On the Rebound: JFK 50 Mile Race Report

I came back from Doha and the 50k World Champs feeling deflated. I knew there was nothing I could have done to change the outcome, but I was beating myself up just the same. I finished 16th but it might as well have been last. It felt like last.

Since my lungs were the problem in Qatar, my legs came out of it frustratingly fine. A 31-mile training run with 12 miles at uptempo pace and 19 miles at an easy pace simply added to my fitness. That definitely pissed me off. It was something in the air in Doha that set off the asthma — the prevailing theory being that it’s allergy-induced, not exercise-induced – so I didn’t think it was likely to happen again anytime soon. I still have no inhaler, though I understand that it’s a priority for me to get one just in case.

What to do next? I mentally flirted with the idea of doing something Mike Wardian-esque and hopping on the next flight to Maryland. I knew it had the potential to be a truly terrible idea, and frankly, that’s part of what attracted me to it. If I could race well when I shouldn’t, there would be something satisfying and redeeming about that. There would be no hype, no pressure, just me out doing what I love on a beautiful fall day.

Without any fixed ideas about it, I mentioned it to my husband on Wednesday morning, casually, over coffee. Hey, maybe I should run JFK?

When is it, he asked?

On Saturday, I said.

He looked at me. So, you’d have to leave…?

Tomorrow, I mumbled into my mug.

Dang it, he knows me too well. Snuggling with my boys on the sofa watching movies wasn’t going to make me feel better about my running. And I needed to feel better about my running. You should do it, he said.

Next, I talked to my coach. Surely he would talk me down? But I guess after a year of working together he’s got a decent handle on what makes me tick. A $283 Southwest booking later, a thumbs-up from the RD, Mike Spinnler, and just 4 days after returning from Doha, I made the trek back down to LAX, Maryland-bound.

There’s something incredibly refreshing about going into a race with no expectations. I’ve been wanting to run the JFK 50 miler ever since I heard about it. Being the oldest ultramarathon in the US, it’s steeped in history. Women (and men) that have been the source of countless personal inspiration have run the course. It used to be part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, with golden tickets giving the passholders entry into the enormously coveted Western States. In 2012, JFK featured an epic battle between legendary ultrarunner Ellie Greenwood at the peak of her racing form and ultra-newcomer and 2:32 marathoner, Emily Harrison. While Ellie ultimately prevailed, both broke the previous course record.

The race brochure highlighted the top women's performances, which read like something of a who's-who list of ultrarunners.

The race brochure highlighted the top women’s performances, which reads like something of a who’s-who list of ultrarunners.

The race starts out with a 15.5 mile section run mostly on the sometimes-rocky Appalachian Trail (known as the “AT”). My feet haven’t touched this kind of surface in a long time. It took me back to the origins of my deep love for trail running. There aren’t a lot of trails like this in California that I know of, but Santa Rosa’s Annadel State Park has 44 miles of them and I once knew practically every inch. Technical rolling singletrack with some fast sections and others that make you happy just to remain upright.

Featuring 1200 ft of elevation gain in the first 5.5 miles, the JFK course doesn’t start out gently. I was out of practice, but in the cool, crisp East coast air with golden brown leaves falling all around me, I was in heaven. This is my kind of trail.

On the AT: Photo coutesy of Paul Encarnacion

On the AT: Photo courtesy of Paul Encarnacion

I was careful not to get too carried away, unsure how my legs would feel later in the race following a 50k on the other side of the world just eight days before. Also, I hadn’t trained for a 50 miler, and other than Doha, had not run longer than a marathon since June’s Western States 100 miler. Determined to keep things aerobically comfortable, I chatted to the runners around me. Towards the end of the AT section, I asked the runner behind if he’d run the race before. Yep, he said, this is my 22nd time. I swung around. Oh, hi Ian! I said. (Ian Torrence was completing his 200th ultra that day, an absolutely outstanding achievement).

