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?