On Saturday evening, as Mary Ewell and I approach the finish line of the 2007 JFK 50 miler, we catch up with a pair of exhausted young men climbing the hill. For the past eight miles they've been slightly in front of us.
"Hey," I ask them, "do you want to be passed now by a girl?"
"Yes!" they reply in chorus.
"Well, she is an Ironman," I admit, as Mary jogs ahead to make it in 13 hours 48 minutes 36 seconds by the official clock.
Call me Don Quixote, on a mad mission to serve my Dulcinea. More accurately, as I tell a spectator who mistakes me for a racer and applauds near the end of the event, "I'm a donkey — or maybe just an ass!" My quixotic quest is to keep Mary company and atone for abandoning her at Mile 28 in not one but two ultramarathons: the HAT Run 2007 and the Bull Run Run 2007. Today I only do two-thirds of the distance, a comfortable 55k training trek. Mary must manage the entire 50+ miles of the JFK and has a far tougher time. But she completes the race in good humor and style, overcoming severe blisters, vertigo, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal distress, joint pain, and countless other challenges. Her patient fiancé Andy greets her at the finish line. Earlier he sees us at multiple points along the way and assists with gear, food, drink, and moral support.
Flashback to race morning, 5am on 17 Nov 2007. When the gun goes off for the pre-dawn JFK start in Boonsboro, comrade Caren Jew and I are converging at an offramp of the I-270 freeway. We caravan to the finish line in Williamsport, where I park my car and ride with Caren to Gathland Gap, mile 9.4 of the course. Frost is on the ground as we shiver and chat with other support crews. Soon the runners begin flowing down the hillside trail and streaming through the meadow. Ken Swab and Emaad Burki appear, making great time and clearly feeling strong. At 7:18am Mary trots into the aid station a few minutes faster than Caren and I were at this point last year. To us she looks pretty good, but the stresses of the day have just begun, the road ahead is long, and her 14.7 minute/mile pace thus far has drained her reserves.
Caren and I stay at Gathland a few more minutes to greet friends, including Betty Smith who did a fun-run marathon with me on New Year's Eve (cf. Marathon in the Parks 2006) and who is essaying her first 50 miler today. Then Caren drives from the Gap to the next rendezvous point, Weverton. To get here the runners must navigate half a dozen miles of the rockiest and most dangerous terrain on the Appalachian Trail, descend more than a dozen switchbacks down a slippery-steep cliff, and traverse a narrow path beside a ravine and under highway US-340. Then they cross the railroad tracks to join the C&O Canal towpath for the next 26+ miles of the race, a marathon upstream along the northern bank of the Potomac River.
As we await our buddies we cheer those who arrive earlier, including a few amazing 7am JFK starters who have already gained two hours on those who took the 5am option. Ken and Emaad zoom in ahead of schedule, change shoes, pose for photos, and cruise onward. Emaad's wife Saira misses him by a few minutes; she will catch up with him at later aid stations. Andy is with Saira, just in time to meet his Mary when she rolls in at 9:17am. Her pace from Weverton to here averaged 19.5 min/mi. Mary fuels up but admits that she's not feeling well. Perhaps it's something she ate ... or residual injuries from too-hard training ... or a subtle equipment problem ... or anomalously low blood pressure ... or something entirely different.
Whatever the reason(s), she wants to go on. Weverton is where Don Quixote joins his fair Dulcinea in pursuit of her Grail: a 50 miler finish. Our mission: stay happy and make the strict time cutoffs en route. Our next deadline: Antietam, 11.5 miles ahead. We have more than 3.5 hours. From here on we need to keep something like a 17 minute/mile pace. From an armchair perspective that may sound trivial. After what Mary has already been through and considering how her body is treating her, it's not going to be easy.
We jog and talk, and I learn something of Mary's troubles. Today truly doesn't seem to be her day, so we debate the merits of withdrawing from the race. I suggest a compromise: walk a bit now, change equipment when we next see Andy, go a mile, and then decide what to do once we've had time to evaluate. Mary concurs. We throttle back to a 1:1 ratio of walking to jogging, exactly what I did along the towpath in last year's JFK. Ultras are long enough to die and then be reborn. We hope.
After a few miles Mary starts to feel stronger and suggests we try a brisker pace pattern, one that I intend to use in future races: walk a minute, run a minute, walk a minute, then run two minutes. This strategy — let's call it di-di-di-DAH, the theme of Beethoven's Ninth, the letter "V" in Morse code — doesn't cost much energy and yet gains us about 30 seconds per mile. Little do we know that those extra minutes will prove critical in making the final cutoff!
