After 20 years and 92 ultras, events in my life finally allowed me to participate in the historic JFK 50 Mile last Saturday. While I was certainly not in racing shape, the opportunity to run this iconic event was simply too much to resist. So, it was with the eager excitement of a newbie ultrarunner that I toed the line of the 52nd annual race from Boonsboro to Williamsport in Western Maryland.
The night before I had the honor of being hosted by race director and two-time JFK champion Mike Spinnler at the annual Legends Dinner. There, along with about 100 others, I had the pleasure of hearing 19 time-finisher and legendary ultrarunner Ian Torrence deliver a passionate and emotional speech about the importance of the JFK to him and the ways in which the race has shaped him as a runner and as a person over two decades. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the inspiration of the moment.
Race morning dawned clear and cold as over 1,000 runners dashed out of town on the rolling roads of Boonsboro. As many people know, the JFK 50 course consists of three distinct sections. Over the first 16 miles, runners traverse a rather rugged section of the storied Appalachian Trail. Then, after a bone-jarring descent to the Potomac River, section two takes runners 26.3 miles up the C&O Canal towpath past Harpers Ferry and into the outskirts of Hagerstown. There, the towpath gives way to relentlessly rolling paved roads over the 8.4 miles of section three. From my perspective, the most unique aspect of the JFK is the course. Truly, it is a raw test of a runner’s versatility and adaptability.
I really enjoyed a relaxing couple hours on the AT. I found the trail surface manageable and was pleasantly surprised by the several areas where the views were, quite simply, spectacular. Once on the towpath, I felt it was time to get down to business. Clearly, this is a section of the race that can lull one to sleep but also a place that tests the mental mettle of even the most experienced ultrarunner. I found myself really enjoying the towpath as I was able to settle into a flow state that is often the most transcendent aspect of ultrarunning. And, while the towpath has certainly earned its mind-numbing reputation, I honestly believe that every ultrarunner should experience it once as it has a lure and mystique that is palpable. Finally, rolling off the towpath and onto the roads into town, I felt the familiar twinge of fatigue that over six hours on the run always causes. I hit the finish line in under eight hours and vowed to return one day in shape to race.
The JFK 50 has all the hallmarks of a classic American ultramarathon: a long history, unique course, passionate race director, competitive tradition, and a loyal volunteer crew. The aid stations of JFK, in particular, are world class as each running club seems to strive to outdo the previous one. It’s a fun thing to be a part of.
I concluded my JFK evening enjoying a few hours with race winner Jim Walmsley, top-10 finisher and old friend James Bonnet, and the aforementioned JFK legend Ian Torrence (who successfully completed his 20th JFK in 6:51, the 16th time he had run under seven hours). As we enjoyed burgers and beers at the local Hagerstown watering hole, I was once again reminded of why I do this. Not only are the physical benefits second to none, but the people with whom I share this wonderful sport are among my favorite in the world. True unadulterated satisfaction is often fleeting in today’s fast-paced world and I, for one, am privileged to have found a place and a people wherein it can be found again and again.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
Thanks to Maryland native Annie Stanley, I found my way to Flying Dog Brewery while in Maryland. This Frederick, Maryland staple produces a tremendous range of delicious brews. I particularly liked their Gonzo Imperial Porter. Inspired by American literary icon Hunter S. Thompson, this is a truly transcendent porter and one for which Gonzo would be pleased to be made in his name. Come to think of it, I think HST would like the towpath!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Did you run the JFK 50 Mile last weekend? Tell us about your experience!