The 2019 JFK 50 – A Memorable Experience

Training for a 50 mile race

In April of 2018, by the time the soreness in my legs had subsided from running the Great Cove 50k Challenge, I was thinking about how I could conquer the next ultra distance: the 50 miler. My original plan was to run some 5ks through the summer, ramp up the mileage over the winter, and then design a DIY 50 mile course to run in the spring of 2019. However, after training hard over the summer, I had reduced my 5k time to under 21 minutes. I felt like I was in striking distance of a sub-20, so I scrapped the idea of running a 50 miler in the spring and decided to stick to my 5k training plan.  Hopefully, I could break 20 minutes in one of the spring races, and then I could ramp up the mileage and run a 50 mile race in the fall.   As it turned out, I fell short of the first goal.  My fastest 5k to date is 20:35.  Sometime around mid-summer, I adjusted my training and started to build mileage.  In August, I signed up for the 57th running of the JFK 50 miler.

Training for the race went well.  For most of the year I had been running 30-35 miles per week, so I had a solid base to start from.  Slowly, I increased my weekly mileage until I reached 45 miles per week. I ran just three times per week.  Usually that meant 15 miles per run, but occasionally I would extend one to 20 or 25 miles and then reduce the distance of one of the others. In the month of October I ran a total of 180 miles, a personal record. During that month, I would also do two of the runs each week on back-to-back days to get my legs used to going further without as much rest in-between. Because the first 15 miles of the JFK is on the rugged Appalachian trail, I made sure that at least one training run each week was on similar terrain. I also took an opportunity to do a training run covering the first 19 miles of of the JFK, guided by Randy and Neal, two experienced JFK finishers.

On November 20th, just three days before the race, the unthinkable happened:  I was in the basement preparing some of my running gear when I dashed my foot against a cement block and fractured my toe.  After gritting my teeth and waiting for the pain to subside, I put some weight on the ball of my foot.  It hurt, but it wasn’t terrible.  But when I reached and pressed gently on the top of my toe, it felt like I had stuck a knife in it. Within minutes, the toe and surrounding areas had turned to a pretty shade of dark red, with a bluish tint. The bizarre thing about this is that the same thing happened two years ago while I was training for my first marathon.  That time, I had fractured the little toe on the opposite foot when I accidentally kicked a piece of furniture in my living room.  I didn’t know how to tell my family.  They had supported me through the long build-up in training, and now it looked like it was all for nothing.  I finally broke the news to them the following day.  By that time, there was a glimmer of hope that I could still run.  The last time I had fractured my toe, I could tolerate downward pressure on the toe, but upward pressure was excruciating.  As a result, I could hardly walk, let alone run on that injury.  This time, it was reversed.  I could put a fair amount of upward pressure on the toe without the pain becoming too severe.  Maybe I could tape it to the toe beside it and be able to run.  But could I run 50 miles?  It seemed impossible. Nevertheless, we had come too far to turn back now, so I was going to try.  After trying a few different methods of taping, I figured out the one that seemed to work the best.

Pre race expo and packet pickup

On Friday evening my sons Landry and Cullen and I drove down to Hagerstown to the pre-race expo and packet pickup.  There I met Randy, who had consented to provide course support for me, and I gave him a bag containing a pair of shoes and some other items I might need along the way.  My plan was to wear my Altra Lone Peak* trail shoes for the rugged Appalachian Trail section of the race, and then switch to Altra Torin* road shoes for the remainder of the race. There were a number of vendors set up at the expo, and were selling almost everything related to running, including gels, electrolyte capsules, shoes, and clothing. My packet contained my race number and a t-shirt.  There was also a JFK 50 booklet with the participant list, the results from last year, and a lot of information and records from throughout the history of the race.

When I got home and removed my sock, I was in for another surprise. With the time I had spent on my feet that day, the toe now looked worse than ever. It didn’t look like a toe, but just a dark red growth protruding out of the corner of my foot. The entire front portion of the top my foot, behind my toes, had turned turned black. I quickly put socks on so nobody would see it, and went to bed.  I didn’t sleep well that night, but I found peace with my decision. I owed it to my family to give it a try, and I would do just that.  Whether or not I would finish was in God’s hands, and I was ready to accept whatever outcome He had for us.

Race Day

My friend Dan showed up at 4:30 the next morning and gave me a one-hour ride to the Boonsboro, MD middle school. Upon arrival, we went to the Gymnasium for a pre-race briefing, which was held at 5:45, and then walked up the street to the starting line.  The temperature was somewhere around 30 degrees, so I was happy that Dan walked along to the starting line with me so I could keep my jacket on and hand it to him just before the race started.

