The day finally came to lace up my trail shoes and toe the start line at the 54th Annual JFK 50-mile race – America’s oldest ultramarathon.
I had been waiting for over a year to pin the bib to my shorts. I knew this race would surely test my strength and mental fortitude. JFK would mark my third ultra-marathon for the year and the biggest.
I joined several friends from last year’s race, and a couple others I had met throughout the year at some USMES running events.
Several of us met up at the Holiday Inn Express in Hagerstown, MD Friday night. This hotel was in a perfect location for packet pickup and a pre-race dinner. Packet pickup was across the road at Homewood Suites. It was by no means your typical packet pickup in that it was very low-key. Once you entered the lobby, all you saw were a couple of white boards with all of the runners’ names and corresponding bib numbers. After finding my bib number, I was directed to another room where they had all sorts of WAY overpriced JFK items to purchase. I settled for a “JFK50” sticker.
My pre-race meal is typically a banana and a Clif Bar, but this time I opted for the hotel’s continental breakfast. They altered their breakfast schedule to accommodate all of the runners. After eating, we departed for Boonsboro High School to drop off post-race bags (shower items and clean clothes), and to get any last minute directions at the pre-race briefing.
The pre-race briefing concluded around 6:10am. Since the race started promptly at 6:30am, this gave us 20-minutes to make our way from the high school to the start line. As I started the walk to town, I thought I would have plenty of time, but that was not the case. The start gun went off well before I was at the start line – plus, I had to make one last “pit stop.” Luckily, I was able to pick out Brian from the crowd and I hung with him. He had done this course several times, so following a veteran was a no brainer.
The 50-mile journey has three different types of terrain: road (~8 miles), Appalachian Trail (~16 miles), and the C&O Towpath (~26 miles).
The climb out of town was not a joke! The road out of town up took us to the Appalachian Trail (AT) where we gained about 1,225 of elevation in the first five miles. Using Brian’s ultra-experience would save my legs for the big push at the end. He called out landmarks ahead for our run/walk strategy up the hill. This worked perfectly as we made our way to the AT, pushing hard where we could, passing runners to gain a clearer path for the trail ahead.
Once hitting the AT there was no slowing down! I had never seen a trail with so many jagged and loose rocks, roots jutting out, and washed out areas. One miss step could spell disaster and possible end the journey! I am sure the surrounding scenery was amazing, but my focus was on my next step and the sounds of the runner behind me. I was trying to keep enough separation between us so I would not get tripped up.
The AT portion was about 16 miles with an aid station approximately at the halfway point. The descent off of the AT was even more treacherous than the overall trail. Taking the switchbacks at a blinding speed, I often found myself grabbing and swinging on the low hanging trees for support. The whole time I felt like I was in a controlled fall, probably because I had lost 958 feet in just 2 miles!
After leaving the AT, I encountered the first main aid station and they had tons of food and drinks. From here it was a quick jaunt to the C&O Towpath. My legs and feet welcomed the level ground and allowed me to pick up my run/walk plan (8 min/2 min). This worked out perfectly for the next 26 miles – adjusting where necessary. I tried to keep a nice and steady pace throughout, and the walk breaks allowed me to intake food according to my plan. I always stopped and refueled at each aid station. The tables looked more like mini buffets with endless amounts of cookies, chips, candy, and a variety of drinks. The volunteers (who were AMAZING!) made the stops as painless as possible. They would take my hydration bottle and top it off while I collected a small cup full of M&Ms and potato chips. I tried to never spend more than a couple of minutes at each aid station.
After covering about 15 miles on the Towpath (~31 miles), I began to feel as though pins and needles were stabbing my soles every time I transitioned from walking to running. There was no pain associated with running, and this went on for the rest of race. I attributed the feeling to the distance and time on my feet – my longest to date.
Nearing the end of the Towpath, the weather began to change. What had been a perfectly cool and sunny day was now turning into a dreary one. The wind picked up as the storm-front approached, whipping up a wall of leaves and debris all around us. Luckily, I did not have much further until the paved road.
Reaching the end of the Towpath meant I had traveled about 42 miles and had eight miles until the finish. I quickly ate a gel and topped off my water for the last time. As soon as I hit the pavement, I encountered the last major climb followed by small rolling hills which continued all the way to the finish line. As I neared the finish line, the once distant rain was upon us and it quickly turned to sleet, then snow in the final miles.
My average pace on the C&O Towpath was about 9:30, and my average pace on the road was 8:30. Needless to say, it felt great to stretch my legs again.
I will never forget making the final left turn before the finish line! I could see a crowd of spectators and the big red timing clock numbers. The end was finally within reach! Still feeling great, I left everything I had on the course, and sprinted up the hill to the finish line! Hearing my name echoing across the finish line was a true sense of accomplishment.
Overall, this was a great race for my first 50-miler. That being said, I do not feel the need to return for a better finish time.
The data according to my Fenix3:
- Elevation gain: 3,215ft
- Distance: 51.6mi
- Elapsed Time: 9:28:16
- Pace: 11:00/mi