Pull up a chair and grab a cup of coffee. This is a long race report.
It was 5:00 am, and a ribbon of cars led us to the school where we were to have our 5:45 am pre-race briefing about 20 minutes from the hotel. A Cyndi Lauper song was on the satellite radio. Because of “potty gate” in NYC, I was very anxious about using the bathroom before the race started. There was no parking spaces left at the school when we got there, so Andy dropped me off. I got in line at the row of port-a-jons outside the school, and was quickly done. I tried not to drink too much since I knew there would be no way I’d have time to go before the race started. Most race reports I’d read said that (it was very true). Andy found me inside the gym, and we waited. The Cyndi Lauper song was on repeat in my head. NO. I can’t race with Cyndi today. So I turned my phone on music and the first song was the Lizzo women’s anthem, Truth Hurts. No, I don’t really want to hear Lizzo for 13 hours either so I changed it to Tom Petty, hoping for the best, but knowing that my mind plays whatever song it wants to.
Race Director Mike Spinnler gave our race orders, and the meeting was dismissed right around 6:00 am. The gist of it was “If someone slips, don’t step where they step. If they don’t slip, step where they step.” Simple. We had about a 1000-meter walk to the start of the race in downtown Boonsboro. So many people. I want to say there would be around 900 runners who started. Bathroom lines were too long. Oh well, I’ll figure it out and if need to go in the woods, I will.
Downtown Boonsboro was cool. The barber shop was already open and had customers getting coifed. That’s awfully early for a haircut. There was a hotel there with a double-decker porch with people watching us. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go home. But I was there, it was the perfect morning. Dry, partly sunny (when the sun would come up as it was still dark), and rain was only predicted for the later afternoon. I gave Andy a kiss, said thank you, and told him I was ready to get into the crowd. As soon as I walked away from him, I regretted it. I looked back for him, but he already moved. I found a few ladies, talked to them about their prior experience (they had experienced more than one DNF in their seven years of running) so I kind of didn’t follow them since DNF wasn’t on my list of possibilities, and I tucked myself in near the second half of the pack. All I could think about was to follow my plan, go slow in the beginning. Don’t ruin your legs in the beginning, no matter how “good” you feel.
I didn’t hear the National Anthem, but all of a sudden, it was time to go. We started. I didn’t use my Garmin, as I knew the battery would only last maybe a quarter of the race, so I looked at the time when I crossed the start line, and it read 6:30. When they say they promptly start at 6:30, they ain’t kidding.
Over the first 5.5 miles, you gain 1,172 feet in elevation. I had done many treadmill/stair stepper workouts over the months. I felt prepared. The first 2.5 miles were on a paved road. The first mile or so is basically rolling hills. It was starting to get light out, and it was a pretty day. Then we rounded a corner and my jaw dropped. Oh. I had it in my mind the road portion was rolling and as soon as you hit the AT at mile 2.5, you went straight up. That wasn’t the case. This road was going at a very steep incline. Most of us slowed to a walk. I used to be a really slow walker, but doing so many walks on the tread and walking parts of trails taught me to walk a lot faster. We went up and up and up. I heard some say that the trail was close, and then I saw the sign. I wasn’t sure how it would work, so many of us crammed onto a single-track trail. Would there be a back up or a line to just get onto the trail? Ain’t got time for that!
The trail was pretty wide and it did not go straight up, as I thought it would. Actually, it went down. Hmm. Not sure where I had gotten that information from or how I would’ve misinterpreted it. Oh well! The next mile was a pretty easy portion of the trail. Some ups and downs but nothing steep, nothing really rocky. The trails were in PERFECT condition, and I often thought about those who ran the race last year when it was a huge sloppy mess after getting 8 inches of snow the day before. At mile 3.5, you got onto a paved road again. Thankfully, I overheard someone earlier saying that the road portion was the steepest part. That tidbit of information helped me deal with the fact that it was 100% true. We walked straight freaking up. Forever. The damn road kept going up and up. I wasn’t sure what 1,172 feet of elevation gain really was, but I was beginning to get an idea. It was a lot when it’s compacted into a few sections within 5.5 miles.
