This past November I made a late season decision to enter the JFK 50 Mile. I was looking forward to it from a new race perspective, but I was also well aware that it was unlikely to become my favorite event ever. It is typically more of a road runner’s ultramarathon and the course doesn’t lend itself to my strengths (i.e. climbing, technical singletrack, power hiking). But I did it anyway, partly because it’s big for an ultra but more because it’s the oldest existing ultramarathon in the US. I’m not a huge history buff, but being close to home I’ll buy into the novelty. However, if not for the section on the Appalachian Trail, I would have gladly searched for something else.
Instead of me describing the course, I’ll just copy from the JFK50mile.org page:
“The first 5.5 miles (starting on road surface and joining the Appalachian Trail at 2.5 miles) gains 1,172 feet in elevation. The course from 2.5 to 15.5 miles is on the Appalachian Trail (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles). This section of the AT is very rocky in sections as it rolls across the mountain ridge. At approximately 14.5 miles the course drops over 1,000 feet in a series of steep “switchbacks” that then crosses under Rt. 340 and connects with the C & O Canal towpath. The “Canal” section of the JFK 50 Mile is 26.3 miles (from 15.5-41.8 miles) of almost totally flat unpaved dirt/gravel surface that is free of all automotive vehicle traffic. The JFK 50 Mile route leaves the C & O Canal towpath at Dam #4 and proceeds to follow gently rolling paved country roads the last 8.4 miles to the finish. The Boonsboro start is at an elevation of 570 feet. The Williamsport finish is at 452 feet above sea level.”
A fall storm had dumped several inches of snow on the area a couple days prior to the race which made for unique conditions. I was initially fearful that the Appalachian Trail section would be an ankle sprain waiting to happen with all of leaves down this time of year but with the snow, water, and mud it mostly just turned out to be messy, cold, and slow. There were plenty of sections of standing, frigid snowmelt midway up my shin.
Here’s what I’ll remember most from this odd race in odd conditions.
Getting and staying cold can cause a pretty noticeable decrement in performance, for me at least. I’ve trained plenty and raced several times in colder and even snowy conditions. But the combination of an extra long event paired with deep, cold water chilled me more than I expected it would. My feet were numb as we descended down to the C & O Canal. I figured I would warm up just from getting on the drier towpath and running consistently. And I sorta did. At least my feet weren’t completely numb anymore. The problem was I couldn’t sustain running fast enough to truly become warm enough. The lightbulb moment came when I guzzled a cup of warm chicken broth at an aid station. So that’s what I emphasized at each one. The unfortunate part was I skipped the broth at a couple of aid stations prior because I was initially thinking I’d warm up naturally and just took in cold food instead. Better late than never on figuring it out though.
I’ve come to this realization before, but I was reminded that there’s always more effort left to give than you might expect. You really can’t assume that if you have been feeling crappy that it will go on forever. I had garbage legs for 20 miles, which is definitely the longest bad patch I’ve needed to run through, but it eventually came to an end a couple miles before the end of the C & O Canal towpath. I’m certain a huge part of this was psychological - at that point the course only had 10 miles or so to go. It didn’t help that the towpath is just boring and I knew that coming in. I was partly spurred on by another runner that was moving at a pace I could stick to when they caught me. But the point is that my better self was there, waiting. The stars might have to align to draw it out but you can keep trying to find it. It reminds me of when a basketball team is down by double digits and not scoring. The game’s not over and there just has to be a little spark to bring back a big run on points. What can give you momentum?
A tough day isn’t really a bad day. Draw from it what you can. I still took away a PR for the 50-mile distance despite feeling rough for a good chunk of the race. That’s largely the nature of the course layout, but if I’d given up more mentally, it would have probably never happened. I know now that I can withstand a 20 mile stretch of suckiness. I didn’t get to do a real taper as if this was my planned “A” race, so my expectations align with the outcome. Bonus race = bonus pain = bonus discoveries.
It’s good to try something different purely for the experience. This race is big. Not massive, like a major city marathon, but huge compared to typical trail races where you could end up alone for several minutes or even hours. The size made me curious, but it also wasn’t appealing to me, at least on this day. There wasn’t a time in this entire event that I couldn’t see someone in front of or behind me. If you thrive on pacing off or being social with other racers, this would be a more ideal race. It’s not the most enjoyable if you expect solitude.