2007-10-13 - JFK 50 Miler Simulation

~26 miles @ ~17 min/mi

In Harpers Ferry I follow the wrong set of train tracks and manage to lead my running buddy Mary Ewell halfway out of town along the Shennandoah River. We belatedly ask directions, reverse course, and then pick our way through crowds of tourists and Civil War reenactors. Soon we find the Amtrak station where we can refill our water bottles, regrease our feet, and gather our wits in preparation for the next few hours of trekking along the C&O Canal towpath. We're training for Mary's JFK50 race next month by previewing miles 2.5-27.1 of the course.

Today is a Very Good Day precisely because it's also a rough day. Both Mary and I experience significant, unexpected aches and pains, though thankfully neither of us falls down or twists an ankle on the Appalachian Trail (AT) between the Old South Mountain Inn and Weverton Cliffs. We get started late, at 6:50am instead of 6am, because I get lost on the way to our Antietam rendezvous and enjoy an unscheduled tour of Sharpsburg. "Sir," I address an elderly gentlemen checking his mailbox at 5:30am, "could you tell me how to find Canal Road?" He sends me back three miles along the winding country lane from whence I came. As I approach the corner of Canal Road I spy Mary awaiting me.

Then it's park in the dark, double-check gear, jump into Mary's car, and ride to our starting point, Zittlestown, at the notch in South Mountain on US Hwy Alt-40 where the JFK meets the AT. We're almost an hour behind schedule and dawn is upon us. After a short debate we abandon the notion of simulating the dark 5am November JFK start, and instead leave our flashlights and headlamps behind. Soon it's bright enough for us to see how treacherous the path is. On the AT we set a steady, cautious pace and meet some friendly folks, including Paul Betker whom Bernie (aka Lisa) and I saw last year on 4 Nov (cf. InnerGoat). Paul has done 25 JFKs in a row and is training today for #26. After walking and chatting with us for a half-mile he races on ahead to catch up with his comrades.

Half a dozen miles into the day's journey we're at Gathland Gap, where my favorite soda water vending machine hums cheerfully. Paul and Co. are here, about to head west along the road to loop back to where they, and we, began. Mary and I drink Cherry Cokes and after an 8-minute break proceed onward, chatting about superfluidity, mean people, the effect of microwave radiation on delicate body parts, and other entertaining topics as we follow the AT south along the ridgeline. The air today is cool and comfortable but rather dry — so we don't fully realize how much water we're both losing through sweat and respiration. At Weverton Cliffs we descend the steep switchbacks and retrieve the cache of supplies that I hid behind a tree at 0530 on my way to Sharpsburg. We sit on a guardrail at JFK course mile 15.5 (our 13th mile of the day), sip Gatorade, and nibble Pringles potato chips.

The AT takes us across the train tracks to join the C&O Canal towpath near milepost 58. Mary jogs along at a strong pace, so we average 11.5-13 min/mi, interspersing four minutes of running with one minute of walking. By Harpers Ferry, canal mile ~60.7, we're starting to get tired and realize that we're already low on water. We climb a scary metal mesh stairway and cross the Potomac. After ~20 minutes of wandering we tank up and return.

Then it gets tougher — especially for Mary who has maintained her electrolytes but probably is already quite dehydrated. We walk more frequently and longer, and Mary cheerfully describes the pre-migraine sensations she's starting to experience. (I challenge her to stroll through a tree, but she demurs.) At canal mile ~69.5 we're back at my car where we each chug cans of soda water, eat handfuls of chocolate chips, and begin to recover. Total time on feet: ~7.5 hours. When I get home I weigh myself and find that I've lost 2.0 lbs. in spite of drinking 40 oz. of Zelectrolyte brew, 20 oz. of Cherry Coke, 20 oz. of Gatorade, ~10 oz. of water, and 12 oz. of orange soda. (Proof that I can sweat buckets even when the temperature is below 70°F!)

The Good News, however, is that we covered more than 25 miles of the toughest terrain on the JFK course, and we did it in less than 7 hours, not counting time spent random-walking about Harpers Ferry or the entire long breaks at Gathland Gap and Weverton. This tells me that, barring horrid weather or catastrophic injury on the AT, Mary should have no trouble making the cutoffs for the JFK next month.