JFK 50 mile Race Report

If you are not smiling, why are you running? (less than 16miles to go)

Photo by Jenny Ueshia 


I am not a sandbagger, if I feel good going into a race, I own it. If I am feeling on top of my game, I know it. In theory, I think I would I love to toe the line feeling like a thoroughbred pressing at the gate. But, alas, I have no idea what that feeling is like.

Instead, just like before WC100k in Belgium in June, my week of taper before the race was awful. On Monday, my stomach was so bloated I looked like I swallowed a basketball, my legs were swollen and doughy. I felt tired, lethargic and sick to my stomach. Tuesday was no improvement and I was nauseous enough to not be able to eat much all day along and only stomach a small soup and a wedge of iceberg lettuce. Wednesday I was just crabby and mustered up a decent run once I got going, hitting my favorite ½ trail ½ road loop in the Headlands & Sausalito. Thursday I flew and that made my legs swell and threw me off for a bit. Friday I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel bad either. I was able to eat, most of my bloating and swelling was gone and I at least felt like I had slept. Boo hoo, I know. Nothing was actually wrong, my training had gone exceptionally well with 4 100 mile weeks in October after a swift recovery from Vermont 50. I had raced well 2 weeks ago at Lithia Loop and recovered well from that. It was typical taper but it definitely was driving me to madness and insecurity.

As I said, I am  not a sandbagger. That is just how I felt and if you had asked me the day before the race how I thought things were going to shape up November 21 at the JFK50 miler, I probably would have said, “I am not feeling confident about my speed, my recovery from peak training, from Lithia Loop, etc. I just feel a bit off.”

JFK 50miler is the oldest (I think) and largest ultramarathon in the country. This year was the 47th running of the race and the field was “limited” to 1,000 starters. The day before the race the Herald had a lengthy article about all the top runners that had shown up for the race. There were easily 15 or more legitimate contenders on the men’s side and the women’s side, despite being called a “two filly race” between Meghan Arborgast (my 100k rockstar teammate) and I, it was a much deeper field than many years has seen. Annette Bednosky, Jill Perry, Monica Ochs and Francesca Conti were all in the mix and there was no saying how things would unfold. Meghan and I decided that I was the thoroughbred and she was the Arabian, filly that is.

Meghan picked me up from the airport on Thursday (lifesaver, thank you thank you thank you Meghan) and we drove up to Hagerstown and got settled in her room. We managed to stop on the way up to Hagerstown at a decent Japanese restaurant and found an organic grocery store to get our snacks and breakfast food. Friday was relaxing and we hit up The Plum in downtown Hagerstown and I had a delicious salad and later after race packet pickup and checking me into my hotel, we went to another Japanese restaurant and I had steak, white rice and a seaweed salad. I wanted to keep it as basic as possible and I wanted to fuel up properly. And that combination was a good one. I was in my hotel room by 7 and settling in for the 5am wake up. I got my stuff sorted, relaxed in bed, wasted a bit of time and was asleep before 10:30. By the time my eyes closed to sleep, I had a familiar feeling that I recognized from before Vermont 50. It was the feeling of being completely neutral and unstressed about the idea of racing the next day. It is almost a feeling of not racing at all. It is odd. But I kinda like it.

Race Day

When I woke up at 5am, I had to remind myself I was about to run 50 miles, probably at least as hard as I have ever run that distance. The JFK 50 miler is very runnable after the initial 16 miles of AT and so it had the potential to be fast fast fast. Anne Riddle Lundblad's female course record stood at a daunting 6:29:42. That is an hour and 15 minutes faster than my 50 mile PR. I have never run a fast 50 mile course before and I knew that the year Anne ran that time it was after she won the 100k in 7:47. She was on top of her game and even though Meghan and I had joked about hoping to both be under the course record, when I ran the numbers, I thought it would take a perfect day for one of us to do it and for both, it would be completely unprecendented. I imagined that if we "two fillys" could push each other side by side, neck in neck and I could find a way to run "in the pain" i.e. nearly outside of myself but maintainable, than we might be.

