The JFK 50 mile race is one that I never anticipated running until a few months ago, when I started reading about it on line and chatted with some ultramarathoners who had done it previously. I decided to sign up, with the encouragement of my friend Mark, who had run the race once before and was very familiar with the course. Training went fairly well, but finished my last "long" run on October 26, the MCM, in considerable calf and knee pain. On advice of Mark, I switched to the 5 am start, to give myself the cushion of the more generous time cut offs. I began a period of active rest, with a lot of cross training and very little running (nothing more than 5 miles). I have no real goal other than to finish, but I want to be under 12. A predictor based on marathon time would put me at 11 hours but the trail sections are slow going.
As the day grew closer I began to really fret about the weather. At packet pickup on Friday evening the wind was howling and there were flurries predicted. I bought a JFK 50 metallic sign for my truck and hope I am not jinxing myself in doing so. I met 262 Runner in the hotel lobby and we chatted for a bit. He is a really nice guy! I had a fun dinner with some new friends from the Montgomery Country Road Runners Club (MCRRC) and tried to tuck myself in to bed. I slept very fitfully at best and was on the road to the start by 4 am.
We gathered in the Boonsboro High School gym for a final briefing. I donned an extra layer as well as a large garbage bag for the wind. We head out to the start--it is 17 degrees on the bank thermometer next to the start. My friend, Chris, is waiting to see us off. I hand off the garbage bag and he tells me he is planning to meet me at Gathland Gap, some 9.3 miles up the road. The gun goes off and we began the 2.5 mile hill up to where we get onto the Appalachian Trail. I chat with Ken, and he begins to tell me the story of the civil war battles that raged around us on this very trail. We are just to the part where there is about to be an ambush of the Union troops when we reach the trail. He tells me to turn and look back, and there is a glittering line of headlamps weaving up the hill under a very clear, starlit sky with a quarter moon.
The first mile of the trail is moderate, although there are heavy fallen leaves everywhere, obscuring the roads. I am glad to step off the trail onto a 2.5 mile stretch of a fire road, paved but very steep. A guy next to me comments that his camelback tube is frozen. No wind though. Back onto the trail and this part is scary--downhill, rocks and sharp twists and turns. We resemble some kind of strange conga line. A lady up ahead is using two walking sticks and I wonder if she carried them in her backpack. I ask her to pass, as she is picking her way slowly across the rocks. The sky begins to lighten and then turns pink to our left. I have never been so happy to see daylight and turn off my headlight. Gathland appears below us and I hear the cheering. I hit the aid station at 7:12, a tad behind pace but I feel good. I hand off my headlamp to Chris, who tells me he will see me at Weverton Cliffs, at mile 15.5.
The next few miles are moderate and fairly runnable. I talk to a father and son combo, both doing the race for the second time. The son is 17. As we hit mile 14, the trail gets very rocky. This is the section where Mark broke his arm when we did a training run. I am very cautious. We begin the switchbacks. There are two brothers with me, just behind me. One of them slips, and grabs my shoulder to keep from falling. I scream. No harm done to either of us but he is so embarrassed. I reassure him and just then, the leaders from the 7 am start begin to pass us. They are FLYING down those switchbacks. We pop out of the trail and by some miracle, I find the MCRRC gang, who have my road shoes. I swap those out and give them and my top layer to Chris, who tells me he will meet me at Antietam.
Now we are on the C&O towpath, 26-plus miles on an unpaved flat trail. I am feeling pretty good. At around 21 miles, I eat a PB&J sandwich and call my family to wish my DS#1 good luck at his regional cross country meet. They scream and yell "Go Mommy go!" and my spirits soar. The cold wind picks up. A few minutes later, I start to get horrific stomach cramps. This has never happened before. I am doubling over in pain but force myself onward. At Antietam at mile 27.1 at around 11:10 am, I spot Chris. I get some TUMS from the MCRRC folks. Chris walks with me for a few minutes, encouraging me and laughing when I tell him I just want to get off this (expletive deleted) trail. Mile 30ish we go past Shepherdstown. The aid station guys ask if I am ok--I tell them that my stomach is really bad. They tell me I have under 20 miles to go. I look across the Potomac River at the boat launch area in Shepherdstown and recall a spring day with my kids, watching the boats. I start to cry because I wish I were over there with them now. The tears freeze on my cheeks. I run up behind a guy with a MCRRC shirt (Anton) and force myself to talk to him. He is so kind--pats me on the back and tells me that he has run this race multiple times and that I just need to get my head around the distance. He analyzes my stomach issue and tells me that perhaps I had too much protein with the PB&J. He prescribes coke, potato chips and soup and urges me to try those at the upcoming aid station. I ask him if I walked the rest of the way, would I still make the cutoffs. He tells me that he did just that himself with a twisted ankle last year and made the cutoffs. I remind myself of Mark's words: "No bad patch will last forever. If you feel bad, just walk a few miles".
