JFK 50 Ultramarathon
We were enjoying coffee on the dock after a lovely 7 mile trail run discussing goals for 2017 when conversations turned to Ultra marathons and America’s Oldest 50 Mile Foot Race, better known as the JFK 50 miler.
After spending much of 2016 sidelined due to injury, I had decided that I didn’t want to chase times and have the success of a race dictated by a number but to run for the love of running, to run trails, beautiful country side and for success be measured by the challenge, the experience, running off the usual path, through historic paths and sharing moments with those around you.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have the desire to also run fast and achieve time goals, only that I wanted something a little different too.
You learn a lot about yourself over the course of a 50 mile (or more) run… what your body needs to endure, how much (or how little) you have prepared, how to continue running through fatigue and pain, and why you continue to run even though taking another step feels almost impossible. No one is forcing me to run and I don’t have anything to prove but we are all there the test our own limits, to push the boundaries and finish...because we can (or can we…?)
This moderately technical (as far as ultras go) race had been graced with all of the top ultra runners at some time in their career and with little running experience (completing only 2 marathons and 3 half marathons at this time) the prospect was incredibly daunting. I wanted to feel ready for this challenge and so signed up for my first Ultramarathon to be attempted July of this year. The Race to the Stones is a 100km race across Britain’s oldest path which offers three options encouraging all to join...With my all in attitude I opted for the one day 100km option. This would be the biggest challenge to date but they expected First timers... I’d be ok... right?!
The journey to and during this race was life changing. But that is perhaps, for another day.
However, lessons learnt on this day had me pick up my bike and via April Joyce, led me to Robin which is turning into an incredible experience.
The night before I laid out my kit for the race, my breakfast and my post race backpack, with such an early start (4am) bleary eyed, I was able to reach for my gear without having to worry “do I have everything”.
A short taxi ride to the middle school for the pre-race meeting, we were amongst more than 1200 runners eagerly waiting for 6:30am. The Ultra-running scene is quite different from that of a marathon, with an 80/20 men to women ratio split (no toilet ques for us ladies) and the average age being higher. The Race Director Mike Spinnler took a few moments to give us an overview and history of the race, it’s legacy as America’s first Ultra-Marathon and acknowledged some of the “legends” (10/15/20 etc times finishers) and the first timers in the room.
I was unsure of my choice of outfit given that the temperature across the day was expected to vary from 30-50 (it ended up sitting between 36 and 41) and looking around the room wasn’t providing me with any assurance either way with the room split almost 50/50 with those wearing shorts or long pants, short or long sleeved tops. I opted to start the race with a short sleeved top, arm warmers, skort, calf sleeves, lightweight waterproof jacket, hat and gloves.... this turned out to be insufficient for me spending the majority of the race cold or later on, frozen. I had packed long pants and long sleeve top to put on when the sun went down however trying to wait it out so I could get more benefit when it got really really really cold as opposed to really really cold wasn’t the smartest thing to do... more on that later.
Section 1: Boonsboro (Miles 0 to 2.5)
6:27 the national Anthem was played and at exactly 6:30 we were off... the first 2.5 miles were road, but a long steady incline. The Appalachian trail, for the most is a single track and therefore very difficult to pass people, therefore this was the point to make your way to the front, should you wish... my training partners made a bee line towards the front of the pack, however I was so cold, and whilst I thought I had properly warmed up, this became apparent during the uphill that my calves were not feeling the same... I made the decision to drop back and warm up slowly....after all there was still 49 miles to go.
I couldn’t decipher if the calf tension was due to cold muscles or the new insoles from the pediatrist? Either way I was giving them to the start of the Appalachian trail to warm up or a little stop to switch back to the old insoles (which I was carrying just in case) and a stretch would have been had. To my delight, the discomfort reduced and I was able to get on my way.
Section 2: The Appalachian Trail (Miles 2.5-15.5)
I was super excited to run on the Appalachian trail! I knew that the next 13 miles was going to be a mine field of rocks, leaves, fallen trees, uneven ground and technical switchbacks. The course gained most of its elevation in the first two miles, and I, like everyone else around me, walked up the steepest inclines. They were too steep and there seemed to be little benefit to 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 a little once we were on the dirt trail at the top of the mountain.
At mile 5.5, the rocks became bigger and more difficult to negotiate. There was little room for error with any glance off the ground you would trip and or fall. My eyes were firmly planted on the ground... just a little ahead of me so I could see both what was approaching and the person in front of me. A couple miles into the trail, it started to rain, with the path being littered with fallen autumn leaves, the path became incredibly slippery. The steady flow of runners began to slow as people navigated through the wet leaves and rocks. Chit chat later on in the course suggested that even the most accomplished trail runners had the odd stumble or fall. I witnessed several falls, but thankfully no serious injuries... for the most, we got to run on with our war wounds. Yes, as that suggests, I too did take a fall.
