JFK 50 Mile Race Report

Cruising to the finish, bit of a melting clown face.
In mildly adverse conditions on Saturday, I raced my way to second place at the 51st JFK 50 Mile—the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the country.  My time of 5:44:37 was the sixth fastest in race history, and until David Riddle’s 2011 record run, it would have been the course record.  That goes to show how quickly the sport of ultrarunning is moving along.  Eric Clifton’s 5:46:22 was considered nearly untouchable by many, and here we have six guys in the last three years running faster (seven performances, as David Riddle ran 5:45:13 last year). 

I'm happy with my performance for how I felt on the day, but a bit disappointed with the result.  I really wanted to shoot for a victory and course record, but I just didn't feel like I had a great day, and it was thus out of reach.  However, looking at how my time stacks up in race history, I can’t be too upset with the final time.  If anything, it just leaves me wanting more, because I know I can go 10-15 minutes faster on the right day.  I didn’t fall apart too badly or anything, I just never felt as good as I did at Tussey Mountain (the USA 50 Mile Champs) last month.  But c’est la vie.  I might be coming down with a bug that zapped a little strength on race day, or maybe I was sluggish for some other unknown reason.  It doesn’t really matter in the end—all we can do is take what we have on the day and do the best we can with it.  And from that measure, I’m satisfied.

Start in downtown Boonsboro
This year’s race was relatively stacked, even if many people didn’t think so on paper.  It was one of just a few times when four or more men have broken 6 hours, so the results showed this depth.  The top competitors ran relatively close together for the first two climbs up to the high point of the course at 5.4 miles.  I had David Riddle’s (and Max King’s) 2012 splits for these segments, and we were matching them without pushing too hard.  Even at 9 miles (Gathland Gap), we were still more or less on pace.  But somewhere along the second bit of the Appalachian Trail, we lost several minutes.  This was a bit surprising, as I felt like we were moving at a decent clip.  I did stop to water the flowers, but I was surprised to be at 1:58 when we hit the tow path.  Last year, King and Riddle were at 1:54.  I also ended up running behind some other competitors for a bit on that second half of the AT.  I prefer to be leading a group or running on my own on technical trails, so I can truly run my own rhythm.  When you’re behind someone, you sometimes slow down without really realizing it.  This is all good to know for future reference; I need to move a bit better on the AT when I come back.

Hitting the tow path and the beginning of 26.3 flat miles, it was quickly apparent that my legs didn’t quite have it.  I know the quick descent down the bluffs (and really the AT generally) has the tendency to sap your legs a bit, but I really didn’t feel like that was it.  Rather, it just seemed I wasn’t feeling as good on this particular day.  Specifically, my hamstrings were giving me a bit of trouble, feeling like they wanted to cramp as early as 18 or 20 miles.  I had rolled off the AT with Rob Krar in fourth and fifth place, and as I settled into my pace, he left me in the dust.

Krar, Josh Arthur, and Zach Miller began to run in a pack, clicking off six flats into the distance.  I was running 6:15s or 6:20s and I didn’t think that it felt sustainable in the least.  This was disconcerting.  Iain Ridgeway was running maybe 6:40s in front of me, so I quickly passed him, yet watched the lead pack disappear from my fourth place position.  Throughout the next 12 miles or so, I kept telling myself to slow down to 6:30-6:40 pace—that if I kept up the 6:15s, I was going to blow up.  But I kept on my calories, started popping electrolyte pills every half hour, and slowly, I began to feel just a bit better.  Passing a fading Josh Arthur and moving into third helped a bit.  As did the mental hurdle of being past halfway.  Somewhere just past the 27 mile aid station, I started to feel just a little more positive about my prospects.  The lead duo’s gap was no longer growing, and I was sitting squarely and comfortably in third, three minutes back. 

As I worked my way up the Potomac River, I focused on staying as efficient as I could, eating and drinking, and clicking off the miles.  You’re on the tow path for a long time, but somehow it went by rather quickly.  In retrospect, it sure doesn’t seem like I ran a marathon on that trail.  Such are the mental tricks of racing I suppose—breaking things down into manageable portions, in this case each aid station. 