I was standing in a huge throng of runners, and I couldn’t tell for sure how many were in front or behind me. I knew if I started too far back, I would get held up on the single track on the Appalachian trail, but with the uncertainly about what my pace would be, I played it safe and didn’t press further up into the crowd.  I didn’t hear the gun go off, but the crowd started moving.  I started my Garmin Forerunner 35 GPS watch and moved with them. The first 2.5 miles of the course is on paved road, and is mostly uphill.  Like most of the other runners, I maintained an easy pace with a mix of jogging and walking. I kept my eye out for Neal, Randy’s friend who I had trained with, but he was apparently ahead of me somewhere in the throng of runners. I was anxious about my toe for a mile or two, just waiting for a stab of pain that would indicate that it wasn’t agreeable with my level of activity.  Thankfully, all I felt was a dull ache from time to time that was easily tolerable.

At mile 2.5 we entered the Appalachian Trail.  Except for a two-mile long paved section from mile 3.5 to mile 5.5, it was single track without a lot of room to pass.  The pace felt slow to me, but I was OK with that.  This race was going to be 18 miles further than I’d traveled by foot before, so I wanted to keep it at a relaxed pace for a while. I passed a few people that were going slow, but more often I was passed by others who wanted to go faster.  I tripped on rocks four or five times, but was always able to recover without falling.  Several other people near me didn’t fare so well, but all of those who hit the ground were able to get back up and keep going.  The slow pace allowed for plenty of conversation, which helped pass the time.

The most treacherous part of the course was the steep descent and series of switchbacks that led to Weverton. Both my toe and the rest of me arrived at the bottom unscathed. There were throngs of spectators there giving a hero’s welcome to every person who ran through.  It was one of the emotionally high points of the race.  Randy was waiting at the aid station with my bag. I asked how Neal was doing as I changed into my road shoes.

“He’s about 15 minutes ahead”.

I grabbed some chips and Gatorade, and started down the tow path. Reaching this point was a great relief.  I no longer had to constantly focus on where to plant my next step, and most of the danger of re-injuring my toe was past. Not only that, but I could choose my own pace because there was plenty of room to pass. My legs felt great and I had plenty of energy, so I started out averaging about 10 minutes per mile.  My strategy for the tow path was to walk about 30 seconds at the beginning of each mile to stretch my legs a bit, and then run the rest of mile.  Most mid-pack runners in the JFK 50 use some kind of walk/run pattern, so it feels like you play leap frog with many of the same people for several miles.  You pass them when they take a walk break, and then they pass you when you do the same. Somewhere before the halfway point, I passed Neal, who seemed to be doing fine.  After having run about 8 miles at a pace of 10 minutes per mile, it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain that, so I started shooting for 11 minute miles instead.  That felt comfortable for a number of miles.

The aid stations along the way were great.  In many races, all the aid stations are pretty much the same.  In the JFK 50, they were each run by different organizations and had their own personality. Some had music.  One was a Christmas themed, complete with somebody in a Santa costume.  Pretty much all of them offered water, Gatorade, and some salty items such as chips or pretzels. Most or all of them had gels. On many of the aid stations later in the race, there were electrolyte capsules available. There was a variety of other food items as well.  I saw peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, hamburger sliders, hot ham and cheese, red velvet cake, and a wide variety of cookies.  Cookies aren’t something that I crave during a run, but one of the aid stations had custom decorated JFK 50 cookies, so I took one of those.  Some of the later aid stations also had chicken broth or soup available.

The course support was great as well.  Lots of spectators were around any place where there was road access to the trail.  I saw some spectators holding signs early in the race, and then saw the same people later in the race after they had relocated.  On one portion of the race, I heard music booming up ahead.  I assumed I was approaching an aid station, but as I got closer I realized the sound was come from a house in the woods on the opposite side of the river.  They must have had a very big speaker, because you could hear the music for a quarter of a mile.

One of my biggest mistakes of the race was somewhere about mile 35, when I entered an aid station with an empty water bottle and forgot to fill it.  I was several hundred yards past the station when I realized my mistake. I told myself that the next one wouldn’t be far ahead. I don’t know for sure how far it was, but those were some long miles. Mentally, this was the low point of the race for me. My entire body hurt. My calves were screaming at me to stop.  Even the muscles in my arms were sore from swinging them as I ran. I wondered why I though this race was a good idea. My right calf also started trying to cramp, which is something that is rare for me.  It was likely due to the fact that by favoring my left leg earlier in the race to protect my toe, I had put more stress on the right leg.  A typical response to a cramp is to take some salt capsules, which I had in my running pack.  Unfortunately, I had no water to wash them down with.  I had some energy chews and some potato chips as well, but i didn’t think my stomach would tolerate them without some water to go with them.  So I just put my head down and plodded on.