As there was no-sneaking a peak at the watch I have to take a guess, that I took my fall somewhere around mile 10... until this point I was feeling a little proud of myself for navigating my way through the trail with little issues. I loved bouncing through the trees and rocks, finding the most appropriate foot space in a split second, it kept my mind on the ball...it was a challenge I loved and my mind was quickly wondering to whether there were any half marathon races on this terrain.... well that all came to a crashing end when I found myself moving in slow motion face first towards a pile of rocks. We had slowed somewhat as the trail was moving into a rocky descent but there were a number of sharp rocks which poked out at a 90degree angle, at this particular point, my foot slipped on a wet leaf and under the rock this stopping my right foot from lifting... with my foot momentarily being pinned to the floor, I was falling.... split second decision, hands knees, elbows... what’s going to hit first??? Fortunately for me I hit smooth rock (I say fortunately as that certainly beats a jagged rock) but obviously I would have preferred ground but that’s not how my story goes...
As quickly as I fell down, those around me picked me up... I was on my feet before my knees knew what hit them.... my knees took my full weight, but only for a brief second, as I seemed to bounce off my knees and onto my left side.... Are you ok, are you ok? Was sounded to me as I was trying to find my feet... “yes, thank you... please carry on” I whimpered ...Momentarily, I was unable to stand.. I was placed upright but I was hunched over as my brain was trying to re-engage feeling in my knees. The initial impact gave me the same feeling to when you stub your toe... but I n both knees at the same time, tears streamed down my face... cripes “please don’t let this be the end of the run” I thought. A minute or so passed and my training partners came up behind me... Jamie-Lee are you ok... yes yes, I was going to be fine and jumped in on the single file path... I couldn’t yet feel my knees properly, nor could I fully bend them... but I was back on the path, sobbing and I could not stop as there was a whole line of people behind me so I just got on with it. I must have cried for the next 5 minutes from the shock, every step hurt... I was not pulling out just yet...
I was so happy to see my training partners (Anne and Mark) when I did.... with them I can do anything..
I was hoping to share the JFK Ultra experience with them but after a disappointing start setting myself behind them by a good half mile before the Trail had even begun I had mentally prepared myself to run solo, so you can imagine my delight when I got to Aid station 2 and they were there with huge grins and hugs. We navigated the trail together for a little while, before being split up again... so seeing them again when I fell was perfect timing, it gave me the courage to battle through.
Mark got straight onto taking my mind off it, asking about my recent adventures participating in the Marine Corps Marathon a couple weeks ago, and the Revolution Cycling Camp and Gran Fondo last week... how can you continue to cry when talking about such fond memories.
At mile 14.5, the trail dropped 1,100 feet over the course of one mile in a series of steep, narrow switchbacks, to the side of which was a straight drop to the bottom of the mountain.
Mark took a pretty nasty fall at this point, punching me in the face as he went down... whilst I know he was really hurting, the punch in the face provided us with a little entertainment for a few minutes.
Coming off the Appalachian Trail, my spirits were pretty high, despite a little knee pain I was riding the runners high, thoroughly enjoying running the trail.
The first 15.5 miles had taken 3.5 hours…a little longer than expected but I was happy to have completed the trail with no injuries which would result in my day ending early.
We took a couple minutes at this aid station and regrouped...checked the status of our wounds, ate some chicken soup and potato chips. Chicken soup had never tasted so good, I was a little cold and wet and very much looking forward to a little warmth.
Section 3: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath (Miles 15.5 to 41.😎
The C&O Towpath is 184 miles long, stretching along the Potomac River from Georgetown in Washington, DC all the way to Cumberland, MD. This stage was 26.3 miles long, whilst it was nice to not have to worry so much about your footing...as the trail was very flat and wide this did test my mental strength the most.
The towpath was very pretty, with the river on the left, large trees and quant houses....it was a very long way.. I was becoming increasingly aware of my sciatic nerve and a dull ache in my knees from the fall. I was compensating for the discomfort and not fully bending my knees with each stride, which impacted me later on in the race.
Due to the multitude of dangers on the course, headphones/listening devices are banned and if caught breaking the rules an instant disqualification is issued. Not something I was going to risk! There may be only a handful of times I have chosen to run without music and it would involve a great conversation with great company, otherwise you would usually find me in a somewhat meditative state, peacefully running to the beat of the current song being transported to another place or lost in the lyrics. So today I lost two comfort blankets.. so no better time to test the power of the mind...
