A year ago I stepped up to what many regard as a ‘real’ ultramarathon; 50 miles. The race to me was simply known as JFK. I have since learned much of its history. It is the oldest 50 mile foot race in USA, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and implemented by President Kennedy in 1963 to make sure all military officers were fit for war. The course has stayed the same each year since. Starting out in the small town of Boonsboro, MD, the race is 15.5 miles of road climbing and Appalachian Trail (AT), just over a marathon on the C&O canal towpath and ending with 8 miles of rolling road hills into Williamsport, MD. I learned a lot from my first 50 in 2011, mostly don’t assume your body will keep going without fueling or pacing! I was however ecstatic with my 7 hours 13 minutes and 33rd overall. How could I not be? It was a PR!
I returned to this historic race for precisely that reason. This year was the 50th running of the oldest 50 mile race in the country. I signed up in Spring for one of the 1,000 places against 10,000 people and was lucky to get a place. I think I put about six stamps on my envelope come to think about it, just to make sure I had paid enough postage and maybe it would get there even quicker!
Race Day: November 17th 2012
I woke up at 5am to temperatures just above freezing that would rise to a high of 52. Perfect running conditions. First, great weather in Leadville (no thunderstorms), then Chicago (no heat) and now JFK. The weather gods have been kind to me this year. Walking the half mile from Boonsboro school to the start line on the main street bundled up in five layers, I had the intention of starting the race with a long-sleeve top over my Brooks ID singlet and wear hat and gloves. I scanned what over runners were wearing and decided to scrap my extra layers and go singlet and sleeves from the start. A final pre-race blood test had me at 240. My glucose had risen from 143 at breakfast. Not ideal and a slight miscalculation of bolus intake. I already had my hand-held bottle filled with Gatorade which I now wished was just water. I poured half of it away, upset with myself for not having water to replace it with and/or having a better starting blood glucose. Probably both. I increased my basal rate on my insulin pump and knew I could get water at aid stations to stay hydrated. I would figure it out, I always seem too.
The great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt fired the starter pistol to get us under way at 7am sharp. I sat right behind the two favorites; Max King and David Riddle before they quickly pushed up to the very front. As the top 25 of us quickly took off from the main pack, I immediately wished I had kept my gloves as the cold wind rushed over my hands.
The pace was fast, faster than I had thought possible. 7:02 at mile 1. I had studied my Garmin data from JFK 2011 and knew I was too aggressive in the first half of the race which led to a breakdown in the second half with cramps through miles 32-38. So why was I running a 7-minute mile?! In my defense, the start of the race is a good time to jockey for position before the trail section and road miles are always going to be quicker than trails.
My plan for this year’s race was 8:30 average pace through the first 15 miles and 7:30’s for the last 35. This would equate to a 6 hour 30 minute race. Plan B was: 6:43. Why so precise? A 30 minute improvement from 2011 sounded nice and Plan C was to go sub-7 hours. My training seven weeks post-Chicago consisted of not much training. Rest had become the new mileage. My longest run had been 16 easy miles.
We soon climbed steeply for a mile and jumped onto the first section of trail. As the sun rose on my left, the shining light flickered through the trees making it hard to see the trail but at the same time, was one of those beautiful images that remind you why you are a runner. This trail section was fairly wide and still a frenetic pace for 50 miles. An aid station appeared so I grabbed a cup of water as planned to balance out the effort of the first few miles.
We hit a road section again, in the woods now, and climbed again, this time steeper to get to the highest point of the course. Ellie Greenwood was a few yards ahead of me and I studied her as she chose when to run and when to walk the hill. I copied her. My average pace had fallen to 10/min miles but I trusted what I was doing. This is the two-time Western States 100 champion as well as numerous other amazing achievements in the sport. Others around her chose to run the whole way up. I knew I would see the majority of these people again before the race was over.
A familiar looking volunteer from last year pointed at a narrow gap into the woods and I now knew we were onto the magical AT section for 10 miles. This is by far the toughest part of the course, not because of elevation changes but the jagged rocks buried under and around large brown leaves. The pace now fell into that 8:30 range but the energy expenditure felt like 7:30’s. As tough as it I say it was, it is and will always be the most fun part too.