I cautiously picked my way down the steep Weverton Cliffs, which decline around 1000ft during the course of one heavily switch-backed, rocky and leafy mile. I recall having flashbacks to last year’s TNF 50 miler and the ensuing dental work. Once clear and onto the flat towpath, it was time to lock into a groove and cruise. For as much as I loved the trail, the towpath is where I knew I would run the strongest. I wasn’t sure going in what pace would be sustainable over that 26.3 mile stretch, but my coach Mario had assured me I’d soon find it. It took a mile or so, but I worked my way into a rhythm and was happy to see each mile split reflecting a consistent effort, anywhere from ~6:55 to 7:15 pace along the entire length of the towpath. (I averaged 7:09/mile on this section, faster than all but five other competitors, all of them guys!).

I felt confident that I had to be catching the lead runner, Leah Frost. I thought she would come back to me since this was her first 50 mile race and she lead from the start. I kept expecting to see her in the distance up ahead. Even though race splits show that I put a couple of minutes on her on the towpath, what I didn’t know was the damage was already done: she ran 11 minutes faster than me on the initial 15.5 mile AT section. My hat’s off to her for putting together an outstanding race, running the third fastest time in race history and ultimately finishing almost 9 minutes ahead of me.

The final 8+ mile road section started with a killer hill, reminding me of a shorter Bath Road-type incline from the Western States course. After that, it was relentless rollers all the way to the finish, none of which amounted to much, but at this stage in the game they certainly took their toll. It felt like I was crawling along, but was surprised to see that I was still running 7:30-7:40 pace.

I did some quick math and realized I was within striking distance of Meghan Arbogast’s Masters Course Record from 2011. Now, Meghan is an impressive runner in her own right completely outside of her age, and it stands to be said that she ran this course record when she was 50 years old. I am truly in awe of this accomplishment. At this point in the race, I knew third was not close and first was too far ahead to catch, so this kind of time goal is exactly what I needed to keep the legs turning over. I’d been following a male runner (who later introduced himself as David Lantz) for many miles along this final road stretch when I realized that I had less than 13 minutes left to cover 1.5 miles if I wanted to claim that record. It was within reach, but I needed a final mental and physical push. I called out to the runner, telling him I could snag the record, knowing that if I voiced it out loud I was committed to a trip to the pain cave to get it done. He picked up the pace and I followed suit, but I soon flagged as it was just too fast for me to keep up. He called out “COME ON!!” and I doubled-down, finishing a short distance behind (thank you Dave!). It made for an exciting end to the race and I came across the line in 6:32, shaving three minutes off the Masters course record and running the 8th fastest women’s time in course history.

In the finishing chute. Photo: Amy Race

In the finishing chute. Photo: Amy Race

When I got back to the host hotel, the staff saw me hobble in with my trophy and promptly gave me a free bottle of wine. Never have I been so thrilled about a bottle of Sutter Home Chardonnay!

Unsurprisingly, chardonnay and mint chocolate chip ice cream don't pair well. But I went there anyway.

Unsurprisingly, chardonnay and mint chocolate chip ice cream don’t pair well. But I went there anyway.

Thank you to my sponsors:

  • Nike Trail: I wore the Lunar Tempo shoes for this race
  • VFuel: I ate about 14 salted Caramel Apple gels along the way. The first 10 were super yummy 😉
  • Victory Sportdesign: they’ve got my gear-bag needs covered
  • … and a shout-out for the support of Picky Bars and Petzl, who fuel me and light the way

Thanks to the RD, Mike Spinnler and all the race personnel who were welcoming and accommodating at every turn as well as the wonderful volunteers, without whom this race could not take place – you are the unsung heros and I’m so very grateful for you.

img_4042

Gratuitous sponsor pic

3 thoughts on “On the Rebound: JFK 50 Mile Race Report

  1. Hi Caroline. My name is George Banker and I am doing a story on the JFK (I have completed it 7 times and not in your league). I did not have an email address to reach you. I am requesting your permission to use some of your posting for my story. Thanks in advance. Author of “Marine Corps Marathon A Running Tradition”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s