My 2013 racing season has lasted a long time. I raced from March until the end of November, with just a short two-month break between my first 100 miler and last marathon. It’s been a long and exhausting season and I’ll have to admit, leading up to my last race, I was feeling a little tired and burnt out.
In April, I registered for the JFK 50 Mile in Maryland. The country’s oldest ultra and one of the largest with more than 1000 entrants. The race was started as one of many in the spring in 1963 by John F. Kennedy, himself as a challenge to members of the military to complete 50 miles in one day. The other JFK races didn’t continue after JFK was assassinated, but the Maryland race remains. The race organizers moved it to the Saturday before Thanksgiving (around the date of his assassination) to honor JFK.
From the ill-fitting tech tee to the ancient-seeming timing chip, JFK feels like an old-school ultra. In a sport that’s grown and changed so much since I first started, it was amazing to be running a race with such rich history and to cover a course that thousands have run before me.
My friend, Kirsten, joined my boyfriend Patrick and me on Friday to make the drive to Hagerstown, Maryland. She was running her first 50. For me, it was my second 50 and third time running an ultra of more than 50K. It had been a tough week for me outside of running and I was excited to make the trip with Kirsten and Patrick. Hundreds of other people were running, including my coach, and I was determined to have a good race.
Race morning, we woke up around 5 am, but of course, I was up before the alarm went off. Runners and crew gathered in the gym at a high school in Boonsboro around 6 am, about a half hour from our hotel. We listened to the prerace instructions and followed the huge crowd out to the starting line down the street from the school. The air was cool, the skies were clear, temperatures were in the high 30′s, and there was a stiff wind. The start was crazy, hundreds of runners were crammed into the street of the tiny downtown area. An excited, nervous energy filled the air and you couldn’t hear the countdown with the chatter of runners talking about their goals and saying good luck to their friends. The gun went off right at 7 and I lost Kirsten right away.
The first two-three miles were on the road, first on some easy, rolling hills then up the road on the side of the mountain to the Appalachian Trail. OK, so the mountain probably wasn’t that big, probably, but compared to what I run in flat, Cleveland, Ohio, it was a mountain. I made it up to the trailhead pretty quickly, even though I run/walked up the mountain. I had to resist the urge to run the whole thing since I had no idea when I was going to reach the top and I still had 49 miles left to run.
The trail seemed easy at first. Everyone warned me how gnarly and technical it was compared to what I was used to. The first mile or two on the trail was pretty easy gravel and didn’t seem like a big deal. Until around mile 5, we started going down and the trail turned from easy to really difficult. There were rocks everywhere, big ones, small ones, little dagger like ones shooting out of the ground. I wore trail shoes so I knew I’d have better footing, but that didn’t stop me from turning my ankle a few times.
I started slowing down, knowing I still had time. I had planned to get to Weverton, the mile 16 aid station and crew stop between 3 and 3.5 hours to meet Patrick for a fresh handheld and change into road shoes. I didn’t want to risk falling, as I’d heard stories of people falling and busting their head on a rock. A friend of mine broke a rib last year during this section and did not finish the race. So of course, when I picked up the pace on the flatter portions, I fell. Three times. The first two times, I hit my left knee. The second being worse and I had blood running down my leg. It hurt, but not too badly. The third, I fell right onto my hands into a plank-like position, swore loudly, got back up and moved on. At that point, I was so close to the switchbacks and to Weverton that I had to pick myself up and keep going.
The switchbacks were the toughest part of the trail. I took it easy, no one was too close behind me at that point. I could hear the cheering crowd at the aid station and kept my head down watching the rocks. As I got closer to the end of the section, the cheering grew louder and louder. It felt like a major marathon, running through such a huge crowd of people. As much as I wanted to sprint through, smiling and happy to be just about done with the trail, I had to stop and change into road shoes. I changed quickly, grabbed a new handheld, showed Patrick my wounds and headed off.
After another super short section of trail, I was on the C&O Canal, a very scenic, very long section of towpath that runs along the Potomac River. This section lasts for 26.3 miles of the course and is very flat and very boring. There’s not a ton of details from this part for me to talk about since it was much of the same for the 26 miles. At first, I felt like I should pick up the pace and make up some time. I had to meet Patrick at mile 38 around 2 pm. I admired the pretty, old houses along the river, went back and forth with other runners and made a few bathroom stops along the way.
But miles 20-35 were a struggle. I stopped to walk a lot, not necessarily because I was hurting or tired, but because I was struggling mentally. I got to a point where I just didn’t want to do it anymore. At one point, I cried and was ready to give up ultrarunning all together. My stomach didn’t feel great and I just wanted everything to be over. I couldn’t wait to get to mile 38 and see Patrick. I knew he wouldn’t let me give up.
Then I reached the mile 38 aid station. There were spectators and crew cheering me and the other runners on. But I got there late. It was just after 2:30. I looked around for Patrick, but didn’t see him. Turns out, we had missed each other by 5 minutes. He has left a few minutes prior thinking he had missed me. At that point, all thoughts of finishing in the daylight had gone out the window. In reality, I was being dramatic. I freaked out about missing him because I didn’t have a headlamp or my long-sleeved shirt to put on. The temperature hadn’t risen that much since the morning and I was afraid of freezing on the last stretch.
I had no choice but to get my head back in the game and get moving. I made it to the mile 42 aid station shortly after 3 pm and unfortunately, had to take the reflective vest. I was a little mad at myself for letting my mind give up on me during the towpath section and not making it to the finish in the time I had originally wanted (around 9 hours). But I had about 8 miles left and they were all road. At this point, I was hurting. I had slowed down a lot because my quads had already hurt and at that point, I was tired. I looked at my watch and realized I still had time to finish under 10 hours.
The last 8 miles were all on the road on the way into Williamsport with the finish at Springfield Middle School. To my left, the sun was setting. In front of me was a long stream of runners. Many were walking, most were just shuffling forward. Any time I walked, I was losing minutes to get under 10 hours. I started running the hills, passing other runners and counting down the miles. They clicked by and then I saw the last mile marker. I had 49 miles in my legs and was finishing this damn race. It was around 4:36, I had about 20 minutes until the sun went down and enough time to walk it in if I wanted to.
But I didn’t. I ran the last mile in 8:58, my fastest mile of the entire race. I crossed the finish line at 4:45, 9 hours and 45 minutes in.
I went inside to eat, shower and change and then made Patrick stand outside in the cold with me and wait for Kirsten. I hadn’t really expected it to get so cold, I just assumed it would be warmer than at home. It wasn’t. She finished in just over 11 hours and I was so happy to be able to see her finish!
In the end, t wasn’t really the race I had set out for, but looking back, I’m glad I pushed through the tough spots to a strong finish and I hope someday to go back even stronger and maybe faster.