I swore, after last year's JFK, NEVER to run it again. It was my first ultra and the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Very cold weather, horrific stomach issues and an 11:30 finish. Despite swearing off ultras, I ran the Bull Run 50 Mile in April and had an entirely different experience. Somehow, when JFK opened, I found myself mailing a check and hoping that I would get in.
I did not train as well as I would have liked, partially due to time constraints with my DH traveling so much and partially due to my year long yoga teacher training, which sucked up my weekends. One marathon, one 23 miler and about 6 20 milers, some of which were on trails. A few weeks before the race, DH found out that he had to be out of the country for the race. I resigned myself to not running but my wonderful running partner, Mark, offered to watch my kids so I could run. There is a method to his madness—he wanted me to do well enough that I would sign up for MMT 100 with him. That said, arriving at my hotel room at 3:30 am so that I could get to the 5 am start is a herculean task to begin with. Watching my 11, 8 and 5 year olds all day long is beyond the pale.
We lined up at the start a little before 5. The bank clock measured 44 degrees, nearly 30 degrees warmer than last year. Shorts and a long sleeve t shirt. My friend Chris is there to watch us start (he lives in town). I find my friend Ken, who says he is shooting for 11:15-11:30. Ken is notorious for going out fast. We tackle the 2.4 miles up to the AT, chatting as we go. At the trail entrance, Ken shouts "It is show time at the Apollo!!" and disappears into the dark. He goes on to finish in 10:30—a huger PR for him. The first mile is not too bad. I use my flashlight and note that the leaves are much better than they were a few weeks ago, and I can actually see the rocks. We wind our ways up the interior forest road—always steeper than I thought possible—and back on the AT. The sky starts to lighten and for a few minutes, it is almost harder to see than in the dark. The sunrise is glorious and a deep pink.
Gapland Gap, mile 9.3, I arrive at 7:12, a few minutes ahead of last year. Top off the Gatorade bottle and head back onto the trail. This bit is steeper and rockier but I am moving faster than I thought I would be able to. My goal is to get off the cliffs before the 7 am leaders start passing. Last year they were whizzing past on the switchbacks, which was scary. I get down of the cliffs ahead of the leader. I am a few minutes ahead of last year. They start to pass me just as I get to the aid station at Weverton (15.5 miles). The leader at that point (not sure who that is) wishes me a good day. This is what I love about this sport—throughout the day, folks encourage each other while passing.
Off the trail without injury, I settle into my plan of 4 minutes run, 1 minute walk. There is a marathon ahead on the C&O towpath. Last year, I ran 5:36 for this marathon. Mark and the kids missed me at Weverton—the kids were enjoying the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Coming thru Harpers Ferry, I spot my dear friend Caroline—a true ultra runner. She is spectating today and we exchange a warm hug. She tells me I look strong and happy and I feel that way too. I fall in with another runner and we exchange stories about ultras. She gives me some tiger balm for my hamstrings. At the aid station at Mile 20, I am thrilled to see the kids. They have been jumping ditches and tell me all about it and the blueberry pancakes they ate. They all hug me and encourage me. I see them again at Antietam, mile 28 or so.
DH calls at mile 36. He is on his way home from overseas. He has mixed up what day it is and is startled to hear that I am in the middle of the race but gives me lots of encouragement, which carries me along, still sticking to my pace plan. Once again, at mile 38 I get to see the kids.
They promise to see me at mile 46. I chug along, not eating too much but drinking coke and Gatorade. Somehow, I hold my run walk routine, clicking along at a sub 12 minute mile. My Garmin battery dies at 39 miles or so. I switch to using my sports watch to time my intervals. I finish the towpath marathon in just 5 hours, 36 minutes ahead of last year.