By Synders Landing, mile 34.4 I am feeling 100% better. I am running again. I look at my pace chart and realize that I am still on pace for under 12. Somehow that dumbfounds me but I keep moving. At Taylors Landing, mile 38.4, I am at an 11:30 pace. My Garmin dies. I talk to anyone who will talk to me. A young guy yells: "You are smoking me, lady" as I pass him. Mile 42 and we are off that C&O trail onto rolling country roads. I walk the uphills and try to run the flats and the downhills. Approaching Downsville, 46 miles, I feel a blister pop on a toe and it is agonizing. I stop for a bandaid and realize I have a 2x4 blister on one heel. Never mind. Just keep moving. I get a coke at an aid station and some young folks joke: "I bet you wish that was a beer". I yell back: "You know it, dude". They roar with laughter. There are countdown markers, 1.5 miles to go. Down a hill and I spot the one mile marker. My eyes well up and I try to run the rest of the way. Cresting a hill, two bystanders point up to a white winnebago and tell me that it's the finish. I press on. The announcer calls my name, saying "Look at that smile on HER face". I cross the line in 11:30:12 and they drop the medal around my neck. I cannot believe that I did this!
One the way home I check in with my husband and Mark. I talk to 262 Runner and Lap'd. I will let them tell their stories. We realize that Lap'd passed me a few miles from the finish. 5 miles from home, my stomach revolts and I have to pull over to the side of the road. A long soak in the tub and some food and a beer begins to revive me. As I look back on the day, I tell my husband that this was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. My four year old falls asleep next to me with my medal on.
Kate Abbott (and see also JFK 50 Miler 2009)
Team Lanterne Rouge gathers Friday night at the Schmankerl Stube Bavarian restaurant for its pre-race dinner. Emaad, Barry and I are the team, and looking to defend our title as the slowest team at the 46th Annual JFK 50 mile race. We have shirts with a picture of a red lantern, the traditional signal of the end of a European train, and the slogan "Les lents finnesert, aussi (The slow also finish.) The team name comes from the designation once given to the rider who finished last at the Tour de France.
Joining us are three JFK rookies, Kate, Gayatri and Joanne, along with Emaad's wife Saira, who will crew for him again this year, and Jeanne, who will crew for Joanne. While JFK rookies, the three are not distance newcomers. Three weeks earlier, Kate ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 4:20, and Gayatri, despite a nagging injury has run a couple of fall marathons. Joanne has a number of marathons and 50Ks to her credit this year. We enjoy a leisurely and tasty meal, including beer and dessert, trade advice about clothing, drop bags and strategy and then head back to the Hagerstown Super 8 Motel for some team photos and to try to get some sleep.
Saturday morning the alarm goes off at 3:30, and I'm up, microwave my 7-11 sausage, egg and cheese wrap, gulp down some OJ, grab my bags, and go down to the lobby, where the six runners have assembled at 4 a.m. for the drive to Boonsboro. The crews get to sleep in, as they won't be seen until close to 9 a.m. at Weverton, 15 miles into the race.
The runners get their briefing at the Boonsboro High School, and then it is time to walk to the start on old route 40 in the center of town. It is cold – the bank clock says 19 degrees and later the race director will report a temperature of 15 degrees on the Appalachian Trail on South Mountain. I'm wearing two long sleeve shirts and a short sleeve shirt and long pants over shorts. I've taped my heels because my socks are too short and I'm worried about rubbing my heels raw. I wear a tubular scarf that I can pull over my head, as well as a hat, gloves and a headlamp.