But really, when I rolled out of bed, I was thinking, well guess I should try to muster up some enthusiasm before the race. It's not that I wasn't happy to running and looking forward to it, it was that I had no nerves. And I don't really know what that means. Again, it wasn't a brimming with confidence feeling. I ate two bowls of crispy brown rice cereal with pumpkin butter and pb, had a banana and a nice cup of coffee. I got a text message just as I was getting up that offered words of encouragement that would come back to me all day, just when I needed them. I dressed and headed out the door for Meghan to pick me up at 10 til 6. I was a bit vexed leaving the room since usually coffee, well, um clears the pipes before I leave for a race and nothing was happening. Not even remotely. I was worried that if I didn't have my pre-race bathroom break, that somewhere along the AT or worse on the tow-path that the shit would hit the fan and my stomach would betray me. Even once we got to the start, nothing was happening. Luckily, Friday had been good on this account so I was feeling pretty good in spite of the irregularity (TMI, I know!). At the last second as we crossed out of the high school I decided to take an Immodium to lock up my stomach, a trick I learned from Connie at the 100k World Championships in Belgium.

Before I could spend any more thought or energy on it, we were walking across the field and down the road to the starting line in downtown Boonsboro. The air was perfect, the skies slightly overcast, slightly cool, but particularly to my liking. I decided on wearing my Salomon Sleeveless Jersey with my Primal Wear Tattoo arm sleeves on top. On my legs, I wore my Salomon Compression 3/4 length tights. I wasn't wearing them for warmth, but for support. I wore Asics Speedstars, since a light road shoe was in order even with the AT section. I wore a Nathan waist pack with my gels, saltstick caps and VESPA. I carried one water bottle in a Nathan handheld. There were so many aid stations, I probably could have carried a smaller bottle, but I opted for a strategy of filling up every other  or every third aid station and taking cups of water at the ones where I didn't fill up. 

We lined up, nearly 1,000 deep in the early morning calm and before we had a chance to change our minds, we were running off down the road. The lead men's pack took off and Annette and Jill shot off ahead of Meghan, Monica and I. I was perfectly happy to tuck in and roll up the road and warm up. I wanted to not burn up my carbs immediately by turning on the burners too early.

Coach Howard had divided up the race into 5 parts (among other very helpful advice found :
1)   Uphill road
2)   AT
3)   C&O Canal
4)   400 Meter Uphill
5)   8 miles on the road

We cruised along the uphill road along the highway for about a mile, chatting and trying not to work too hard on the gradual uphill. Meghan and I joked and laughed and we soon caught up to Annette and Jill. We passed a few guys who said something about bacon, the smell of which was wafting through the air. For some reason, we switched to talking about songs that get stuck in your head during running. Nothing is worse than having a bad song stuck in your head, so I decided to offer the ever so torturous songs of manhamaha (Sesame Street 40 years ago) and then "Total Eclipse of the Heart". Annette groaned and said something about Journey and John Denver. She told me after the race she had Journey stuck in her head all day. Meghan and I stuck together as we turned off the highway and headed up the road, climbing up and up the mountain towards the AT. It was not an easy hill, but compared to Lithia Loop where the hill was similar, I was just happy to know it wouldn't last long at all. I put a few seconds on Meghan going up the hill, feeling very strong and comfortable on the uphill.

We hit the AT and started the dance which would last over the next 14 miles. The dance I am referring to is that which you have to do over leaf covered rocks, twists and turns under foot. I have been on the AT only once and in GA, running up to Blood Mountain with my buddy Christian Griffith. I think that one run, like my one bike ride on the TRT before TRT 50 mile, gave me enough information about what to expect that I could visualize and not be too surprised. I think pacing at MMT100 for Glen Redpath also helped immensely. I was use to tripping and falling and hurting myself on similar rocks at night while running with Glen, that I was prepared. But I didn't fall!

