Dad and I went in with a few simple expectations: enjoy each other's company on some beautiful trails and go as far as we can.
Race day started with a 6:20 am "mandatory" pre-race briefing in Boonsboro, Maryland's high school gymnasium. Looks like most of the veteran racers knew to skip it because the gym had nowhere near the over 1,400 people who were running (the JFK 50 is the largest ultramarathon in North America.)
"Welcome everyone yada yada yada don't leave trash on the trail yada yada yada be nice to others yada yada yada run for a long time yada yada yada good luck. Oh, and by the way, the race starts in less than 20 minutes over a kilometer away from here on Main Street - a kilometer that won't be counted toward today's mileage so sad too bad. Good luck to those who will try to make it to the starting line on time."
Our first tactical race dilemma was whether or not to wait out the lines to the bathroom now and try to get to the start line in time or to go straight to the start line and try to hold out until the porta-potties at mile 2.7. We voted "now" and jumped in the long lines. By the time we started our trek over to the starting line there was less than 10 minutes to go before 7am. Two of my sisters and my dad's wife wanted to see us off at the start. We were about two or three blocks away from the start (it was every bit of a kilometer away from the gym) when we heard the gun go off and saw the mass of people move forward. There were dozens (50-100?) that didn't make it to the start on time and we all began to run to catch up with the pack. Dad and I fought the temptation to run fast to catch up because we didn't want to burn out too early. Heck, we still had 50 miles and one half kilometer until the finish. So we took it easy and pretty soon we were pulling up the rear. The first 2.7 miles is an uphill climb on paved roads to the Appalachian Trail (AT) trailhead. We walked a most of this to be on the conservative side.
Clocks says 2 minutes until the start.
Still a good three or four blocks away
and there are still a lot rushing
to get there in time.
Still a good three or four blocks away
and there are still a lot rushing
to get there in time.
Dad did a few training runs on the AT section and this was the part he was looking forward to the most. Like me, trails are what gets our blood going. For the past couple weeks he's been having some semi-serious issues with his right foot and even ran the idea by me of not starting the race. I shot down that idea and told him he has to at least start it and run through the AT section with me even if he's on crutches. The JFK portion of the AT is about 13 miles long. There are only two words that can describe it: beautiful and rocky. The colors were amazing.
We both felt good on the trail and we were able to pass a number of people who weren't as sure footed on the rocks. I can't say enough about how beautiful the trail is. We hit the first major aid station at around mile 9.5. We were doing good on time and didn't stay long. All day we were in and out of the aid stations quickly. Fill up with water and grab a handful of pretzels or a pb&j and eat on the hike back up the trail. At each aid station we always passed a handful of other runners.
One of my concerns coming into the race was my stomach and how I would handle the fueling for nearly 12 hours. Even on training runs of around 5 hours or so I would have trouble eating more than the smallest amount of anything and in the back of my mind I was worried I wouldn't be able to get enough fuel with out getting an upset stomach. To this point in the race I was doing okay.
Dad would pace the downhill and flat sections and I would pace the power-walking uphills. The next few miles of the trail seemed to get increasingly rockier. As beautiful as the fall colors were, those big, fat, beautiful leaves that had fallen to the ground were making it a bit difficult to see your footing. Both of us had a few near face dives but were able to correct our vertical positions before any damage was done. Some people weren't as lucky. There were a few who came off the AT all bandaged and bloodied.
My sisters Melanie, Lisa, and Megan drove up from South and North Carolina for the weekend to hang out with us. My cute little munchkin neice Zoe (Melanie's) came along for the ride, too. This was my first time to meet here and she is absolutely precious. The girls (I'm told that I'm officially still allowed to call them girls because they're my little sisters even though they are "women") and Janie, Dad's wife, met us at the bottom of the AT. It was so great to see them and our spirits sky rocketed through the roof. What a wonderful thing they did to come out and support us. We hugged all around and grabbed a bite to eat. We stuck around an extra minute at this station just to soak in the moment of being with them. But then we ran away.
Goodbye, sweet Appalachian Trail who we loved so much.
The next major section of the race was approximately 26 miles on the C&O Canal Towpath. This section was absolutely flat. Dad had been worried about this section since we signed up for the race months ago. His strengths are on the technical trails and not on flat paths were speed comes more into play. The plan was that I would set the pace for this section with a lot of running/walking intervals and that we would simply keep on chugging along using each other's company as a mental diversion for the monotony that many people had written about in previous years about this section. No sooner did we set foot on the towpath that we realized monotony was not going to be a factor. There are only two word that can describe this section: beautiful and flat. Anyone who says they are bored on this section should reexamine why they are running. The views were on the verge of being surreal. It was spiritual. Hopefully my photos can even give you a glimpse. Maybe this year was different than others. People were saying the leaves had turned later this year and so maybe previous years weren't as colorful. So I won't take it for granted, that's for sure.
