America’s Oldest 50 Mile Foot Race, better known as the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Run, is officially in the books, and I couldn’t be happier this morning to have had such an incredible experience.
You learn a lot about yourself over the course of a 50 mile run… what your body needs to endure, how much (or how little) you are truly prepared, how to continue running through fatigue and pain, and most of all, why you continue to run through fatigue and pain, even when another step feels nearly impossible. No one is forcing you to run. You have nothing to prove. It’s your own desire and will to reach the finish line that get you there, because you know deep down that you can do it. The idea of running 50 miles is physically daunting, yes… but the real test is of the mind, and whether your head can stay in the game and overcome your beat-up body.
This was not my first 50-mile run, but it was definitely the hardest. I had run two ultramarathons before: the FANS 12-hour Ultramarathon, which I ran in 2011 and again in 2012 in Minneapolis. Those were a gentle, if you will, introduction to ultrarunning because there was no pressure to reach a pre-determined finish line. Set on a 2.4-mile loop around a lake, runners could run as far, or as little, as they wanted to during the 12 hours. In 2011, I had made it 50.79 miles, and in 2012, 49.17. Both years, the race had been a challenge, to be sure, though the course was flat and nearly all paved. Yesterday’s JFK 50 course, and particularly the first 16 miles, made my first ultras seem a little too easy, as thoughts of quitting crept into my mind more than once.
The Night Before
M., Frieda, and I arrived in Hagerstown, Maryland at about 7:30 on Friday evening. We checked in to our hotel and then went out to a nearby restaurant for dinner. When we got back to the room, I carefully laid out all of my clothing and gear for the race start and tried to relax a little before going to bed, knowing that getting a good night’s rest would be difficult because I was so anxious.
Leading up to the race, I was feeling nervous with each passing day. It wasn’t the same kind of nervousness that I have before a shorter race, or even a marathon; that kind is normally about hitting a goal time or running a certain pace. Indeed, this nervousness was much different. I worried about not finishing at all, the possibility of hypothermia, staying hydrated and fueled, and getting injured. I had heard and read about the course, which includes dramatic gains and drops in elevation over relatively short distances on the Appalachian Trail during the first 16 miles. We’d be on a single-track trail for much of that section, and I worried about being in the way of runners who would want to pass me. Given that about 98% of all of the running I have done in my life has been on paved roads or paths, I am not a trail runner. I ran cross country in high school and college, but since then, trail running and my left knee are a bit like oil and water. I was admittedly terrified going into the race yesterday, thinking about those first 16 miles, and woke up several times during the night before with my heart racing from worry, and yes, even fear.
When the alarm sounded at 5:00 am, my first thought was that the early group of runners was just getting started. They were already out there, on that daunting trail, in the dark. The 5:00 am start group was reserved for elite senior athletes, those who had finished the race at least ten times before, and charity runners. The rest of us would be starting at 7:00 am. While I would have felt more secure about being able to finish by the 7:00 pm cut-off time had I had two extra hours, I was grateful not to have to run the most difficult section of the race in the dark.
I ate a banana and took a quick shower, got dressed, and made sure my gear was well organized so that M. could bring it to the various spectating areas along the way. We then drove the 20 minutes to Boonsboro High School, where I picked up my race packet. The finisher’s shirt was pretty: a red, short-sleeved technical shirt, with JFK’s famous quote, the sentiment that inspired the founding of the Peace Corps: Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country. Fitting, I thought. I attached my bib number and timing chip and sat down in the high school gym to wait for the pre-race meeting at 6:20. I took in the scene around me: about 900 runners in total, the average age much older than what you typically see at a marathon. Nearly everyone had some kind of pack to carry, or at least a bottle. I did not, and naturally, I felt a moment of panic. Was I unprepared? I had read that the aid stations were never more than four miles apart, and figured I would be able to refuel at them without having to carry anything in my hands. Still, I worried that I was perhaps naive in not carrying my own fuel. (M. had a bag of my gear and extra fuel and hydration in the car, just in case.)
At the pre-race meeting, the race director recognized JFK 50 first-timers, veteran runners, and military personnel. He identified a few people who had run the race at least three times before and were aiming for certain times, in case some of the first timers would want to pace with them. Although I just wanted to finish, I had a very loose goal of ten hours. It seemed like a nice, round number, and a feasible pace: 12:00 minutes per mile.
