Everybody has a first race story. This is the story of my first ultramarathon.
Some time ago, I asked The Armoury's Ethan Newton a question about polishing shoes -- an act that he is exceptionally skilled at, and that I had little experience with at the time. The response that he gave was well-measured, the second half of which I find to be incredibly useful advice in a number of areas:
But more than anything, you should enjoy the process. I learnt to polish shoes with a friend who liked to sit around drinking tea and talking all afternoon, so polishing shoes became a good excuse to do that. It should be something you can relax while doing, don’t take it too seriously. Once you get a great shine, inevitably someone will step on your toes, or you’ll kick a chair leg, or something will happen to mar that shine. If you don’t enjoy the process, keeping that shine up is going to be more work than it’s worth.
Allow me to tell you how a friend and I took the time to enjoy the process of running fifty miles together this past Saturday.
Running fifty miles is, on its face, a somewhat surreal proposition; doing so in a part of the country that is seemingly frozen in time has a pronounced additive effect. As we walked to the race's starting line through the small Western Maryland town of Boonesboro, we passed Victorian houses in various states of disrepair. Sidewalks brush up against front porches, and families peek out of their portico windows at the assembling Lycra-clad horde. No words, if any, are exchanged between the passers-by and the townspeople, nor were any acknowledgements -- just a brief glance between those passing through and those staying in town for the long haul.
We made our way past a bank to the starting line and read the time (6:57 AM) and the temperature (-2 ºC / 29 ºF) on the bank's multi-incandescent bulb display. The start is getting close now, and the increasingly dense crowd is buzzing. We pass the barber shop, as fully lit as it was an hour ago when we careened into town down a three mile decline lined with traffic cones.
No announcer was heard at the starting line, though the starter's shot rang out loud and clear. The procedure now was clear: remove jacket, kiss wife, and start the trudge up the hill, crossing the spray-painted starting line and quickly leaving town from the back of the pack. We had begun our fifty mile trek.
After three quarters of a mile we started to climb the hill that we'd driven down not long ago. The crowd began to walk. We slowed to a walk too; following the lead of those around you is often a good call when you don't know what the hell you're doing.
To the left, we saw a reminder that we were doing something much further from normalcy than I initially realized: a barely-standing house with a yard full of what city-dwelling folk like me consider to be junk. On the porch, seven miles north of the Maryland/Virginia border, were three flags: a Maryland state flag, a rebel/POW flag, and a Hello Kitty flag. Here, as 1000 runners attempted to cover 50 miles in 12 hours, we would be operating on a wholly different plane of existence.
The JFK 50 Miler is a race with a rich history, this year's running being the 50th consecutive race since President Kennedy called on Americans for a return to physical fitness, hearkening back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Put differently: this race is, in many ways, an institution. Based on what I heard during the race, it seemed like a healthy majority of the racers were repeat runners (around Mile 5, we ran near a woman and man discussing the fact that only one of them remembered that particular part of the course, and they were each running their third attempt).
The large number of repeat runners make for a familial atmosphere about the race: you may be new to the race, but she'll treat you well and we'll see you again soon. The race is staffed by what seemed to be local volunteers, many whom may have run the race before -- but your confusion at the race check-in is not endearing, young man.
The people of the race include more than just those participating and staffing the race: they include the barber, wistfully glancing out his full-length storefront windows at the start; the old man wearing a canvas jacket standing roadside in the dark neither cheering nor clapping, just... watching, waiting for the invading horde to disperse and life to return to its normal pace; the twenty-somethings at mile 43, with a large hand-made sign reading 'HUGS, FOOD, BEER'; the ghosts of those who fought and died at Sharpsburg and South Mountain 150 years ago.
JFK is a race from a long gone era; registration applications are sent in by mail. The views from Boonesboro to Williamsport have not changed much over the past 50 years, and it's likely that's by design.
Like any first attempt at a futher-than-ever-run-before race, I spent nearly as many hours questioning my preparation, my motives, my sanity, and my ability to complete the distance as I did training. Signing up for an ultramarathon was a logical extension of my running habit, but was also a decision with an uncharacteristic tinge of bravado that I still haven't really come to fully accept.
The idea to run came as so many of my poorly-developed ideas do: at the end of a late night of drinking with friends. After that night the idea went into hibernation, sitting dormant in some rarely-used filing cabinet in my brain, until it came time to register and my friend posted a simple message online at the end of April -- "Need some help folks. Should I sign up for the 50th annual JFK 50 miler?" -- and then, suddenly, the idea was very real and very time-sensitive.
