Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Long Awaited JFK 50 Miler Race Report

It has been one month since I ran my first 50 mile race, the JFK 50 miler, and now I finally have the time and the motivation to write a race report. Not sure why it has taken so long. While I had a great race, I somehow lost all interest in running for a quite a while afterwards (and regained a strong interest in sleeping, eating chocolate and drinking beer). I am only just starting to get back to regular running right now. A similar thing happened after my first marathon, so maybe this is what my body needs after tackling a new long distance challenge.

The JFK 50 miler is one of America's oldest and largest ultramarathons, attracting elite athletes and first-timers from all over the country. I have wanted to run this race for a number of years now. The challenge of running 50 miles was irresistible to me, feeling both achievable after running multiple marathons, and yet at the same time also seeming very daunting. With my advancing middle age making me more aware of how little time I have left on this Earth, I finally summoned up the courage to register during the summer. To ensure I wouldn't try to back out, I announced my intentions, to the complete indifference of everyone I knew. Overwhemed by encouragement, I started a training schedule that consisted mostly of weekend back to back long runs,  along with a few long distance races (two full marathons and a 50K).

The race takes place on the Saturday of the weekend before Thanksgiving. I started to become very nervous about a week before, even though my training had gone fairly well. I started to look for ways to back out. My wife dismissed all my excuses and told me that I was going to run the race, whether I liked it or not. We set out with our daughter for the 4 hour drive from New York to Hagerstown, Maryland on the Friday before Thanksgiving. After checking into the hotel and picking up the race packet, my wife quickly located the hipster part of town (identified by two coffee shops and a group of people with placards demonstrating for transgendered rights). We ate an excellent meal at the Rhubarb House restaurant, and then returned to the hotel for an early night.

I woke up at 5:30 the next morning after 2 hours of interrupted sleep, and we left just after 6am for the 7am start. Unfortunately I had assumed that the start of the race would be somewhere near to Hagerstown, which was where the race packet pickup was. But after checking the race instructions (something I should have done the night before) we saw that it was over 20 miles away in the town of Boonsboro. We made it to the start line just after the race had started. I started the race completely on my own, slowly jogging up the main street of Boonsboro towards the Appalachian Trail, where I caught up with the back of the pack.

The race itself has three distinct sections. The first section involves a three mile climb up to the Appalachian Trail, which is followed for another 13 miles or so on the Trail. This was beautiful in the early morning mist, although hilly and very rocky, making running very difficult at times. Most of the people around me walked a large part of the race here. I became frustrated at times that I couldn't run far without tripping over hidden roots and rocks and landing on my face (something I did twice, to the concern of people around me). I ran for a while with a guy wearing a tuxedo, who told me he had ran 100 miles in the same tuxedo in Vermont the month earlier.

After around three hours the course wound steeply down the side of a hill to leave the Appalachian Trail at around mile 16. We came across a big aid station with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I munched on gratefully. I was beginning to feel a little tired at this point. We then started the second part of the course, 26 miles on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath. This part of the race is infamous for being long and monotonous. However after 3 hours on the Appalachian Trail I was grateful for an opportunity to zone out a little while running. I actually found the towpath to be quite scenic, and even beautiful in parts. I met my wife and daughter at mile 27, at which point I was feeling strong again. This gave me a big boost, and we ran together for 3 miles. Everyone passing us by looked longingly at our daughter tucked in a blanket in the running stroller, and offered to swap places with her.

There were aid stations every three or four miles, which gave me something to focus on once fatigue started to set in around mile 32. Having researched the race in the months before, I had read that people often encounter two "walls" during a 50 mile race: one around 20 miles, similar to the one in the marathon, and another bigger wall after 30 miles. My training had prepared me for the 20 mile wall, which was not really a problem. After 32 miles, I hit a period of fatigue which lasted for about 10 miles. I settled into a pattern of running for 5 minutes and walking for 1 minute. I had to force myself to keep to this routine as the miles passed by, even though I was very tempted to reverse it. This felt like a real mental challenge and test of will. It didn't feel any worse than the wall in the marathon, it just lasted much longer.

I had my photo taken with Santa Claus at the mile 34 aid station, where I wasn't feeling that great.

We finally left the towpath at mile 42, and began the last section along a windy road through rolling farmland. This was once again quite beautiful, although the rolling hills at this point were challenging. I ran the downhills and walked the uphills. After a few more miles the afternoon turned into evening and I started to feel better. I was able to run without walk breaks for the last few miles. During the last mile of the race, which went through the town of Williamsport,  I become emotional and teary. It felt like such a long and epic day of running. I crossed the finish line in darkness with a time of 10 hours 35 minutes: not great, but not bad for a first 50 miler. I felt wonderful at the end, and could have carried on running. My wife and daughter met me at the finish line and dragged me to the car and back to the hotel for a shower and food.

I truly loved running this race, even the painful parts. It felt very special. I remained on a high for a few days afterwards, and was even able to walk down stairs a week later.  I will be back for more. I'm hooked!