Race Report by Barb Gorka, Chris Moore and Bob Reynolds
Note the report below is color-coded according to the author.
As the final stage of your taper for an endurance event, Runner’s World recommends that athletes “try to minimize job, relationship, and travel stresses all week.” Hah. The week before the JFK 50-Miler, Chris Moore was preparing for our move back to Philadelphia, with the moving company scheduled to arrive three days after the race. Lifting heavy objects, driving from NY to PA, and living out of a suitcase were all part of Chris’s taper. Barbara as handler for Chris and Bob wasn’t in much better shape. We didn’t feel organized, rested or relaxed as we drove to Maryland with Bob the night before the early Saturday morning start.
What happens when you aren’t able to “minimize (…) stresses all week”? You do things like forget to bring toothpaste, your list of local pasta restaurants, or even your pair of shorts for the race. Thank you Bob, for sharing your toothpaste, printing out all the race information, and especially for lending Chris a pair of your short shorts for race day!
This is a BIG ultra (almost 1500 runners at the start), and was a blast to watch. There were about six aid stations along the course where spectators and handlers were permitted to park, and Chris and Bob ran together or were within minutes of each other the entire race.
I had been thinking about running the JFK 50-miler for many years. The race was first run in the 1960’s but the mixed trail & road course in western Maryland did not excite me and the late November date made for a weather crapshoot. I don’t care for Rocky Road ice cream either. I’ll take my nuts on the side, thank you
On the other hand, I was looking for redemption from an embarrassing 50M trail race in April where I crashed (literally) and burned after an overambitious first half. Plus, Chris Moore was coming back from a prolonged injury layoff and four years since his last 50.
When registration opened in July I was still limping from my falls at the Bull Run Run but I mailed in the ginormous entry fee and increased my mileage and Aleve intake. Training through the summer and fall went well enough and test races at the marathon and 50K distance indicated that my fitness was better than the spring. So, I felt confident as I stood on the starting line rural Boonesboro, Maryland on November 20th and looked 1,000 feet up to the ridge where the Appalachian Trail awaited.
Chris and I had an informal agreement about running the race together so of course we got separated at the start. No problem, I thought, we run a similar pace and there would be plenty of time to find each other out on the trail. I shook hands with Michael Wardian, Serge Arbona and a couple of the other front row starting line guys that I recognized from the magazines, and then took my proper place back in the pack. The race started at 7am and although the temp was a chilly 30-something there was the promise of a sunny day in the 60’s.
Bob clearly stated that he wanted to avoid me during the race at all costs. And after arriving at the starting line late (along with 400 other people) I started the race in the back of the pack as Bob had already made good on his promise of avoidance by, starting the race in the front of the pack!
I usually enter races with a goal time & place based on the course, my fitness level, expected competition, weather, etc. But the JFK course was a puzzle with hills and rough trail in the first 16M, then a flat middle section of 26M, finishing with 8 road miles of rolling hills. A seven hour finish (8:24 / mile) seemed very achievable but scanning the results from previous years showed that was not a given. In the end, I set a broad target of between 7:00 and 7:30 (9 minutes per mile). I gave myself a lot of wiggle room should the wheels come off again.
The initial pace was faster than expected and although I was consciously running slower than usual to save energy for later, I was surprised to find myself barely among the top 100 of the starting field of 1,000+ after the first mile. The night before at the hotel, while digesting a dinner that sadly did not come from the highly anticipated Olive Garden, I read that every minute you run too fast in the first half of an ultra race costs you three minutes in the second half. Who writes this stuff? And where was Chris?
After a few miles of climbing we left the road and stumbled onto the AT. I have run sections of the trail in Pennsylvania and knew it could be rocky but this was more than expected. Pools of dry leaves of unknown depth were frequent but my floppy ankle was securely taped so I plunged ahead. The term “technical” is used quite a bit to describe uneven running trails but I never understood that term because there are never any ropes or carabiners required. But this was a challenging trail of rocks, roots and sharp turns. My overriding thought was to run smart and save energy for later in the day. Howard Nippert, a prior winner at JFK, said that you can’t win this race on the AT section, but you can lose it there. Advice was coming from many directions.