And so we signed up -- and in doing so, we committed to the race and (by my best approximation) did 90% of the work needed to finish the race.
We spent our race day drinking Gatorade, water, and Coca-Cola. We ate pretzels and potato chips, energy gels and jelly beans. More than anything, we spent our time talking, first while traipsing up and along the crest of South Mountain, our feet tap-tap-tapping along the rocky outcroppings in an attempt to avoid falling down (neither of us fell, though I tripped five times and nearly rolled my ankle three). Some runners were less lucky than we were: a runner five or six people behind us tripped and fell face-first into a tree at Mile 15.
From there, we navigated down switchbacks onto level ground and had a brief chat with our support crew. Then we were off to the C&O Towpath Trail, an impressively flat trail that runs next to the skeleton of the never-finished Canal around big sweeping bends in the Potomac River. It was along this trail -- between long-abandoned locks and alternating stretches of canal filled with either mucky water or fifty year-old trees -- that we ran 26 consecutive miles. This was stretch where our race was truly decided, where it became clear to me after Mile 30 that we would finish the race before the 12 hour mark.
The final crew stop at Mile 38 brought a surprise: my running partner's family came out to cheer us on, and his 16-year old nephew would join us for the final 12 miles. This gave us a fresh set of legs which we could rely on to acclimate to our pace and lead us on. The final three hours of our race were spent with an extra traveler, one who was also on the longest run of their life and would be spent by the finish.
The section of race between the Towpath and the finish line meanders through the hills south of Williamsport, rolling along between subdivisions, pig farms, and stone fences. One or two towns come along the way, their inhabitants staffing the aid stations and sheriffs directing traffic. Here, our race was split nearly evenly into walking the inclines and "running" the descents and flats. The final aid station, 1.4 miles from the finish, was staffed by Frostburg State students too concerned with blasting Slayer to tell us what beverages were in which cups.
Following this station, we headed down an exit ramp, under I-81, and into Williamsport. There are few things a runner can hear that sound better than the sound of a finish line announcer over a PA system; it was there among the broken beer bottles on the side of MD Route 68 that we first heard the finish line calling us home. A few minutes later we made our way through the tunnel of spectators, up the hill, and into the lights at the finish.
Our day of enjoying each other's company and conversation lasted 11 hours, 28 minutes.
My previously-focused brain relaxed immediately following the race, allowing my body to succumb to the abuse I'd subjected it to. This resulted in vomiting on the side of Interstate 270 on our way back towards home. Soon after, a hesitant survey of the wreckage: no blisters, two minorly chafed spots, and a few cuts resulting from a tumble off the trail due to an errant spectator. Following the greatest shower I've ever taken and a short car ride back home, I headed to the bar for a friend's birthday. Three beers and three waters later, I took the Metro home and called it a night. Sleep can be illusory when exhausted; it is impossible when every movement is excruciating.
The 30 hours that I was awake following the race were quite possibly the most painful of my life. Every new attempt at movement was met with severe resistance from my muscles. Once moving the pain wasn't so bad, but it took twenty steps or so to loosen things up. On Monday, I was able to walk up the stairs without leaning on the bannister and come down stairs one step at a time. By Tuesday, I was walking without a limp.
Today, four days after the race, I'm pain-free aside from some tendon inflammation in my foot. The human body is as resilient as the mind is foolish.
There's something particularly romantic about the JFK 50 Miler, though I can't quite pin it down. Little of the race has changed over the years, largely due to the fact that the race doesn't need to be changed. The Appalachian Trail is rocky, unforgiving, and demands your attention. The C&O Towpath is as uneventful as it is beautiful: there, among the caves and hills surrounding the Potomac River, I found a sense of calm and comfort amidst the monotony provided by running until it's unbearable, walking, and then running again. The last eight miles weave up and down through farms that could be any rural swath of America. And there at the finish were hundreds of my closest friends ready to greet me, give me a medal, and then congratulate me with the understanding that someday I'll be back.
It's comforting to know that in ten years the race will still be held as it was this year and that the registration will probably still be done by mail. The barber shop light will still be on just before the gun rings out. If the crowd is lucky, there'll still be beer at Mile 43.