We reach Antietam, mile 27.1 for Mary, at 12:30pm having covered the distance from Weverton at 16.6 min/mi. Caren and Andy meet us; Mary does a quick change of gear and visits the loo, a magnificent facility compared to the portajohns we've seen so far. As per agreement we head out. Mary now feels better — modulo emerging blisters, recurring dizziness, a mysterious stomach malady, and constant hip/knee pain that anti-inflammatory meds reduce but don't eliminate. She's one tough cookie.
Next cutoff: 2:45pm at Snyders Landing, JFK mile 34.4. We arrive 20 minutes ahead of the grim reaper, our average speed 17.1 min/mi on this segment of the towpath. No time to tarry!
Onward to Taylors Landing, aka the "38 Special", where at mile 38.4 the 4pm deadline looms. Mary and I reach the aid zone at 3:30pm after she works hard and sustains a pace of 16.2 min/mi. Cheery Caren welcomes us and takes photos. So does MCRRC aid station captain Don Libes, who offers me a bottle of Tecate beer. Alas, I only dare drink a few sips: my vertigo is nothing compared to Mary's but I don't want to exacerbate it. Mary has handed me her sky-blue running cap and I set it down on the table while I fill a carrying bag with cookies, candies, and chips. In my semi-befuddled state I fail to pick up her hat before we leave. Oops! Half a mile down the trail Mary notices its absence. I contact Caren on my cellphone, who rescues the cap for later return.
Although we've got a half-hour time cushion now, later deadlines are tight. So we continue Mary's "Beethoven Strategy" of walking-jogging-walking-jogging 1-1-1-2 until we hear the welcome roar of water on the spillway of Dam #4. It's JFK mile 41.8, where our journey leaves the towpath to join rolling country roads. Our progress has slowed to 17.4 min/mi and we arrive at 4:29pm as the sky begins to darken. All the reflective safety vests have already been given out, but Mary's lime-green jacket is bright and my fluorescent red shorts are eye-searing, so we figure we should be safe enough. Excelsior!
Now instead of timed walk breaks we adjust our gait to match the terrain, walking up slopes and jogging where possible on the infrequent descents. Temperatures are falling and Mary zips up her coat. Her blisters worsen but she trots along solidly, still good-humored in spite of the pain. I compute that all we need is a brisk walk to come in under the ultimate 14 hour time limit, but — don't ask me why! — Mary says she doesn't want to be last. So we keep pushing.
We grab hot chocolate and soup at Downsville, the last aid station, and march on. My nose is draining and I unthinkingly snort the snot back with an ugly snuffling sound. "You did it again!" Mary remarks whenever she hears me, and we both laugh. A minute or two later I forget myself, snort, and the ritual is repeated — to our vast mutual delight. Such is sophisticated comedy at the end of an ultra!
A race truck cruises past, offering recycled orange vests to runners. I take one and give it to the pair of young gentlemen who are hiking out the final miles in front of us. Then I find a discarded vest by the side of the road and don it myself. Mary's flashlight dies, but we're now close enough to Williamsport to find our way by street lights and moonlight. We cross the Interstate Highway 81 access ramps and there's one mile to go. Neon signs of an open tattoo parlor glow, and I ask permission to pause and get "JFK 50" embossed under my epidermis. Amazing Mary still chuckles at my jokes.
JFK rules say, "Pacers and/or companions are greatly discouraged, but will be allowed for the 'general field'." We're nowhere near contenders for any prizes, and since I carry my own supplies and have a minimal impact on race resources I feel no qualms about sticking by my friend. She deserves it.
Mary tells me she wouldn't have made it without me. I respond that we wouldn't have made it without her either — her fortitude and stamina are the trump cards of the day. I move to the side as she approaches the official end-of-race chute, and am honored to shake her hand when she emerges with a JFK medal. Welcome to the club, Mary!
A Rolling Stones lyric goes:
You can't always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes,
You just might find,
You get what you need.
Today Mary doesn't get what she wants: a comfortable and fast first fifty miler. But she works hard and gets what she needs: an overall average pace of 16.5 minutes/mile to safely make all the cutoffs.
Mary's fiancé Andy meets us at the finish line. Mary hands him the bronze medal, her only visible reward for today's accomplishment. "Don't lose that!" she says with a smile.
(cf. JFK 50 Mile Run 2006 (20 Nov 2006), JFK 50 Miler 2006 Split Analysis (21 Jan 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), GunpowderKegFatAss2007 (24 Sep 2007), MatherGorge (9 Oct 2007), JFK 2007 Preparation (26 Oct 2007), Potomac Heritage 50k 2007 (4 Nov 2007), GrapevineRun (12 Nov 2007), ...)