John F. Kennedy 50 Mile (Northwest Maryland)

http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~sws/fun/runtales/jfk92.shtml     Last modified: 02/08/02 04:38:19 PM

21 November 1992 (30th Annual)

Course Description: A large U. Start in Boonsboro; a few miles on roads, then pretty much south along the Appalachian Trail to the Potomac River. Then 26.2 miles west and north on the C&O Towpath (snaking along between the Potomac and the ruins of the C&O Canal), then 8.3 miles of paved roads (and some gentle hills) to the finish in Williamsport. Total distance: 50.2 miles. No real hills.

I've been fairly busy these days with thesis stuff, and the JFK application was completely humorless, so I didn't plan on going. But Jerry was heading down with first-timer Duane, and there was still room in the car and on the floor of the motel room (the night before an ultra, nothing can get you to sleep; the night after, nothing can keep you awake), and the late application fee was still pretty cheap ($15), so on Thursday I decide, what the hell. Friday evening Jerry swings by. I break the news that I have no homemade beer ready for this trip; but I do have homemade cookies. And we're off.

The fact that there were only maybe a half-dozen aid stations, and that they'd provide you with anything you wanted, as long as it was water, affected race preparation. I mixed up one water bottle of super-concentrated Conquest and one of plain (the idea being to refill the one with water, and squirt some of the concentrate into it), and stuff the fanny pack with fat-free fig newtons and a small container with some more Conquest powder.

5AM rolls around, and the forecast is for 40s and rain. Fortunately, I brought a complete spectrum of clothing (having learned my lesson at the Michigan 24 Hour); from this, I chose tights, a polypro zipper-neck turtleneck, a double-layer poly-cotton/poly-wool long-sleeve t-shirt, windbreaker, gloves, knit hat. We head down to the motel restaurant, now filled with various lycra clad runners, runners' families, and two very surprised waitresses (not used to this many hungry people at 5:30AM on a Saturday). Duane is surprised that we're actually planning to eat.

We're staying at the Williamsport Day's Inn (near the finish line), so we hitch a ride with somebody's support crew from Ohio to the start, ten miles away. Jerry and Duane go pick up their numbers, and I go register.

There are a few familiar faces (most of the ones that recognize me ask where Nancy is), but the crowd is different from the usual bunch. For one thing, it's much larger---there were over 400 runners registered, and in its peak years the JFK had as many as 1700. (This may explain the dourness of the application.) Also, the easy course---no hills, forty-five miles of perfect footing, easy access to support crews the whole way---makes this race very popular among road runners. It seemed that maybe two-thirds of the runners fit this category: their one and only ultra is the JFK.

This led to some interesting conversations. ``This your first time?'' It's my first JFK. ``Well, you'll find that 50 miles is a little different from what you're used to.'' Or ``You'd better add an hour two to your expected finish time---the mountains slow you down.'' (I noticed no mountains.)

It also gave a different character to the race. Not many people carried packs, because they'd be seeing their family or racing club support crew every mile from 15 on. That glorious feeling of the lone runner versus the mountains was completely absent :(

Anyway, the actual race: paved road, then onto the Appalachian Trail, which very quickly became paved. (I thought ``what's the country coming to, if we've paved the Appalachian Trail?'') It turns out that we're on some side trail. But it's nice being in the woods in this morning fog. We hit the aid station at mile ten, then FINALLY go off road to a real trail---only everyone is single-file and pussy-footing their way. (Careful---don't want to twist an ankle now! :)

(As of Feb 2002, I need to offer an apology for this flippant, facetious comment. I just learned my friend Paul twisted his ankle at the 2001 JFK, and had to DNF.)

At one slight downhill a fellow with a white staff comes running through, bellowing things like ``Make way for this Fat Boy rolling down the hill!'' Jokes are made about Moses parting the crowd, and about a blind runner. The blind runner quickly became the blind leading the stupid, as I latched on right behind him, and at last had a chance to run trails as God intended them to be run---fast.

