2011 JFK 50 Mile Men’s Preview

2011 is turning out to be a year of speed on the American ultra scene. Sure, folks have had some solid runs in the mountains, but that’s overshadowed by performances like Ian Sharman’s 12:44 100 miler, Hal Koerner twice running under 14 hours for 100 miles, and pretty much anything Michael Wardian’s run. I look for that theme to continue this weekend at 49th running of the JFK 50 mile in Maryland. [We’ve also previewed the women’s field.]

For starters, Michael Wardian will be running. Wardian’s been the top American 50 mile to 100k road runner for a few years now. This year, he’s focused his efforts on becoming a better climber and has succeeded to the point of impressing a number of more mountain-oriented elites at UROC back in September. Aside from his improved hill running and continued improvement on the trails, he’s in the best shape of his life as shown by his 2:17:49 marathon earlier this year. This will be Wardian’s sixth JFK, so he knows what he’s doing out there.

So long as conditions are decent (i.e., the course is dry, particularly on the Appalachian Trail section), I think Wardian will break Eric Clifton’s course record of 5:46:22… possibly by a large margin. Wardian already has the third fastest time on the course with a 5:50:34 back in 2007. No disrespect to others, but I think the only one who can beat Wardian is Wardian himself if he tries to obliterate the course record rather than simply trying to break it. If Wardian breaks Clifton’s record, you can just about hand the Ultrarunner of the Year award to him.

Still, there are plenty of speedsters who’ll be chasing Wardian and fast times. Case in point, two of Wardian’s American teammates who joined him in the Top 6 at the IAU 100k World Championships. Let’s start with Andy Henshaw, who took bronze at this year’s 100k World Champs in 6:44:35. A month ago, he won the Defiance 50k breaking his own course record en route to a 3:36:41. If there’s anyone who’s primed to go blow-for-blow with Wardian it’s Henshaw. Matt Woods finished sixth at the 100k World Champs to round out the American men’s team gold medal performance in 6:50:23. Earlier this year, Woods set the course record for the long-held Bull Run Run 50 mile in Virginia, so he’s got some trail skills to go along with his leg speed. He also has a 5:54:10 JFK to his credit, which was good enough for third in 2009.

Last year’s champ, Brian Dumm (5:52:02) will not be returning to defend his crown. In fact, the only runner from last year’s top 5 who’ll be returning is second place runner David Riddle, who ran 5:53:09 for the second fastest losing time in JFK history. Not bad for a 50 mile debut.

Riddle’s performance should be no surprise as the JFK 50 is the sort of race that gets fast runners to push into uncharted ultra territory. This year will be no different. Example 1: Kalib Wilkinson, who ran a PR 2:19 at the Boston Marathon this spring. Earlier this year, Wilkinson ran a 3:41 to finish third at the Holiday Lake 50k, his first ultra. I’d expect a few more sub-2:30 guys to be toeing the line this weekend.

Michael Arnstein and Philip McCarthy are no strangers to the ultra ranks. Arnstein is a 2:30-ish marathoner who ran the fastest losing time in JFK history when Greg Crowther edged him out in the final mile of the 2009 race. Still, Arnstein’s 5:50:58 is the fourth fastest time in JFK history. In August, he ran his strongest 100 miler to date with a fourth place 17:56 at Leadville before running a 5:52 at the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler last month. On the much longer side of things, McCarthy set the American 48-hour record by logging 257 miles in two days earlier this year. Two months ago, he also won the NorthCoast 24 Hour run by logging 153+ miles.

As you’d expect at such a large and prestigious ultra, there are a ton of familiar names on the entrants list including course record holder Eric Clifton, perennial JFK runner Ian Torrence, Sean Meissner, Josh Brimhall, and Scott Jaime.

Although not generally well known, there are some well-established JFK alums in the race, too. Jon Lawler has three top-10 finishes in the previous five JFKs while fellow racer Matt Lavine has four such finishes in the same span. 2006 second place finisher James Sweeney is back after being off the radar for half a decade.

There’s also sure to be a few wild cards such as James Akita who’s finished only one ultra, a 6:06 at the Fall Classic 50 mile last October. [Update: Akita is out per reader, Andrew.] Even more exciting is the biggest dark horse in the field, 25-year-old Zach Bitter posted the fastest American 50 mile time of the year with a 5:26:22 at the Fall Classic less than a month ago. Bitter has only two other ultra finishes, both sub-6:10 50 mile efforts at the past two The North Face Endurance Challenge races in Madison, Wisconsin.

Of course, with a race so large there are a few notable names who were previously on the list, but are no longer running such as Dave Mackey and David James. It’s also likely that one or more of the folks I mention above will end up missing the events, as well.

You can watch a video feed from the finish with commentary on the Herald Mail’s (local paper) website from 12-5 p.m. EST on Saturday.

