JFK race report

Day 198 / First 50 Miler / Long Post

It has been two years in the making. The race was within my expectation. I was (well) prepared and finished the race within my expected time. It was long but was not too hard. I was feeling great throughout the race. We had near perfect fall running temperature. I was well pleased with everything.

I heard about this race from my friend Jenn, who ran it in 2017. At that time, I had ran three marathons and really no desire to punish myself to do an ultra. 26.2 miles was my thing and no longer distance than that. I thought people who ran ultra were crazy.

But Jenn was something else. She is always so cool, and speaks with a Hawaiian ascent. She left me with a deep impression after she said she did the JFK. When she said she did the JFK, I had to asked her a few times what was that. Apparently it was America’s oldest ultra. It is quite famous in the running community especially in our area. This can be considered a local race, with an hour from the nation capital. I was the only one of budding runners who was clueless about it. She set a dream in my heart there and then that I wanted to run the JFK too.

My goal was, to do the JFK, so that if Jenn was going to run a longer ultra like a 100 miler, I would be ready to pace her or be part of her handlers.

I know at the time even with three marathons under my belt, I was in no shape mentally or physically to do a 50 miler. In fact I couldn’t comprehend how far 50 miles is. Some might feel they could train up in a year, but I was a little wimpy. I felt I would need at least 2 years to get there.

I decided to only take a baby step and planned to do a 50k ultra by the following year. I chose what now looking back was one of the easiest ultras. I glad I did it. You can read my report all about the First Landing 50k seashore marathon (I will provide the link whenever I get to it). I thought at the time, that was the hardest thing I have done. That was the end of 2018.

Now brought us to this year, with a new confident of having done the 50k ultra. I was itching to sign up for the JFK. I don’t remember when I signed up, probably sometimes in March/April after a careful consideration. The rest then was history.

I ran a few other 50k this year before doing the JFK. Three of them: Eastern Divide 50k, Marine Corps 50K, and Old Glory 50k. They were helpful. Eastern Divide was one that was planned as a training run for JFK, while the other two were incidental. However, they were great, looking back, in getting me ready. The Eastern Divide and the Old Glory were much tougher than the first 50k. Having done the Old Glory, JFK’s mountainous trail portion was truly a joke.

I also signed up two other ultras that in the end I didn’t do: High Bridge and Iron Mnt. I’m not sure if I have done those, would I have been overtrained? Praise God for how things turned out.

My JFK race was pretty much in line with my expectation. My goal was to finish within 12 hours. The course cut off time was 13 hours. I set a stretch goal (A-goal) to finish at 75% percentile, which is 11 and half hours. I did it (close enough to call a success, by finishing at 11:30:30).

What I did not anticipate was how long and tiring the middle section was. I had planned to treat the race in three phases, the first trail section, the middle canal section, and the final rolling hills on the road. I expected the first segment would not be exhausting because I would walk with everyone else due to most people are not good at running on rocky trail. I placed my hope that I would still be fresh by the second part. The second and the third part was supposed to be like a 50k ultra, with couple miles extra.

The trail section was 13 miles, and the canal section was 26 miles, and the final road section was 8 miles.

At the start, there were a lot of people. They said the race was sold out. There were supposed to be 1500 1200 entries. However, I don’t think everyone came. I was at the bib handling out table the morning of the race and saw many bibs were uncollected by runners. I felt maybe only a thousand of us crossed the start line.

We staged at the Boonsboro High School and from there walked about 800 yards to the starting line because there were not enough parking spaces in the downtown area of Boonsboro. The town was really small!

I started at the end of the pack, but only 1 and half minute had elapsed as I crossed the starting line. I figured, I was not a strong runner. This was my first 50 miler and I already expected to finish around 75 percentile (meaning 75/100 will be finishing ahead of me). I didn’t mind starting at the back. Besides, if I am fast, I could pass people.

The first two miles were on the road to Old Mountain Inn, where we would enter the Appalachian Trail. These first two miles out of the town were 1000 feet climb (maybe 1800 over 5 miles). Most people walked. I ran and passed a lot of people because I did not want to get stuck behind those who I believe couldn’t run on the trail. If they refused to run on smooth pavement, they likely would not run on rocky trail as my logic goes. I arrived at the Old Mountain Inn in 30 minutes (doing a 15 minutes pace). The pace was not fast but, compare to people who were walking, it was a fast pace.

I entered the trail with great enthusiasm. I was surprised that people in front of me did not slow down (meaning I had caught up with my pace group). The first part of the trail was downhill. Then it got a bit technical as the trail narrows. People started stopping. The people behind me impatiently murmured that you supposed to run down hill. People were walking downhills and it was on a single trail and was difficult to pass. I kind of expecting this. I told those people behind me that the trail would widen up ahead, since I ran this section before during the preview event, I knew.

Personally, I don’t think the trail was not hard to run. There are some technical parts, but the trail, since 56 previous JFK events was stomped ‘flat’ by thousands of feet. When the trail widen out, people in the rear passed me and I along followed and passed the slower crowd up front. It did not take me long to pass most of those who were more cautious in handling the trail.