Precisely at 5 a.m. the gun sounds and we are off, headed up the 2.5 mile climb to the top of South Mountain. Kate takes off, as she hopes to run about 11 hours, a realistic goal given her MCM time. The usual formula is to double your marathon time and add two hours, and for her that translates into an estimated time of 10:40. I hang back a bit, between her and the others then decide on one of the few downhills to go with her for a while. It is a faster pace than I might set myself, but it feels OK, so I'm willing to take the chance. We run the flats and rare downhills, but soon the road turns unremittingly uphill and we walk. It is cold and dark, with only a crescent moon, but it is an opportunity to see the many stars that one cannot see in the city due to light pollution.
A stop at a portapotty just before joining the AT allows Kate to go ahead, but I soon catch up with her. As always, running on the trail in the dark is magical, with a necklace of gleaming lights like pearls, strung out in front and behind. By 6:15 or so, the eastern sky gradually lightens, and then turns brilliant shades of purple and orange. Soon it is light enough to turn off the headlamp. I go to take it off my head and let it dangle around my neck, but as I reach up to pull it down, I somehow pull the face off of it, and it and the three AAA batteries tumble to the ground. I easily spot the front and one battery, but the other two are nowhere to be seen amongst the leaves. I briefly think about whether to search around for them, but quickly decide that I'm unlikely to find them, so I resume running. Soon the course heads downhill to the first aid and timing station at Gathland (mile 9.4) and I'm pleased to see that I am about four minutes ahead of the 12-hour pace, according to my pace card.
The section from Gathland to Weverton is the most technical portion of the race, with lots of rocks covered by leaves. Between watching my footing I try to steal glances of the valley below and to the west where the sun is starting to shine its light. Since the trail is generally on the west side of the crest, we run mostly in the shade. I reach behind to get my bottle for a drink, pull up the spout with my teeth, tip it up – and get nothing. The spout is frozen. Unscrewing the top I'm confronted with a Gatorade slushee, but I take a few sips anyway. It may be cold weather, but dehydration is still a risk.
Faster than I can imagine, and with only a single slight slip on the rocks, I reach the 12 switchbacks that lead down Weverton Cliffs. I become obsessed about getting down them before the leaders, who started at 7 a.m., overtake me. I run the switchbacks, even passing runners in my determination to get to the bottom before the leader. First the switchbacks, then the three sweeping curves and I'm down! I'm elated. I'm a man on fire. I'm a man on a mission.
And something is wrong! The course used to go along the road for a short stretch where the MCRRC set up its aid station, but now the course is to the left of that and immediately onto the trail. Jeanne spots me and tells me to go back on the road to the aid station, and I do, but I don't see it right away and double back to the trail. At that moment I don't care about changing from my trail shoes to my road shoes. All I want to do is run. And I do. I get across the very narrow section of the trail under US 340 and I'm within yards of the official aid station when the leader passes. He's Johan Oosthuizen of South Africa, and he is here for one purpose – to break the legendary Eric Clifton's 14 year old JFK record of 5:46.
At the Weverton checkpoint I'm now 15 minutes ahead of the 12 hour pace. With a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in hand I cross the railroad tracks and join the C&O towpath for the next 26 miles. As I ran the section under US 340 a woman runner urged me along, saying we had to get across the tracks before the train arrived. Before we reach Harpers Ferry, we hear the train whistle as it enters the tunnel under Maryland Heights and shortly thereafter we see a long mixed freight, pulled by a triple header, moving eastbound. There will be runners who will have to wait, but it won't be us. Meanwhile, the west wind blows from across the Potomac and my left arm will stay cold all day.
Soon Mark Lundblad comes along in second place and I give him a 'Hi, Mark."
"Hi," he says, going past.
"How's Anne?" I'm referring to his wife, Anne Lundblad, who was the woman winner in 2005 and 2007, and holds both the open women's and masters women's JFK course records. I got to greet her on the course last year on her way to victory. Mark finished second overall last year.
"She's crewing for me," he says, and then he is gone.
"Good luck," I yell to his back, but he is minutes behind Oosthuizen.
