In 2009 I ran this race, with a less than satisfying performance. I bonked badly at mile 42 and struggled in, not really enjoying life, stopping at every aid station and eating things I never eat, just to make it to the finish. This year, I vowed, would be different.
Fortunately, I was able to have friend and fellow 100k World Team member, Howard Nippert, crew for me, which would allow me to have ample calories and fluids of my choosing during the run, plus his no nonsense encouragement. On paper, I was heavily favored, although there were a few unknowns and the unknowing-ness of one’s own performance on any given day. I felt strong, swift, rested, and based on my workouts, no reason to think I couldn’t break the course record of 6:29.
There was a fair amount of hoopla surrounding the race. JFK 50 is a storied event, the oldest ultra in the country and the largest. The history I find very inspiring, especially given the year in which this started – well before the obesity epidemic we have here now.
The local paper, the Herald-Mail gave much press to this event as well. Wardian was going for the course record, and the men’s field was stacked with Matt Woods, David Riddle, Andy Henshaw (all members of the USA 100k Team) as well as others less well known to me. The women’s field was not as deep, but definitely some women with creds – Cassie Scallon – a dark horse but with some quick times and wins in the past 2 years, and Ragan Petri coming off a solid win at UROC. I was favored heavily, and was in the mindset that I would race the course record and that would keep me motivated.
Race morning was perfect for November – chilly, clear, and a bit breezy. Howard and I made our way to the start. I gave him the bottles and gel flasks with a list of aid stations that I would like to get them. I set my bottle and flask down that I would start with and did a little more warm up, then went to the start. At 7:00 sharp, we were off. The fast men bolted quickly. I was feeling nice and light, when I realized the reason for the lightness was that I had left my bottle and flask at Howard’s feet. Hmmmm. I decided that I could easily make it to mile nine on aid station support, given it was cool and I had topped off the tank well pre-race. Cassie pulled up next to me and we got to know each other a bit. We hit the Appalachian Trail in about 20 minutes and happily danced down the trail. For awhile. It was really, really rocky. I remembered that from before, but the longer I was on it the less I remembered it from before. Cassie slid by and gracefully and gradually pulled away. I did my best to focus on the ground in front of me, and not worry about where she was. I wanted to get through the trail section and feel ready to run fast when we hit the tow path.
At mile nine, aid station 2, Howard was there with my forgotten bottle and gel. “Forget something?” I told him I was fine, I had aided at the first station. Cassie was right in front of me, but I took my first pit stop, and when I came out, Cassie was completely out of view. There were another 6 miles of trail to go, and I was starting to feel a bit wobbly on the rocks. If I had weak ankles, they would have shown up here. I went back and forth with the men on the trail, and we were now encountering the early starters. The final bit of trail consisted of very gnarly switchbacks on leaf covered rocks, and a somewhat congested with early starters. Everyone was congenial and supportive, and my only encounter with the ground came by sliding on the leaves from one trail down to the next on a switch back. I did come back up with the help of fellow runners.
Down off the trail and close to the towpath, Howard handed me fresh bottles. I asked how far ahead she was, and he said about a minute and a half. When I finally reached the towpath, I got the official time – she was 3:40 ahead of me. Well, that was more than I expected, but my 2:14 was as good as I needed to be in reach of a 6:29. I focused on easing my way into a faster pace. I knew I would need to average about 7:45 overall, and I was at 8:20 now. Falling back to a previous experience this summer where I did a training weekend of a 50k training run followed the next day by a 3:02 marathon, I knew I could pull out a ‘quickish’ marathon which was the distance of the towpath section. Having the Garmin calculating overall pace was priceless, and I knew from previous experience that I would need to show a faster pace on the Garmin than my goal pace, as the Garmin had already measured an extra half mile. As I started cruising it was fun watching the average drop. I wasn’t planning on ‘chasing’ Cassie down, I planned on running a doable pace, just under that edge of “too fast”, and if I could get to the end of the towpath in 5:30, then I could bust my ass to the finish. I also predicted that Cassie would come back to me. Aid station volunteers and fellow runners gave me various reports, but each time indicated she was further ahead. Somewhere midway, she was as far as 7+ minutes ahead. Wow – that was impressive – as my pace had been steadily coming down until now it was under 8 minutes.
