Race Report: JFK 50 Mile

Earlier this year I thought it would be “fun” to run a 100k, 50 miler, and marathon within an 8 week period. Alyssa was on board, and I guess I was delirious, and I went ahead and registered for the JFK 50 Mile, which touts itself as the country’s oldest ultramarathon. You can read more about the history of the race here: http://www.jfk50mile.org/history/

JFK would be 5 weeks post-Cloudsplitter and in my mind that would be more than enough time to recover and get ready to go again. However, I struggled to recover from Cloudsplitter. The most unexpected part for me was that the recovery was hard not only physically, but also mentally. I definitely underestimated how much that kind of effort would take out of me. I didn’t do much in the month after the race and my quality efforts were few and far between. I can recall one solid swim and one decent outside ride and a couple of good treadmill efforts, but really that was it. 

In light of that, a week or so before the race, I emailed Alyssa saying I presumed I wasn’t doing JFK. In what comes as a shock to no one who knows her, Alyssa replied that she presumed I *WAS.* She told me to just go out and “cruise” for 50 miles. Mind you, I couldn’t even remember the last time I did a long run, between taper and recovery from Cloudsplitter. JFK has some strict time cut offs throughout the course and you have to finish in 13 hours. That seemed fairly aggressive to me, but Alyssa was convinced that so long as I kept moving, those cut offs wouldn’t be an issue. 

I was so uncertain about what I would be able to do that I told Jennifer (who would be spectating) and Megan (who would be running) not to mention anything about me running on social media. I had told a couple of friends that I wasn’t sure I would do it, but basically no one knew I was going for it except for Alyssa, my husband, my boss, and the girls.

I drove up to Hagerstown on Friday night and didn’t buy any swag because I thought the chances of me not finishing were pretty damn high (although I did buy Megan the cutest Maryland pom-pom hat).

Race Morning

If you’re thinking about doing this race, there are a couple of items to note from race morning. First, packet pick-up is a solid 20 minute drive from the race start, so if you stay by packet pick-up account for that when you’re planning your race morning schedule. Second, parking at the start is a total shit show. They really should have people there directing traffic. That is one of my few criticisms of the race. 

In any case, after I finally found parking, I met up with Megan in the school parking lot and we went inside for the athlete briefing. It was nice to be inside for this, although the bathroom lines were too long to even attempt a final pit stop before the race start. After the briefing, everyone walked together to the race start, which is maybe a quarter to half mile from the school.

Start and AT (15.5 miles)

Just like at Cloudsplitter, you start the course running uphill on the roads. Lots of people were walking this but I really didn’t want to get stuck behind a bunch of slowpokes on the trail, so I wasn’t sprinting or anything, but tried to keep moving. Megan and I stuck together, even thought it was semi-crowded.

We got on the Appalachian Trail (AT) together, and fairly early on we started talking to two woman we had been running with. This is when I met “H” who I ended up running the majority of the race with. 

The AT section was fairly uneventful. It was muddy and I did fall into the snow once (I was totally fine), but other than that, there isn’t much to report. What’s funny is that after Cloudsplitter, the AT section didn’t feel technical AT ALL until the very end. I think Cloudsplitter has forever changed my perception of what constitutes a “technical” trail.

You exit the AT and there is a big crowd waiting for you and cheering. A man said “Welcome to Waverton!” as we were descending to the road and it felt like I was in a movie. It was very cool!

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Towpath (through mile 42) 

The second part of the race is on the C&O Canal Towpath. H and I ran this entire thing together. Although calling it “running” might be generous. We “ran” 13 minute miles. We were slow and steady. We stopped at the aid stations to eat and drink, grab nutrition, refill packs, etc., but otherwise jogged the whole way.

Stopping and starting again at the aid stations was so painful (we would actually countdown “3-2-1” and then start running it was so bad getting started again) that we decided that walking was actually going to be worse than just maintaining a steady trot (lots of people were doing run/walk intervals and I honestly have no idea how their legs were handling that).