I felt good cruising, hoping, spinning, slipping and sliding at a very, seemingly slow pace along the AT. We came to an aid station and I stopped to use to portapotty since I had to pee really bad. Meghan caught up to me as I was coming out of the bathroom and we headed back on to the trail together. I kept a really conservative pace on the AT knowing that realistically all you can do on the AT is burn yourself out. You can't get enough speed on it to make it worthwhile to hammer, so I just enjoyed the warmup. I sang Horse Feathers songs to myself and kept my smiling face upturned toward the morning light (well, when I wasn't watching for rocks everywhere!). There were some nice gradual uphills and then finally we hit a sweet, pretty trippy, rocky, steep downhill. It was, of course, then that I ran into about 50% of the 5am earlier starters, because naturally the trail is narrow and steep and hard to navigate easily without falling off a cliff. Once the early starters heard me coming (as I warned them), they started cheering me on in large groups. It was awesome. Meghan was maybe 30secs to a minute behind me but I also knew that no matter what, I could only run my race and see what that meant for me.

I popped off the trail into a huge crowd of spectators and Howard told me that there was about a mile until I hit the C&O Canel tow path. When I arrived in the aid station, I filled up my bottle and headed out for the next section of the race which is 26 miles of flat, runnable, cinder trail winding alongside the Potomac River. Mike Spinnler, race director of the JFK, had emailed me earlier in the week to let me know that there was a bicycle escort for the lead woman and that his name was Scotty. Sure enough waiting there for me was Scotty on his bike clad in a bright yellow Course Official (or something like that) vest. Mike had said I could talk with Scotty all I want, Scotty just couldn't handle for me in any way. Fair enough, having the company was WAY more than I could have ever hoped for. Like the road 100k and all USATF championship races, headphones aren't allowed. And while, I haven't raced with headphones in my races for the most part, I could imagine that when the crowds thin out and the tow path drones on and on, it might have been helpful. Instead, I had Scotty. We told each other stories, he commented on how consistent my pace was. It stayed at 8.1 mph, everytime he'd look down he would shake his head and say, "you are amazing, you are so consistent". And then he would say, "and you are smiling and happy!" To which I would always respond, "of course I'm happy, this is so much fun!".

Early on I asked him if he was allowed to look back on my behalf and tell me who he saw behind me. He said he was and he did. He turned back to me (we were less than a mile in at that point) and said, "she's about 50 meters behind you". A few minutes later, "she's about 100 meters behind you". We pass through an aid station and I don't stop. Still a few hundred meters. Then, a few minutes later, "I can't even see her anymore". I think I had gassed it for a few miles there because I had a guy runner to latch on to. The tow path can stretch out straight for a while and you can see competitors pretty far behind you and ahead. I settled in and just kept cranking. I took my non-caffeinated Clif Shots on a schedule like it or not starting at 1:30 into the run and taking 1 every hour after that. I took a salt-stick cap every hour and took a Hyper Vespa at 3 hrs.

I just clipped along. Not feeling like I was pushing too hard, in fact was quite comfortable. I told Scotty about how I was trying to learn how to push myself hard enough that when I crossed the finish line I had nothing left, how to run on the fine line between major disaster and overwhelming success. I had the feeling at the 100k in June that I could have kept on running another 50k or more at that same pace and would have been just fine. Scotty is a competitive master's cyclist and so we discussed a lot about training. I told him about how nice it was to have a companion with me on this journey and how usually I imagined my training partners and family running with me at various points in the race. I use that same visualization during various points of JFK and found myself very charged and enthusiastic at certain points. Scotty was probably really entertained by me and all the chattering I was doing. By mile 24, I was feeling like I was cruising and comfortable. I was getting all geeked out on life and running and the beautiful journey I was on. I checked my watch and I was at about 3:20 something for the first 24 miles. I did a quick attempt at calculating how fast I would have to run the final 26 miles if I wanted to take the course record, which crossed my mind for the first time since before the race and I laughed out loud at the idea that I would have to run faster than a 3:10 marathon to even run even with the CR. I gave a little mental shout out to Anne Lundblad at what a savage she was for running that mark and having infinite respect for how freaking fast that was.