I joined forces with a familiar face, Derek Schultz on the AT, a fellow Brooks ID runner with a very strong ultra background (Laurel Highlands Ultra course record holder). He bombed the downhills and I caught him on the flats as we shared stories for a few miles. We passed the JFK 50 legend Eric Clifton in his trademark outrageous running tights (neon pink this year) and Derek chatted to him while I closed the gap on a pack of three ahead.
I tagged on the back and we became a solid four, staying in order passing the early 5am starters. The last few miles of AT are where the rocks get trickier as your brain gets more tired. It’s also a place that has put a nice dent in my right shin for life from my fall last year.
Just as I thought to myself I may just get off this trail without falling, down I went at the feet of two men from the 5am start. They were staring straight down at me as I moaned in some serious pain. One of them said to the other “That one looked like it really hurt” as if they had been hanging out at the third corner of NASCAR all day comparing car crashes.
They were right. That one did really hurt. My left foot got tucked under a rock and down I went hard on my right side, my right knee connecting perfectly with a rock embedded on the trail waiting to cut me open. I very gingerly got up and got handed my water bottle that must have flown off course during the downfall. I looked down to see if the pain was actually warranted and saw a nice line of claret over the notch of my tibia and was relieved. I mean, if you’re going to fall and moan about it, you want to see proof it hurt right! I hobbled, I walked and finally I ran again and slowly got back into my stride, relived it had not been any worse.
At 14.5 miles, I was now functioning like nothing had happened back there. I descended the steep Weverton Cliffs switchbacks down to the Potomac River. A 1,000ft drop in less than a mile. There were lots of 5am runners in this section so I had to communicate well to get by without any more drama. If the switchbacks had a tree on the inside, I grabbed it and swung around the turn without losing too much speed. Clearly the fall, had not hurt my confidence.
I heard lots of cheers below and soon ran through a large crowd of spectators including Michael Chu as I got close to the C&O canal towpath section. At the aid station prior to this 26.3 mile stretch of flat monotonous running was Tiffany, being a trooper running around Maryland all day supporting me. She greeted me with a huge smile and handed me my blood tester. I pricked my finger, blood strip already set up and got my reading: 275. 27…what?
My glucose went up after 15.5 miles? I filled my water bottle with water and kept on going. I analyzed in my head why 275. I had thought that maybe on the trail I was going low around miles 10-13 so knocked back two gels, which in hindsight I never needed. I readjust my basal level from -60% to -20% and would see where my glucose was again at mile 27.
I checked my average pace for the first third of the race; 8:25. Just faster than I had planned but I was happy with that. Now was time to get into my faster stride. I was hitting 7:38 average for the first few miles of the canal. Not quite the 7:30’s I would need for Plan A but it was still early in the race and I found my pace to be manageable. The most important thing was not to run a mile faster than 7:30 even though I felt good. I passed a pair of runners who made a comment “The race doesn’t start until mile 30”. It made me think. I actually put that in my head but changed it to mile 35. I still remember how quickly the body can fall apart from miles 30-35 with that ‘still X miles to go’ mentality.
Just shy of marathon distance, I saw a deer ahead on the canal path. I’ve always enjoyed seeing them while out on the trail. As I got closer, I waited for the deer to see me and bolt but it never did. I ran around it giving the guy some space but clearly not enough as it begun to follow me and then decided to chase me! When did deer ever chase humans! My pace went into marathon mode for a few yards until it either felt sorry for me or just got bored with this running thing.
I then teamed up with a human. We chased each other back and forth but not like the deer. We decided it would be easier to say hi, acknowledge we were running the same pace and run together. He (Nick), like many others in the race was part of the military, based at West Point, NY. We ran into a main aid station at 27 to lots of cheers, still chatting away. Tiffany was there again, ready to help me with my blood test; 250. Well, going down but still not low enough to start really eating much. I gave her my handheld water bottle, no need for that anymore as now aid stations were frequent along the canal path (every 4 miles or so) and I was carrying gels in my compression short pockets anyway (if I would ever need them), so I didn’t need to be lugging around Gatorade on heavy arms. Tiffany told me we were in 26th and 27th place.