8 miles of country roads remain. Last year this bit took me 1:52. I plan to walk the hills and run the downhills and flats. I try to run some of the hills too. I am a bit nauseous and try to keep drinking coke to keep things at bay. A few of the 7 am runners who pass me tell me that I am too fast for the 5 am start. I pass the mile 46 aid station with no sign of the kids and Mark. A half mile afterwards, I see them in a driveway. The younger two found some mascara in my car and have applied it. A runner near me complements my cheering section.
I am getting tired. I use the orange traffic cones to help me. Run for six cones, walk for three. Two miles to go ... last aid station and 1.5 to go. Long downhill so I run it. One mile to go, counting the cones, grateful that I still feel good, with no blisters. Half mile to go and a tiny woman with dark hair passes me. "Laurie?" I ask. It is Lap'd, looking wonderful and well under her 9 hour goal. We exchange a big hug and I tell her I will see her at the finish. We can see the finish now. She is two runners ahead of me. I count 20 orange cones and I can see the clock, ticking down at 10:39.
I surge forward and finish, quickly enveloped by the kids and amazed at my time. This section took me 1:37, 15 minutes ahead of last year. A photo with Lap'd and we head for the car—Mark has a concert to get to for one of his kids.
We work our way to my car. My stomach starts to protest. I vomit in the car a few times. Mark gives me plastic bags and napkins for use as we part ways back at the start and I head for home. Two of the boys are asleep, but the 8 year old wakes when I get sick again. He tells me how proud he is of me and I assure him that I will be just fine. We make it home safely and a hot bath and a Sam Adams set things right again.
So what is next??? I don't think I will do JFK again but now I have the 100 miler in my mind ...
Thanks for reading!
(Kate Abbott - 2009-11-23 - see JFK 50 Mile Run 2009 album for additional photos of Kate Abbott, her sons, Ken Swab, Caroline Williams, and others from the race ...)
"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed." - Theodore Roosevelt.
I'm in the last half mile of the JFK 50 mile run, and I can hear the finish line announcer. It has been a splendid day, with temperatures in the 50s, little wind, and a partly sunny sky contributing to a perfect day for running. I'm far ahead of any time I ever thought I could run, and now I have a chance, one that until this point, 49.5 miles into the race, I had refused to consider, that I can finish the race in 10:30 minutes.
Starting the race at 5 a.m., I harbored thoughts that I might be able to finish in less than 11 hours. My times in the two marathons I had run in October suggested that my time would be in the 11:10 – 11:15 range. But here I was, so near to the finish that I could literally hear it, considering whether to push for a 10:30 finish.
Each day for the week before the race I had sent inspirational Roosevelt quotes to the others on the JFK discussion group of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club, largely for the benefit of those facing their first 50 miler. I knew that they harbored doubts about being able to run 50 miles. I had those doubts the first time I tried. Indeed, I had to drop out of my first JFK in 2006 because of a knee injury suffered three weeks earlier in the Marine Corps Marathon.
And now the Roosevelt quotes that I intended for others were talking to me. Another one came to mind, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." I had no choice, really, but now to try to finish in 10:30. I set to ignoring my sore quads and aching left instep and started to push hard up the last hill. The very hill that last year, physically spent, I had to walk up. Whether I'd beat 10:30 didn't matter. The effort was what mattered.
Boonsboro, Maryland at 5 a.m. promised a great day for running. The bank thermometer read 43 degrees, a welcome change from last year's 19. Right before the start I met Kate A. She is a faster marathoner than I, but just as I had determined last year when we started together, I wanted to stay with her for as long as I could, and then try to hang on the rest of the way.
We started promptly at 5 a.m. Kate and I ran some but mostly walked the three miles, with 1200 feet of vertical climb, from Boonsboro to the Appalachian Trial at Turner's Gap. As we head onto the trail I tell Kate that "It's show time at the Apollo," as I always feel that this is where the JFK really begins, the three miles we have just done notwithstanding. And the same as last year, within a quarter mile, I've left Kate behind.