I try to get into a rhythm of walking 30 seconds in every five minutes. It seems to work pretty well. Getting to the aid station at mile 19, I'm disappointed that there is no baklava as there was last year, but I do get a volunteer to dump my slush-filled bottle and refill it with fresh, unfrozen Gatorade. That does the trick and the bottle won't be a problem the rest of the day.
I'm moving in a pretty good groove and my spirits remain high. I'm trying to stay upbeat to avoid the "bad patch" that comes at some point in every marathon or ultra. I reach the aid station at 22. Next aid station is to be at mile 27 and that will be great, as the race will be more than half over. It comes into sight - but I'm wrong! The next aid station is mile 24. I'm crushed.
One of the aid workers asks if there is anything he can get me.
"Oxycodone," I deadpan.
"Can't help you there."
"OK, I'll take some M&Ms and Pringles instead."
The M&Ms are nearly frozen, but that just makes them more tasty to me. But the Coke tastes bitter. I've found that distance running changes my sense of taste, and today it is affecting the Coke. Or perhaps the cold is having an effect. Even stirring the Coke to remove the fizz doesn't solve the problem, one that stays with me the entire race.
I leave the station and can't resume running. I walk for minutes on end. I know I can walk it in from here, but that would be humiliating at best, and nearly pointless. Finally, I reach one of the canal's mile markers. Normally, runners hate these reminders of how much further to go along the canal, but I use this one as an incentive. I've walked enough, I think, now it is time to run the next mile. I take off, and I do just that. The bad patch is over.
Now into the aid station at Antietam at mile 27 and there at the MCRRC aid station is Jeanne. She has brought the bag I missed at Weverton. I drop into a chair to change my shoes and socks. Jeanne is a lifesaver and likely a saint. In spite of my crabbiness at Weverton, and unasked, she retrieved my bag and brought it here. I've worn thru the tape on my heels and it would only have been a matter of time before I would have been wearing away the skin. But now I can change shoes and socks and the problem is averted. And further raising my spirits is a look at my watch which shows I've moved further under the 12 hour pace.
Halfway done, and knowing that once one gets to the aid station at Taylor's Landing (mile 38) the finish is psychologically assured. I alternate walking and running, but while the goal is to walk one minute in every five, I don't keep to that. Sometimes the walks are longer, sometimes shorter and rarely on the five minute schedule. The 7 a.m. runners are now passing me fairly regularly. Some runners from the Naval Academy go by and I give them a "Go Navy." When they don't respond with a "Beat Army" I good naturedly chide them about their lack of response and tell them they'll have to try again, as the Army-Navy game is just two weeks away.
Finally a woman wearing an orange bid goes past me, and it dawns on me that she is the first orange bib, signifying a fellow 5 a.m. starter, to pass me in miles. I try to keep up but can't. For motivation I determine not to allow another early starter to pass me.
Looking at the Potomac, I spot a peculiar large rectangular-shaped rock near the shore, with a flock of ducks and a few geese bobbing in the water nearby. A few steps later I realize that it isn't a rock at all, but a camouflaged canvas-sided outboard motorboat, with three hunters aboard. "Look at that boat," I exclaim to a woman runner next to me. She promptly disappears from sight, as she trips and falls. "I looked," she says. 'Sorry,' is all I can respond. And then I look at the river scene again and realize that the flock is actually a bunch of decoys.
I try to use the mile markers to calculate how far it is to Taylor's Landing and to the Dam #4, where the race leaves the towpath at mile 42 of the JFK, but all arithmetic ability has left me. A couple of men walk onto the towpath from a path to the river. They spy the runners going by and ask, "Where does the race end?"
They seem stunned. "How long is the race?"
They had no more questions. What else can you say to a bunch of people who pay money to run 50 miles?
Taylor's Landing sits on a curve on the Potomac and one can see the clearing from the town down to the river from the towpath from about three fourths of a mile downriver. That's all the encouragement I need to determine not to walk until I reach the MCRRC 'banned substances' aid station just past the official aid station. Entering the small hamlet one can see a flock of large beautiful brown chickens with red highlights on their tails walking about in a yard. Then past the MCRRC signs: "If this were a marathon, you'd be home by now". "Free limo service to Williamsport – Sun. to Fri. only." 'JFK50 - cheaper than therapy.' I dash by the official aid station and head directly for Don Libes and his video camera where I launch immediately into my best fake French accent to describe the progress of Lanterne Rouge and the need to eliminate one member of the team, i.e. me, for being too fast and jeopardizing our chance to finish last. I blank on 'au revoir' and am reduced to saying 'auf wiedersehen' before heading down the path.
