Frank and Bill's Psychotic Adventure - The JFK 50-Mile Run
This report is from the 2006 JFK 50-Mile Run. The race course traverses the southernmost 14 miles of South Mountain, Maryland.
Bill Dunn and I made the pact back in the springtime. We’d run the JFK together. This would be my first 50-mile race attempt. Bill was already one step ahead of me, completing his first 50-miler at Croom Trail back in April. The late summer and fall for me were filled with longer and longer training runs, culminating with three 4-hour runs on the hilly trails of North Wilmington, Delaware. Race day, November 18, arrived before I knew it.
The JFK is America’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. The 44th running would follow the traditional course from Boonsboro, Maryland, along the Appalachian Trail to the Potomac River. It then picks up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, heading up stream. Finally, the course traverses several back roads before finishing in Williamsport, Maryland.
Bill and I leave Lillian and the dogs at the hotel in Frederick, and head to the start, early on Saturday morning. We walk the half-mile from the Boonsboro High School gym to the race starting line downtown. Three hundred early starters already left at 5 am, hoping to finish between 12 and 14 hours. Our main group consists of 800 trail wise runners. The gun fires promptly at 7 am and we are off. It is 36 F with calm winds. An overcast, dry day is dawning.
The first 2.7 miles climbs 500 ft. along Alt. US 40 to the Appalachian Trail junction up on South Mountain. We are quite the pack heading up the hill. I hope it will thin out somewhat before we hit 13 miles of single-track trail. Bill recognizes Jen from NJ and Richard from WV. They ran the Guana 50K last spring and are right in the pack with us.
We promptly leave the road and hit the trail. With the exception of about 1 mile of paved road, I enjoy the next 13 miles of leaf-covered pointy rocks. The trail is mildly technical in some sections, highly so elsewhere. I commit myself to running very conservatively on the down hills in order to avoid a face plant. I lose track of Bill behind me on the significant climb up to the top of Lomb’s Knoll. Some pitches are steep enough that it is prudent to walk. We reach the top elevation of 1758 ft. at about 5.5 miles. This is the high point on the course.
We start descending. The course pitches up and down. I pass people on the up hills. They pass me back on the down hills. Everyone is most gracious. It’s going to be a long day. I reach the second aid station and first spectator access at Gaithland Park, the 9.3-mile mark, in 1:30. Quite a crowd has gathered already. I refill my water bottle and start to climb again. We hit a long, technical, rolling ridge. I wish I could take my eyes off the trail in order to enjoy the scenery. All the leaves are down, and the views are frequent. We start to pass the 5 am starters, who for the most part are now walking.
After several miles, the descent starts, and continues, and continues. We are headed down the Weverton Cliffs to the river. It’s very steep and resplendent with switchbacks. A guy who passes me careening down the hill catches a toe, goes down, and makes a sound like he’s broken an ankle. I ask if he needs help. He says no. Finally, we reach the bottom of the mountain. I am looking forward to 26 miles of flat terrain. I reach the Weverton Cliffs aid station at 15.5 miles in 2:44. I’ve managed to average only a 10:38 mile pace due to the challenging terrain.
We switch to the towpath and head upstream next to the Potomac. Good thing I’m next to it and not in it. The river is full, grey, and angry. It’s overflowing the banks. Anyone falling into that maelstrom isn’t going to come back out alive. It’s an inspiring view, a wonderful trail, and I start to pick up the pace. I amuse myself with taking mile splits. Alas, it is an exercise in futility. The mile markers are quite inaccurate. Don’t blame the race organizers; They’re National Park Service mile markers!
There are aid stations every 3-4 miles. They get better as the race goes on. The food choices resemble a decent buffet. The medical tables are fully stocked with a variety of remedies. A woman offers me aromatherapy on a cotton ball, to combat fatigue. No thanks, but I do appreciate you being out today!
The few aid stations with spectator access resemble the hill climbs in the Tour De France, at least in my mind. Race fans line the path on both sides, leaving a corridor only wide enough for a single runner to pass. People are looking up names on the pre-registration list and cheering for strangers by name, including me. Very cool!
I reach the halfway point in 4:08. I’m feeling OK, except that a nasty blister has formed on the back of my right heel. Not to worry, it goes numb by about mile 40. Others have written about hitting a low point shortly after the halfway point in the race. Darn if it didn’t happen to me too. I start feeling pretty winded, and think that the next several hours were going to be a real drag. I get to the 34.5-mile aid station at Snyder Landing and pop a few ibuprofens.
Thankfully, I start getting a second wind. I don’t know if it is my months of training or the analgesics. Maybe both? I reach the Taylor Landing aid station, “38 Special”, and Lillian is waiting for me in the crowd. I get a kiss and encouragement, and I head on. Two hours to go. I reach Dam Number Four, the 41.8-mile mark, at 6:52. I’ve completed the 26-mile towpath portion, averaging a 9:25 mile pace. We turn away from the river and towards the finish. I can almost smell it. Hopefully I’m not just smelling myself after running for seven hours.
The first bit away from the river is a decent climb up out of the valley. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be a bad hill. After 42 miles, walking becomes mandatory. The mile markers tell me how far I need to go to finish. These markers are from the race officials and are accurate. I’m averaging a 10:10 mile pace on this last section and feeling OK. I’m going to finish this thing. The course rolls on through farms and woods towards Williamsport. The pack has strung out tremendously. Many times I can’t see anyone in front of me. We reach town. Two guys catch me about a half-mile from the finish. One moves right on by. Keith from DC says he has a rule not to pass anyone after the last aid station, so we run in together to the finish. Nice guy! I manage a 9:36 on the last mile.
I finish in 8:17:55 by my watch, 8:18:01 officially, in 99th place overall. Not too bad a time discrepancy after eight plus hours on the trail! I’ve averaged a 9:55 mile pace over almost a full day’s worth of running. The official distance is 50.2 miles, and, just like a marathon, that last 0.2 miles is quite significant! Lil and the dogs are at the finish. I am happy and quite exhausted. My left calf then cramps up violently enough that poor Lillian is afraid I’m having a coronary. We get through that scene. I keep moving to ward off additional cramps.
It’s only about 45 F and the wind has picked up a bit. Time to change. Bill’s friend Jen finishes shortly behind me in 8:23. She’s the fourth overall female. Bill finishes about the time I’m done struggling into some dry clothes. He’s done great, posting an 8:41:02 in 142nd place. Bill, who only this morning said it was impossible to negative split a 50-miler, ran the second half 22 minutes faster than the first! I’m convinced we would have been together the whole race if he were able to train more on technical trails.
Lil gets us both into the car, we do the shuttle to retrieve Bill’s rental, meet a couple of good Samaritans who retrieved and return Bill’s car keys, and eventually get back to our hotel in Frederick. Everyone, including Lil, is too tired to go back out for dinner. The three of us enjoy a beer and pizza meal in the room. It’s an early night.
The JFK is an extremely well organized, well-supported event. The course is creative and challenging. It is a good thing that the technical portion is early in the day. The race had 1017 finishers, making it the largest ultra finish in US history! Obviously, word has spread about this fine event. If you wish to run an ultramarathon with unparalleled support, this may be the race for you! Bill is already trying to talk me into making it an annual event for us. He likes it enough he wants to get into the 1000-mile club. That’s 20 JFK finishes! We’ll see!