I've borrowed two headlamps from Caren J., but I'm having problems, both foretold by Caren, running the trail in the predawn darkness. The one headlamp is bright, but the beam is too narrow for trail running. The second has a wider field of light, but I neglected to replace the weak batteries that Caren had cautioned me about. Not surprisingly, I soon stumble and fall, but without injury.
Fortunately, most of the other runners have excellent headlamps, and theirs provide enough light to get along with. One is especially bright, and as I come up on the runner with it, I realize from her number that she is Dannielle R., a friend of cousin Peter K. who told me to keep an eye out for her JFK is her first 50 miler and she is a bit concerned about her pacing and her footing on the AT, where injury is never more than the next step away due to leaf-covered rocks and roots. She and I joke about how Peter will try to lure us into running a 100 miler, something he did for the first time in October. I encourage her to walk up the long paved fire road from Fox's Gap. She agrees to the advice and we walk along with Ken from Cleveland, who is doing his 12th JFK. After passing the FAA structure at the top its back onto the roots and rocks of the AT and I gradually pull away from them.
The partly cloudy skies produce a beautiful reddish sunrise, and there is no longer a need to be concerned about the headlamps. I get to Crampton's Gap, now Gathland State Park, the site of the third part of the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862, three minutes ahead of the time in the 11 hour column of my pace card. Grabbing some M&Ms and potato chips I quickly head off to face the rockiest portion of the AT.
There is a course photographer a little ways along on an uphill stretch, and to avoid being photographed walking, I start to run – and promptly fall down. "I hope you didn't get that," I say to him. "Best shot I got all day," he replies.
The rest of the rocky section passes uneventfully; I get down the fourteen switchbacks off of Weverton Cliffs without incident and spot the unofficial aid station of the MCRRC. I drop into a chair, give Caren J. her headlamps. Someone hands me my drop bag and I change socks, change trail shoes for running shoes, discard hat, gloves, the long sleeve shirt I had under my short sleeve shirt, and long pants I wore over my shorts. The weather is good, and I'm counting on being warm enough as the temperatures are headed into the 50s.
Back on the trail under Route 340 I can look down and see a westbound mixed freight moving on the CSX tracks toward Harpers Ferry. As I approach the official aid station, the passage of the westbound freight reveals an idling eastbound coal train, headed by twin diesel locomotives. "Better hurry, the train is getting ready to move," someone shouts. I ignore the aid station and sprint across the tracks to the C&O towpath. A minute or two later the diesels power up and the train begins to roll, trapping runners on the other side until it is clear of the crossing. A check of my watch shows I'm now nine minutes ahead of an 11 hour pace.
I get into a groove on the towpath, and unlike other years, have no need or desire to walk, and just keep running. I go thru the aid station at mile 19 and have yet to have been passed by any of the race leaders, who started at 7 a.m. The suspense is growing, as I've never gotten this far without the leaders passing. But no need to worry, shortly after the aid station one, then a second, and then a pack of four more go past. Three of them will go on to finish under six hours, but none of them will break Eric Clifton's course record of 5:46, set in 1994.
I catch up to a runner and comment that his shoes look new. "I got them this week," he says. I observe that many think it is inadvisable to run a long race in new shoes. "I ran once or twice this week in them," he replies. "What's your name?" he cheerfully asks, "I'm Kim Byron."
That should be enough to put the 'don't run long in new shoes' advice on the dust heap of history. Kimball Byron was running his 41st JFK, more than anyone else in history, in his new shoes. He'd go on to finish in 10:54.
A little while later, it is the women leaders' turn to pass me. Six foot tall Devon Crosby-Helms is first by, and she will go on to set a new course record. Next is 48 year old Meghan Arbogast, followed by black-haired 42 year old Annette Bednosky.
In a short time, the fourth female runner goes by me. Blue bandana around her head, long blonde hair across her back, orange Montrail team shirt, tan shorts, and high white calf socks, Jill Perry cruises past. For the mother of five, JFK is a short race. She set the record for the Umstead 100 miler earlier in 2009, and then set the U.S. record for 200K while running 136 miles in under 24 hours while winning the U.S. 24 hour race seven weeks before JFK. I can only look at her rapidly receding figure as she cruises into the aid station around mile 30. And then she is gone.
