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December 12 2013 / Emily

Race Report: JFK 50 Mile

Cookies.  I ran 50 miles, and it was fueled by cookies.

Let’s back up.  The JFK 50 mile race runs from Boonsboro to Williamsport, MD.  In an interesting twist, it was almost exactly 50 miles from my parents’ house to the start location in Boonsboro.  It was very convenient to stay in a familiar and comfortable place the night before the race.  Little did I know what a good decision that was… until the day of the race when my friend and running buddy Billy told me he came back from his dinner to find his hotel on FIRE, and they had to switch hotels!  Good grief, like one needs another reason to have a bad night of sleep before a big run!  Thankfully it was in another section of the hotel and his belongings were safe.  You can read more about the hotel fire here.

So, the morning of the race my mother was so kind to drive me to the start.  I had originally planned on driving myself, but wasn’t sure how my legs would cooperate for the drive back home afterward.  The 7:00am race start and 5:30am packet pick-up start had us backing up to alarm clocks around 3:30am to give time to eat breakfast (oatmeal for now, banana in my bag for later) and hit the road by 4:30am.  Sweet mom said it wasn’t the first time she has woken up at 3am for me.  How lucky am I to have such great parental support?

On our way to the start, we drove past the 5:00am start group.  Most runners begin at 7:00 but if you meet certain criteria there is a 5:00 start option.  I believe it is mostly for those who have run JFK a number of times before and older runners.  It gives 2 extra hours to complete the event.  They started in the dark and we watched a parade of bobbing headlights and reflective stripes climb a very. long. hill.  It dawned on me that I would be climbing that very. long. hill. myself before long.  Better not to think about that yet.

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can’t miss that yellow!

We made good time to the school where packet pick-up and the pre-race meeting would be held.  The actual start was like 3/4 mile away, but with no good area to gather.  I collected my neon yellow shirt, timing chip and bib number.  There were no other goodies to speak of, just a bunch of pamphlets about the area.  A little disappointing.

There were not many people there yet, but soon more runners started to arrive and my mom headed out.  I grabbed a spot on the floor in the gymnasium to wait for the pre-race meeting and hopefully find Billy.  As it turns out, I was able to find a running acquaintance Phyllis who I’d only learned the night before would be running the race.  She did an amazing job – follow this link to her blog to read her recap.  Great job Phyllis!

pre-race meeting

pre-race meeting

During the pre-race meeting, everyone had a seat and the race director welcomed us to the 51st annual JFK 50 Miler.  There were instructions, reminders (no iPods!), introduction of some of the military folks running the race, a moment of silence for the memory of JFK, and a variety of pace times mentioned with race veterans announced, so you could know to look for the lady in the pink shirt and pigtails if you were hoping for an 11 hour finish.  That sort of thing.  Then it was time to follow the crowd the 1000 meters to the actual start line.

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flags flying half staff to recognize the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination

Here I started getting worried that I wouldn’t be able to find Billy.  But just a minute or two before the gun sounded, he found me,  That is where I learned about his hotel fire.  BANG!  It was time to start the race.  Temps were about 32 degrees, winds around 7 mph and projected to get stronger.  This was the first race where I was going to see the sun rise and fall; where the temperatures would climb and drop again.  Long day.  I wore a half-zip long sleeve over a singlet, my RaceReady capris, cotton gloves, earband, and my road shoes.  I’d waffled over trail shoes or road shoes and decided that with less than 15 miles on technical trails, the road shoes would be better, lighter, more comfortable.  Possibly a mistake.  Also carried my phone to use as a camera and lifeline if necessary.

The route went uphill right away, but I knew the start of the race was going to be the most challenging in terms of terrain, and it would get better.  We went 2-3 miles on a paved road before getting to the Appalachian Trail (AT).  We walked that long hill, that I had seen the 5:00 starters glowing up.  The trail was rockier than I anticipated, and moderately congested at the start.  Soon we came to a clearing with the first aid station and a paved section of steep climbs.  Billy’s Garmin measures percent grade and he said at one point we were at 22% grade climb.  It was exhausting.  We hiked up this and were in awe of the leaders who presumably ran up this steep, steep incline.  Chatted with other runners around us.  Time for rocky trail again!

so many rocks!

so many rocks!

I have run plenty of trails in my day, but this was some of the rockiest, and I was not willing to misstep and ruin my whole race at the beginning, so I was more cautious here than I would have been if it was a shorter race.  Often there was no real choice on whether or not to walk, as passing was tough, so if someone ahead was walking, I was walking.  Not that I tried terribly hard to get around.  I knew to take the AT section easy as there were many miles left to go.  Mostly I had to keep my eyes on the ground ahead of me, which is wise.  Once I looked up to make eye contact while thanking a volunteer and thwack! smacked the heck out of all the toes on my right foot on a big rock.  One of many times on this section where I longed for my trail shoes with their extra protection from rocks!

JFK 6

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small group of aid station workers in that field back there. we ran down the hill.