It was outside of my plan to run fast on this portion. However, I think this was the best part of the race. I ran hard compared to the rest of the race. Some might view this being stupid because I used up my strength when there were still 35 more miles to do. A few times during the trail portion my calf seized up as I leaped across some rocks, but luckily, it passed without further incident.

I entered the second segment, the canal, one and half hours ahead of schedule. Originally, my plan was to enter at near the cutoff time. However, I finished the trail in 3 hours, this included the half hour on the road section. The trail only took me two and half hours to do. This time was even faster than my preview run. At this point, I was with the 30 percentile people – there were only 300+ people ahead of me.

The canal segment was not that exciting. However, my friend David was first to greet me and cheered for me. He was my support team. My other friend Brian was supporting me remotely! It was my first race with a crew. He had everything with him. I did not depend on him beforehand, so did not tell him what I need. He came up with some of my favorite snacks and candies. I had hot spots on my left foot. Unfortunately, my friend did not bring with him any cream or powder; he had band-aids. He was right, I did not ask him to bring those. Luckily, I had an extra pair of socks and I swapped the sock of the left foot. My foot was fine for the remainder of the race.

The canal section was a whole marathon length. We had plenty of aid stations. Many people I passed earlier on the trail passed me back. It was expected because most people were road runners. I was doing around 14-15 min mile and I think people were running at around 10-11 min mile. I felt each mile was very long.

I knew I could do it. At the same there was the uncertainty of how many miles longer I could keep going. The whole canal section could be a hump. My goal was to get to the next aid station. Usually, they were about 2-3 miles apart. The longest distance apart was closer to 5 miles.

Also I had couple goals, and one was to get to Antietam Aqueduct or Taylor’s Landing, where my crew would be. It was very emotional each time I saw David. Taylor’s Landing was the hardest for me, because that was the last time I would see him. He said I only have 11 miles to go. It seemed short but at that time, it was beyond my expectation to say I can do it. There was only two miles to get off the canal from Taylor’s Landing and we would enter the final road section. It was a long two miles. Rain started falling. I was feeling cold.

In fact, I was cold the whole day. I dressed in two layers a short sleeves and a long sleeves technical shirt. I had a pair of shorts on. I thought in the morning when the temperature reached 50 degrees, I would get rid of my long sleeves, I was never warm enough to do that. As the rain fell, I regretted not to carry along my rain jacket. Originally, I thought I wouldn’t mind the rain, however, as you were getting cold and I was not running fast enough to generate enough heat, an extra layer, would be a welcome. The rain did not last. I was saved. If it had come down hard, I might have called it quit with 8 miles left to go.

The last 8 miles boistered my spirit again. I think the time was around 4:30. I had been running for 10 hours. It was longest and fartest I had ever run. I found the rolling roads were much easier to run on. In truth though my pace did not change that much. We passed people who were walking or were doing walk-run. Three hours to do 8 miles, we were more certain even if we were to walk, we would make to the finish by cut off. My goal then was to get within the final 3 miles. We had three aid stations spread out for the final stretch.

The reason I used ‘we’ here is, someone caught up to me and was following from behind. I felt she had the power to overtake me, but she did not do so. I did not turn around but kept on going until we got to the first of the last three stations. At first I found it was annoying of her tailing me. She seemed to be just a step behind me – not really drafting, but I felt she was very near, the feeling she was on top of me. However, I did not say anything. Readers, if you remember, I like to follow other people too, so I tried not to mind, if she decided to follow me.

After the aid station, implicitly, she was running by my side. We exchanged info and such. She said, don’t mind her if she is running slow and I shouldn’t mind to leave her. I don’t mind pacing next to her. I believe she was a stronger runner than I, now after reviewing her pace from the whole race, the segment she was with me was much slower and she was running much faster earlier. Regardless, she paced with me and me with her to the very end. It was very good to have a companion at this final stretch. (Fair to say, another runner, Kim, paced me through a hump for 5 miles to Taylor’s Landing).

As we got to the 2nd of the 3 aid stations, the sun had set. We put on headlamps. Some/many did not have them. Just the two of us were prepared and I was glad we had them. People on the forum said we did not need it. True, we probably could do without because the terrain was easy, but it was good to have. There were many places without street lights and it was total darkness.

The last aid station was far compared to the first two, it was 3 miles instead of two and it was just within a mile from the finish. My companion, Marnie kept at my side. Couple times, I felt I wanted to tell her to leave me, but she stayed. We finished. I hit my goal. I felt I had superhuman strength to run the last eight miles. With Marnie, I did not walk at all. Many people we passed at the last segment, were walking. I would be walking too if not for her.

The race itself compared with my previous ultras was pretty much kind of a cakewalk. I felt the Old Glory was much more enjoyable and challenging. JFK was just long and (can be a bit boring). What I got out was friendship and experience, which is invaluable.

ETC: total number registered was 1200 not 1500. At least 959 people started, and 867 finished within the 13 hours limit.