After we climbed up and up, we got back onto the trail at mile 5.5. This was a much narrower portion, and I was excited that most of the steep incline was over. I told myself, “Just be careful, make sure you eat, and have fun”.
We were mostly single file, and you had to be strategic in passing someone in front of you. This is where Lizzo decided to join me in my head, and she hung in there for a LONG time, although I tried and tried, unsuccessfully, to get Tom Petty back. You run with interesting people in races like these. Well, probably in any race. Behind me, there was a group of ladies running, and every time we walked over the rocks, one of them yelled, “WALKING!”. Then when we ran on the trail, she yelled, “RUNNING!”. Constantly. “RUNNING! WALKING! RUNNING! WALKING!”. I tried not to get irritated, but how could any regular person not get irritated with that? I wanted to tell her to STFU and just go with the flow like everyone else was doing. I had to get out of there.
Then I got stuck with these two guys behind me. One was soft-spoken, but the other one was apparently using a megaphone because the dude was so loud. Like yelling at me kind of loud. A few miles later, I got ahead of them, thankfully.
No, I wasn’t grumpy, but when you’re running that long, you become slightly poodle-like, and things that don’t ordinarily bug you, do, then things that normally bug you, do not.
I chatted with a few people, watched the sun come up, and tried to take it all in.
At mile 9.3, we came to a check point in what was like a big field. I didn’t go over a timing mat, so I texted Andy where I was. At that point, I had banked more time and was 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I got some Gatorade, took an energy bar, and tried to eat a few potato chips. For some reason, they pretty much crumbled and fell out of my mouth. It still makes me laugh thinking about that, especially since it didn’t make much sense, because my mouth wasn’t dry and I wasn’t thirsty. The bar was pretty hard since it was cold – probably still in the 30’s, but it was good.
One of the ladies I talked to said she had run this part of the course before, and it goes up more, then turns really rocky, then goes into the switchbacks down. I wasn’t sure what mile I was on (remember, no Garmin), so I pretty much went with what she said. I figured we would have a good mile with rock and a mile of switchback, which I think ended up being pretty close to being true. The only difference was the rocky portion was probably longer than a mile. Once we did get to that part, which pictures do not do it justice, I was really careful to 1) NOT fall, and 2) NOT twist something. I got caught behind a few slower runners and just a few times, I took a chance running on the rocks a little faster than I normally would have. Thankfully all was well. We could hear the trains below, as the director had told us that if we get caught by the train, we are SOL, just be patient, and wait for it to pass.
I wish I had a picture of the switchbacks. I’ve been on switchbacks before, both on a trail and road, and what I had pictured was pretty much nothing like what we had. This was all rock, steep decline, and you could see straight down. Safety people were along the course, most likely for the people who chose to run down those things. I’m sure they drive around without seat belts too. My little group was chatting about something I can’t remember, taking our time getting off the hill, and we passed one woman in a sling and one guy who had hit his face on the rock. It wasn’t too bad, thankfully, and that guy and I passed each other back and forth the next 30 or so miles. We knew we were getting close to the bottom, as we could hear the cheering of the checkpoint and the first of three stops where our support people could see us.
Four hours into the race, I passed mile 15, one hour ahead of the cutoff. I found Andy, went to the bathroom, got some mini potatoes and shoved them into my pocket, grabbed an Uncrustable, changed my socks and into running shoes, and went on my way. I was in a really good mood. Eleven minutes later, after winding around a trail and under a bridge and over some railroad tracks (NO TRAIN!!!!) while munching on the sandwich, I crossed the 15.5 mile marker. I had a feeling I was going to get warm, so I took my long sleeved shirt off, took my number off, re-pinned it to my sleeveless shirt, dropping my Uncrustable in the process, and asked someone to stuff my long sleeve into my pack after picking up and dusting off my Uncrustable. If I’m going to run 50 miles, I can eat a dirty sandwich, especially since it was DELICIOUS. I realized the photographer was there, and at the same time, realized my sleeveless shirt was inside out. Sigh.
The next check point was at mile 27.3, also one of the points our support people could meet us. Twelve miles, I can do this.