Thirty eight miles. Mentally it seems like the race is over. Only four miles of towpath remain and then eight miles of roads. No orange bibs in sight and I'm a remarkable 42 minutes ahead of a 12 hour pace. The dirt of the towpath feels fine and soft and then the 18 foot-high dam #4 (originally built to divert water into the long dry canal) is in sight. Some small children are near the aid station at the end of the towpath holding out their hands to high five me. Best of all, I've gotten to this point before 3 p.m., so I don't have to wear one of the reflective vests given out to 'slower' runners.
The next seven miles are rolling hills with a net uphill on a two lane country road. The road goes between fields and farm buildings, as well as some houses. I resolve to run the downhills and walk the uphills, much as I did last year. But I'm starting to get tired, and my definition of uphill is becoming rather liberal. Then, around mile 43, I get passed by orange-bibbed #1502, Julie O'Connell. This is a wake-up call, and I use it for motivation. "I can't let you beat me," I tell her and I pick up my pace. We stay together thru the aid station at mile 44, but she is faster thru it than I, but I have her in sight. I close the distance from time to time, getting within ten yards of her several times thru the aid station at Downsville at mile 46. There I make a quick stop at the portapotty, and she opens up a bigger lead on me. In addition, I can see her running the uphills, something I no longer have the strength to do, and she gradually disappears into the distance to finish in 11:15.
Just outside Downsville a man is ringing a cowbell. He is not the first to do so - indeed, there have been cowbell ringers at every aid station and at various places along the course. Spectators seem to have a special fondness for cowbells. Over the hours, I, on the other hand, have been developing a special aversion to the tuneless tinny rattle of the cowbell. And this last guy is the final straw. 'No more cowbell,' I yell, 'The cows are in the barn.' He continues to clang away. 'I'm going to punch out the next person I hear ringing a cowbell,' I say with a smile on my face but malice in my heart, at the same time circling my fist in the air. He laughs and continues to jangle. I mentally shrug and run from his cacaphony.
Finally I reach the final aid station at 48.5 miles. It is just where the road turns to go into Hagerstown and as I get a drink of water another orange bib goes by. I push back and catch up to Randy Ward, but mostly to tell him that he is going to beat me. He's very calm, and says not to worry, we are both going to finish well and that it doesn't matter who finishes first to him. That is oddly reassuring, even though last year no one passed me in the last 12 miles of the race, and I actually improved my standing 23 places over that stretch, and I've already been passed by two persons now in the last seven miles. And they are not to be the last. With less than two blocks to go and the finish in sight, a third orange bib goes by, Paul Mingo. Instead of trying to go with him, I just yell an encouraging "Looking strong!' to him. And I mean it. I've done all I can do and I just keep walking.
But you can't walk across the finish line – there are cameras there – so with about 40 yards to go, I pick up the feet and run on. I finish in 11:18:57, almost 38 minutes faster than last year. Overall, I finish 613/925, an improvement over last year's 906/1078. Coincidentally, the rule of thumb for estimating 50 mile time is almost spot-on in my case, as my 4:40 MCM would translate into and estimate of 11:20 (4:40 time two plus two hours).
Despite the cold, Barry also improves on last year's performance by about 5 minutes. Kate is finished in 11:30. Emaad has a tougher day of it, but with the help of pacers, finishes, although slower than last year. But Team Lanterne Rouge is not slow enough overall, and can only manage to finish 23 among 25 teams, being 40 minutes too fast to be the last place team.
Joanne and Gayatri finish after Emaad, but they do finish, proudly completing their first 50 miler. And like almost anyone who runs the distance, we all swear after the race that we are done with the distance and won't be returning. By Monday, I'm checking the website to see when registration opens for the 2009 JFK.
Mark Lundblad trails Johan Oosthuizen by seven minutes at the halfway point, but finishes strongly to win while the South African fades to fourth place. Mark also gets a kiss from Anne Lundblad at the end and his own JFK trophy to go with her two.