("Team Oz" — Mark "Cowardly Lion" Zimmermann, Bernie "Glinda the Good Witch" Sylvester, Ken "Scarecrow" Swab, and Caren "Dorothy Gale" Jew)
"We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!" That's the official theme song of "Team Oz" at the 18 November 2006 JFK 50 miler . The JFK is America's oldest and largest ultramarathon, with more than a thousand participants. Among the members of Team Oz, only one has previously done a fifty miler; one has finished a 50k run; and the other two have "only" completed a few marathons. So the odds are against us — but no matter! During the 3am drive to the start of the 44th annual JFK I crank up the volume and play an old tape of "The Cars" music. It features the 1979 song "Let's Go". The lyrics, as I hoped, get stuck in our heads for the next dozen-plus hours: "Let's Go!"
(map courtesy US Park Service; note that north is to the upper-right)
The JFK starts in Boonsboro, a little town in west-central Maryland. The course climbs east for about 2.5 miles on a road (US Route ALT 40) to South Mountain. It then follows the Appalachian Trail southward along the rocky ridgeline for 13 miles to Weverton Cliffs. There the course joins the C&O Canal towpath, heading upstream for 26.2 miles — a full marathon. At Dam #4 on the Potomac River the race returns to rolling country roads as it proceeds to Williamsport, a total distance of 50.2 miles.
So the JFK has something for everybody: hills for those who like to climb, trails for those who like the rocks and woods, and long flat stretches for those who like to blast along at high speed.
The JFK begins for me exactly eight months ago, on 18 March 2006 at the Montgomery County Road Runners Club "Super Sligo" 4 miler, where after the race veteran ultrarunner Cathy Blessing twists my arm and persuades me that another 50 mile run is in my future. My only prior experience at that distance was the Tussey Mountainback 2004 in the hills of central Pennsylvania. It was actually quite fun, especially if one's definition of "fun" includes almost 13 hours of leg cramps, blisters, heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. So Cathy didn't have to work too hard to convince me.
Comrades Caren and Ken are present and listen to Cathy's spiel, but are less hasty to sign on the line. Caren has just finished the SenecaCreekGreenwayTrailMarathon2006 with me and loves long trail running, but hesitates at the thought of so much non-trail mileage. The Ken Swab - Frederick Marathon 2006 experience is still six weeks in his future, so Ken wisely waits. But after a glorious success in that race, and good outcomes for a couple of other marathons, Ken climbs on board. Caren similarly shines in her first major ultra, the September 2006 Punxsutawney Groundhog 50k, and so after some nudging from Ken and me she likewise pitches her hat into the ring.
The final member of Team Oz, Bernie, takes an independent path to the JFK starting line. We meet each other during September and November group runs along the Appalachian Trail, area familiarization experiments organized by Cathy to help MCRRC members get ready for race day. Bernie is focused and methodical in her preparation, and although she has only done a few marathons she's clearly going to make a strong attack on her first ultra. Our paces are compatible and we enjoy our conversations during the long training runs, so Bernie is an instant recruit to the Team.
Where do our names come from? Ken suggests the Oz mythos, and nobody else appreciates the deep brilliance of my counter-proposals. Decide for yourself:
|Wizard of Oz||Dorothy||Scarecrow||Cowardly Lion|
So Team Oz it is, by a landslide. My cautious and realistic commentary about the challenges ahead of us — interpreted by Ken as the "Voice of Doom" speaking — gets me the rôle of Cowardly Lion. Ken contends that he must have no brains, to have gotten himself into this, so he takes the Scarecrow's part. Caren's cheerful optimism wins her Dorothy Gale and the ruby slippers. When Bernie climbs aboard we assign her Glinda, the Good Witch — which, by pure coincidence, was her Halloween party costume this year. Last of all, once Jim Farkas kindly volunteers to be our support crew we have our Wizard!
At 1:00:00 am on race day my alarm clock goes off. At 1:00:20 my watch beeps to make doubly certain I'm up. I've had only a few hours of sleep — a significant advantage for doing an ultramarathon. I quaff my coffee, grease my body, triple-check that I've got my gear, and at 2:20am pick up Ken at his home. We zoom up the interstate; I disobey navigator Ken's instructions, miss the correct exit, and have to circle back. At Lakeforest Mall, 2:50am, we pick up Caren and cruise onward. Caren shouts a warning as she spies a deer strolling across the freeway ahead of us; I brake because I think she sees a cop.
Shortly before 4am we arrive, after another wrong turn and a slight detour, at Boonsboro where the JFK is to begin. We've signed up for the 5am start since it allows more generous time cutoffs for slower runners. Even so, we're concerned that we may get pulled off the course for lagging too much. Ken catches some shuteye in the back seat as Caren and I unpack and begin to organize our gear. Then the race officials appear to open up the high school gymnasium. We go inside and continue to get ready. I take photos of fellow MCRRC members whenever I see someone with a team shirt or whom I recognize.
Next Glinda the Good Witch-Bernie, appears, just flown back yesterday from a well-earned Caribbean vacation which was also good training during the final week before an ultra. Scarecrow-Ken passes out plastic-laminated pace charts that he has produced for Team Oz. Dorothy-Caren lends him a headlamp and lets me stuff a sweatshirt into her drop bag. We listen to the race director's pre-event briefing, strip off our excess garments, and begin the chilly 1 km walk to the starting line near Boonsboro's downtown traffic light. A fellow near me complains that he has inadvertently brought two right gloves. My childhood topology is with me: "Turn one inside-out!" I instantly advise, and he's amazed to find that right suddenly becomes left.