I’d heard from several race reports that the C & O Canal was boring and flat. Like super extra boring. Considering it was a change of scenery and my running routes at home are boring (I often run when it’s dark just so I don’t have to see the same thing over and over again), I wasn’t worried about it. I knew the required pace dropped to 12-13 minute miles along this section, so I did not allow myself to walk much at all. Since I had no concept of distance or pace, I turned my Garmin on so I could give myself a tad sense of how far I had gone and how far I had to go. My pace hovered around 10:20, which I felt was perfect. I sped up a few times, but made myself slow down when I started to breathe harder. The canal was pretty. It wasn’t all straight, as it followed the winding of the river. The leaves still had a slight bit of color, and the dead leaves on the trail made a soft sound with our footsteps. Granted, many many many others had gotten to this point in the race before me and tamped them down, but that still didn’t matter.
Then I started to hurt. I felt the incline from the trails. I didn’t understand how I could be hurting already, when I had over half the race to go. I went into panic mode, then I talked myself off the ledge. The hard is what makes it great. Keep going. You’ll be fine. Breathe. It will be ok. This is a blip.
Our first aid station on the canal was at mile 19, and it did not disappoint. This is one thing I didn’t know about the JFK 50, but this is one thing that I heard during the first miles that sets it apart. The aid stations are AMAZING. So many things were offered, typical of trail races and ultras, but I believe there’s just more people there (at LEAST ten per) and they are offered more frequently. If I remember right, one aid station during another trail race I had run offered a hose. So this was pretty stacked compared to a hose.
I texted Andy that I was getting a headache and to bring ibuprofen to the next meet up, but right near the race half way point, there was an aid station and I got two from someone there. I was really wary of taking anything, but I knew I was hydrated, so I took them and didn’t look back. My aches went away. And I was now half way through my 50 mile race!
Since I was wearing my tank top, my bra was chafing my arm. When I came upon the next check point at mile 27.3, Andy was there waiting for me. It’s interesting, because I didn’t NEED him, as the race had everything I could need or want, but I needed to see him. It was like during Ironman Florida, just seeing my people filled me up. Just seeing him made me feel better.
I used the port-a-jon, he gave me a few more ibuprofen to stash in my pack, and I went to the medical tent to get a band aid. The chafe stuff I put on my arm was not working well enough. I told them what I needed, and I ended up laughing so hard because one of them rubbed Body Glide all over my arms, me laughing because the stupid tag of my inside-out shirt was sticking out and I was getting body glided. I went on my way with a smile on my face and an hour and five minutes to spare.“Get Lucky” that repeats the lyrics “We’re up all night to get lucky” about a hundred times. I’m not sure about you, but there’s nothing romantic about being in the middle of a 50 mile race. I was thinking it was just a bad choice of music. Then the guy said, “Ok, here you go, you will remember this moment forever” and the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Tarrell song “Aint No Mountain High Enough” came on. It’s funny because I didn’t know it was basically a love song, but I teared up thinking that there was no mountain that was going to keep me from finishing this race. Little did I know, the music was coming from a couple on bikes dressed as The Incredibles. A few more songs came on as they slowly pedaled, and the music was a really nice distraction from what we were all doing. They stopped so I got their picture and thanked them for being out there for us. In all honesty, Mr. Incredible was right. I will remember that song at that moment for the rest of my life.
I played games to get me to the next stop. Ok, you can either run two miles and then walk for half a mile, or you can run a mile then walk a quarter. Catch the lady in front of you. Get in front of the guy who was walking in the leaves and looked like he was going to fall into the river. Don’t fall down. Eat. Aid stations were plentiful, and at one I had a quarter hamburger and at the 34.4 mile check point, I had homemade Christmas cookies. This aid station was decorated, Santa was there, and the number of kids out there wanting to help us was overwhelming. During the entire race, I really tried to tell as many as I could, “THANK YOU FOR BEING HERE, YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE”. They certainly did.
