I felt like I was never going to finish the race. It was so overwhelming and I walked a little to regain my composure. I kept moving forward, losing my mind because a terrible pop song was stuck in my head. It’s as though my brain, in retaliation for making it work so hard all the time, was punishing me.

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As a therapist, seeing all the runners who were willing to run JFK made me confident I’ll always have clients- you’ve gotta be crazy to run 50 miles!

At the mile 30 aid station I was bummed to see the next aid station was 4.4 miles. Not far, but I was at the point where it was getting tough to keep my head in the game. At some point I took my inhaler, which made things better, and with roughly a mile left to go (my Garmin was off by about a half mile at this point) I found a desperately need porta potty. Once I step out of the porta potty, the scene on the trail had changed entirely: instead of people running slowly or walking, people looked like they were being chased. I hadn’t seen people run that fast all day. I was totally confused but started running with them. In a stroke of brilliance that would literally save my race, Toby had suggested that I make a pace chart with goal paces and cutoffs, laminate it and keep it with me.

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The pace chart.

I pulled out my pace chart and realized I had roughly one mile to cover in 12 minutes to make the next cutoff. I don’t know how I missed that there was a cutoff so close. I had been running roughly 12 minute miles but I’m not sure how far off my watch is from the race clock (I knew it was roughly a minute, but I was going to be down to seconds, here). As I run as hard as I can, I start getting so angry with myself. It was such a stupid mistake to not be thinking about the next cutoff- I had been thinking forward to 6 pm. I had been checking my pace on my Garmin, but the extra half mile had messed up my overall pace. I start thinking about all my long, hard training, all that I had sacrificed for this race, all the people who I knew were rooting for me back home. I thought of Ben coming all the way from Pittsburgh to crew for me and I knew that he would be heartbroken if I didn’t finish if only because he loves me so much and I’d be heartbroken. At this point, I’m convinced I’m going to DNF. As I came up to the aid station I see an official with a watch and I hear him yell 2:59. I had less than 60 seconds. I am terrified to run by him for fear he’s going to pull me, but as I run by he lets me keep going. I made the cutoff by seconds. I was one of the last people to cross, if not the last person; I didn’t stop to check.

I feel like I’m against a wall being against the clock: every hour until the finish there is a cutoff. I don’t know how long I can keep up the paces I need to. I hate the feeling of needing to make up time and crawling out of a hole. A small group of MoCo Road Runners is ahead of me, and I can’t remember for the life of me if the girl turned around to speak to me or someone else, but she said, “Now is not the time to run scared.” I know she’s right, but I am scared. I’m terrified. I have so much on the line, so little left and so far to go. I think to myself, “Just make it to the next aid station.” I did, banking 10 minutes. I take a seat to clear out all the debris from the C&O canal that had collected in my shoes and got back on the road. Mentally I’m feeling much more in the game knowing I have 70 minutes to run the 3.3 miles to make the next cutoff. I make the next cutoff and bank more time still.  I walk out of the aid station and right as I’m about to pick it up, a guy starts running next to me like he’s out for a stroll. “Don’t make it look so easy!” I banter with him. We run together for a little bit before I realize he’s the guy from the Baltimore marathon with the Steelers jersey! What a small world! I really enjoy Breck’s company; he’s running about my pace and keeping my mind off the fact that I’ve run 40 some miles and still have 10 to go.

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You remember Breck from the Baltimore Marathon

The Rolling Road to the Finish

After what really was an eternity on the towpath (~5 1/2 hours) we finally get on the rolling country roads for the final 8 miles.

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The last mile marker on the towpath

I have a headlamp and Breck forgot his flashlight. I tell him to run ahead if I’m slowing him down, but he stays with me and I am thrilled. If the only reason Breck stayed with me is for my headlamp, then that was the best $50 I’ve ever spent. We walk the up hills, run the down hills and run where we can in between. The mile markers seem to be so long, but they count down. We stop by aid stations that have warm soup, which is just incredible, but don’t waste too much time. I’m perpetually checking my watch, still terrified of the cutoffs, even though we could walk 20 minute/miles and still finish.

At the second to last aid station I see two spectators who I have seen at every aid station and have cheered for me and lied to me (they told me I looked great so I knew it was BS ). I took a moment to thank them both and one of them says, “Congratulations.” I almost begin to sob but with four miles left it’s much too early for that. Breck is doing the math and he thinks we can come in under 11:30. At this point, I just want to finish, but if he wants a sub 11:30 I’ll do all I can as his running buddy to help him do it.

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At the last aid station. Odd, no?

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One mile left.

We run the last mile and a half, passing dozens of people, and for the last half mile the volunteers start saying “Congratulations.” I’m hugely choked up and as I start to see the lights and hear the crowd cheer, the clock comes into focus: 11:28. We can finish sub-11:30. I hear Ben call my name from the side and his voice and smile are the last push I need to get through the chute.

I cross the finish line and sob. Breck and I finish in 11:29:16 and 11:29:17.

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The worst picture of me ever taken after such an epic day. I’m sun and/or windburned, my eyes are bloodshot, I’m sweaty and I’m crying. But it captures me and Breck after 50 miles.

11 ½ hours of running, almost DNFing, making friends, losing faith and then remembering to believe in myself. Volunteers are smiling and patting me on the back and I see Ben, who I embrace in an all out hug while sobbing on his shoulder. He whispers in my ear, “You did it,” which only makes me sob harder. When I sent Rick Freeman my Laurel Highlands Race Report, he told me that ultra runners are allowed to cry- in fact, they’ve been known to do much worse. You know that I’m the type to go all out, so I don’t just cry, I full out ugly cry for a little bit and try to process the enormity of the day.

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Me and Ben at the finish. Finally done crying. And running.


Post-Race

Lucas had an incredible race. At his 50 mile debut, he came in under 7 hours, in the top 25 of a very competitive field and within a half hour of Scott Jurek. I am amazed and inspired by his athleticism.

I came within 5 hours of Scott Jurek I’m not fast, but I’m still pretty amazed by my athleticism. During the training for this event, I ran 670 miles, 2 official ultras (and one self-supported 50K) and three marathons. I was hit by a car and found out that my heart doesn’t always beat right. But more important than mileage, races and possible setbacks is that I realized I am strong, tough and I am a legitimate athlete. My pro runner buddy Rich once told me I was going to surprise a lot of people in the next few years. I told him the only people I would surprise were the ones who underestimated me, myself included. This year has been a trial by fire but I think with this race I finally understand my physical and mental potential and am excited to fully express that potential.

A very big thank you to all who have supported me on this crazy journey and those who will continue to support me on whatever crazy journey is up next.

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