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pretty sights at Gathland State Park

There were great aid stations throughout the course.  The workers had jugs of water and sports drink to easily refill runners’ bottles and Camelbaks.  I carried my trusty Amphipod handheld bottle.  There were also a variety of foods at each station, varying throughout but pretty much always including Coca-Cola, potato chips, M&Ms and sandwich cookies.  I was and am so very thankful for all the volunteers who spent many hours of their day out in the cold to make the journey easier for us.

After another section of trail and the infamous crazy steep switchbacks (I had scoffed – switchbacks! how hard could they be?… then I clutched nearby trees for dear life as we carved our way down the mountain), we arrived at the aid station which signified the end of the AT section.  It was about 15.5 miles and had taken me almost 4 hours.  Gosh, I can cover almost 26 miles in 4 hours on a different sort of day.  I got a water refill and a cup of Coke, and proceeded to pour half out almost immediately as I turned that hand over to check the time on my watch.  What?  I started eyeing the food table when someone called out “TRAIN COMING, cross now if you’re gonna!”  Again now… what?  Oh yes, there was a train coming and we needed to cross the track.

choo choo

choo choo

Train or food.  Train or food.  I chose cookies.  It took a little under 5 minutes for the train to pass.  I had half of a PB&J and a sugar cookie shaped like a foot.  Loved that foot cookie.  Maybe I had two cookies, I lost track.  Soon the train was over and we crossed the tracks and a timing mat registering our start of the C&O Canal Towpath section.  4:02 elapsed time.  Looking back now, the cut-off time for that aid station was 4:30 elapsed time.  I hadn’t realized we were going that slowly, as we picked along the rocky trails.  That would come back to haunt us.

C&O

C&O

The C&O section was 26.3 miles long.  Just a marathon length in the middle of another race, ya know, that’s all.  It was flat and surrounded by lots of pretty trees.  There was a sometimes-smelly canal on our right and a river on the left.  The surface was dirt/gravel and leaves, and footing was nothing to worry about.  This section was long but nice.  Sometimes a little numbing.  We ate at aid stations and took some little walk breaks, especially when I wanted to take a picture.  The temperature warmed up through some of this section and gloves and earbands went off and on depending on sun and wind.  Highs were around 42 that day.  Balmy, right?  Really it was fantastic running weather, save some of the windy bits.  Billy’s IT band started bothering him sometimes around mile 20 or so, and we walked through that some together.  Then a nagging feeling I had started really rising to the surface and my own IT band flared up.

accidental photo, but my view for much of the race - my legs and glimpses of my feet

accidental photo, but my view for much of the race – my legs and glimpses of my feet

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looking back on the path as we round the band at Harper’s Ferry

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pretty sights at Harper’s Ferry

We discovered that we were getting rather too close for comfort to the big mile 34.4 cut off point, of 8 hours elapsed time.  I was struggling with my left knee due to my IT band, but needed to keep going.  Wanted to stop, but needed to keep going.  At the mile 30 aid station, I got a couple ibuprofen.  And cookies.  Always cookies.  I didn’t wear a Garmin during the race because the battery life on mine would not last the whole time, but I’d venture that miles 30-34.4 were the fastest of the race.  Probably 11:30/pace at fastest, but we hauled our tired booties as fast as we could haul them.  We got to the 34.4 aid station and cut-off point with literally 1 minute to spare.  Any longer and we would have been removed from the course.  Billy and I had been with a group of 7-8 folks and we all just barely got there.  I didn’t think we were THAT slow.

I won’t pretend that I didn’t have mental battles about continuing in the race.  A voice in my head kept suggesting that if I just missed the cut-off, then I’d be able to get on a bus or something and they’d take me to the finish, and I could sit down and be warm and still, and be DONE.  I mean, 34 miles is still a lot of miles.  But there was a stronger will inside that was determined to continue on.  The goal was 50 miles, not 34 miles.  On I go, there are more cookies ahead.

tunnel vision

tunnel vision

JFK 2

Despite my determination, I was still legitimately concerned about making the remaining cut-off times.  Billy was feeling better and went off ahead with strength I couldn’t muster.  I had to get from 34.4 to 38.4 in 1 hour.  Now some 15 minute miles might sound easy enough, but I was in real pain with my IT band flaring up in the knee.  Hadn’t had this kind of pain in years.  I had taken another couple ibuprofen at the mile 34 aid station, and told my brain that it was going to stop hurting; it had to.  I prayed hard.  The walking breaks were a relief but transitioning back from walk to run was so intensely painful that it wasn’t worth taking walk breaks.  The pain drove me to run more and faster.  Again, “fast” is relative here.

Gritting my teeth and clenching my sometimes-gloved fists, I continued on.  Stopped at aid stations throughout the C&O section for water, Coke, Mountain Dew, chicken noodle soup, cookies, potato chips, Starburst and even an unexpected treat:

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What do you think that purple food is?  Believe it or not – a potato!  Yep, half of a boiled purple potato, dipped in salt.  It was the last lonely potato at one of the aid stations (sometime around mile 25 probably, my timeline is blurry).  Showed my parents this photo after the race and they thought it was a cupcake with sugar on top.  I’d never seen a purple potato!  The folks there laughed at my surprise when I cut the potato in half.  Carbs and salt, pretty much perfect.

