JFK 50 Mile Race Recap
Overall, JFK was a great experience. I learned a lot about where I am at as an ultra runner, experienced an entirely new type of course, and met some amazing athletes and new friends! As great as the experience was, the race portion of the weekend did not go quite as well as I would have liked. Personally, I believe there were two main reasons for this: First, a relative inexperience with the type of course. Secondly, my training caught up with me.
A description of the course and how I responded to it will help explain my inexperience. The first six miles of the course presents an ascent of approximately 1,200 feet. This was not too daunting as I had done some hill work in the past few months (although more “real” climbing would certainly have helped). I reached the peak of this portion of the Appalachian Trail in sixth place. I was fine with this because I tend to be aggressive on the descents and assumed I could make up some ground on the next stage.
The next stage presented a type of running terrain I had no experience: The trail was covered in rocks. It is really hard for me to describe this properly, but I will do my best. Picture rocks ranging in size from two feet wide and one foot high to rocks the size of a baseball. This is just a personal guess, but it seemed like 75 percent of the trail was covered with these different sized rocks. This made a typical stride-out descent nearly impossible (for a rookie like me, anyway). I found myself galloping down parts of the trail because I was simply unable to navigate through this rock obstacle course with any consistency. I counted four times where I nearly rolled my ankle.
I do have an interesting side story that describes what experience can do for you in these situations. Jeffrey Buechler, who went on to finish third place overall, was behind me for the majority of the ascent. As soon as we reached the peak and began to descend, it felt like I blinked once and he was already out of sight ahead of me. At times I would tell myself to just worry about getting out of this portion of the trail in one piece. It was frustrating because in my previous three ultras I would really attack the descents, but this time I just didn't have the tools to comfortably do so without bashing my knees and face on rocks! In retrospect, I realize the way I “galloped” and sped up and slowed down during this portion of the course probably took an enormous toll on my legs. This final portion of the descent presented what is called switch-back trail. This is when the trail serpentines down the side because it is too steep to descend straight down. I'd be lying if I said this part was not scary. There were spots where you had to literally stop in order to change directions and avoid shooting right of the side of the trail in what would certainly be a race-ending experience—if not worse. Despite my inexperience, I did manage to make a bit of a surge on the descent. I found myself going through the mile 15.5 aid station in third place. I was optimistic about this because we were about to enter a 26.4 mile stretch of flat tow path. I got after it pretty good at first. I was probably clipping approximately 6:30 miles for the first few miles on the tow path.
I was carrying a Fuel Belt, which holds two 20 ounce bottles. This device served me well and allowed me to shoot through a lot of aid stations, but as I came up to the mile 20 aid station I stopped to fill up my bottles. I didn't realize it at the time but Kalib Wilkinson was right behind me and blew right passed me at the aid station. I would not see him again for the remainder of the race. At first I thought he was Michael Wardian because he had caught me a few minutes earlier but immediately stopped for a bathroom break. A few minutes later Wardian, who I had passed right at the end of the switch-back trail, caught back up with me. He must have been dropping sub-6:10 min/mile pace at this point. I was already starting to realize how much the descent took out of me, and knew I would not be able to carry a 6:10 min/mile pace without blowing up before the finish, so I let Wardian go by. This put me in fifth place.
Somewhere around mile 30 I began to hear another runner gaining on me. As he approached, I realized it was Matt Woods. He was cruising and looking strong. I thought he might make a push for third place by the way he looked. I hung with him for a few minutes, but ultimately he gapped me by approximately 300 meters. I wasn't going very fast at this point, probably between 6:50 and 7:00 min/mile. I was trying not to look ahead, because the monotony of the long straight shots was beginning to get to me. Somewhere close to mile 35, Michael Arnstein came flying by me. He encouraged me to keep pushing, because lots of guys were suffering. This gave me a bit of motivation, which I sorely needed. Arnstein ultimately held on for a fifth place finish.
When I started getting close to the mile 38 aid station, I looked up and noticed that I had closed the gap between Woods to about 150 meters. This gave me a bit of energy. As I began to enter the aid station, I realized Woods had stopped to fuel up. I had a bottle waiting for me there so I was able to shoot right through and reclaim sixth place. Woods caught back up with me and told me he was not feeling too good at this point. I was able to hold close to a 7 min/mile pace, which allowed me to gap him. The next 3.8 miles were the last part of the path before entering the the final road section.
The last 8.2 miles was speckled with rolling hills and one steep 200–300 foot climb. I spent the previous 7 miles trying to convince myself that if I could get to this part I would be able to put together a respectable finish on the pavement. However, this was not the case. When I began the steep hill, my pace became quite slow. It was a grind. I could not seem to get the turnover I had when at the Fall 50 four weeks earlier. At this point I just hoped to hold steady enough to keep seventh place from catching me, and maybe catch someone who really blew up. I managed to hold off seventh place, but did not catch anyone. I finished in a time of 6 hrs, 11 min and 59 sec.
As I reflect on this race and the past few months, I try to be realistic about everything. I personally tend to think three 50 milers in 9 weeks might have been a little aggressive for someone who previously had only done one ultra. Despite this assumption, I'm still glad I did this. I learned a lot about the sport be attempting three completely different courses. It allowed me to learn what type of courses my current training program allows me to excel at. It also taught me that as a new ultra runner it is probably in my best interest to focus on a few races that I want to peak at, while using others as workouts.
A big thanks to Matt Woods and his sister Heather for allowing me to send some of my fuel with Heather. It certainly saved me some time out on the course. Another big thanks to Fuel Belt for supplying me with the tools I needed to stay hydrated on the course.
The athletes at this year's JFK 50 were superb. It was probably the strongest field in this race's deep history. To put it into perspective, two runners—David Riddle and Michael Wardian—beat the previous course record held by Eric Clifton, which had stood for 17 years!