Call for Comments

  • Who do you think will win the JFK 50 this year?
  • Any top 5 contenders that I may have missed?
  • Can you confirm any more top dogs who won’t be racing this Saturday?

There are 23 comments

  1. Bill Susa

    I really think that Wardian is the one to beat this year. I think Matt woods will be at or near the front coming off the AT but the edge goes to Michael on the C&O and road.

    As an aside, for those heading out to run JFK, the AT is in its usual condition for this time of year as far as the leaves on the trail go. The rain we're getting here on Wednesday should help compact the leaves a bit and with the rain supposedly ending by early on Thursday most of the water should drain off trail nicely before race day. The destruction from the Halloween snow storm has been cleared (thanks in large part to #1022, Dave Garman who is the trail overseer for the Gathland to Weverton section of the AT). The only remnants of that storm are a couple of small logs (8 to 10 inch) lying across the trail but nothing that demands altering anyone's pace or crawling over or around.

    Bill Susa, Burkittsville, MD

  2. Matt Smith

    Don't forget that Arnstein won VT100 this year… Not sure if he has the leg speed to keep up with Wardian on the tow path, but I expect to see him pushing things on the AT and hilly road section, just to keep it interesting.

    I predict a Wardian win in 5:41!

  3. Dominic

    Andy's a bit faster on trails than Wardian, and the arguement of Wardian's marathon PR being slightly faster goes out the window when it's a marathon after 25 trail miles. However, to have a perfect day right on the knife's edge for 50 miles isn't something for anyone to take for granted. Andy didn't even have a perfect day at American River last year ago and he still had the talent for a 5:56 2nd place finish..

    1. Bryon Powell

      Dominic, Andy certainly isn't to be underestimated and likely has an edge over Wardian on the technical AT trails. Still, the trail portion is only a bit over 10 miles. The AT section is done at mile 16 and there's a fair bit of road running before the "AT section" is done.

      1. Dominic

        I mispoke about that AT section, but yes you are correct. 3rd, (105 seconds slower in 100KM behind Wardian) in the World 100k on "a bad day", I think he's a top contender Saturday.

  4. Matt

    Nice preview, Bryon. Henshaw, as previously mentioned, will indeed be very tough.

    And I think your sense that a Wardian win is a UROY win is dead-on. I have pontificated about all that jazz, and didn't really see Wardian in that "race." Of course, if Henshaw or some of the other notables pull the upset, back to square chaos re: UROY. Sure wish Mackey was racing.

  5. Patrick L

    Thanks for the great preview, Bryon. This year's JFK50 will be my first ultra and I feel honored to toe the line with so many great runners. Good luck to all: fast, slow, or somewhere in-between.

  6. Ben Nephew

    The AT section at JFK has turned into an ultra legend. I think there have been a few quotes about it being very rough, but it really is not. Of the 10 or so miles of trail, only 3-4 of that is very technical. Considering that the times at JFK are similar to American River, the trail section does not add much difficulty to the race.

    The other relevant urban legend is Wardian's ability on trails, although I don't think it will actually be relevant to the race. I've raced with Wardian through technical sections of trails, and he does fine. Much better than Mike Arnstein, who has run 5:50 at JFK.

    The only guy who had a great day at the World 100k was the Italian winner.

    It is definitely a deep field, and I wouldn't be suprised to see 2 under 5:50 and 4 under 6:00. Based on experience, specific history with the course and recent race results, my money is on Wardian. I was thinking of a 5:43, but I forgot the CR was 5:46. 5:41 is probably a better guess.

    Good luck Patrick, it is a great first 50 miler. Just save some for the last few miles on the road!

  7. Burt

    Arnstein cranked a 2:28 at NYC marathon earlier this month. Hard to say if it means he is stronger or will now just be tired for JFK. Still, he has got the capacity to go 5:45 or so.

  8. Mike Bailey

    About a month ago, I predicted a 5:38-5:42 JFK for Wardian. I don't see any mention of his 5:33 from Tussey Mountainback, but knocking 10 minutes of Braje's time was ridiculous. James Akita, David Riddle, and Zach Bitter are also key darkhorses. Every year we think guys will go under 5:50, and every year they don't. But, I think this year the field and ideal weather will generate three sub 5:50's(Wardian, Woods, Henshaw) and at least three more sub 6 hour finishes (Bitter, Riddle, Akita).

      1. Bryon Powell

        Bummer…. well, except that it's not for him and his runner. I'll admit I'll be watching D3 Nationals even more closely than JFK tomorrow. Looking for the alma mater (Haverford College) to podium again this year. :-)

  9. Matthew Lavine

    Wow–was not expecting to see my name there! Here's a name I would like to see:

    Erica Kromrey

    She's my fiancee, and if she didn't put up with me, I wouldn't have anything to put my finishes at this race in perspective. I tried very hard to earn 5 top-10 finishes in a row last year, and I failed. As corny as it sounds, I felt like I had a bigger prize waiting for me at the finish because she was there.

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