Trails of Glory

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Race Report: JFK 50-Mile

I spent last weekend in and around Hagerstown, Maryland participating in the JFK 50-Mile race held on the 19th of November, 2011. This was the 49th running of the largest and longest running ultra-marathon in the United States. Traveling to the East Coast for races is not the norm for me especially to run an ultra event. I had recently visited Washington, D.C. in early October to participate in the Army 10-miler as a member of the National Guard Marathon Team. Our team coordinator had listened to several of us that had been on the team for awhile talking about our experiences with the ultra-distance and decided to field a team for our first ever team ultra race.

JFK 50-Mile is the perfect race for military team competition. The race has a rich military history dating back to 1963 when the President, John F. Kennedy challenged the Marine Corps to match the Marines of 1908 by marching 50 miles in 20 hours according to President Teddy Roosevelt’s challenge. After the JFK assassination in 1963 the Washington County, Maryland event continued the challenge and memorialized the event calling it the JFK 50-Mile Memorial which today is known as the JFK 50-Mile.

Nine All-Guard runners toed the line for our team. Only two of us had completed a 50-mile race previously. The top five runner’s times are added together for the total team time. I studied recent team results and found that we had a slim chance to give the US Naval Academy team a run for their money. They had won the Kennedy Cup the past 6 years in a row. With 7 rookies on our team and hoping to have five runners have a good day in a 50-mile race all on the same day would be difficult.

At the start of the race in Boonsboro, Maryland it was 28 degrees at 7am. The course heads out of town on a paved road for 2.5 miles and then joins the Appalachian Trail.

The trail is rocky and covered with autumn leaves. At mile 3.5 the trail turns into a narrowly paved uphill road for 2 miles at which point it again becomes leaf covered rocks and roots in the woods. The course continues like this over hill and dale for the next 10 miles. The 1000 feet of elevation gained from the start to mile 6 is all lost in one downhill mile from 14.5 to 15.5 miles. At this point the course continues on the C&O Canal Path for 26.3 miles of mostly flat gravel trail meandering through tree-lined bluffs. At mile 41.8 the course comes off of the canal path and hits a paved road for 8 miles into the finish line in Williamsport, Maryland.

The key to this race is to be able to run as far as possible on the runnable sections of the course. In other words, walk the early hills and run conservatively on the AT. The canal section is a marathon in itself but is all very runnable unless you have a good run/walk plan. The last 8 miles on the highway have no difficult hills and a good time can be made here if you have the strength left in your legs. A quandary for me and a couple of my teammates was what type of running shoes to wear and if we started with a more rigid style of trail shoe, should we change into road shoes along the canal path. After a short recon of the AT the day before the race I had decided to run in a fairly worn pair of Montrail Badrock trail shoes, (previous worn for 100 miles at Angeles Crest.) We had a small support contingent at a couple of pre-designated points on the course; miles 15, 27, and 38. I packed a drop bag and stowed a pair of road shoes just in case. I did not know what the surface of the canal path would be like ahead of time. The Badrock held up well on the trail and felt comfortable along the canal. The canal was more gravelly than I expected with leaves and mud puddles scattered along the way. Even through the 8 miles of pavement the Badrock proved to hold up well.

Coming into the race after studying the elevation profile, course conditions, and historical time comparisons, I had some idea of what to expect if I ran the perfect race. Taking into consideration my training over the previous two months I also had some confidence built up due to faster trail times in the 15-20 mile range as well as a 1 hour and 1 minute 10-mile time at Army 10-mile 6 weeks ago. Three weeks ago I had a nagging pain in the ball of my left foot which was strangely presenting like metatarsalgia. I decided to take a week off and cross-train. Since then the pain has subsided to a dull ache and is progressively going away. So I decided that an overall average of sub 9-minute pace would be a respectable effort which would put me around a 7 and a half hour finish. As far as team competition went we would have to post at least 4 times under 8 hours and post a 5th time not much slower than that.

I followed my plan closely and maneuvered the trail section without falling or twisting an ankle and came off of the AT just under 2 and a half hours as predicted. My next time goal was a sub four hour marathon split which I reached in 3:54. Aside from water bottle fill-ups at aid stations every 3-4 miles I maintained a running pace of 8-minute miles from mile 16-33. At 33 miles I intentionally employed a one-mile run/one-minute walk strategy. My gut feeling was that if I continued to run non-stop I may reach 37 or 38 miles and not be able to run anymore or only about 50% of the time. By taking the enforced walk breaks I felt I was preserving my ability to run farther. The strategy worked wonders. With the one-minute walk I was still averaging 8:30 miles. There was a steep hill on the road right after the 41.8 mile aid station but past that the road was fairly flat with occasional easy up and down grades. I paid close attention to my Garmin 405 until it gave the Battery Low alarm and I had to shut it off. From mile 38 on I would do the math in my head to figure my finish time under the worse case scenario. I had been averaging 9 minute miles to that point. If I slowed to 10-minute miles then I would be out for 2 more hours. Upon reaching mile 45 I figured I could crash to 12 minute miles and still finish in one more hour and still finish under 7:45. With 2 miles remaining guts have a way of taking over and you begin to have a reliable sense of a finish time. My watch said 7 hours and 18 minutes with one mile to go and I managed an 8-minute mile to the end for a 7:26:20 finish.

Throughout the race I never had a sense of where my teammates were. I was impressed with the fact that all 9 of us ultimately finished the race. We had four times under 8 hours; 7:26 Chase Duarte, Arizona; 7:39 Michael Streff, South Dakota: 7:55 Aaron Bratka, Ohio; and 7:56 Troy Frost, Montana with a 5th time for scoring purposes of 8:22 Barry Brill, New York. The rest of the team posted 8:36 Trent Sinnett, Illinois; 9:24 Michael Hagen, Nebraska; 9:24 Michelle Elliott, Missouri; and 9:52 Marie Fritza, South Dakota. This turned out to be very competitive to the Naval Academy’s tally but just short enough to put us in second place.

My finisher stats are 43rd overall, 6th in the 40-49 age group and I got chicked 7 times. A couple other impressive notes on this race are the fact that since 1994 Eric Clifton has held the course record with a time of 5:46. A couple of elite speedsters were in attendance this year with their eyes on knocking that down. David Riddle and Michael Wardian ran an intensely competitive race. Riddle had the early lead holding it to mile 27 until Wardian overtook him running 6-minute pace on the canal path. Riddle came back and passed Wardian after mile 46 and finished in a new course record of 5:40 while Wardian came in second also under the previous course record in 5:43. See more results including the impressive women’s finish times here:

The JFK 50-Mile is an excellent first time ultra for those inclined to go to the next level. It has a great mixture of trail, dirt and pavement. It is the third weekend of November just prior to Thanksgiving so it promises to be cool with fall colors abundant. In preparation for next year the Guard team is already recruiting its prospects for a team that can end USNA’s streak and take home our own Gold Cup.