Keeping a steady gap to the frontrunners and hoping for blowups ahead of me, I kept holding on.  Somewhere around mile 38 I began to fade slightly.  I started to hit some miles in the 6:30-6:50 pace range.  Coming around a bend near mile 40, I was surprised to find Rob Krar walking down the trail in front of me.  If anything, I had expected to catch the unheralded Zach Miller, not Krar.  But such is the nature of ultras—50 miles is a long way to race, and it’s easy to overstep the line.  I asked Krar if he was alright, and he said yeah.  I told him to hang tough and continued on my way.  Speaking with him post-race, he said his body just shut down on him.

End of the tow path at Dam 4.
Coming off the tow path, the short, steep uphill into the road section was the swift quick to the groin that everyone promised it would be.  During my course tour the day before, Andy Mason stressed on three occasions that the roads could not be written off.  That it was a grind to the finish, and those 8.4 miles would seem hilly at the end of the race.  I did my best to mentally prepare for the struggle ahead, and I think I managed it fairly well.  I didn’t crush it, but I did maintain an average pace of 6:50/mile or so.  I had no one in hot pursuit (though I was unsure of this at the time, knowing only what I could see looking over my shoulder), and barring a major blowup from Zach, it seemed I would be finishing second place. 

Battling the wind on the roads
When I hit the last mile in roughly 5:38 flat, I knew I needed to find one more sub-7 to dip under 5:45, a tough barrier on the JFK course.  I was happy to pull that off, finishing 5 minutes and change behind Zach Miller in the end.  Major props to Zach; his performance was simply astounding.  At 25 years old, based on what I’ve heard, he has run no marathons and two 50k’s (including Bootlegger two weeks ago, where he finished sixth), and this was his first 50 miler.  He has run 31-low for 10k on the track, so he has plenty of speed to run a good 50 miler.  What’s really shocking is how much he absolutely knocked it out of the park on his first attempt.   I don’t think the wind—roughly a headwind for the last 35 miles of the race—cost as much time as some people are saying; maybe 2-3 minutes in my estimation.  But in any event, that puts Zach’s run very close to Max King’s CR of 5:34:59, run in perfect conditions last year. 

There was a fair bit of carnage and some DNFs along the trail behind—including Krar, Arthur, Jason Wolfe, Dave James, and Eric Bohn—with Mike Wardian and Iain Ridgeway fighting gamely to third and fourth place finishes in 5:55:37 and 5:57:26.  Again, this was one of the deepest JFKs in race history, and it shows how ultrarunning is continuing to become more competitive.

Some thanks are in order to all the folks who make this wonderful race possible.  Mike Spinnler (RD) does a stellar job, and I hope to come back in the future.  Also, Eric Senseman, whom I first met this year at American River, did an outstanding job crewing for me.  Eric was slotted to race, but after a DNF at Bootlegger two weeks ago, decided he was over raced and pulled the plug on the season.  Despite being rather ill, Eric did a great job encouraging me and providing flawless logistical support.  Andy Mason was also helpful and encouraging out on the course and was kind enough to give me a course tour Friday.  Thanks to my sponsors as well for their continued support—I work with a great group of people.  Congrats also to all the finishers of this historic race; I met some great people this weekend.
My stellar crew, Eric Senseman
Next up is The North Face 50 Mile Championships in San Francisco in two weeks.  A quick turnaround to be sure, but as it’s the end of my season, I figured why not head out for the party.  That race is always a blast.  JFK was my focus for the fall, but since I’m about to take a short break anyway, I’ll go roll the dice at TNF.

Recovery?  Grab a Yuengling and a UGo bar!

  • I ran in the Salomon Sense Mantras, which I have raced in all year.  They were great, as usual.  Just the right amount of “shoe” for me, with a 6mm drop and a moderate stack height.  (Excited to run in the Sense Pro soon as well—Sense Mantra outsole/midsole with an S-LAB upper!)
  • I generally fueled well on Saturday, but I had some issues late race getting enough down.  I realized no matter how much I like a product, I really just need variety during a race.  I get sick of everything, so I need to mix it up a bit more.
  • My Suunto Ambit data for the race can be found here.
The new Sense Pro!