Tongue-Tied and Twisted – JFK 50 Race Report, Part I

Several years ago, I read a few race reports from the JFK 50 Mile Race (link for one of them is below and it’s funny). At the time, I was all about qualifying and running Boston, but I had looked into that particular race and thought, “Well that’s interesting”. You had to run a marathon in a certain time to enter the race and from one of the blogs, the cutoff times were fairly strict along the way, requiring you to finish in 12 hours. Besides that, it has an interesting history that was equally, if not more intriguing. I’m not exactly sure why, but I set in my mind, THIS was the race I wanted to do IF I did a 50 miler.

Everybody Tai Fung Tonight Race Report

A Brief JFK History Lesson.

The initial inspiration behind the event came in 1963 from JFK challenging his military officers to meet the requirements that Teddy Roosevelt had set for his own military officers at the dawn of the 20th Century. That requirement was for all military officers to be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to maintain their commissions. When word got out about the Kennedy Challenge, non-commissioned military personnel also wanted to take the test themselves as did certain robust members of the civilian population. In 1963, Buzz Sawyer answered the call by organizing a challenging 50-mile route that would incorporate the Appalachian Trail (the AT), C & O Canal Towpath and rolling rural roads. This was one of many events like this around the country. The JFK 50 Mile Challenge was born.

After JFK was killed in 1963, most of the challenge events held around the country ceased to exist. Buzz Sawyer renamed the event from the JFK 50 Mile Challenge to the JFK 50 Mile Memorial. This 50-mile race is the only original JFK 50 Mile Challenge event to be held every year.

THIS is one of the reasons why I wanted to do this race. It’s the oldest ultra race in the country.

Besides that, there have only been two race directors in the entire history of the race. Buzz was the first, and he directed the race for thirty years. THIRTY! Then he handed it over to Mike Spinnler, who had participated in (and won twice) since 1971. Mike has been the director since 1993. I don’t know exactly what it is, probably because I’m not an experienced ultra runner (does one make me experienced?), but there’s just something about this race that is unique and something to consider.

So now I’ve done the most prestigious marathon, the biggest marathon, and now the oldest footrace. How cool is that?!

Ahhh, back to the story. Marathons and triathlons came and went, and finally, the time arrived where it would work out to run the JFK 50. But as chances would have it, two additional events popped up: IMNC 70.3 triathlon from the 2018 race that was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence and the NYC Marathon, which I had never thought about until I qualified in winter of 2018.

A lot of times, challenges make me more interested, not less, and I decided I wanted to tackle all three of these events. The additional challenge was there were only five weeks between the first and last event. Five weeks. The good part and the part that really made the whole thing possible, or not a dumb thing to do, is that each event builds on the next, and I had no time goals for any of them, just to finish them.

Half ironman, two weeks, marathon, three weeks, 50 miler. Why not?

That’s how my Endurance Trifecta was invented.

On the first day of open registration, which was March 1st, I signed up for the JFK 50. There were no registration requirements and the time cutoff had been extended to 13 hours. Who knew if I could make it all happen, but I was going to try my hardest to do exactly that.

Fast forward to fall. It was here. It was happening. I was ready to do this thing.

Once I got the triathlon done, I knew the marathon would be completed, which it was. We could have walked most of the marathon and finished in time. There was a lot of running and walking over four days, but the experience was beyond what I thought it would be. You just can’t picture what running 26 miles through the boroughs of New York City is like until you do it, and I was lucky to be able to do that with my BFF. It also ended up being a really good training weekend for the 50 miler since we did so much running and walking.

Then I had three weeks to prepare for the 50 miler. As I had written before, I ran a 30k trail race the week after the marathon, and had some pretty bad negative goblins show up. Good thing I chased them away, and I was overcome with a combination of “Oh Lord Jesus” and “Let’s Do This” when thinking about running 50.2 miles at one time. It was almost too much for me to even conceptualize. I broke it up into pieces and thought about each piece. I felt it was the only way that I could handle something so outside of what I ever thought I could do.

Another key for me was to prepare. One of the details that intrigued me back in the day was you do not have a steady time goal for each cutoff of the race. The trails give you a slower pace and on the flat part, you need to push the gas. I had been worried about meeting time cutoffs, primarily because it gave me something else to think obsess about besides the pain of running 50 miles at once. I’m not a very strong trail runner, so having fairly strict cutoffs worried me.