Through this entire section, I was SO good about my fueling. I learned my lesson from Cloudsplitter: no matter how tired, cranky, hurting, etc. you are in a race, you need to EAT. 

Somewhere along the towpath, we started doing some math and figured out that we might be able to break 12 hours, which was both an unexpected surprise and a great motivator to keep on chugging along!

Pavement (to the finish at 50+ miles)

By the end of the Towpath, H was really hurting. I gave her some ibuprofen (even thought she had been anti taking pain killers earlier in the race). I waited while she used the bathroom and then held back with her on the pavement for a time, but ultimately it was pretty clear I was feeling stronger than her and she told me I could go ahead. I felt bad since we had spent the entire day together, but I didn’t want to let the sub-12:00 finish slip through my grasp.

This section had been described to me as “rollers” but I actually didn’t think it was that bad (I always think “rollers” is a euphemism for big hills). I tried to continue with my slow and steady effort and slowly count down the miles one by one.

As in any race, these last few miles started to feel *very* long. A lot of people were run walking and it was getting a little annoying for me to pass them only to have them pass me and then walk again. But, I tried to focus on my own race. I kept doing the math, and realizing I would be well-under the 12 hour mark, which was quite unexpected, particularly in light of how I felt heading into the race.

I ended up crossing the line in 11:33, surpassing my expectations by a long shot!

I saw Jennifer and Megan at the finish and it was hilarious because Jennifer was very animated and clearly annoyed at herself for not having her phone out to take a picture of me crossing the line. That image will be in my brain forever when I think about this race.

In the end, while I liked this race, I’m not sure if it is one I will do again, just because the towpath is so monotonous, but I am glad I did it.

Now, I have to rest up for the Rehoboth marathon on December 8! If nothing else, I know I should be able to “cruise” for 26 miles!

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Race Report: Cloudsplitter 100k

Last year, immediately after completing the 50k distance at Cloudsplitter 100 in Norton, VA, I decided that I wanted to attempt the 100k this year. These races always seem so far away when you sign up for them and before you know it, they’re here. After Ironman Canada, I basically had two months to focus on Cloudsplitter, and those two months really flew by. All of a sudden, race week was here and Jon and the pups and I were headed to Norton!

Stepping up to the 100k distance, there were lots of new elements included in my race planning. One of those is that I would have two friends who would “pace” me for portions of this year’s event – Kim and Jess. For me, that would mean keeping me company throughout the night, reminding me to eat and drink, and keeping me moving, although not really at any specific-pace.

Kim arrived in Norton on the Thursday night before the race, so she joined me for my shakeout run on Friday morning. During the run, who did we see but my favorite City Manager, Fred, who I met at the race last year! We chatted briefly and then went our separate ways, but I wanted to mention this because Norton is such a special place and I hope that comes across in this post. Everyone is so darn friendly and the fact that Fred remembered me from last year is emblematic of that. In any case, after the run I got my feet up because of my wonky knee, and Jon and Kim headed to Walmart to do some shopping. I needed some food for the crew stops and Jon wanted some warmer clothes because the weather was colder than we expected and would be even colder on the mountain where he would be crewing for me. When they got back, we drove to two of the three crew stations that they would be driving to during the race.

Checking out Bark Camp Lake, which I would visit twice during the race.

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Friday evening was the athlete briefing. Jess joined us for that, and I picked up my bib – number 1000! We all enjoyed the bluegrass band and a warm welcome from the City of Norton. My favorite part of the athlete briefing again this year was hearing from the biologist about what a special place High Knob is biologically for both plant and animal species.

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I did not sleep well on Friday night. I normally don’t have sleep issues before a race, but this time I did. After lots of nervous tossing and turning, the alarm went off and it was time to get moving with my usual race morning breakfast and routine.