After a quick bathroom stop, M. and I followed the other runners out of the gym and toward the race start, about one kilometer away, in downtown Boonsboro. We listened to the national anthem and took a couple of photos.
Section 1: Boonsboro and Around (Miles 0 to 2.5)
Promptly at 7:00, we were off! At about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, I opted to begin wearing a light wind jacket, thick headband, and gloves with hand warmers in them. In general, people seemed to be in good spirits, talking with each other, and running very, very slowly – another difference I noticed immediately, compared to a marathon. No one was weaving or trying to get ahead. I started about two-thirds of the way back in the pack, knowing we had about 2.5 miles to spread out until we reached the Appalachian Trail (AT), where we’d be on a single track for a while. I figured that if I started further back, the faster people could get ahead and I wouldn’t be in their way on the AT.
My plan backfired a little bit, because about a half mile into the course, the road began to climb, up, and up, and up. Many people began walking, but I kept running, all the way to the top and onto the AT. Still, quite a few people were ahead of me and the trail was wide enough for two or even three runners at this point, so I wasn’t too concerned.
And then that changed.
Section 2: The Appalachian Trail (Miles 2.5-15.5)
The trail narrowed, and the rocks made their first appearance. At this point, the trail was still perfectly runnable; I just had to be careful not to trip. We were on the AT for about a mile until we reached the first aid station. I picked up some Gatorade and a cookie and headed on to the two miles of paved section of the AT. The course gained most of its elevation in these two miles, and I, like everyone else around me, walked up the steepest inclines. They were too steep to waste energy trying to run when power walking was just as fast. The course gained 1,172 feet in elevation over the first 5.5 miles, and flattened out a bit once we got back on the dirt trail at the top of the mountain.
At mile 5.5, the rocks became bigger and more difficult to negotiate. I found out quickly that if I didn’t keep my eyes on the ground at all times, I would trip or stumble. Even checking my watch was out of the question. Others around me stumbled, and one guy up ahead took a tumble. Fortunately, he popped right back up and continued to run. I’m not sure when I turned my ankle for the first time, and I lost count after a while. Suffice it to say that as I write this, both of my ankles are pretty tight and swollen from multiple turns and slipping on rocks.
Periodically, we passed race course officials, and one of them said it best: Watch your footing. It’s like ski moguls without the snow.
There were a few steep dips in elevation over these first few miles, and hearing the runners behind me added pressure to go faster so I wouldn’t hold them up. I tried to stay to the right so others could pass me, but the clearest- and safest- path was down the middle of the trail. I found comfort in another woman just ahead of me, taking the steep declines just as timidly as I was. I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one struggling just to stay upright. And I can’t say enough how grateful I was that it wasn’t raining or snowing, because the only thing that would have made this section more difficult would have been running it slick and wet.
We came out of the woods and onto a grassy field at Gathland Gap, mile 9.3, where there was another aid station. I stopped for a minute or two, got a couple bites to eat and couple of drinks and continued forward, knowing we still had six full miles on the AT, including the most dangerous section yet.
I did not pass a single person while I was on the AT. I would estimate that a couple hundred people passed me during that time. Normally, that would have broken my spirits, but my one and only focus was making it off the AT in one piece. At mile 14.5, the trail dropped 1,100 feet over the course of a single mile in a series of steep, narrow switchbacks, to the side of which was a straight drop to the bottom of the mountain. A race official encouraged us, telling us we were almost to the bottom, but requested that we run single track for the remainder of the AT. With no one in front of me and a growing line of runners behind me, I again worried about holding people up. At some points, I had to use my hands to keep my balance. I apologized to the men behind me, but they had only encouraging words and didn’t seem to mind a bit that I was slow. This took a lot of pressure off, and I just focused on getting down the mountain, knowing that M. and Frieda were waiting for me at the bottom.