I was still smiling as the miles ticked away. I stopped at a few aid stations which were 3-4 miles apart, stopped for pit stop behind a tree and just kept plugging away. I passed the 50k mark and was happy to be under 20 miles to go. I was really looking forward to having 16 miles to go. For some reason, mentally that left really chewable sections for me. After my experience at Lithia Loop, running the last 16 miles closer to tempo than marathon effort, I knew that if I could get to 16 miles I could lock into a pace I WOULD (that is would make myself maintain). I came up to the mile 34 aid station and saw Coach Howard who told me that the last time I had seen him I was 5-6 minutes up on Meghan (which was somewhere in the 26-28 mile range I think). He asked me how I was doing, and I smiled (see picture at the top) and said, "I am feeling awesome!". He said, "you are the first person to come through here saying that! There are some guys ahead of you suffering. Go get them!". Last I had heard, I was in 35th place or so. But I had been steadily passing guys all along the tow path and was picking off more and more as the miles remaining dwindled. The final 8 miles of the tow path I broke into 2 4 mile sections, bite sized pieces in my mind. Scotty was encouraging me to "make the boys cry" and would spot the next target or rabbit for me to chase down. It made it a fun game.

Nearing mile 38, I spotted the bright green jersey of Ian Torrence from Rogue Valley Runners & Co-RD for Lithia Loop. Ian is an awesome individual and I was surprised to see him, though I knew nothing of his current fitness level. He passed through the aid station and stopped to tie his shoelaces just past it. I caught him and as I was running by asked, "What the haps? You ok?" I think of him as a super speedster that I should not ever have a chance of catching, so I wanted to make sure he wasn't hurt or suffering. He said he was cool and running fine for where he was fitness wise. I wished him luck and zoomed off. With 4 miles to go on the Potomac I was feeling renewed and excited. I kept eating and drinking, getting mentally "handled" by my visualized crew, or should I said, I shamed myself into remembering because I didn't want to bonk and then have to hear about how I wasn't on top of my eating and that I needed to eat more! I took my caffeinated gels at this point and enjoyed the kick it gave me through those final miles. In the entire race, I took in 5 gels and one gulp of coke, so while that is not much (as I don't need much as VESPA and fat metabolism change my needs), it was ample for me.

Howard was at the aid station at the turn off the path onto the road. He said there were a few crybaby boys ahead of me really suffering and I should go catch them and make them feel worse. Ok, maybe thats not exactly what he said, or wait, maybe it is.... He also said to get up the "big hill" anyway I could.

I turned on the road feeling the hard road under my feet for the first time since many hours before and it actually felt really good. The sign said there was 8.1 to go. An ironic number on the day. Scotty gave me a few words of encouragement as we rolled up the hill that were something like, "wow, you are moving!". Howard had said to go up the hill as gently as possible and I thought it was going to suck more but apparently all my hill training has made me look at hills like that (and everyone in this race) like "sissy hills". Lithia Loop, that had a hill, TransRockies, that had HILLS, Vermont 50, that had 9,000 feet of climbing in knee deep mud. That 400 meter hill made me giggle with surprised delight at being so easy.

