JFK 50 is America’s oldest ultra, local for me, and it was on my birthday this year… how could I not sign up? It was also my first big, well-known ultra and a great opportunity to get out there and knock the rust off of my trail running legs after my triathlon season ended in October. I enjoyed the race, it turned out to be a beautiful day (at least while I was on the course), and for the cherry on top I got to share the experience with my dad while he was in town.
I ended up in 8th, something I didn’t think I had a shot at given the conditions, and Jim Walmsley broke the record in a 54 year old race by over 13 minutes.
My triathlon season wrapped up 7 weeks prior to JFK 50 with 2016 Ironman Maryland. After that I took a few weeks of inter-season recovery, and right at the end of that Jessi and I welcomed twins to the family! So regardless of that day’s outcome I’d had a pretty awesome couple of months, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect going into the race.
Needless to say, I hadn’t run much, slept much, or eaten right in the weeks before the race. As funny as it may sound, going out and running 50 miles was my “break.” It was also my birthday present! The race fell right on my 32nd birthday. I considered fueling my run off of nothing but cake to celebrate, but I decided against it and went with my usual Hammer gels. I saved the cake for afterwards. All the cake. (No really, I ate all the cake.)
I thought I would likely go out there and cruise at an easy pace or blow up if I actually tried. The easy pace was the plan, but for those of you who know me well, you know that once I’m out there competing it’s basically impossible for me to not put forth some kind of honest effort. My stretch goals for this race were: 6:30, top 10, and within an hour of Walmsley.
I got to the race in good spirits, and had the chance to hang out with my friend Daniel Hamilton, who I met a year earlier when he toasted me at the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler.
I had considered doing the initial climb out of Boonsboro with Walmsley, just to say that I had, but as soon as he took off all I could do was laugh and shake my head in disbelief at the gap he quickly put on the rest of us. I hung back with the “chase pack.” With me being fairly new to the ultra community it was really fun for me to meet some other people in that pack.
I actually felt pretty good on that initial climb to the start of the AT section, and the AT section itself was a lot of fun. It had some fairly technical single track and decent climbs while still being highly runnable. It felt exactly how you would want a trail run to feel, and I made quick work of it.
Starting the C&O portion of the race I was in 5th and I thought “wait, how did I end up ahead of Wardian? This probably won’t end well.” I felt I had absolutely no business ahead of people who had much more experience and, in my view, were much faster at that race and distance. I backed off a bit, but it was too late. At about mile 20 the wheels fell off, Wardian flew by me, and I started dropping back.
I already felt absolutely horrible and the blow up that I feared seemed inevitable. Over the next 10 miles I dropped back to 14th. My thinking had changed from “maybe I can get top 6 for prize money” to “ok top 10 would still be cool” to “I’ll try to hang on for top 15” to “ok I think top 25 is still looking realistic.” As I describe in The Goldilocks Difficulty, my goals were continually adapting to keep myself motivated… the carrot on a stick just out of reach.
Then, I just kept chugging along at the same pace. I definitely never started feeling better, and I never regained my earlier pace, but I just kept going. One mile at a time. Things didn’t keep getting worse! Gradually, I regained some ground. Other people hit their bad points, and hit them worse than I had. By the time I came off the C&O tow path I found myself in 8th, with 8 miles on the road left to go.
Those final 8 miles were horrible, and a couple of other runners nearby probably heard more than a few words from me that I’m glad my son wasn’t around to hear. I continued on steadily, though, and even managed to squeeze out a bit of a pickup in the last few miles to hold on to 8th male, 9th overall (Strava link). Not counting the Boston Marathon this was the first time in over 2 years that I got beat by a woman, but no shame at all. Leah Frost absolutely crushed it with the 3rd fastest ever women’s time and I believe it was also her first ultramarathon. I remember her effortlessly cruising past me on the C&O section right around the time I was at the usual mid-race point of pondering the intelligence of my decision to do this race.
So for my stretch goals (6:30, top 10, and within an hour of Walmsley), I was 2 for 3. 6:30:59 is close enough (we always get to round down to the nearest minute in ultras, right?). I did also finish within an hour of every performance in the 54 year history of the race, except for Walmsley’s record-setting performance this year. It was also really cool to meet people like him and Wardian, which really reinforced one of the reasons I love this sport: everyone I meet, from the top to the bottom, is a cool, down to earth person that I’d enjoy hanging out with. Even in a “big” ultra that same sense of community and laid-back culture was still there.
It turned out to be a good day and a great kickoff to my ultra season. I’m glad that I did press on and finish when I did if only for how quickly the weather changed after I finished. What was a lovely day turned downright cold and nasty, and I was definitely not prepared to deal with that. I do prefer hilly, technical courses, and the C&O portion of this race is basically a pancake flat marathon that’s followed by 8 miles on the road, but it was an enjoyable course and an iconic race that was awesome to experience. It was a great birthday present made even better by getting to share it with my dad and then make the short drive home to get back to my newly expanded family. And to cake. Lots of cake.