JFK 50 Mile, Maryland, USA

Some races give you a chance to understand why you do all that hard training!

I didn’t come into this race in the best of spirits. I had arrived in New York on the Thursday evening for the Saturday race. On Friday I took the train to Baltimore then drove to Hagerstown, Maryland near the race start. I found the traffic terrifying and every time I tried to reach somewhere I wanted to go I seemed to take the wrong turn and have an awful time rectifying this. I even had to go to Maccas so I could use their wifi to get directions. Honest. 

And then my luggage hadn’t made it to NY with me, it was still in Melbourne, so at 5.30pm the evening before the race I was still buying shoes and clothes to run in. I was lucky to be able to find the same model of shoe that I usually wear (there's globalisation for you), and I got a light jacket, tights for the cold and the same shorts I usually wear. I had been wearing a a T shirt for the past two days so I thought I could run in it too.

I couldn't sleep on Friday night; I tried but I felt wide awake, and what amazed me was that when I got up on Saturday morning at 5am I felt completely normal. Must have been the jet lag, because on top of this I had woken up for the day at 3am on Friday. (So by the time I fell asleep around 10pm on Saturday night I had been awake for a very long time.)

I followed a long line of cars to the race parking in Boonsboro and parked in one of many parking lots, hoping I would be able to locate my car afterwards. With about 800 runners there was quite a crowd. We walked in convoy a mile to the race start in the main street, and started at 6.30am. I wasn’t sure where exactly I crossed the start line. It was really windy and the wind was icy but I thought it would be ok once we got into the woods. 

The first few miles were mainly uphill on a road. I felt a bit odd and it took a while to get used to this idea of running. Then we turned onto the Appalachian Trail, into the woods. It was real autumnal weather, that pale almost hazy light and overcast. The was an awful lot of leaf litter which disguised the big rocks and roots well so there was constant risk of tripping. Runners were commenting about poor upkeep of the trail. There were several climbs which I mainly managed to run.

The rocks got a lot worse and I had to go really carefully,  but I knew this was the worst part of the day for trail roughness. There were some steep downhills and lots of bottlenecks developed. Then it started raining. This made the rocks slippery and I was constantly sliding slightly as I put my foot down. A few people fell. They had first aid marshals along the course and when I saw one in the distance I knew I was coming to a hard patch. The marshals looked very cold. 

We were running along a ridge top but there were very few viewpoints. I could hear trains from somewhere that sounded close. As we came to the end of the trail section of the race after 15 miles there was a long and steep downhill with lots of switchbacks. We progressed down slowly in a long line. At the bottom was an aid station and just before reaching it I went to the toilet. As I came out of the toilet I saw masses of runners going by and I sort of regretted how many places I would have lost. But then, after the aid station, we had to cross the railway line and there was a train going by with an endless number of wagons. About 50 runners were waiting to cross the tracks, so I had timed my toilet stop well.

The aid stations had mainly sweet things including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which I normally love. However after several stops to eat these I noticed that they came out of packets - prepackaged PB&J. That’s taking a good homemade food and removing the feelgood part. Although, to be fair, everything else was packaged.

As we headed out to run slightly over 26 miles on the C and O (Chesapeake and Ohio) canal towpath everyone picked up the pace. It felt so good to be on smooth ground. Runners flooded past me even though I was clearly myself running too fast. We weren’t even half way and I was feeling very tired.

Nobody had told me that the canal isn’t there any more, there's now just the towpath which is a recreation trail beside the Potomac River. I had thought we were going to run by both a canal and a river, so I felt shortchanged. The river was good and wide, brownish with many patches of small rapids, but no pleasure craft on the water and no water birds. The rain had stopped as I came off the Appalachian Trail but it soon started again. I had taken off my jacket and was just running in a T shirt because I had drawn the line yesterday at purchasing yet another technical running shirt (who runs races in cotton T shirts these days?) but it didn’t feel unpleasant. The aid stations were very frequent at first and I had a group of runners I was running among. 

Actually I wasn’t feeling good at all. The running seemed monotonous even though it was pretty with the autumnal trees and the wide river. We had a nice view of Harpers Ferry across the river and there were isolated houses on the river banks, plus many picnic areas, and some high rocky bluffs. And a few locks to cross and big bridges to look at. 

I was running out of steam with a long way to go. I kept reminding myself I had done all that training and I knew I didn’t want to waste it. I had listened to a podcast only the previous day where a researcher said that (1) sleep deprivation only has an effect on perceived fatigue and not on actual fatigue and that (2) 25% of fatigue is just your brain telling you that you are tired rather than really being tired; so I took these findings on board and spoke to myself firmly about ignoring this notion that I could be tired. It was going to be a hard day but I would make it through.

My watch had stopped working at 8am so I had no idea how I was doing for time. I could have asked people but I didn’t. Part of the fun was not knowing, but I definitely wanted to go under 12 hours because that’s a qualification time for lots of longer events. We had been told that if we reached the end of the canal towpath, 41 miles in, after 3pm we would have to wear a reflective vest for the rest of the race. So I knew that if I were handed a vest it would be after 3pm.

I got my vest and started on the road section of the race. There was immediately a big hill. It was surprisingly welcome as a change from the flatness. The route continued to undulate but with a certain amount of nice downhill. I was moving at a crawl by now but I was still moving. Ahead of me was a line of vest-clad people whom I intended to pick off before he finish. It was farmland here, cornfields and some paddocks with black cows, and still overcast. I wasn’t sure what time it would get dark but I knew it would be pitch black by 6.30pm; with full daylight at this point I felt confident I could finish this thing under 12 hours.

I counted down the miles as we came slowly into the town of Williamsburg. The light was fading fast. I told myself I was not allowed to stop running (you could hardly call it running but it wasn’t walking). I was still able to pass one or two people. We had to navigate a long stretch of roadworks; there were police cars parked along here to protect us but if it hadn’t been for the runners I could see ahead of me I would have had no idea where to go. 

Eventually a marshal told me the finish was at the top of the hill I had just started up. He didn’t tell me the hill had a false summit and a long gradual half mile climb. But I could hear finishers being announced and finally it was my turn. I only saw the clock about ten seconds before the finish, but I was delighted to see I had gone under 10 1/2 hours. Shocked, really. I had done 10:29:09 which was fantastic.

I went inside for food and warmth. I ate a pulled pork roll and pizza and hamstered M&Ms for later.  I felt awful but elated. When I went outside again it was completely dark and very much colder so I was grateful to have finished. A school bus took us back to the parking lots and I managed to find my car. Then I went straight to bed.


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