At mile fourteen we hit a cliff, and start descending a wicked series of switchbacks. I wipe out once on the wet leaves (and have a nasty bruise on my hip today). I heard later that someone broke their arm here... then we're out of the woods, down a dead end steet, up over a fourlane highway (with marshalls, fortunately), across a railroad (they stopped the train, fortunately), and onto the C&O towpath. And on the towpath. And on the towpath... the ruins of aquaducts and locks were interesting, but mainly it was the same damn thing for 26.2 miles. And the same muscle group. I realize how wonderful the trail running really is---not only does it keep you alert (and, going up and down ridges, you can see the progress you make), but you keep changing muscle groups too.

At about mile 27 I see an animal without a head. I get closer, and it's a lama (who'd turned around to scratch). Closer still, and there are maybe six lamas, and a dozen people eating some gourmet picnic. (12 people and six lamas? Later I learn that Jerry talked to them, and discovered that they used the lamas to carry the food.)

At about mile 30 I start running with two guys from South Carolina---Henry and Henry's Friend. H.F. has run JFK eight times, but no other ultras. It's Henry's first time. During the half-hour or so I run with them, the only coherent thing Henry managed to say was ``this is nothing like a marathon.'' (Neither had packs. Henry could have used one.)

At this point Jerry (having the race of his lfe) passes me.

It's been drizzling on and off, and I start feeling really cold. My prevailing thought is: ``I'm cold, and wet, and tired.'' And also dehydrated. And the extra weight of the water-logged clothing negated the one dubious advantage of dehydration---low body weight. I eat some more fig newtons, put the windbreaker on (to create another layer), and begin to feel a bit better. Then it started raining seriously.

(In retrospect, I don't think I was taking in nearly enough food and sugars. I was probably flirting with hypothermia until I put the windbreaker on.)

I reach mile 41.9. Off the towpath and onto the roads---which is actually nicer, because the scenery changes. We go by a hunting club, with gunfire in the distance (this bothered Duane, I learn later). There are mile markers painted on the road for the eight miles remaining, although I don't notice them until mile 46.2. A small pack from some Bethesda running club surges by me, refreshed by dry clothing and food from their support cars meeting them every mile. (Bastards.)

At 49 miles we come to an intersection, with no indication of which way to go. Off to the left I see, in the distance, a fellow in neon who had been about 200 yards ahead of me for as long as I could remember. I turn left, and am shorly reassured by the 1 MILE LEFT mark. A few more turns (with marshalls), then there's the finish. I sprint in: 8:47:00, a P.R. by 13 minutes. I head into the school, buy some coffee, a Rice Crispie Marshsmallow thing, and a t-shirt, and chat with some folks. I check my standings: 73rd out of approximately 400 starters---my first time in the top 20 percent.

Then I refill a water bottle, and head off for the 1.5 mile bonus run back to the motel. If any race personnel saw me, they'd think I'd gone completely bonkers, because I was laughing the whole way. (Next time, I tell Jerry later, let's stay in Boonsboro, so we don't have to hurry to the start, and so we can have a ten mile bonus run after!) I get back to the motel, pick the key up at the lobby (as we'd all pre-arranged), and discover that not only is Jerry not around (no big deal), but that he'd taken the cold beer with him! (A heinous offense, especially for a hasher.) Fortunately, there was beer store across the street... A hot shower with a bottle of Red Feather Ale, then another bottle of Red Feather Ale as Jerry returns with hobbling Duane (who finished in 9:50). Jerry came in at 8:13, his 24th ultra finish (in 26 starts), and a personal best for 50 miles by about 20 minutes.

(With Duane being a first timer, that's a PR for each of us.)

Dinner, than back to the finish to check out what's going on. People are still coming in, in the cold rain and darkness (there's a 14 hour limit, and the race starts at 7AM... folks who leave the towpath after a certain point are given reflective vests). There were bodies scattered about, and these were folks who made it in----apparently about half the field dropped out.

(The next day Duane was still hobbling around. ``What's wrong? You're walking like an old man!'' says Jerry. Duane said that he was fine, but the problem was his shoes :)

Overall, it was fun, but: I don't know if I'd go back. You just never had that feeling that you were _out there_.


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