A couple of miles later I spot an orange shirt ahead. Walking. As I get closer, I see the blonde hair. Impossibly, it is Jill Perry.
When I reach her, I stop to walk with her and offer her some Tylenol or ibuprofen, both of which I have. Her left knee is swollen and dried blood has run down to her sock. While coming down the switchbacks at Weverton, she yelled the usual 'on you left' to a runner she was overtaking, but instead of moving right as required, the runner moved left into her path, knocking her down. Despite the pain and blood, she had run another 17 miles, but now the pain was too much. "Go on," she urged me. "The next aid station is only two more miles," I tell her, and them I'm gone.
And cruising along. Always feeling good. No walking. No bad patches questioning why I'm running 50 miles. Thru the aid station at Snyder's Landing, mile 34. Then the aid station at Taylor's Landing, at mile 38. I plunk down into a chair at the MCRRC unofficial aid station, do a video interview for Don L., borrow Mark Z's mobile to call Sandy to tell her that I'm well ahead of my estimated time and that I may finish under 11 hours. Then I'm off again.
Leaving the towpath at Dam #4, mile 42, I realize that I'm now 27 minutes ahead of an 11 hour finish. Still, I'm concentrating on what it will take to finish in less than 11 hours. Each mile I recompute the pace I need to keep to finish in 11 hours. Even in Downsville, mile 46, and 30 minutes ahead of 11 hours according to my pacecard, I'm focused on that goal. Approaching mile 47 I run a bit with a brother and sister couple. She's pacing him the last part of the race. "Don't worry," I assure them, "You only need to run 21 minute miles the last three to finish under nine hours." (He had started at 7 a.m.) "We're going to get him in under eight and a half," she almost snaps at me as they pull away.
Next to pass me is someone wearing unmistakably colorful tights. It's Eric Clifton, still the JFK course record holder, one of America's greatest ultrarunners (he had a stretch of 20 years in which he won at least one ultra each year) and the designer and tailor of his JesterWear tights. "I'd like to order some tights," I say as he goes by. "See me at the finish," he says. Alas, I don't see him there so the order will have to wait.
Around mile 48 I hear footsteps coming up behind me. I play a bit of a mental game, trying to determine from the sound whether it is a male or a female. The light steps sound like a woman, I determine, then glance to my left to confirm. It's Jill Perry! "They bandaged my knee at the aid station," she says as she glides past. Here is one of America's best ultra runners, out of the money, injured, in pain, and well back in the pack, carrying on rather than calling it a day at mile 34. Is this not worthy of Theodore Roosevelt when he said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are?"
So a mile and a half later, I'm pushing hard up that hill before the finish. At the top of the hill, I can see the red lights of the clock at the finish line although I cannot make out the numbers. But that doesn't matter. It is the effort that will count now, not the result.
According to Roosevelt, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; . . . who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly."
At this moment, my world consists of nothing but the strip of pavement in front of me, the blue mat at the end of that strip, and a clock whose numbers I can now see. Push forward. Every step is one less to take. I cross the mat. Three steps beyond the line I stop and don't move. "Are you OK?" an official asks. "I'm fine," I say as another official drapes my finishers' medal around my neck. I walk out of the finishers chute and glance at my watch for my time. The timer is still running. I forgot to stop it when I crossed the line. I don't know for sure what my finishing time is.
That night, the official results credit me with a 10:30:07 finish. I'm in the top half, 503rd of 1027 finishers. In the last 8.4 miles, from the towpath to the finish, only two runners with times trailing mine at that point finish faster than me; while 49 runners who had a faster time than me at that point finish behind me. I improved by 48 minutes over 2008.
Inspired by Theodore Roosevelt? Clearly.
(Kenneth Swab, 2009-12-02)