The race itself? Almost anticlimactic for me. Everything goes as well as it possibly could, given my ultra-low mileage training regime and ultra-low native talent base. Shortly after the start Glinda-Bernie drops back to follow her own plan, a carefully controlled pace that gets her safely past the cutoffs. Ken and Caren and I walk the uphills, jog the downhills, and constantly joke with one another and with anyone else within earshot. Ken volunteers to identify any dangerous rocks by lying flat on the ground on the far side of them. We discuss "Dark Energy", the latest cosmological fad, and enjoy ourselves.
About six miles into the journey the sun rises and Ken's iliotibial band (ITB) flares; it was irritated during his Marine Corps Marathon three weeks ago. He thus must abruptly change rôles — instead of Scarecrow Swab he becomes Tin Man Ken, stomping along stiff-legged but at a brisk pace. Trail-loving Dorothy-Caren has floated ahead, so Ken sends me onward at the Gathland Gap aid station (mile 9.4) where I expect he will punch out of the race.
Playing Cowardly Lion I push myself while taking care not to slip and twist an ankle. After a few miles I recover Dorothy-Caren and we descend the steep Weverton Cliff switchbacks together. The first 7am starters now catch up with us and race by, virtually flying down the slope. Walking down the rocks in front of Caren I abruptly lose my footing on a patch of wet leaves and fall flat on my back — a potential race-ending disaster — but by great good fortune suffer no damage. (The next morning, emptying my fanny-pack, I discover an energy-gel packet has ruptured and coated the pouch with sticky sugar-goo. Perhaps it cushioned my tumble?)
At the Weverton Aid Station, mile 15.5, Wizard of Oz Jim Farkas is there for us. We ditch our headlamps and other now-excess gear. Caren changes shoes and outer garments, but I decide to press onward. On the narrow trail to the C&O Canal towpath a fast runner in bright yellow-and-black checkerboard tights zooms past me. "Are you Eric Clifton?" I ask. Intent on the race, the all-time record holder for the JFK grunts assent. "I worship you!" I shout after him.
Once on the towpath I start clocking along at my maximum sustainable pace. Patience is a virtue here: I walk a minute, then jog a minute, then repeat. Other runners and I play leapfrog as they pass me and then I return the favor a minute later. MCRRC buddy Ron "Tarzan Boy" Ely speeds by; I sprint along to talk with him for thirty seconds, then drop back to pant and recover.
At Harper's Ferry I'm more than an hour ahead of schedule, so I miss amigo Steve "Coach" Adams who comes out to give me beer and candy. Likewise at the next several aid stations I've outrun Wizard-Jim and his compatriots. But no matter — the day is going splendidly and I'm feeling good, except for a few tiny pebbles in my shoes that I finally pause to shake out. The MCRRC support center at Antietam, mile 27.1, offers my favorite ultra-food, boiled potatoes and a bowl of salt to dip them into, along with my favorite beer, Negra Modelo. (Many thanks to Don Libes and family for their kindness and good humor there!)
Meanwhile, how's everybody else doing? At mile 38.4 I finally learn when I see Tin Man Ken again. He gives me the news that he strode on for more than 20 miles after his ITB began to complain, and only had to punt when it froze up as he answered a Call of Nature near mile 27 — fortunately near enough to Wizard-Jim to join him in the support crew. (Both Tin Man and Wizard helpfully dispose of excess beer at Antietam. Thanks, dudes!) Ken reports that Dorothy is a few miles behind me now but making fine progress, though as a devout trail runner she doesn't enjoy the Towpath as much as I do. Glinda the Good Witch is sticking to her race plan and making all the cutoffs comfortably a few miles behind Dorothy. So Team Oz is battered but unbroken. I salute Tin Man & Wizard, then carry on.
The C&O Canal segment of the JFK ends at Dam #4, a lovely sight. I complete a 5:25 marathon and commence walking up the narrow road from the Potomac toward Williamsport. I'm off the Tin Man's pace chart, since none of us anticipated doing anything under 12 hours. My mental arithmetic abilities are feeble now but I estimate that by maintaining a 13 minute/mile pace I may barely squeeze in under 11.5 hours. So I jog as much of the downhills and level segments as I can, shiver at the cold wind, and watch for the mile markers. All goes well and I cross the finish line in 11:26 — more than 90 minutes faster than my previous record for the distance.
It's chilly outside as the sun sets and I'm starting to feel dizzy, so I go into the Williamsport school and enjoy hot pizza, hot cheddar noodle soup, and the awards ceremony — the first such that I've finished early enough to witness. Then I go sit inside the front door of the building where I greet Tin Man Ken (who has driven my car here from Boonsboro; thank goodness it has an automatic transmission!) and Dorothy-Caren (who finishes in 12:46) and Glinda-Bernie (who crosses the line in 13:18). We salute one another, celebrate, and commence the drive homewards. We give a ride to a young Air Force lieutenant, Stephanie King, who is nonchalant about her 9:50 result; she "only" trains 100 miles/week, in her spare time. The rest of us in the car are astounded.
"Never again!" is the immediate post-race consensus sentiment for Team Oz ... and yet, only 24 hours later I feel myself beginning to waver. By Monday, as my blister shrinks, my ultimate ultra fantasy — surviving a hundred miler — doesn't seem impossible. It must be the medal that the Cowardly Lion received at the JFK finish line. Courage!
(see http://flickr.com/photos/zhurnaly/ for additional photos from the JFK; cf. Tussey Mountainback 2004 (8 Oct 2004), BabyGetsNewShoes (5 Sep 2006), VikingRailroad (26 Sep 2006), HatBulge (23 Oct 2006), InnerGoat (12 Nov 2006), ...)