After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the next aid station.  Randy was there and asked how I was doing. I think I told him OK, which wasn’t altogether truthful.  I sat down at the aid station and guzzled some water and took some salt pills and gels. I spent about 3-4 minutes there before moving on.  Eventually, over the next few miles, I started to feel a little better.

My stomach mostly cooperated, but felt a little off between miles 25 and 35.  I may have put too many calories in at once.  Once it cleared up, I was able to put away a little food to stay strong. Eating during the later stages of an ultra-marathon is not something most runners enjoy.  It is simply done out of necessity to avoid running out of energy.  The usual advice is to stick to foods that you’ve eaten in training and know your stomach will tolerate.  I didn’t abide by that rule.  I tried a number of things I hadn’t before, including bacon, boiled potatoes, and chicken soup. Everything seemed to go down well and nothing came back up.

I saw Randy again at Taylor’s landing, which is at mile 38.7.  I was feeling much better and ready to tackle the miles that were left. The weather was getting colder, so he gave me an extra shirt to put in my pack in case I would need it later on.

The rest of the race went by more quickly.  Somewhere around Taylor’s Landing, I caught up to Interval Lady, who gets the prize for being the most cheerful person on the course. Or maybe she caught up with me, I don’t really know. She had a timer set on her tracking watch which would beep for each run/walk interval.  She had both the run and walk intervals set pretty short, so she and I must have passed each other about a dozen times. This was her first ultra-marathon, and I’m sure she had to be suffering like the rest of us, but you wouldn’t have known it.  You might have thought she was in the middle of a five-mile fun run. She spent most of the time striking up conversations with other runners and offering words of encouragement.  Occasionally she’d apologize to the rest of us for the beeping on her watch and for playing leap frog with the short run/walk intervals.  She was pretty sure she was annoying everybody, but I don’t think anybody was bothered by it.  Her upbeat attitude helped the time pass for the rest of us.

Before I knew it, I saw a familiar sight to my left.  Dam 4!  It was time to bid farewell to the tow path. My body was tired, but mentally I was feeling pretty good at this point.  I made a quick stop at the porta john and then sent a text to my wife, Crystal to let her know where I was at and gave her an ETA of 5 o’clock.   After having been on dirt surfaces for most of the day, the pavement felt hard on the feet. Within a couple of miles, my right foot developed a sharp pain.  It wasn’t terrible, but just enough that it made it hard to maintain my normal pace.  At mile 5 I texted Crystal and told her I had slowed and it would be 5:15.  But soon after, the pain subsided and then left completely, so my pace picked up again.

Somewhere close to the last mile I ran into two people along the course wearing bacon costumes. I had seen them someplace earlier in the race as well.  They had a frying pan and were offering bacon to the runners.  For the record, bacon tastes pretty good after 49 miles and 10 hours on your feet.

The last mile

I’ve had a lot of great moments running, but the last mile of the 2019 JFK will be remembered as one of the best ever.  When I saw the last mile marker, I slowed to a walk and texted Crystal. “1 mile. 12 or 13 minutes”.  Moments later, her text came back.  “We are waiting. You can do it!!!”.  As it turned out, it didn’t take me 12 or 13 minutes. The thought of my family at the finish line provided a surge of adrenaline that temporarily wiped away all of the effects of the previous 49 miles on my body.  Nothing hurt anymore. One by one I passed the other runners I had been playing leap frog with the last eight miles. “Nice Kick” I heard a race official on the left say as I ran past. By the time I turned the corner on Sunset avenue, it was getting dark, and there was nobody in sight ahead of me.  I saw a bright light in the distance.  “You got this, the light is the finish line” I heard somebody on the right say.  A flood of emotions become more and more difficult to hold back as I approached.  I saw a shadowy figure step off the curb on the left side of the road.  “Go Dad, Go!”  It was Landry.  Just beyond him, I saw that Crystal, Camden, and Cullen were standing on the side of the road. The finish line could wait a few more seconds.  Tears flowed as I stopped to give Crystal a hug. And then, it was an all-out sprint through the finish arch as they called out my name on the loudspeaker.

Credits

It’s hard to describe the feelings and the sense of satisfaction you get from crossing the finish line of a long race, especially to non-runners. It’s a life-changing experience.  But in this case, it’s one that I cannot take credit for.  In the days leading up to this race, the word that came to mind many times as I thought of running this race with an injured toe was “impossible”.  But God answered our prayers. Also, a big “thank you” to my family for putting up with lots of training time, and for being there on race day.  You guys are the best in the world! Also, thanks to Randy and Neal for scouting the course with me, Dan for the ride down to Boonsboro on race day, and Randy for course support. Last but not least, I need to give credit to the multitude of race officials, emergency personnel, and volunteers that make this event awesome.  It was a memorable day.

Other Links

Strava Activity
Official JFK 50 mile website

My official results page

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