One of the many awesome things about Cloudsplitter is that the race doesn’t start until 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, so we didn’t have to rush. We were able to walk to the start from our hotel, which made race morning super easy. It was definitely chilly, so it was nice to wait inside at the Farmer’s Market until the race started.

Nervously waiting for the start.

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The first segment of the race, just under 10 miles, went perfectly for me! I was 100% on point with my nutrition. I was running everything that was runnable and speed hiking anything that was too steep or rocky to run. I even met a super friendly woman who was doing the 50k and we chatted about races and it really helped pass the time.

Before I knew it, there was my crew at the first aid station at High Knob Recreation Area, and I was filling up on a food and on my way again.

Chatting with my new friend Shelley who was racing the 50k.

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I felt similarly strong during the second segment of the race. My nutrition was spot on and my energy was high. I had one scare with the knee around mile 15 where it really started acting up, but I was able to keep moving and get through it. I saw my crew again at Bark Camp Lake at just under 20 miles for a short stop and on I went.

The third segment of the race was extremely challenging for me. This section had something like 30 water crossings (it felt like a billion trillion, but I’m guessing 30 is more accurate…). You had no choice but to get wet at several of them. I fell twice slipping on wet rocks. I knew I was slowing down a lot and I was starting to get mentally tired. Between watching my feet, watching the trail markings, and navigating the water crossings, my brain was starting to get fried.

I got back to Bark Camp Lake at just under 30 miles and had to use the bathroom, so I handed Jon my poles, ran to the bathroom, and then tried to quickly fill up on food/drinks/gear for the next segment of the race. This was a disaster. I was mentally drained and was digging through the giant tub of food, clothes, and equipment looking for my headlamp, chews, etc. I couldn’t find anything. I was frustrated and complaining to Jon about why he didn’t have everything laid out for me to just grab and go (yes, I should have been thankful he was there doing this for me and I’m not proud of losing my temper with him). Things were spilling everywhere, including an entire bag of pretzels. I was so frustrated and upset that I left the stop without my poles and by the time I realized it, I didn’t want to back track.

This is when my mental downward spiral started. I was so mad at myself for leaving the poles and at Jon for not having my stuff laid out. I was mad that I didn’t have a pacer (I could have had a pacer for this section of the race, but lost one of my pacers a few weeks before the race). Not only was I mentally in a bad place, but also physically. I had been relying heavily on the poles to keep weight off my knee, on the steep inclines and declines, and during the water crossings, and not having them definitely slowed me down. It was starting to get cold and dark. I stopped eating. I started walking sections that were runnable. I mentally quit. I sent Jon a text saying I would be dropping out at the next stop.

In ten years of racing, I have only DNFd one race EVER and I was literally unable to walk in that one because of injury (this was during a marathon back in 2012). I am not a quitter. But I really, truly, was ready to pull the plug in this moment.

Just before I got to the next crew stop (back at High Knob Recreation Area around mile 49), I ran into Jon. He had walked on the trail in his street clothes to meet me. I told him I was stopping.

He said exactly the right thing. He said that I just needed to get to the crew stop and eat some food and there was no pressure to do anything. He didn’t say I had to finish. He didn’t say Kim and Jess came all this way and would be disappointed not to run.

Jon said I could call Alyssa (who was in Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships) if I wanted to, and that she said I just needed to eat (I immediately regretted giving him her cell phone number…).

I cried a little. Jess and Kim were asking how to help. They gave me some space which was exactly what I needed. I ate some food. And the next thing I knew, I was changing my clothes to continue. I still don’t know exactly how that happened.

Jess getting ready to run with me. She brought me back from the brink!

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Jess and I left together around 8:00 p.m. and she was amazing. I was in so much pain by that point and in such a mentally bad place, but she was playing music and telling me stories and making me laugh. She took over navigating so I just had to follow her and could give my brain a break. She navigated all of the water crossings, so I just needed to follow her lead and could completely stop thinking. She took all of the stress off of me and put it on her shoulders and there is absolutely zero chance I could have finished without her.