Somewhere shortly after mile 20 Dad began pushing me to move on without him. He was concerned that he was slowing me down and he didn't want me to miss a cut-off. I went into the race with only two results as an option for the outcome of the race: we finish together or we drop out together. This race was about us doing it together. I knew I was in the shape I needed to be in to finish - but that wasn't the most important thing for me. I wanted to have this experience with Dad. I wanted us to cross the finish line together. This wasn't about me. He's the one who got me running in the first place. He's the inspiration. I wanted to show him that I was with him all the way. We talked about it for awhile as we were plugging along and it was only then that I began to realize that maybe there would have to be another option. I could see in his eyes that he would have been disappointed if I dropped with him. If we couldn't finish together than the next best thing would be for me to finish for both of us. We were still moving though but were slowing down enough that the cut-off time was now a factor for the mile 27 aid station.
In my pocket I had a list I compiled from the website of the cut-off times at the various aid stations. At the "mandatory" pre-race briefing the race director mentioned that in previous years the cut-off times had been slightly miscalculated so this year they adjusted them. I didn't know if the cut-offs in my pocket were the new ones or the old ones. Since I carry my phone to take photos I was able to call ahead to my sister to have her ask the official at the station what the "official" cut-off time was at the mile 27 aid station just in case my list of cut-offs was obsolete. She asked and was told it was 2:00pm. This was 15 minutes later than the list in my pocket. At his point Dad made up his mind to drop at mile 27. Not only was his foot uncooperative but he was beginning to have back spasms that were hunching him over. Still, we were moving fast enough to make it to the aid station before 2:00pm. At around 1:35pm we saw Janie. She had walked from the aid station to meet us and walk in with Dad. We asked how far we were from the station and she said about a 10 or 15 minute walk. She told me to go ahead and she'd walk in with Dad but I said that we're still doing good on time even though we were walking and that I wouldn't leave him until we reached the station so all the girls could be there for the separation.
We tried to stay as calm as we could and explain that we had been told 2:00pm and so we had paced ourselves to make it here according to that. One of the timekeepers was, to put it simply, being a little jerk about the whole thing. I knew from the race rules that if you missed a cut-off and were asked to leave the course and you didn't leave then the race director would have the power to ban you from all future JFK 50's. I understood this and know that they have to have these types of rules and, anyways, what makes me an exception, right? But they had just let at least two other go who were clearly after the time cut-off so I knew they had a little bit of flexibility to play with in terms of the hard rules. I asked what would happen if I just kept running and passed all these people before the next cut-off and the jerky guy said the RD could disqualify me or ban me. We tried to explain to them the situation and how I was just pacing my dad into the final aid station before he dropped and that if I would have know it was not a 2:00pm cut-off then I would have run sooner blah blah blah. Finally, another official came into the mix and it turns out he was the station chief and the Assistant RD. He understood our situation and said that if I could make the next cut-off then he would see no reason why I couldn't keep going and that if I finished it would be official and I would have nothing to worry about. "But," he said, "you still have to make the next cut-off."
The next cut-off was at 3:00pm...7.3 miles away. I looked at my watch and it was 2:00pm. All the negotiating had taken nearly ten minutes. Dad asked if I could make it and I said, "I will." So I turned around and took off.
7.3 miles in one hour is an 8:13 min/mile pace. An 8:13 min/mile pace between miles 27.1 and 34.4 was fast enough to worry me. As much as I wanted it I honestly didn't know if I had enough in the tank to do it. But a fire had been lit underneath me and I was going to do everything I could to get there. For me. For my dad. For my sisters who drove up to support us. If I could just make it there by 3:00pm then I knew I would be in good shape because that would give me 4 hours to finish the last 15+ miles and that would be very doable.
I pushed hard and passed started passing people one by one. I had so many emotions running through me at this point. Frustration at the entire cut-off fiasco. Sadness that Dad couldn't keep going with me. Desire to prove those last aid station guys wrong - especially jerky guy who made a sarcastic comment under his breath as I ran off like, "yeah, if you think you can make it." Sadness that the runners who I was passing in this section were also unlikely to make the cut-off. I saw afuntanilla on this section and said a quick hi. In any other situation I would have at least stopped for a bit to talk with her. I felt bad at the time but knew I had to keep going to try to squeak in beneath the cut-off.
With about 15 minutes to go before the cut-off at the mile 34.4 aid station I picked up the pace. Each corner I turned that didn't have the aid station at the end of the straightaway made me pick up the pace a bit more. 7 minutes to go and I told myself that I still had a mile to go so I kicked it up as fast as I could. Still just a bit left in the tank. 3 minutes to go and still nothing in sight. 2 minutes to go and I feel that I'm sprinting at this point. Please oh running gods just let me get to this aid station in time and I'll promise to never skip a workout again. 30 seconds and I make a turn in the bend of the trail and still nothing. I know I'm sprinting now just to get to the next bend. 10 seconds. 5. 4. 3, 2, 1... Tears are welling up in my eyes when my watch reads 3:00pm and I push even harder. This was not they way I imagined it ending. Just then I hear some clapping and around the next bend I see the station. I sprint in at under 3:01pm and scan the crowd for men in black suits with stopwatches yanking people off the trail. But everything looked "safe." There were a handful of runners stopping to fill their water and another handful just left to continue on the trail. I didn't want to wait around to hear anyone say the word "cut-off." I filled up quickly and was off down the trail. Aid station transition less than 15 seconds. I made it.