My knees sore from the trail and my legs already feeling like I had run a full marathon, I was near tears when I saw M. and Frieda. The first 15.5 miles had taken me 3.5 hours… much longer than I had anticipated. The thought of 35 more miles was more than I could handle at that moment, and I let the tears flow. It wasn’t a good sign to feel that low so early on, but I knew M. wouldn’t let me quit. I sat down for a few minutes, got rid of my dirty tissues, checked my feet (rubbed Bodyglide on them, thanks to M.’s brilliant idea, which saved me), changed socks, and ditched my wind jacket and gloves, as the temperature had warmed up a bit and I knew we’d have more sun now that we were off the AT. After a quick pep talk from M., I carried on toward the next aid station, about a half mile ahead.
Set next to railroad tracks, the aid station was a welcomed sight. A train was approaching, and rather than try to beat it across the tracks, I decided to take my time and refuel properly. I drank some Coca-Cola, and ate some chicken soup and potato chips. Sugar and salt, the keys to an endurance event. By the time I finished my snack and the train had cleared, I was in much better spirits. I hopped on to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath and continued my journey.
Section 3: The C&O Canal Towpath (Miles 15.5 to 41.8)
The C&O Towpath is 184 miles long, stretching along the Potomac River from Georgetown in Washington, DC all the way to Cumberland, MD. Yesterday, we were on it for just over a full marathon- 26.3 miles. I could relax a bit, as the trail was very flat and wide. Though I still had to look out for rocks and roots, the C&O was a thousand times easier on my feet, legs, and mind. I also didn’t have the added pressure of other runners breathing down my neck, albeit politely, to pass. I was able to get into a very comfortable 10:00 to 10:30 mile pace, which I held through the next eleven or so miles, where I next saw M. and Frieda.
M. and Frieda were waiting for me at mile 27.1, at Antietam National Battlefield. I took a little break here, ate some ramen noodles, a cookie, and stopped in the restroom (my only restroom stop during the race). I was feeling tired, but generally OK. After a few hugs from M. and licks from Frieda, I continued on.
My pace slowed a bit, hovering around 11:00 per mile. It still felt very comfortable, and my legs and feet felt surprisingly strong in spite of approaching thirty miles. I was enjoying the beautiful and peaceful views of the Potomac River to my left and passed through a couple more aid stations, stopping at each one for a couple of minutes to eat, drink, and stretch. I had made up a lot of time since coming off the AT. I reset my goal, hoping to make up enough time so that I could walk if necessary and still finish. I’d started making up stupid mantras in my mind, and repeating them over and over out loud. Since listening to music was strictly prohibited on the course, I had been alone with my own thoughts for quite a while. Some were productive (What do I still need to get for Thanksgiving dinner?); some were positive (You can do this!); and some were negative (I’ve still got way too many miles to go.). The mantras helped, though they probably made me look delusional to an outsider. They went something like: four hours, 15 miles, four hours, 15 miles, again and again, in time with my feet. Repeating them and doing the math, knowing that I still had plenty of time helped me push on.
In marathon running, people often talk about hitting “the wall” at mile 20 or so. This is the point at which your body tells you it’s done and you have to dig deep into your mental toughness reserves to get through the fatigue and intense desire to lie down. The wall of yesterday’s race came for me at around mile 38. I felt like I had run out of 11-minute miles. M. and Frieda were there, at mile 38, along with three friends who had come out from Virginia. Seeing them all was a huge mental boost for me, and they clapped and cheered and took pictures, but exhaustion was really setting in by that point. My quads were shot and my feet were starting to feel pretty beat up. I took about a 15-minute break here. I sat down and took off my shoes and socks to find my feet covered with dirt and bits of sand from the trail. I wiped them clean with a wet wipe and put on fresh socks. Knowing the sun would be setting in about an hour, I also put on a second long-sleeved shirt and grabbed a clean headband and pair of gloves. Feeling as low as I was, I knew that getting cold would be just enough to make me throw in the towel. Quitting wasn’t an option at this point, never mind that I wouldn’t, in good conscience, be able to wear that pretty finisher’s shirt if I dropped out of the race, so I wanted to be as comfortable as possible for the remaining 12 miles.
M. and our friends sent me back on my way, and for a few yards, my feet felt so sore I could barely move. I walked the two-tenths of a mile to the next aid station and refueled. I gave running another try, and strangely, thankfully, the tenderness in my feet had mostly disappeared, and I was able to run again. I maintained a pace between 11:00 and 11:20 through to mile 41.8, where I refueled again and picked up a mandatory reflective vest. The C&O Canal section was over.