I went over the rules and the cutoffs, and I made myself a handy dandy cheat sheet to keep with me during the race, mostly so I didn’t have to wonder about the cutoffs. I had them right there with me in blue and white.


I went over my race plan, and got my list of things I needed to take. The weather was unreliable, so I decided to pretty much bring three sets of everything. Shoes. Tights. Socks. Ear covers. Gloves. Shirts. Hats. Multiple everything.  I got all the food, not knowing what was on the course and what I would actually want to eat, and all of a sudden, it was race week. My sister came to stay with the kids, and the day before the race, my husband and I drove (well, he drove, I rode) nine hours north to Hagerstown, Maryland. Packet pickup had just started at the hotel where we stayed, and I felt very Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-Balloon-like next to all the wiry trail racers. It bothered me less than it normally would have since my only goal was to finish in 12:59:59. I hadn’t even done a 50k, so there was no reason to put any pressure on myself to finish this race in a certain time, especially since I didn’t know exactly how the course was laid out. I had read many race reports to get an idea of the course, which is funny, since I don’t really think any of them did a great job in explaining exactly how that course is laid out and how challenging the inclines really are. But I’d find that out the next day.


Packet Pickup

Andy and I found a brewery close to the hotel, shared some nachos and queso, had a beer (or two), and ordered dinner to take back since it was a little too early to eat a full dinner. I got a chicken sandwich and mashed potatoes, which is my norm. The only difference was it was fried instead of grilled, simply because they did not have a grilled option, which is pretty stupid if you have a six-page menu. Add grilled chicken!  I digress.


We went back to the room and I sorted out all the clothes and food in support bags for Andy. He could see me at three different portions of the race, so in case it rained or I didn’t like the food on course, I could get what I needed from him. I was going to carry my time cheat sheet, my phone, chapstick, eFuel in my hydration pack, salt, gu, small packs of almond butter, and a few small bags of energy beans.

In my mind, this race was so big and huge and overwhelming, I was at a loss for words. Songs spoke to me, and I had some spontaneous crying and plenty of adrenaline rushes in my stomach. I honestly couldn’t conceptualize what I was about to do. I felt numb most of it. I was well aware of what I was going to do, but I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what I was going to feel like, what the course was like, how my body would respond. And as I sit now writing this, I have to admit, that’s part of the draw. That’s what reels so many of us in. It’s big, it’s unknown, it’s a huge challenge, and it’s beyond words amazing.

We went to bed by 10, and I actually slept well, despite having bad dreams all week of being late to the race start and missing time cutoffs.

I got up at 4 am on race morning. I was numb. I am going to run 50.2 miles today. It’s going to hurt. At some point, it will hurt. What’s going to happen? How will it go? Oh my.

No. Big. Deal. (Thanks to Charlie Engle for that mantra). Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. Whatever it takes. I was meant for this. I found this song by mistake, simply because it has the same title as a good Tom Petty song, but it is now one of my favorite “get into yourself and concentrate while escaping” songs. I’ve copied the lyrics below and highlighted the ones where I felt it was me. I’d had signs all week. As soon as I had thought of certain people, they called. I felt my Grandma Nolan’s presence. I knew she was there with me. I felt it was a very strong sign to manifest my finish. I needed to see it, to believe it in order to do it. So that’s what I did. We headed to Boonsboro for the race start.


Into the distance a ribbon of black
Stretched to the point of no turning back
A flight of fancy on a windswept field
Standing alone my senses reeled
A fatal attraction is holding me fast how
How can I escape this irresistible grasp?

Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue tied and twisted just an earthbound misfit, I

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings
Unheeded warnings I thought I thought of everything
No navigator to find my way home
Unladened, empty and turned to stone

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try
Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer,
My grubby halo, a vapor trail in the empty air,
Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye
A dream unthreatened by the morning light
Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night

There’s no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation, a state of bliss
Can’t keep my MIND from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I

Categories: Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Tongue-Tied and Twisted – JFK 50 Race Report, Part I

  1. Connie Nolan

    Another good post, Kelli!! Just never know what you will write👏👍 Love ya, Mom


  2. You have me on the edge of my seat ready for the rest! 💙💛

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