Four miles until the next stop. In all honesty, for running this far, I felt pretty damn good. I felt hydrated, fed, and happy. I was truly enjoying myself. No, I didn’t want to do any extra dance steps or drop and do 20, but I was feeling good. Despite feeling good, a cramp developed in my left calf. Part of my race plan was to assess whether it was from a lack of electrolytes or just needed to be stretched. I took some Base salt and stretched. It migrated down into my Achilles and then into my heel then to the side of my heel over the next ten miles.
When I arrived at mile 38.4 at 8 hours and 48 minutes, I was an hour and 27 minutes ahead of the official cutoff, and I “only” had around a half marathon to go. I would be on the canal until around mile 42, and I knew, I just knew that I was going to finish this race. I saw Andy and honestly do not remember much else about that stop except that it started to rain.
Four miles until the canal. My watch gave me the low battery message, which made me mad because I had only had it on for about 2.5 hours. Piece of crap. I turned it off and went by time from then on. The migratory cramp now in my foot was irritating, and the top of my left foot had started to bug me a little bit. All in a day’s running, right? It started to cool off as I approached the country road portion of the race, especially with the rain. At least it was a light rain. Three, two, one, I was there. Mile 41.8, four minutes shy of two hours ahead of the cutoff. And the rain stopped. I had three and a half hours to finish 8 miles. Let’s do this thing. We couldn’t feel the finish yet, and 8 miles is a long distance when you’ve done 42, but it was more than doable. We were handed safety vests and I dug my long sleeve shirt out of my pack and put it on. When we got onto the road, we went straight friggin’ up. So much for rolling hills.
I’m not sure how the conversation started, but someone right there said he had done a ton of ultras before, including this one more than once. I asked him for some tips on how to NOT feel like complete trash the next day. Basically, his lesson was to take care of yourself that night and the next day. Compression socks, roll, stretch, hydrate. Jeff is an experienced ultra runner, as I had mentioned before, and he was having a bad race. Funny, since I considered myself having a good race and we were at the same place at the same time. Perspective.
We ended up talking the rest of the race. Racing, life, just stuff like that. We ran the flat and down hills, start at the mail box, go to the power pole, and I took in the beautiful countryside while it was still light. There was a fair amount of traffic on the road, and as careful as the drivers were, it was a little unnerving. My feet were really starting to hurt. It wasn’t a cramp feeling, it was pain. I look back on this decision, and I still, one week out, do not regret one tiny shred, but for the majority of the last six miles of the race, I walked. I knew I was going to make the cutoff, but I did not like the feeling I had in my feet, and it wasn’t worth risking an injury to make a certain finish time, when my goal was always to just finish.
Night fell like a hammer, and all of a sudden, it was dark. The race had mile markers for us, which was nice. We passed others, others passed us, and soon, we came into town. The finish was so close.
Three, two, one. One mile to go. Do I run, do I continue to walk? Eh, walking seemed like the smart solution. When I made the final turn, the wind picked up, and it was cold. I could hear the finish line. Thankfulness overflowed in my heart. My body carried me this far. My family supported me the whole way. I did it.
Eleven hours and forty-seven minutes after I started running the JFK 50, I crossed the finish line. I RAN across the finish line.
I cried after the race. So many emotions, it’s really hard to describe, and I still struggle to come up with words. The main takeaway is gratefulness. I’m so thankful that I was able to participate and finish this race. Since I’m not sure what to say, I’ll copy what the race director had to share the day after the race, which still brings me to tears. It was a special year, as the person who created this race, the one I wrote about in my last post, Buzz Sawyer, passed away in 2019. Of all things, I wish I could thank him for creating something such as this.
“This one was for Buzz. He would be so proud of all the athletes, volunteers, race staff and supporters who came out yesterday to be a part of the 57th Annual JFK 50 Mile presented by @altrarunning
Whether you finished or not, PR’d or not, scored one of those beautiful cookies at mile 19 or not… be proud to be out there when many people will never have the guts to even try.
“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men”. John F. Kennedy” ~ Mike Spinnler
One week out, my foot still hurts and I’ve taken one mile walk, which was way too far. I’ll be patient, head to the pool, and count my blessings. I already know what I want to do next. 🙂