The section I ran with Jess ended up being longer than we expected (the entire course was long to begin with (68.5 miles for a 100k), and then was longer still). We had also gotten lost a couple of times and I have to give a shout out to Hannes Gehring, the guy who came in second in the 100 miler, for helping us get back on course when we got turned around at one of the water crossings and were literally walking in circles. You should follow him on social because he is pretty amazing – uphillswagger on Insta.

We kept thinking we were close to the crew stop and it wasn’t coming. I was freezing and starving. I think I talked to Jess about soup a dozen times.

We got to the next stop – Devil’s Fork Parking Lot – around 3:00 a.m. and I put on a zillion layers of clothes. I ate some soup and a warm grilled cheese sandwich. All of the volunteers were amazing at this race, but the ladies at this station were particularly awesome. I sat by the fire a bit to try to warm up, but the minute I walked away from it, I was cold again. I wanted to leave with a towel wrapped around my legs I was so cold (which, yes, was ridiculous, but I really wanted to do it). Instead, Jon gave me his brand new Walmart sweatshirt to tie around my waist to keep my butt warm (this idea was brilliant!). This photo really says it all. I was not in a good place.

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Kim was on deck and off we went. It started raining shortly after we started. That was the last thing I needed, but luckily the course was quite easy terrain-wise in this section and we were just able to speed hike without having to worry about water crossings or tricky terrain. I was getting colder and colder and wishing I had more clothes. Moving quickly was the only thing keeping me warm, so I just tried to keep the pace up. This last part is honestly a bit of a blur because I was just so tired and cold. Have I mentioned I was cold?

Soon enough it was daylight and I knew I was hours (and hours!) behind my goal finish time. We finally got off the trail and onto the paved road which would take us to the finish line and who came along but Jon and Jess driving to check-up on us. They were shocked by how close we were to the finish. I really wanted to try to trot to the finish (it would be offensive to jogs to call it jogging) and for the most part I sort of did. We crossed the finish line in just over 25 hours.

Kim tried to give me a high five at the finish and I just gave her a big hug (even though I am sure I smelled AMAZING in this moment – sorry Kim!).

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We ended up at around 70 miles and supposedly more than 16,000 feet ascending and the same descending, although my Garmin died around 17 hours, so these are estimates.

The finisher medals were absolutely stunning. This is definitely the most beautiful racing medal I have ever received.

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I finished around 9:00 a.m. on Sunday and spent the rest of Sunday doing exactly this back at the Holiday Inn:

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The only thing making sleep difficult was the pain. Everything hurt. By Monday morning, though, the most painful thing was clearly my big toe on my right foot. I ended up having to go to Urgent Care not once, but TWICE on Monday because my foot was swelling and my toe was so painful. I debated how graphic to be with the pictures, but I decided to just include this one of the swelling. I had that heat-sensitive nail polish on, so you can see my right foot was hot.

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I ended up needing to get my nail drained and was put on antibiotics and painkillers. I was finally able to put real shoes on late this week.

I learned so many lessons during this race that I feel like I have to go back and make it right. Not next year, because I’m racing Ironman Wisconsin in September, but maybe 2020. I have unfinished business at this race and I just can’t let it go. Even writing this post has made me mad again about some of my mistakes!

On a more positive note, I continue to be amazed by the kindness and generosity of the people of Norton and if you like trail running, hiking, or mountain biking, you should most definitely plan a visit there! I told Fred that even if I don’t race next year, I will be back to volunteer!

Finally, I have to thank Alyssa, Jon, Jess, and Kim for their support at this race. I truly wouldn’t have kept going without them and I am so thankful that they put up with me during the low points. I know that wasn’t fun for any of us.

I am registered for the JFK 50 next month, but I may take a pass on that and focus on my efforts the Rehoboth Marathon in December, depending on how my recovery goes. We shall see.