The towpath section is actually, in my opinion, quite pleasant, contemplative if you will. It has some long straight stretches, but some nice, natural bends. I remembered to look at the Potomac and wonder what it was like in the 1800s. The trees were losing their leaves, mostly golden, but one tree had shed bright green leaves. These were mild distractions to keep me from being so inside my head that I forget one of my enjoyments in running is experiencing what is around me.
My stomach was doing pretty well. I don’t normally have issues, but focusing on getting more gel and more fluids can tip the scales. Whenever my stomach was at peace, I would take another shot of gel from my flask, then chase it with Hammer’s Sustained Energy in coconut water. That would cause a bit of “ick” feeling for awhile, but eventually it would subside, and I would repeat the process. My digestive system had not caught up to east coast time, and I made 3 more porta-john stops along the towpath. With 22 miles to go, I imagined I was on a 22 mile run from my house for perspective. I kept a good pace going, happy that I wasn’t falling into a slog. As I got into the 30’s my pace was down to 7:55, and holding steady. Then I heard that Cassie was only 6:30 ahead. When I reached mile 40, I switched imagery to the Ice Cream Sandwich Run and started to gradually increase the effort. I was done enjoying the towpath, had had enough contemplative mind chatter, was sick and tired of carrying my bottle and the gel flask, and quite frankly was sick and tired of gel and Sustained Energy. When I finally made it to mile 42, Howard was ready with fresh supplies. I threw my old ones and the ground and said “I’m done carrying stuff. I’m topped off, I feel fine, I just need to run!” My time was 5:33 – I didn’t know what kind of pace I could hold, but getting on the pavement felt very good, and I was stoked that I could actually push the pace right away.
A short steep climb slowed me a bit, and Howard drove by yelling “c’mon! c’mon! c’mon!” As soon as I crested I opened up and started flying. For a bit. I reined it in, when an oncoming pickup driver slowed, rolled his window down and shouted “She’s only 2 minutes ahead! You can get her! Really, you can!” I surged a bit, and stared ahead. The road doesn’t stay straight for long, and it rolls, so it was hard to gauge how far away she really was. I focused on a male runner, reeled him in, exchanged supportive words, and then I focused on the next runner. Coming into an aid station I grabbed a gulp of coke, and kept charging on. My overall pace was dropping again. At mile 46 Howard was holding a bottle for me. I yelled ahead to him “Coke! Coke!” He quickly moved, and met me with 2 cups. I grabbed one, spilled half of it all over me, snorted a good amount up my nose, and managed to swallow about a teaspoon. Howard ran next to me, letting me know that I was running stronger than Cassie. “It’s not over yet” I replied. “I’m surging and sagging, but I’m not going to quit trying.” He ran back to his car, drove on ahead and waited. I kept running strong, but was definitely tiring. With 2 miles to go, I caught him again. This time he just waved and drove off, and I knew that barring a disaster for Cassie, she was not going to be caught today.
There was an orange jersey in front of me, and I finally made out that it was Sean Meissner, fellow Oregonian, and Cassie’s boyfriend. I chuckled to myself that Cassie was ahead of Sean. He saw me with about a mile and a half to go, and at that time he could see Cassie in front. He was getting “chickwiched” and was pretty stoked about it. I couldn’t close the gap, and at the finish Cassie was 6:31, Sean 6:33, and my time was 6:35. No new course record but Cassie and I and run the 3rd and 4th fastest female times in the history of the race. I broke the 50+ women’s record by 85 minutes, and the 40+ by 7.
It was a gratifying day and one of my best races of the year. The volunteers and race staff were fabulous, and having Howard crewing for me was priceless. Many kudos to all, and especially to RD Mike Spinnler.