Once I got to mile 38, I knew I could finish.  Just 12 miles left.  Not even a half marathon.  I can do 12 miles.  Still in pain but either the painkillers were kicking in, the prayers were working, or maybe I was just numb.  Maybe all three.  The sun was setting and then, finally, the C&O section was over.  The final aid station on that section, around mile 42, was stocked with crates of reflective vests.  After some certain time, all runners are required to wear the vest to continue.  I’d heard it called the “Vest of Shame” by some veteran runners but I sure as hell didn’t care.  No shame in still being on my feet 10 hours into a run.  The volunteers adorned me with my vest and sometime around 9:35 elapsed time, I shuffled onto asphalt again.  Hard, hard asphalt after so many miles on softer surfaces.

It was getting dark and the roads were not closed, but traffic was sparse on these country roads.  We ran past houses and farms.  The wind was picking up, whipping corn husks from the harvested fields across the roads.  I wished I had a light.  According to the weather records, wind gusts in the area were 23-24 mph during the early evening.  At least once, the wind pushed me around, sideways.  Some large street sign was rattling on its post and I imagined it being torn off and just wrecking me.  Wonder if the multiple rotting deer carcasses I saw along the roadside here led to some of those macabre thoughts?  Why not a helpful tailwind?  That would have been nice.  At least it was side-to-side, and not a headwind.  Chilling to the bone though.  One of the aid stations on this stretch had hot chocolate and my goodness nothing had ever been more perfect.  I was full from so many cookies throughout the day, but some rich warm hot chocolate hit the spot like I never expected.

At this point, I was catching up to lots of the 5:00 starters, so the roads were far from empty.  Never crowded or anything, but company is always nice.  I was still running more than walking due to the pain in my knee, so I was passing a lot of people who walked these rolling hills.  I’d never wanted anything to be over, as badly as I wanted the race to be over.  I thought about things that might be preferable, like cutting off my own legs, or childbirth.  (My sister later pointed out that my race was longer than her labor with my wee nephew!)

The aid stations became more frequent, and I was not hungry nor really wanting to go through the pain of starting to run after stopping, so I skipped one or two in this last stretch.  No more concerns at this point of cut-off times, I was safe.  There were mile markers for this last stretch, so I was so happy seeing them tick off slowly.  Each one meant I was closer to the finish line.  Really close now.  Then it was in sight.  I tried not to cry, and failed.

fist pump finish

fist pump finish

I had done it.  50 miles.  11 hours and 33 minutes.  50 miles.

FIFTY MILES.

I accepted my medal, turned in my reflective vest, and headed into the adjacent school to find my drop bag.  Billy and his mother were right in the lobby.  He had finished about 12 minutes ahead of me, after a great finish!  There was a variety of food, including things I’d usually love after a race like pizza and Moe’s burritos, but I was anything but hungry after so much food along the route.  My dailymile tracker estimates I burned 8525 calories during that run, but I have to imagine I also took in a couple thousand along the way!

ultra runners

ultra runners.

It started snowing as we walked to my parents’ car.  I’d need lots of ice in my immediate future.  Later that evening, I worried that I’d pull the bannister out of the wall as I dragged myself up the stairs.  I had never been so thankful for the previously-mocked handle on the shower/tub wall.  I had to literally lift each leg over the tub wall with my hand while clutching the shower handle, then switching hands to haul my other leg over.  Had a gnarly blister on my left foot and super dark purple toenail on my right foot, probably from where I’d smacked it when thanking the volunteer.  The next morning my knees were swollen and I brought out the ice.

ice ice baby

ice ice baby

But in just a couple days the pain was becoming just a memory and I started wondering what kind of performance I could have in my second 50 miler.  Say what?  I’d never wanted something to be over so badly, yet here I was already considering another.  But just imagine… now that I knew what to expect, and maybe with a healthy IT band… Yeah it wouldn’t be out of the picture to see another ultra in my future.

But 50 miles.  It still sounds crazy.

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6 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Paul Starling / Dec 13 2013 10:40 AM

    Good race recap, Emily! I have only run one official 50 miler and I have to say that your time a JFK beat mine by 2 minutes. Congrats on a great race!

    • Emily / Dec 13 2013 11:56 AM

      thanks Paul! I am sure we could both do faster at another attempt of 50 miles, on a good day!

  2. laurenquartz / Dec 13 2013 2:55 PM

    Great job, friend. So proud. Glad to have both heard and read your recap. I always enjoy your writing!

  3. smallfryesguest / Dec 17 2013 9:41 AM

    Loved this post- what an amazing race, to say the least! well done! -BIG/Dana

  4. Scott Lynch / Dec 18 2013 11:39 AM

    Wow! Well done, Emily!

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