Okay, I admit it. I was wrong.
Big deal, my wife says. You’re wrong all the time.
Well…that is a separate discussion. But this specific time is relevant because it occurred just before 5:00AM on Saturday, November 21st, 2015; two hours before sunrise and the start of the 53rd Annual JFK 50 Mile race.
Before heading to the race start, my wife and I walked our dog in the early morning darkness outside the Days Inn hotel in Hagerstown, Maryland.
I had woken up about an hour earlier, had a couple bowls of oatmeal, an energy bar, and two cups of coffee. I was already geared up for the race. I had on my race clothes, which included running shorts, a thin long sleeve technical shirt, and thin gloves. I had on my Pearl Izumi EM Road N2 V2 shoes and my Garmin fenix 3 GPS watch. My Nathan HPL 020 Hydration Vest was filled with water, packed with a few energy gels, and in the car.
My training had gone well.
My legs were feeling fresh.
Overall, I felt prepared.
I was ready.
There was just one tiny issue.
The temperature was a frigid 27 degrees.
My muscles tightened and shivered as I walked in the darkness outside the hotel. Even with thin gloves, it felt like the blood in my hands was freezing as my fingers turned into icicles. Each breath (from Candice, myself, and the dog) sent little puffs of white into the night air. The grass had frozen overnight and crunched under our feet like a train engine struggling (and failing) to build up any speed. It was like we were three little shivering locomotives. And the dog was taking his sweet time of course.
It was at that point when I thought to myself, why couldn’t we just have the beautiful weather from earlier this week. I mean, just a few days earlier, the lows were in the mid 50s and the highs were in the mid 60s. The grass hadn’t frozen. I couldn’t see my dogs breath. The temperature had been cool, but the weather had been pleasant, comfortable, and perfect for running.
My pessimist self bemoaned that of course it would be freezing on race morning. Of course it would be miserable when I actually had to get up and run in these temperatures. My pessimist self also surmised and grumbled that the weather would likely warm up again in a few days, so that it would be just this day, race day, that would be freezing.
The universe strikes again.
Well, that is what I thought then, outside the Days Inn, in the freezing darkness, two hours before race start.
But as I said at the beginning, I was wrong.
I realized I was wrong about 6 miles into the race. There I was, running through the mountains before half the country was awake. I was on the Appalachian Trail (AT), at a high point, having completed the 1200 foot ascent in the first part of the course.
The sky was a clear pale blue, the air was crisp, and the sun was peaking up over the mountains to the East; its rays were like lasers shot over the horizon and through the trees.
It was then that I realized the weather was perfect. Not a few days ago. Not a few days from now. This day, right now, the weather was perfect.
Sure, it was a little chilly to start. But as my legs were moving, my heart pumping, the morning felt great.
It was still freezing outside. The temperature was still in the upper 20s or low 30s. I could still see my breath in front of me and if I wasn’t running, I am sure it would have been miserably cold.
But at that point, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.
Welcome to my 2015 JFK 50 mile race report.
Bottom Line Up Front
For those that don’t want to read a long race report, I’ll give you the Bottom Line Up Front.
The race was outstanding. The support was fantastic. The volunteers were amazing. The organization and planning were flawless (as far as I could tell). The course was beautiful, challenging, fast, and fun. Like those women your mother warned you about, the course through the Appalachian Trail and Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath seduces you to go faster than planned. But the course shouldn’t be underestimated. Like with an enticing temptress, start out too fast and you might end up paying for it later.
The description from the official JFK 50 website.
The JFK 50 Mile is the nations oldest and largest ultramarathon. It was first held in the spring of 1963. It is the only remaining 50 mile event of several held around the country as part of President John F. Kennedy’s push to bring the country back to physical fitness.
After all these years and races, I imagine much of the JFK 50 Mile logistics are pretty much set at this point. However, I don’t want to discount the incredible job and hard work that goes into this race ever year. There is a reason why this race is still going on and still the largest ultramarathon. The race organizers and volunteers do an amazing job.
If that is all you wanted to know, you can stop reading right here. But if you’re interested in more details, please read on.
My Race Strategy
As I mentioned above, I felt prepared for the race. My training had gone well and I was able to get in a good amount of long runs, the most recent being the Outer Banks Marathon two weeks earlier.
While this might not be a recommended approach, I find myself making two separate race plans. Which plan I follow depends on how the race is going the first hour.
My first plan is the conservative safe plan. This is the plan I tell my wife so that she doesn’t think I will push myself too hard and get injured. My conservative safe plan for the JFK 50 Mile was to finish in about 8.5 hours. I planned to take the first 15 miles through the AT nice and easy, averaging about 12 minutes per mile. Then for the last 35 miles, average about 9.5 minutes per mile.
However, during my long runs leading up to the race, when my mind had time to wander, I couldn’t help but think about an alternate race result. A race result where I’m finishing in under 8 hours. This is my “what-the-hell” plan where I start out too fast and finish even faster. Again, probably not the recommended approach, but I tend to be competitive against myself.