The road rolls on through the country side past pretty little farms and houses, into small little towns. There are aid stations about every 2 miles in the last 8 and I was half tempted to throw my bottle to Howard, but I didn't see him again until the end. After I had gotten up the hill, I did another quick calculation and determined that to equal the record I would have to run that 8.1 miles in under an hour and as I rolled along, I thought that laughable. I didn't feel like I had slowed down much if any, but I also didn't feel like I was moving along that fast. Scotty told me that my pace still hadn't swayed off the 8.1mph overall average since he joined me at mile 16. Nice, consistent if nothing else. I was starting, wait I take that back, I continued to have fun with it and just run happy. I started to accept that I was going to do it, I was going to win, hell, I was going to finish, which as funny as it sounds, still is something I don't take for granted.

I started to try and track down one guy, Andrew Mason and set my sights on catching him. I went through the 6 miles to go aid station and was told that I was 14th overall. Nice, I had moved up 20 some odd places on the C&O! Andrew and pacer, were a bit ahead of me out of the aid station and I pushed a little to reel him in. I ran up behind him, "hi there, how ya doing?" Gave him a big grin, chatted for a second, saying something about trying to make boys cry (jokingly of course). He laughed and said I looked great. He then said, "That's Scott Jurek right up ahead" (about a minute ahead or so) 30 seconds ahead of David James which as my next target), 'That would be a good scalp to take". He appealed to the ninja in me on that one, plus I like Scott and even though it might notbe nice for him for me to catch him, it would be a great boost for me to be able to catch him. At this point, I was battling with the top ranks of men, challenging guys who had been listed as potential winners of the race. Wow. It really blew my mind. I knew I was feeling good, but to do that, I couldn't even understand. All I was thinking was, "man I feel great, this is what you should feel like with less than 5 miles to go, right??".

I soon caught David James and he did one of the things female runners loathe which is to speed up and kill themselves not to get passed by a girl. I mean I was about to cruise right by him as he was struggling pretty obviously to me and when he turned to see it was me coming up on him, he charged to stay next to me, even though he was then running well outside himself. As he huffed and puffed and tried to hold on to me, I calmly made idle chatter and then gassed it a bit up a small riser and left him in the dust. Scotty was telling me what was coming up and which way the course was turning or if we were about to be climbing or descending. At 3 miles left sign, I lopped up on Scott and he turned to look at who was coming up on him. He smiled and said, "Devon, wow! You are moving!" I responded that I felt great and he encouraged me on. I said, "Just one Greenlake left!" making reference to Greenlake in Seattle which has a 3 mile dirt loop around the outside. I pushed onward, toying with the possibility that I might be able to get close to the record. I remembered back to many miles before when I had told Scotty about wanting to run myself into the pain cave and wanted to learn how to leave everything out on course. With that in mind, I decided to push harder. I sped up about 10-15 seconds per mile. I got my heartrate and breathing up more but still in control. I caught Josh Brimhall and put myself into the Top 10 overall. I turned the corner to the last aid station which was 1.5 miles to the finish line and smiled and choked back tears. At this point, I was singing to myself "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I was emotional, overwhelmed by the impending victory and top placing overall. I wouldn't let myself slow down though or succumb to the emotion. Where often the final stretch seems like a celebratory mile, I dug deep. I looked at my watch and calculated that I would have to run under 10 minutes for the last 1.5 miles. That's 6:40ish pace. But what the hell I thought, I have been not suffering at all in this race I might as well crack myself now. Scotty told me I would follow the road take a right, go over a little riser, roll down and then up to the finish. (I found out after the race that I ran 6:40 average pace for the last 12 miles from Damn #4 and that only 2- Crowther and Woods, had a faster split than I did for that section).