I caught back up to Nick and we carried on at our pace. We discussed our JFK races from last year, both with similar stories of good but not great performances. He was way ahead of his time goal so when he stopped to take an S-cap and said he would catch me back up and never did, I wasn’t too surprised.
I hit 50K and knew the next few miles would be the toughest mentally. There would be aid at mile 34 and the next main one at 38. The aid station at mile 34 never seemed to come as the long left bend around the Potomac River just kept on going and going with no one in sight. I almost wanted to see another deer! My pace was now slipping towards the 8 minute mark and I wasn’t feeling great. I knew I wasn’t going to cramp like last year; I had been taking two S-Caps on the hour like clockwork. It was my sugar. This time, I knew it for a fact. I could feel the symptoms of a hypo, not just the effort of running 34 miles. I finally saw a dozen Santa and elf hats and an area decorated in tinsel. What a great sight! A volunteer asked what I wanted and I said “Everything!” I grabbed two cups of Coke, M&M’s, orange slices, pretzel sticks and some cookies. I told them, this was the best aid station on the course. Partly because it was decked out for Christmas but also because mile 34 of 50 miles sucks! It’s far enough into the race that you’re really hurting but still too far enough from the finish, you can’t get too excited about it being ‘almost’ over. I played games in my head; 8 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. ‘Lets go’ I told myself.
I left the aid station swiftly and munched on the food. I had three cookies left. I ate one but quickly realized I was not carrying any more liquid. Their was no way I could eat the other two cookies without getting a really dry throat. I decided to keep them by putting one in each of my short pockets. I don’t know why I did this, I had gels on standby if need be but laughed to myself as I felt like the Cookie Monster taking on the JFK50! Churning out these mid-30’s miles was real agony. I knew a 6:30 finish time was off the table now but as I turned a corner onto a long straight away, I saw a great sight; three runners way ahead. I knew I would eventually get to them. This image gave me new energy. Seeing them and my mile 34 aid station intake made me feel so much better. The pace came back to 7:35-40 and I closed the gap gradually. Eventually I passed them and knew I was now closing in on the top 20 of the JFK50. This became a new goal in itself, one that I did not plan or think about at all pre-race.
I kept my placing but felt my energy and pace dip again as the final aid station on the C&O canal path was not too far away. I pulled out one of the cookies from my shorts and ate it with an energy gel, about 50 grams of simple and complex carbs as one. My mistake of experiencing two hypos close together was that I had tweaked my basal rate of insulin between miles 27-38 and I had been too aggressive to bring my glucose level down.
At the aid station, Tiffany asked how I was doing. My reply was negative for the first time “I’m so tired”. Rightly so, 38 miles is, well 38 miles. But it wasn’t the distance. My glucose was 90. Proof that I had been fighting hypos. I took a Gatorade from her and downed it in seconds and grabbed some Jelly Belly Sport Beans.
I pushed on but still didn’t feel great. The third place woman passed me and I watched her as she ran with an effortless stride (unlike me). I realized she was hurting too, just not showing it. I kept her in sight and as my glucose rose from the Gatorade and sport beans, my body felt better and I noticed on my watch that there were now only 10 miles left. That’s nothing, I said! 2 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. Dig deep. And I did. 7:09, 7:07 for the last two canal path miles.
I had caught back up and re-passed her, promising her beer and pizza at the end for helping me. By keeping her in sight, we had both closed the gap on some other runners who were now also behind us. One of which was third place runner Jeff Buechler from last years 2011 JFK. I felt bad for him, his leg must have blown up or something to be this far back from the leaders.
My pace was now really going up in gear. My glucose felt like it was back to normal and I was about to hit the last section of the course; the rolling asphalt hills. The part I like to forget, is the immediate climb off the C&O canal path which is 200m of pure agony. Your pace goes from hare to tortoise as you clamber up it. I didn’t dare look at my heart rate data but I’m sure it was close to max. I reached the crest with no desire to go any further until I saw a runner ahead. As I ran along the farm roads, one turn then showed me that after him there was no one left to catch. With under 8 miles to go, I was convinced this would be my last place to take. I contemplated sitting on him until one mile to go but quickly realized he was suffering far worse than me so passed by, wished him well and I truly felt sorry for him even though we had over a 10K to go. I asked him if anyone was ahead. He said no. Why would he have said yes? He knew it would only motivate me to kick on. Smart runner, dumb question from me.