Also, for this race, my plan was to consume less energy gels and rely more on various foods from the aid stations. During the North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) GORE-TEX 50 Miler, I became a little nauseous toward the end of the race. I think I had too many gels and not enough real food. So for this race, I would eat a few gels in the beginning and end, but rely on more solid food from the aid stations in between.
When you run any race (especially for the first time), it is important to understand the race logistics. There is no quicker way to ruin a race than doing something stupid like arriving at what you think is the start and then realizing that you’re in the wrong place and then missing the race altogether. (Yes, that has happened to me before).
Fortunately, for the JFK 50 Mile, the race logistics are fairly straight forward.
JFK 50 Mile Start
The race start is on Highway 40 near the Boonsboro Educational Complex in Boonsboro, Maryland.
Runners can park at the High School / Educational complex. From there, it is a half mile walk to the start on Highway 40.
I originally planned to make it to the Hilton hotel in Hagerstown, MD to pick up my packet on Friday, but wasn’t able to make it before the 7PM cut-off time. But I was easily able to pick up my packet race morning at the high school. Packet pick-up on Saturday morning was between 5:20 – 6:20AM. I got there a little early at 5:40AM or so.
Introductory Race Meeting
Before heading to the start line, there is an morning introductory race meeting that takes place in the high school gym. It wasn’t mandatory, but was highly encouraged that all runners attend. Essentially, the speaker went over a few safety items, especially when passing runners on the AT. In addition, veteran JFK 50 Mile runners planning to run various paces were asked to stand up. If any runners wanted to run with them, they could. However, unless you were standing right next to them when they were introduced, it would be hard to find them after the meeting.
Another thing to note is that there are two starts times for the JFK 50. There is a 5AM start for elite senior athletes, race veterans with over 10 finishes, and charity runners. The 7AM start is for all other runners. The overall race cut-off is at 7PM, so runners that may need more than 12 hours to finish should plan to use the 5AM start if possible.
The race itself doesn’t handle drop bags. But if you have supporters or handlers, you can have someone meet you at one of the six designated support locations.
In addition, the 14 fully stocked aid stations spaced between 4 and 6 miles apart provide plenty of hydration and fuel options. The aid stations were stocked with everything from energy gels, snacks, water, gatorade, coffee, hot soup, chips, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, pretzels, just to name a few of the items. The aid stations also had plenty of volunteers to cheer you on and provide welcome motivation and support.
JFK 50 Mile Finish
The finish is near Springfield Middle School in Williamsport, Maryland, which is about 15 miles from the start. There are shuttle buses to take people back to their cars at the high school. At the finish, there is also plenty of food, dessert, and drinks to help runners rest and relax. You can also pick up some additional race shirts and memorabilia.
About 10 minutes before 7AM, the last car was directed off Highway 40 in downtown Boonsboro, MD. The JFK 50 mile starting line was clear.
Myself and the rest of the runners who had been waiting on the sidewalk finally poured into the road. Like the race start, the sun was also right on schedule for its 7:01AM sunrise. It was just starting to peak up over the eastern horizon, lighting up the pale blue sky and turning the tiny puffs of clouds pink.
As I mentioned earlier, it was freezing. The temperature was still in the high 20s, but fortunately pre-race adrenaline was starting to kick in so it wasn’t as noticeable as it was during the half mile walk from the gym to the starting line.
It was tough leaving the warm school gym and walking to the start. Sure it is nice having a warm place to wait, but it also makes the cold seem that much worse.
But a few minutes before the start, all that was out of my mind. Myself and hundreds of other runners were lined up, facing east on Highway 40, and ready to push our bodies to its physical limits.
Then the countdown began and the race started.
The first 2.5 miles were heading East on Highway 40. Right away, the course tries to push you outside your race strategy. Race adrenaline, cold weather, and paved roads make it easy to start off too fast. In addition, the first 2.5 miles also gain about 500 feet in elevation. The ascent isn’t too challenging. However, the toughest part about this portion of the race is making sure you don’t start out too fast.
The course then enters the Appalachian Trail for another 700 feet of elevation gain over the next 3 miles (most of that is between mile 4 and 5.5). Part of that is on the rocky Appalachian Trail, another part is on a paved fire road.
Myself and most of the runners around me walked up the last steep ascent on the fire road. The energy expense from running here wouldn’t be worth saving a minute or two in time.
Overall, the 1200 foot ascent in the first 5.5 miles isn’t too bad, but its definitely worth paying attention too. If not, you can find yourself going to fast and not saving energy for the flat and fast portion of the course later on.
As usual, I generally don’t listen to my own advice, so I most certainly started out too fast. I got caught up in a group of runners and was probably averaging about 8.5 to 9 minutes per mile for the first 4 miles.
Even though I had started out faster than planned, I was still feeling good at this point. I didn’t feel like I was overly exerting myself. So far, all systems checked in okay.