About four miles in, Chris appeared. He was moving well and we worked together for several miles, relegating overeager starters to our rear views. Someone conjectured that the real race would not start until 35 miles. I felt silly power walking up the steeper hills, when I could have run them, but most others were doing the same. An unsettling number of rivals were taking involuntary dirt naps and I wondered when it would be my turn. Anyone who has run more than a few miles on trail with me knows that unlike Weebles, when I wobble I DO fall down.
My first glimpse of Trail Master Bob came between miles 4 and 5 on the first real steep climb into the Appalachian Trail. As much as I was aware that the race was only just beginning, any advantage I thought I had over fellow runners was on trails, primarily those pointed down. Bob and I and a few others played cat and mouse for the next 5-10 miles blazing the down hills and barely more than walking the ups trying to conserve energy. Only during the final treacherous descent (15-16m) was I able to gain any distance.
Nine miles in we emerged into a clearing full of enthusiastic fans, including Barb. It was too early to need anything from the drop bag but it nice to know we had a friend on the trail.
Miraculously, I maintained vertical through the steep switchback descent that led us off the AT and on to the C&O Canal paralleling the Potomac River. At the base of the mountain was a decent crowd of supporters, including the crafty Barb who was there again with encouragement and news that Chris was just a minute ahead. Being the world’s worst downhiller I didn’t think that was too bad. At 2:25 for almost 16 miles I was a little off pace but relieved that I hadn’t done anything foolish.
The middle section of the JFK course is 26 miles of Forbidden Dr.-like trail along the Potomac River. Some other runners commented that it was boring but I liked the views and there were aid stations every 5 miles or so. In between it was eerily quiet. Aside from the first stretch when we passed Harper’s Ferry and the occasional small farm, we traversed a sparsely settled area. The sun was well up in the sky and the air warm enough to start shedding layers. Chris slowed enough for me to catch up and for the next 10 or 15 miles we just focused on fuel and water and finding an efficient and sustainable pace.
My genius race plan had me dropping to an 8-8:15 min/mile pace once I hit the river trail hoping to slowly start make up for the time lost in the hills. Sadly I could muster only two of them before realizing that was completely un-doable, and Bob tracked me down. At this point I was resigned to run comfortably for as long as I could, and company would make that much more bearable.
Ultra runners are generally a friendly bunch and as we clicked off the miles we had several interesting conversations. One was with a woman from Carlisle who had run many of the same ultras as us. We thought we were being kind by running with her for a bit but the joke was on us as she dusted us a little beyond the half way point and finished more than 20 minutes ahead of me.
“Mapquest” Barb appeared again at mile 27. Aside from occasional spells of nausea and fatigue, my stomach felt pretty good as I added solid foods in the 4th hour. The pack stretched out with each mile and Chris wandered off at a water stop mumbling something about Mexican food not qualifying as carbo loading. At times I could see a quarter mile ahead and behind me but there was nothing in sight but the river and the crunchy trail underfoot. Where I hoped to be able to maintain an 8:15/mile pace during this stretch I frowned each time my Garmin reported an 8:45.
Getting up at 5:20 can leave one’s “routine” lacking, and my tenuous groove began to collapse at mile 27 as I was forced to detour at an aid station, only to wait in line at a port-a-potty.
At about 35 miles I hooked up with two guys, one young and one closer to my age, who were maintaining a tepid pace. The timing was fortunate as mentally I was starting to get foggy. We talked about paces and finish times and races run. Math on the run is problematic but I tried to calculate finish times. It seemed that I was now off pace for a 7 hour finish but 7:15 was still possible. But where was Chris? If he was having a bad day it would be a long winter for me, listening to his laments until the next big redemption race.
