In the week prior to JFK I started to check up on the specifics of the course, read about the history of the event and in general tried to gain as much insight into the race as possible. It was during my internet trawling that I found a video interview with RD Mike Spinnler previewing this years 50th running of the event. It was great to learn more about the oldest ultra in North America and as I sat watching my eyes suddenly popped out of my head – a 2:32 female marathoner would be making her ultra debut. Wow! Well that explained why I’d not been able to find Emily Harrison’s name on any Ultrasignup listings and this suddenly put the whole race into a new perspective for me. Generally, I would say the flatter an ultra course, the more it plays to my advantage, but now I feared that the ‘runnable’ nature of the JFK course might be my undoing with Emily having a marathon PR a whole 10 minutes faster than my own. It was going to be a real race for sure and I was glad that it was just one week until race day – no time to make panic adjustments to my training in light of this information, if anything it was more of an incentive to ensure I didn’t sneak in any extra runs during my taper as I knew I’d have to be 100% for November 17th.
The JFK course can be split into three fairly distinct sections. The start is a gradual but decent climb up a road before heading onto the famed Appalachian Trail until approximately mile 15.5. Then, the middle and bulk of the course is a marathon (well 26.3 miles to be exact) on a canal towpath before a final 8.5 miles on rolling country roads to bring racers to the finish line in Williamsport, Maryland.
I’d been lucky enough to receive advice and information from friends with expertise on the course. First, the race is never won on the Appalachian Trail. Second, it’s an ultra, bide your time on the early stages of the towpath as there’s still a lot of miles and time for things to change. Third, on hitting the road section at the end, you are not at the end – it’s still 8.5 miles that can be well used if you still have some gas in the tank.
On the start line count down at 7 am sharp in Boonsboro, I was surprised that none of the men shot out in the lead. In fact, I was close to the lead group, but I knew they would soon pull ahead as the incline began to steepen. Soon, I was treated with the awe-inspiring view of Max King moving toward the front, seeming to climb effortlessly and simply floating up the hill. If you want to witness beautiful running, I’d suggest watching Max run uphill; it’s mesmerizing. Unfortunately for me, Emily Harrison also seemed to have some of this skill and would overtake me every time we hit a incline on the road, only for me to overtake her when we would enter a section of the AT. It was soon evident that I had the advantage on the trail and I would remind myself that the race is never won on the AT, so didn’t hammer hard but seemed to pass quite a few runners, especially on the downhills. What can I say? I live and train in North Vancouver, so this section of the AT seemed pretty tame to me.
I was slightly alarmed to catch Zach Bitter on the descents, especially when he said he was feeling good – uh oh, did that mean I had gone too fast? I needn’t have been concerned, Zach told me that the AT was very technical compared to his Wisconsin training grounds and as soon as we popped onto the flat portion of trail just before the towpath, off he zoomed ahead of me.
After the fun of the AT it was a little intimidating to hit the towpath, to check my Garmin and see 25.5 kms clocked. Okay, run in a straight line, climb a total of about 50 feet until the Garmin clicks over to about 68km. Gulp. I’d told my crew star, David Horton, before that I didn’t mind boring trails. Well, this would be a good test. The towpath is beautiful… but boring. Again, a check of my Garmin – 4:28 for my first kilometer on the towpath – perfect. I’d planned to hit approximately 4:30 per kilometer. If I got under 4:25 per km, I’d told myself I’d back off the pace a little, and if it got up to 4:35 per km, I’d try to pick it up a little, so long as that seemed manageable. After a few miles on the AT and a few men passing me (I knew they would as it had been my trail skills that had got me off the AT ahead of them.) I turned to see Emily zip past me. Okay, I guess I’d known that it was going to happen but she looked cool, calm and cruising. She took what had been my lead cyclist off with her. I felt like I’d been dumped – the lead cyclist had been nice to follow and, now, he and Emily seemed to pull away into the distance and even have a few men around them, whereas I was left tailing behind them on my own. Boo hoo.