I knew Dad, Janie, and the girls wouldn't be at this station so there would be no way for them to know if I had made it until I arrived at the next station after mile 38. These next four miles I was able to lower the gear and walk a bit more. My adrenaline was still pumping hard so I had to force myself to take some deep breaths and slow down. Still over 15 miles left but I was finally in a good position. These next four miles were mostly a blur. I kept a nice even pace and was still passing quite a few people. I was tired. I wished I could eat something because I was hungry. I took salt tablets regularly throughout the day and a flavored electrolyte tablet in my water bottle at every three aid stations. Sports drinks are too sugary for me and the tablets seem to work just fine.
Coming into the next aid station - labeled "38 Special" - there were some great signs posted along the trail. "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups." "Free limo service to the finish line - available Sun-Fri only." (race was Saturday) I saw Dad and the girls waiting and I was now 10 minutes ahead of the cut-off. They were so excited to see me and were glad that I had made the cut-offs like I told them I would. I'm sure they didn't know how hard I pushed, though. Or how close I came to not making it.
If everyone has a low point during these races I was going through mine at this point. Dad kept telling me to "eat some soup. Eat something. You have to eat something." But I couldn't. I couldn't even think about trying to down anything other than water. I could squeeze some orange juice in my mouth. That was about the only thing I could do. The girls were cheering me on and I told them all that I was very tired and that I just needed to keep moving on because there were still 12 miles left. I told them all good-bye and then turned to head back on the trail. I took about three steps away from them and then all the emotions I'd been running with for the past 11 miles came up in one big swoop. With tears in my eyes I turned around and walked back to them and gave each of them a hug and thanked them for being there. I wanted them to know that I was giving it my all and I wanted them to be proud of me. Of course, most of what I was thinking I couldn't say because the tears wouldn't let me with fear of making a big scene that would make Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan proud.
I had been calling Jeanie periodically for quick blog updates. Which, by the way, were mostly only one or two line grunts like "Mile 9. Ahead of cut-off. Bye." or "Ugh, me running still." and which she obviously had some extra fun with. Anything entertaining in those "live" updates were her doing. So, no, I really wasn't running with my laptop. :)
At the mile 42 aid station I took an extra minute to try to down a cup of warm chicken broth because I was definitely feeling on the weak side. To my surprise it actually hit the spot. It was just what I needed. I drank another half cup and was off. 8 miles to go and I had climbed out of my low point. I was feeling good and knew that I was going to finish.
The last eight miles were off the towpath and onto paved country roads. There was a nice little climb off the river and I felt good power walking up. Yes, the power had finally returned to the walking. As much as my legs didn't want to feel that pavement after 42 miles the views of the countryside were almost worth it. It's beautiful country out there. There were two little girls playing in their driveway cheering the runners on and the younger of the two, probably 4 or 5 years old, was shouting out words of encouragement that she had obviously heard from someone else. When I ran by she yelled at the top of her lungs, "Good job! Your almost halfway there!" That when I thought about those crazy people who run 100 mile races. At this point they would be almost half way there. Why am I running ultras? I don't know if I ever figured that one out.
The sun set around mile 45 and I was on cruise control. I couldn't think about anything but moving forward. One thing I learned from my first 50k a couple months ago was that if it hurts walking, run. If it hurts running, walk. I saw everyone at the 46 mile aid station and it was another shot of energy. There was no doubt now that I would finish. Cheers and high fives and mini celebrations. The crowds at the aid stations were getting bigger and bigger and the race progressed and the support from everyone was awesome.
The final couple miles were along the side of some pretty busy highways. This seemed odd and a bit dangerous. There were officers stopping traffic at intersections to let runners move through. One final turn and then a straight shot to the finish line. The last half mile or so was a bit up hill and just over the crest I heard the loudspeakers from the finish line and then I saw the lights and then I saw the finish line. I didn't have enough left in the tank for a sprint finish, but I had enough to run in and raise my arms in the air. I could hear my sisters yelling my name and then I saw them in the darkness just outside the ropes and ran over to high five them as I passed. My name was blared over the loudspeakers and I crossed the finish line in 11 hr 14 min 49 sec. Someone draped a finisher's medal around my neck and then my dad popped through and gave me a big hug. I finished the JFK 50. (results) (official race photos)
There were refreshments inside and we all went in to enjoy. What a great feeling it was. I'm so lucky to have had my sisters come up and to have been able to run 27+ miles with my dad on beautiful trails. I wish my brothers could have been there too. I wish Jeanie had been there. And my mom. Everyone. This was one of those experiences that you wish all those you care about could have shared with you.
This should be a high that lasts a very l o n g time.
If I wasn't hooked already to this ultra thing then I guess you can call it official now. :) I'm going to sit back and enjoy this thing for awhile. But not too long, Sadie wants to get back out on the trails.
Special thanks to Janie and Melanie for use of some of their photos.