I nearly puked my eighth energy gel of the day and the handful of M&M’s I grabbed at the last water stop left an aftertaste like Elmer’s glue. There is an old adage in ultrarunning that says don’t worry if you start to feel good during a race, it will soon pass.
Despite only a few minutes lost off course, the trail was long and lonely for the next 12 miles. The only people I might pass were those who opted for the 2hr early start and were, for the most part, walking. So despite my idea that running JFK with 1000+ people would make it easier with plenty of runners out there, turns out you still find yourself with only that voice in your head. (Telling you things you don’t want to hear). The Garmin watch had run out of battery, so I had no idea of where I was and how things were. Despite that, I was able to start grinding away. This was probably where the training helped the most. Physically being beaten up, but just keep moving. And soon enough at mile 38 the next station where Barb could be, she let me know I was only a minute behind Bob. (Perhaps I had never been much more than a minute back?) But knowing this energized me, and before too long, on a longer straightaway, I caught sight of a group ahead, one of whom had knees and ankles taped, that I took to be Bob.
Then, without warning, Chris was back. He looked fresh and he added the spark our group needed to get through the final few miles of the towpath. I was redlining, but with 10 miles to go I gambled that it didn’t matter.
The end of the towpath was marked by a return to the roads and a steep climb up to farm country. I tried not to be discouraged by the less than stellar 3:47 marathon split on the towpath. I hung with Chris for a mile or two but it became clear that he could maintain the pace while I was slipping backwards. We met a guy wearing the shirt for the next day’s Philly Marathon. Sung from Jacksonville was doing an impressive 50M / marathon double this weekend. The next day he ran through the Wanderer water stop in Philly wearing his JFK shirt. Ultras are full of wacky stuff like that.
With 8 or so to go, we ran together for a bit, and I had visions of feeding off of each other’s strength, culminating in a glorious Wanderer photo finish sprint.
As I fought through the delirious fatigue of those final miles I pondered life’s deeper questions. Was I having fun? Was 50 miles a good distance for me? Or, was 50K better? Should my next race be 100k or even 100 miles? Had I enjoyed the training, the travel, the people? Was this a goal, or just a journey? Chocolate or vanilla? Boxer or briefs? The miles of trials, the trials of miles.
In the far distance I watched with envy as Chris picked off flagging runners one by one, while I had to settle for just maintaining my place. With five to go I started taking 30 second walk breaks each mile to recharge my batteries. Barb continued her Mr. Deeds impression by appearing again, this time with a camera. I quickened my stride and smiled through the pain. Gradually the cows along the road were replaced by spectators as we ran into the town of Williamsport and finish came into view. People were cheering for a group of three guys with matching uniforms coming up fast behind me but I was too close to let any more places slip away. I found out later they were from the Naval Academy. My finish time was 7:31, 55th place out of 1039 finishers, a distant 3rd among 50 year (very) old men. I was pleased but not thrilled. I did not come close to my unspoken goal of winning my age group but I did run smarter than my last 50.
My Wanderer photo finish proved fantasy after all. Seemingly my peaks and valleys were out of sync with Bob’s and despite my witty banter and bedside manner, I was unable to drag him behind my sorry butt. Needless to say I was quite pleased with my strong finish. With one but one exception, I was not passed in the final 8 miles, but managed to pick off several runners ahead of me. A finish of 7:26 (46th) proved to be all of a minute faster than my only other venture at this distance.
Nine minutes per mile sounds pedestrian but I pushed the pace all day. My speed dropped off a bit towards the end but I was still running hard. Careful planning avoided equipment issues (shoes, orthotics, socks, hydration pack, etc.). I avoided leg cramps with a sensible early pace. If I had posted a few more training miles in the months leading up to the race I might have been able to maintain a better place in the final hour but who knows for sure? Just as likely any additional miles could have caused an injury I would not have had this day at all. In my fortieth year of competitive running, every additional mile is a gift.