I came over the riser with power and spotted the finish line. I asked him to double check. that it was truly the finish line where I thought it was. I didn't want to sprint if it was much past the RV I could see. It was the finish line. I pushed, I pushed, I could hear Mike on the microphone encouraging everyone to cheer me to the finish, to the Course Record. I nearly lost my breathe, I nearly cried, I was going to do it. I spotted the clock and looked at my watch, shit, I thought, my watch was more than a minute off! I had a matter of seconds not the minute plus my watch indicated (how on earth time was lost is a mystery to me since I hit start when the gun went off!). I threw my bottle to the ground (what a bad habit this is becoming!) and pumped my arms and raced across the finish line, breaking the tape in 6:29:21 and new Course Record by 21 seconds! I didn't know if I wanted to laugh or cry or jump up and down. I had a moment of feeling like I had pushed myself hard enough to barf, but by the time they'd taken my tag and I had given Mike Spinnler a huge hug, I felt giddy and springy and full of energy. I was racing around full speedy talking to everyone! Maria took me inside so I didn't catch cold. My friend Joanna who was one of my dearest friends from Pittsburgh, her husband and their two kids had made the 1.5 hr journey up to watch me finish. We hadn't seen each other in 5 years and it was absolutely wonderful to see them.

I got changed, was interviewed, chowed on an Amazing Grass Bar, drank some FRS and Meghan came in to the gym. She was 2nd in 6:56:06, 1st masters woman and total rockstar. I was so happy for her. She went to get changed and we headed back to the hotels for a quick change, snack, etc before the 4:30pm award ceremony. I took an ice bath, ate some Rice Chips and drank an Amazing Grass Amazing Meal which really hit the spot. I had a dance party in my room and just really let myself get giddy with excitement! We made it back to the gym for awards, LATE! And snuck in as the men's awards were finishing. We had to park really far away and hadn't anticipated that, so we were running behind. We literally had to run to where the awards were! It was funny.

Hey, that's my name he's calling!

Mike introduced the women's field. He said that for a really really long time the CR stood at JFK and then in 2005 Anne Lundblad had broken it in a time that he thought would stand for as long as the previous one had. He thought it nearly untouchable. He said he knew our field would be fast, but never had an thought it would have two women run in the top 7 fastest times ever and have a new CR established. That made me pretty giddy (if it was possible to get more than I already was) hearing that. I was in disbelief of what I had accomplished. Even when he announced my name and I joined the other top 10 ladies in the front of the gym, it didn't feel like I had just done that. Mike handed me my trophy and an envelop with my winnings. I had earned a nice payday for the win and an additional payday for the CR! I was really happy that Meghan had run so well. Annette was 6 mins behind her in 3rd and my pal Monica was in 4th with a great run of her own! It was awesome.

Top 5 Ladies!

The four of us gals and Howard retired to the Bull and Bell in downtown Hagerstown for some sharing of drinks, war stories and good eats (at this point ANYTHING would have tasted great).

Look at my big, heavy trophy!

It's now the morning after, I am sitting on an airplane zooming back westward with my very heavy (and already broken- the runner snapped off) trophy. Even writing this, it is surreal. While my feet are swollen (and swelling more as I write this, even though not too much as I am rocking the 2XU compression socks), my legs feel so great. Its a testament to how well trained I am and how much my body work at Psoas has been helping me. My muscles are so healthy. It is cool to feel this good. And I close my eyes and replay the miles, I don't want to let it go, I want to savor this moment for as long as I can. Fact of the matter is, I had a damn near perfect day. I ran with joy, I ran with strength, I ran in a state of pure bliss. It was awesome. I celebrate this feeling and at the same time start thinking of all the awesome possibilities to come. What a day!

Congrats to Greg for his amazing win and to everyone who raced out there!

* Pre-race round up in the Hearld-Mail
* Race results
*New First Lady at JFK 50 miler (article in Competitor by Bryon Powell of iRunFar)
* Redemption comes with Crowther’s JFK victory (article by Dan Kaufman in the Herald-Mail, with accompanying video)
* Seattle's Crowther wins JFK 50; Crosby-Helms sets women's record (article by Bill Cauley in the Frederick News-Post)
* Nearly a Thousand Runners Take on 50-Mile Race (brief video from Hagerstown TV station WHAG)
*Winner Greg Crowther's Race Report
*A Trail Runner's Blog

I will include more pictures as I have them!