Calm Ellie. Keep to that 4:25/ km to 4:35/ km range. Don’t get drawn into a 2:32 marathoner’s pace that you can’t maintain. Play your game and don’t run someone else’s race that you can’t run. Still, it was hard to feel that at about 21 miles in I was already lagging behind.
David Horton was my super-star crew and all day I made only the very briefest of pauses at the frequent aid stations. This, now, became more important than ever, just work from one station to the next, usually about four miles apart and get feedback on how far behind Emily I was. I knew I was not totally falling off the back as the advantage of the towpath was that you could often see quite a way ahead and Emily’s bright outfit rarely went out of my view, even if she didn’t seem to get any closer, either. Still, if she could nail her debut and was leading less than half way through the course then I could be in trouble and I seriously had my work cut out for me. Just when my confidence was beginning to falter a little a trail angel appeared. “Play your game Ellie, you know what you’re doing, you’ve done this before, it’s an ultra.” I have no idea who this sideline supporter was, but his words were exactly what I needed to remind me: I’m the ultra runner out here, I can do this. Thank you, Trail Angel.
But no sooner than I began to feel a little more positive than my stomach began to churn. Really churn. One visit to the port-a-potty, one visit to the bushes, another visit to the bushes. Uh oh. I’d been fueling like usual – Clif gels and my Clif drink, but my stomach didn’t like it today. Okay, I’d have to take a break from fueling and I rather grumpily threw my hydration belt at David at the next aid station, figuring that having that around my waist might not be helping and it wasn’t like I was using any of its contents now anyway. Off I went with one gel and no bottle, though not before Horty called me back and made me drink a little water. Let’s just say, you do as the Doc tells you!
I now resolved to take small amounts of Coke at each of the aid stations and nothing else, I could literally hear my stomach sloshing as I ran and knew I needed to keep getting some fluid and some calories in, but I’d have to baby my stomach as one sip of Coke too much might send it overboard. I thought of my friend Terry who always claims to have done an entire Ironman bike on Coke alone; I just hoped it would work for me too. Despite feeling so awful, I was keeping pace reasonably well and, then, I discovered the wonders of Tums for the first time ever! After a couple of Tums, I began to pick up the pace a little and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Tums saved my race: they settled my stomach so I could get a little more Coke down and so I got out of my fueling slump and even better than that, I was reeling Emily in. Soon after the 31mile/ 50km mark, I snuck past Emily. It was a great mental boost. I had to have my competitive mindset on and I just kept saying to myself, “See? 50km. This is an ultra, this is what you do.” It didn’t do any harm either to get my lead-bike-man back and feel that I was getting stronger and faster with each kilometer.
On exiting the towpath there is a short, steep uphill grunt before hitting the final 8.5 miles of rolling country roads to the finish. Andy Mason had given myself, Max and Ian Sharman a tour of the course the day before and I’d loved the look of this section, and despite now pushing hard I loved it on race day, too. Give me rolling tarmac and Comrades comes to mind and there’s no other race that brings out the competitive spirit in me better than Comrades. So with thoughts of South Africa in my mind, I looked up the road ahead and rather than worry about being caught by Emily, I knew it was time to go out hunting… for a little male carnage.
On the road I think I passed four guys, the last one of whom made the fatal error of telling me that I was now in tenth position overall. There was no way I was going to let him pass me back again, I wanted that top 10 position and I wasn’t going to let up. One final blue t-shirt ahead never got any closer, but I held onto the sight of it like a virtual tow-rope as I now began to strain my eyes for the final few mile markers, just trying to cling onto my pace, not to slow and to get as fast a time as I could. As far back as coming off the AT, I knew I was well up on Devon Yanko’s course-record time, but, now, I was trying to just push, and well maybe, just maybe, get that blue t-shirt. In the end I didn’t get the blue t-shirt, but I did get the course record, and maybe most importantly of all I got to end the 2012 season with a bang and know that I’m definitely an ultrarunner (who would not want to race Emily Harrison in a marathon anytime soon).
[Editor’s Note: Ellie Greenwood set a new women’s JFK 50 Mile course record with a time of 6:11:59 in the 2012 race.]