Anne was on a roll and continued on route finishing a with a fantastic PB. I hung back with Mark looking forward to 35 miles of chit chat and banter, but unfortunately Mark suffered an injury and had to pull out at mile 22.
So I was going to finish for the both of us. My goal was just to finish and where possible to minimise any real damage. My training had been impacted over the preceding months with some minor injuries so if a walk jog would get me to the finish then thats what was going to happen. I’m not sure if it was the right decision but it felt like the right thing to do at the time.
Now, taking it slower means i got colder quicker... As the day went by the temperature was dropping, quicker than I realised and I found myself ceasing up....so much so I almost couldn’t muster the strength to run. I thought the next Aid station would be close so I planned to walk I would there and layer. Well it was a lot further than I realised and that walk break was more than a mile... by the time I got to the Aid station (mile 38.7) I was visibly freezing and whilst trying get my extra clothes out my bag, a kind gentlemen helped me get into my gear out of my back pack. They had a stash of extra clothes for runners as the temperature fluctuates so wildly during the course of the day, I certainly wasn’t the only one feeling the cold! He found an extra shirt and literally put it on me... I was so cold, I was so happy for the extra layer. A couple cups of chicken broth and I was on my way (after a selfie of course - surprisingly his idea, not mine).
Usually on a long run I would find solutions to current troubles or make further plans, but this time my brain was only able to focus on the here and now and I found myself reminding myself that I can do this, remembering the positive thoughts and sayings from last weeks WOW camp.
I met a lot of runners post mile 34 who were also starting to suffer, we shared a few moments, acknowledging each other’s pain, sharing stories of past JFK attempts, training plans, tales of stumbles and falls, previous marathons and ultra marathons before congratulating each other on our current success and wishing each other luck for the remaining miles before one party would trott off on their way.
Section 4: Paved Country Roads (Miles 41.8 to 50)
I got to the last section pretty late in the day, 4:08 to be exact... I didn’t expect the course to have taken me quite so long and there was only an hour left of sunlight. With this, the Aid station provided us with reflective jackets and sent us on our way. In normal circumstances 9.5 miles would have taken less than 1hr30: today I knew I was looking at close to 2hours.
The course took us up a short, steep hill on a road. I walked to the top, bumping into one of the JFK legends who was completing his 16th JFK attempt. He wasn’t the happiest bunny stating that this was his worst attempt and that it would be his last. I walk/jog a mile or so with him before we were joined by some more legends and I dropped back. I wasn’t sure how much was due to the fall and what was due to the fact that I had run(walked) 42 miles but I couldn’t really put full body weight on my knees on the uphill (or down for that matter) I was therefore relegated to walking the inclines and declines, and shuffling over the flats.
The sun dropped with 6.5 miles to go, and the evening was bitterly cold... I just needed to see the finish line.
At this point I was really regretting taking my time during the race, for now I was so tired and cold having been out on course for over 11 hours. Hindsight....
Passing the “2 miles to go” sign engulfed me with relief... my entire body hurt but there was fire from within that took hold and pushed me to the end. I wasn't moving fast but It was steady and consistent being pulled by the fact that the end was near... as I approached the last 200 metres towards the finish, I could hear the crowds... I took off the high vis vest and tucked it up my jacket.. Why.. because everyone wants a decent finisher photo, and a high vis vest wasn’t going to cut it! As I approached the finish line, the spokesmen called my name, acknowledging that I had flown in from Bermuda and that this was my first time doing JFK... I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear! A medal was placed around my neck but as I turned the corner, both Anne and Mark were there wrapping me in another jacket and hugs.
My thoughts immediately turned Mark and if he ok, then to Anne and complete joy in her accomplishment! I forgot how cold and tired I was and for that moment the world stood still.... I was happy.
Success may be tied to each individual and how you perform on the day, but there are a lot of miles to get there and these are not earned alone, it’s a team effort. Consistent partners to meet you at 4am on a weekend, the long hours running together come rain or shine, deep or just plain silly conversations really do make for a special bond and life long friendships.
For each training cycle and race entered something is gained. This weekend I gained a wealth of knowledge from the experience and those around me. I had to put into action the notion that “comparison is the thief of Joy” each runners story is unique, the trials and tribulations differ and thus the finishing time is not necessarily what defines success. Looking back, it’s easy to think of what we should have or could have done, but in the moment I was doing my best and giving it my all and really that’s all I can ask of myself.