I crested a hill as I opened the gap on him. He was right, no one. Just me and the road and an excruciating 7 miles to go! I chose the 8.5 road miles to think of my uncle and his battle with cancer using each mile as a year of his fight. It really helped me because I was absolutely exhausted. I went past an aid station and grabbed a cup of Gatorade to top up my glucose level. I refused to have another hypo now and didn’t care so much if I went the other way. I even threw away my last cookie like a pro cyclist would throw away a water bottle before a big climb. Every ounce mattered to me. I’m pretty sure looking back, that throwing the cookie away didn’t do anything for me!
For the first and only time on the course, we had mile markers. They were traditional wooden blocks by the side of the road with the number of miles to go. All on my own and ready to be done, all I wanted, was to see the next one with a 6 on it. As I closed in on the mile 6 board, the wind knocked it over on its back as I ran past. I laughed at that one. This was exactly how I felt! I hadn’t looked at my watch for a while. My pace at this point was what it was, meaning I had no more speed to give. It was just under 8-min pace which I knew would put me around 6:43 finish time (Plan B goal). I focused hard to remain sub-8 minute pace.
With 5 miles to go, I noticed a guy in the distance running on an adjoining road. He looked the part. Light shoes, skinny, skimpy shorts. The tell-tale signs of a fast runner. He joined the race road and ran ahead of me. After having some time to really think about this ironic scenario, genius me realized he was not a random runner, he was the next guy ahead of me! I had to assume he went the wrong way or took a pit stop. Either way, I was on his heels and soon he was another one behind me.
I turned right in between a row of small houses and saw a police car stopping traffic. I knew this was mile 46. I also knew I wasn’t going to see Tiffany here but really wanted too. This pain was really getting unbearable now. Then, of course she jumped into the street cheering me on. It was awesome. My energy was again lifted and the road was now coned off to traffic with the final 4 mile stretch.
At three miles to go, I hit another long straight and I could see three more runners ahead. One was Ian Torrence who I had run with in the pack of 4 back on the AT, hours earlier. I had to pinch myself that I was going to maybe catch this guy. He is a few years older and maybe not his old speed but this guy is a real name in ultra running.
And so it was, I chalked off more guys. My plan to not run hard early and blow up was working. My tank was close to empty but I had been slowly improving my place for most of the race. I had not been passed properly since early in the AT section.
I climbed a sweeping hill to the final aid station at the top. I remembered this and knew I was one mile shy of the end…until the volunteer shouted “1.5 miles to go!” Oh well. What’s half a mile over 50.2 miles right? I turned left to roll downhill on a main road and glanced to my left to see the last person I had passed way back and no threat to me now. I could have eased off the pace at this point and kept my place but I knew I was close to a 6:40 finish time. I made that my mission as I clocked off a 7:10 mile 49.
I climbed a slight hill on the final straight and saw the finish in the far distance. What a sight! I pushed all the way home and made it; 6:40:38 an average pace of 8 minute miles. I had just taken 33 minutes off last year’s time. What a difference a year makes in my short ultra running career.
I got helped over to a chair by the finish line where I got to celebrate with Tiffany and was also greeted to another familiar face; ultra runner Mark Rodriguez, who came out to watch. I did a post-run blood test for the first time in the comfort of sitting down; 123. A man stood over us and said “I like to see those numbers” explaining further that he was a doctor. We agreed. It was the first good one of the day!
I walked into the Williamsport school to go and take a shower. I hid from the first aid medics that would have loved to play with my gashed knee (I learnt my lesson from this last year!), chat with Ellie Greenwood (by far the best female ultra runner in the world right now) who enjoyed the fact that my last name was England like no tomorrow and met with Max King and David Riddle too. Top ultra runners but better still, top people who genuinely care about their fellow runners as much as they care about their own performances. JFK next year? Maybe. I prefer the mountains to flat courses. If I do go back, I have to consider breaking into the Top 10 males as my goal. We will see. With this much fun and support on the course, why not? For now, rest and more rest before my inaugural race for Team Type 1 in the California International Marathon on December 2nd.