I’ll be honest, I came into this race feeling pretty confident. I mean, after UROC (iRF interview) I had a good reason to, but I definitely had to temper that feeling of invincibleness with the fact that both my other attempts at 50 miles had ended in a death slog to the finish. They were two and three years ago and I feel like I’ve learned a lot since then, but it’s still daunting to A) run something you’ve never run before and B) run for 50 freakin’ miles. That’s a long way, I don’t care if you are Karl Meltzer.
The field assembled for the JFK 50 meant that I would most certainly have to have a race similar to UROC and that the winner would have to break the course record… again. Listening to the pre-race banter (since I’d never run the course, I was paying attention to anyone who was willing to talk), breaking that record again was going to take a very special race and a huge effort, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Luckily, I was ready for a good hard race.
Training had gone well, no injuries, good recovery after UROC, lots of hills and some good 20-25-milers on the road at below race pace. I tapered the last two weeks, which I’ve found really cutting down miles these last two weeks prior to a big race like this is a key to success, for me anyway. Based on all of that data, I knew a good fast race under 5:40 was possible but as with any race, especially one at a distance you never really train at, there are a lot of unknowns late in the race. Would my body hold out at 45 miles? Turns out, not really, but it was still enough.
We left Boonesboro at 7 am to the sound of Roosevelt’s starters pistol at a good clip, but somewhat more conservative than I expected. Up we climbed on the road to the AT. Once on the AT, I held a small, 30-second lead on David Riddle and the rest of the field. Further down the AT I lost that lead in a pit stop, but David was the only one cruising along down the rocky, technical trail. I was a bit surprised not to have anyone else in that lead pack at such an early stage of the race, but the AT really has that effect of breaking up that pack. It’s a trail that is super runnable, but following too closely to a runner and all of a sudden a wayward angled rock has you careening off through the leaves and briars of the forest. The tough part of the AT isn’t the elevation, it’s the hidden, off-angle rocks that throw your body off balance at the most inopportune times, forcing more energy expenditure than that pace should require.
Riddle and I fell into our positions (David leading, me following 20 meters back) for the remainder of the AT. A very cool, crisp morning was taking more out of me than I wanted and I was wishing for an extra layer on my legs. It was a beautiful morning though. Relaxing into the pace, we ran along the ridgeline just inside the protection of the forest with all the summer leaves laid down on the trail, the sun coming up over the rise to our trail left slightly warming the air, and our visible breath flowing out and behind with every passing step.
With only Riddle in sight, I knew that hitting the towpath meant a long, lonely run for as long as I could manage. David is good on the technical trail of the AT, and he’s got fantastic endurance, so I knew that I would have to use my efficiency on flats and work on my lead during the 26.3 miles we would be cruising on the towpath. If I waited, I would most likely still crumble a bit in the last 8 miles and lose to him or someone (like 2:12 marathoner Trent Briney) who would come up from behind, steal the lead, and cruise to the finish. I used this as my opportunity to rely on the road training I’ve put in to keep a consistent 6:00-6:10 pace down the towpath. It felt good to cruise, even easy at that pace for most of it. I knew what was coming though. With each passing mile the legs fatigued a bit more and I only hoped that after holding pace for 26 miles that the last 8 would not mean my imminent demise. I had calculated out that after a 1:54 split from the start to the towpath and a 2:40-2:45 split to the road, I would need just about a 1-hour split over the last 8.4 miles to still break the record and give me a small cushion. If I hung on for the record, well, then someone was going to have to absolutely crush the race to beat me, in which case, more power to them and my hats off to their performance, or I would fall apart and then I feel like someone should beat me anyway.
I hit the 26.3-mile split coming off the towpath at 2:44. Just right. The last 8.4 proved to be as miserable as I had expected. You start the 8.4 with a swift kick to the nuts in the form of a 200-meter sharp uphill that feels more like Mt. Everest than a short, 200-meter hill. After running 26 miles at a good clip then suddenly forcing your muscles to power up a short hill, there really isn’t much left.
All I needed to manage was 7-minute pace or so to the finish. Focus, focus, focus. Once up the hill, I began clicking off the miles rather painfully, but still at a decent clip. 7:09, uh oh, but then I got going again, 6:26, 6:21, 6:36, 6:50, uh oh. It’s okay, just keep going, I have a cushion I had to keep telling myself. At this point in a 50 miler I would normally be well into my death march, so the fact that I made it this far before starting to fall apart was actually pretty good. Success! Then I thought I would decline into oblivion but instead I was 6:40, 6:51, 6:50. I never even went over 7 minutes in any of the last 7 miles. Looking back now, I’m pretty darn happy about that. Yes, I slowed down, but being able to still hold it to a reasonable pace is a lot better than some of my other races.
The finish line was one of the sweetest sights. I stopped just short of the finish to savor the last few steps, or maybe it just hurt too bad to keep going and I knew that I’d made it. Plopping into a chair, being handed a cold one, and just able to sit is the best thing in the world. I was running scared the last half of the race from Riddle and didn’t even know it was Trent Briney that was gaining the most ground until the last couple miles. Even though I didn’t see them, they pushed me to the time. Those kinds of performance don’t happen often and they don’t happen without some great competition to raise the bar. So my thanks and congrats go out to the other competitors including Trent and David. And, of course, Ellie, who will continue to make all the boys look bad. I think it was David Horton who said to me tongue in cheek, “you know, your performance really wasn’t as good as Ellie’s, she was 18 minutes under the record.” Shown up again, thanks Ellie. That’s a pretty good day for Montrail.