After reaching the course peak at about mile 5.5, the course continued another roughly 10 miles on the Appalachian Trail before connecting with the C&O Canal towpath. This area of the trail is rocky with some minor changes in elevation.
The most challenging part on the AT is making sure not to fall or twist an ankle. Leaves covered the ground and made it difficult to see all the rocks. One runner fell behind me (he was okay). Then another runner tripped in front of me and barely managed to keep her balance (she was also fine). Lastly, it was my turn. I tripped and fell, but managed to escape injury except for a minor scrape on my hand.
Despite the rocks, this area of the trail is very scenic. The sun was steadily rising in the clear blue sky and shining through the leafless trees. The air still had that crisp morning feel. The temperature was still cold, but was perfect for running.
Unfortunately at about mile 12, I noticed my Garmin fenix 3 had lost satellite signal. On the fenix 3, there is no alert or notification of any kind that this occurs. The only way I knew was that my instant pace was no longer appearing. The fenix 3 uses its internal accelerometer to estimate distance without GPS. However, this isn’t entirely accurate. Needless to say, this was a bit frustrating, but I tried to not let it bother me.
Fortunately, the watch seemed to lock on the GPS signal again once I was off the AT, out from between the trees, and reached the C&O Canal towpath. While I like the fenix 3, it had been frustrating me lately and this was another strike against it. To be fair, however, I did look at a few other people’s tracks on Strava and this seemed to be a difficult GPS location for some reason. My watch wasn’t the only one that messed up here. There didn’t seem to be a pattern as to the type of watch that had issues either.
The final path off the AT down to the towpath is a quick 1000 foot drop in elevation in about 2 miles. Part of this is a steep series of switchbacks that is not really possible (or safe) to run on. Here is also where I started to catch up with the last of the 5AM starters. The important part here was just to make sure I didn’t fall and twist an ankle or worse.
Once at the bottom of the switchbacks, the course continues for another roughly 27 miles on the C&O Canal towpath. While this part of the course is flat, it can be deceptively difficult from a mental standpoint. The C&O Canal towpath is very scenic, but 27 miles on the same flat path can be challenging physically and mentally. I find it helps to focus on smaller chunks, so I broke up the distance in my mind by focusing on the next aid station. This seemed to help some, but this portion of the course is just plain long and seems like it lasts forever. There are some nice scenic views passing Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and the Antietam Aqueduct.
At about mile 43, the course leaves the towpath for the rolling country roads of western Maryland. There are some elevation changes here but nothing so steep that I felt I needed to walk. At this point in the race, I was just ready to be finished. I had probably slowed down to just over 9.5 minutes per mile and my leg muscles were starting to tighten. However, I knew that nothing outside of being finished would make them feel better at this point, so I just pressed on. I skipped stopping at most of the final aid stations. I had plenty of water in my hydration pack and an energy gel I was saving for mile 45 to help get me to the finish.
Even though we were in Maryland and not West Virginia, I couldn’t get John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” song out of my head. I was relying on these rolling country roads to take me home to the finish. The area was rural and beautiful. The weather was also still perfect. The runners had spread out at this point, so besides a few runners about a quarter mile or more ahead of me, I had the roads to myself.
As I pushed through those last painful miles, I also reminded myself to just enjoy the race. Instead of focusing on the pain, I tried to focus on how awesome it is to be able to run and participate in these types of events. I do feel very fortunate and blessed. It is easy to get caught up in the training, the miles, and the pain. It is easy to get frustrated when things don’t go exactly as planned. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and remember to just enjoy yourself and enjoy the race.
The last few turns were through the town of Williamsport, Maryland to the finish line at the Springfield Middle School. I texted my wife at mile 49 to let her know I was almost finished. She was waiting at the finish line to take a few pictures.
I crossed the finish line in 8:05:43; about 25 minutes ahead of my race goal. In general, I was still feeling pretty good. My legs were sore and tight, but overall I felt better than I did at the TNFEC 50 the past April so I was very happy with my performance.
Below is a list of my running gear.
- Garmin fenix 3 – Check out my review here.
- Pearl Izumi EM Road N2 V2 – Review coming. Check back soon.
- Nathan HPL 020 Hydration Vest – Check out my review here.
- Energy Gels
- Swiftwick VIBE ZERO Socks
- Brooks Sherpa IV (2 in 1) 7’’ shorts
- Nike technical short-sleeve running shirt
- Champion (Target) long-sleeve running shirt
- Nike running hat
- Knit gloves from Target
Overall, I am very pleased with how the race went and there is not much I would do differently. However, I would loved to have finished in under 8 hours. I think next time, I perhaps should go a little slower to start and through the AT portion of the course, so I can maintain a faster pace on the C&O Canal towpath and final road section at the end.
It is easy to see why the JFK 50 Mile continues to be the countries largest ultramarathon. The course is fast, fun, and challenging; the volunteers and support are superb; and the overall race organization is outstanding. In my opinion, this would make a great first 50 miler, but is still fun for seasoned ultramarathoners.
I hope this race recap was both interesting and informative. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Thanks for reading.