Section 4: Paved Country Roads (Miles 41.8 to 50)
The course took us up a short, steep hill on a road. I walked to the top, my last walk of the race. When the road flattened out at the top of the hill, I began running again, settling into a comfortable pace right around 11:00 per mile. At exactly mile 42, my watch ran out of battery power. A bit ironic, considering that this happened in the exact spot where the first mile marker appeared on the course. 8 Miles to Go, it said. 8 miles, I thought. I can do this. I had been running for 9 hours, 11 minutes, and 40 seconds.
I reached mile 46 a short time later, where I saw M. and our friends for the last time before the finish. I stopped at the aid station- my last stop- for some Coke and a cookie. I was in much better spirits that I had been at mile 38. The end was in sight, and I still had plenty of time on the clock. It also helped that Bon Jovi was playing over the speakers at the aid station.
M. had started his watch at the start, and it read 9 hours, 58 minutes when I left mile 46. I picked up the pace, feeling like I was cruising through my fastest miles of the day. My mantras changed as the mile markers passed: 5K, 5K, you can run a 5K, and, at mile 48: 2 miles, Frieda-bear’s walk, 22 minutes, 2 miles, Frieda-bear’s walk, 22 minutes. Others around me must have thought I was losing it, but I didn’t care. My silly mantras got me through.
I was still chanting about Frieda’s walk when I saw one mile remaining. One mile! I picked up my pace, and felt fresher than I had the entire day. We rounded a corner where a volunteer was standing, informing us we had 500 yards remaining. 2 minutes, 2 minutes, 2 minutes. A few more steps, and I saw the finish line. I gave it all that I had left to get there as fast as I could, and smiled as I crossed over the mat. 50 miles. 10 hours, 45 minutes, and 4 seconds. Pure elation.
A volunteer removed my timing chip and gave me a medal. M. greeted me with a hug. I was all smiles. Exhausted, but all smiles. It seemed like years had passed since I’d come off the AT section that had almost ended my day. I couldn’t believe I had actually finished. With congratulatory words and hugs from our friends, I headed into the Springfield Middle School gym in Williamsport, Maryland to wash up and get some food. I couldn’t stomach much, but I forced down some chicken soup.
Race Organization and Support
I want to take a moment also to acknowledge the incredible organization of the race and the outstanding volunteers. I have run a lot of races over the years, and the volunteers who spent their day out in the cold yesterday were the best I have ever seen. They were friendly, positive, and made a point of addressing each participant individually and bringing us what we needed. Thank you, volunteers! The JFK 50 is also one of the most well-ogranized races I have ever run. From registration to the finish line, the instructions were clear and not once did I ever feel that something could have been better organized. An excellent event, overall, and one I would recommend in a heartbeat if you like a good challenge.
On Running the JFK 50 Again
Maybe. I’ll revisit that possibility once I can fit my running shoes on my swollen feet and after I’ve had some time to forget about my fear on the AT. I’d also have to build up some more trail running experience and confidence.
On Running a 100 Mile Race
I have no idea how people can do it. None at all. There is no way I’d have been able to run 50 more miles yesterday. But still… a girl can dream, right?
After the Race
With our friends, whom I was so grateful to have out on the course, we left the race and went to downtown Hagerstown for a celebratory dinner. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but the mood was festive. It felt so good to sit down and reflect on the day. It had been a roller coaster on foot, with many ups and downs, just like the Appalachian Trail. I’d had to regroup within my own mind several times during the run, and really think about why I was out there, and what was driving me to the finish. I knew that if I stopped, I would always question whether I could fulfill an important commitment or overcome a big challenge in the future, very similar to the way I felt about finishing my Peace Corps service when things got really tough. Apropos, considering both events’ connection to JFK. Yesterday’s race had been a test of my own strength, not so much physically as mentally, and a way to see whether I could overcome my own negative thoughts, so often my biggest obstacle in life. And yesterday, I passed.
Thank you for reading, and for every word of support and encouragement!
To M., my favorite person in the world: Thank you for all you’ve done to get me to this day. I could never have done it without you!