This past weekend on November 17th, I had the pleasure of racing the JFK 50 mile for the second time. Last year this race basically crushed my soul, as I had to drop out around 39 miles after throwing together a solid performance for 34 miles and bonking quite badly. I was devastated both physically and mentally from last year’s attempt. While I did finish the race this past weekend coming 5th overall, I can’t help but share the same sentiments that I experienced last year. I am extremely disappointed in my performance. I ran significantly slower than what I was anticipating on running and all the time I lost was within the last 20k. It is even more frustrating looking back in hindsight and seeing I was within 5 minutes of the leaders at mile 37 and on pace to run 5:44 through 60 kilometres which would have been an incredible day for me especially with the conditions being the way they were. Unfortunately it did not come in to fruition though and I am left thinking about the “what if’s”. What would I have run if conditions were perfect? What would I have run if I didn’t blow out both of my achilles and had to spend 25 minutes of the last 20k walking? These are the questions that I have been asking myself the past few days and will continue to ask myself in the next few. It sucks but life is never perfect. I will now go a little more in depth about my experience in the 2018 JFK 50.
I left Thursday morning and stopped just south of Pittsburgh for the night before continuing the rest of the journey to Hagerstown, Maryland. After getting checked into the hotel and picking up my number, I headed out for a 16 minute shakeout. It was a little cool, and this area of Maryland had received about 8 inches of snow Thursday meaning that a good portion of the race was going to be a wet slippery mess. I had thoughts of running around 5:35 in my mind but decided to switch that to 5:45-5:50 based off these conditions. The forecast for Saturday was looking optimistic but the trail conditions were most likely going to be a mudslide.
I woke up at 3:45AM to give myself enough time for the 6:30AM start. I had ran through my nutrition plan countless times in my mind. For most of the race I would rely on aid stations along the course with the exception being at 16 miles and 38.4 miles where my parents and brother were allowed to be on the course. I made sure to give myself ample time to get to the start line, as I almost missed the gun last year, but still cut it close. The start on the road went out very hard for a race of this length. It climbs over 150 metres of gain within the first 4 kilometres and we were out HARD! There is a timing mat at the top of the mountain road and I knew last year I crossed it in 17:53 but this year I came through in 16:09! I was about 20 seconds off the pack which included eventual race winner Jared Hazen, Zach Miller and Eric Senseman, running in a second pack with Tyler Sigl who I battled with at Cayuga Trails. As we entered onto the Appalachian Trail at 2.5 miles it was apparent that we would be in for a slick, muddy and wet 13 miles.
The water and mud splashed all over my legs and my shoes were immediately soaked. The puddles of water were nearly knee deep in some sections as we hopped over fallen trees and rocks while running up and down this hilly and technical spot on the Appalachian Trail. Last year I had wiped-out multiple times and twisted my ankles quite often as well which is why I was quite surprised hitting the aid station at 10 miles without incident. I was about 2 minutes off the lead and 1 minute behind Tyler who had gapped me along the trail. My biggest concern was the famous Weverton Cliffs coming off the trail at 15 miles. It is a technical descent consisting of very rocky switchbacks all while loosing over 350m in one mile. Any miss-step on here would lead to a very serious injury. Thankfully I came down intact, despite being covered with mud and having soaked feet, arriving at the 15.5 mile aid station in about 1:56. I tried to be quick through here before hitting the timing mat at 16 miles in 1:59, slightly over a minute faster than last year even with the rough trail conditions.
The next 26.3 miles was on the C&O Towpath, which is a flat, non-paved path. I thought based off of training that running low 6 minute miles or even slightly under would be a good goal. It is probably the most difficult part of the race due to how long and monotonous it is. Everything looks the same and it feels like you are just running on a treadmill staring at a wall for a few hours. I felt good rolling along and would look down and see 3:35/k pace on my watch without feeling like I was forcing it. I tried to talk to myself every now and then to make it feel like it wouldn’t be a lonely 26.3 miles. I eventually came up on Tyler Sigl around 24 miles in who said he had tweaked something in his knee. I figured he was going to drop out at the next aid station as I moved into fourth and was feeling good. I was getting my nutrition down and still feeling strong mentally and physically. I was informed at the 27 mile aid station that I was around 4 minutes off the lead. A gap that size is fairly insignificant in a race of this duration which was encouraging. I knew I had a chance at the win if I could make up the gap before we got off the towpath at 41.8 miles.
The 30 mile aid station was a welcomed sight. I was in and out quick still about 4 minutes back of the lead and charging. Every now and then I would look at the watch and see 3:40-3:45/k, which was perfect. It was a little disheartening that I had been running under 6 minutes a mile and not making up a crazy amount of time but I tried to be positive about it. The volunteers at the 34 mile aid station had said the same thing, 4 to 5 minutes back. I was starting to notice a bit of discomfort in both of my achilles a few minutes after leaving which I was hoping wouldn’t be much. I was clicking off splits and on pace to run about 5:44 through 37 miles when the pain in my achilles became insurmountable. I decided to take a 30 second walk break and quickly stretch them before continuing on. That didn’t seem to really do anything as the pain and tightness seared through them making each step agonizing.
The gap had grown to over 9 minutes at 38.7 miles due to my frequent breaks between these aid stations to try and alleviate the pain. I was also told that Eric Senseman had dropped out moving me into third. I took about two minutes at the aid station contemplating dropping out as I was in some serious pain here but decided to continue on and at least finish. I left the aid station dejected hoping that it would be minimal in terms of damage to the achilles. I went from averaging 3:43/k up until this point on the towpath to 5:00/k due to quite a few stretching breaks. The sliding around in the mud and snow for the past 60+ kilometres had made both of my achilles a complete mess.
I was so thankful to arrive at the Dam 4 aid station at 41.8 miles as it meant we would leave the mud for roads and a net uphill last 8.4 miles. The key issue being net uphill. My achilles were so shot I couldn’t run uphill. They felt like they were ruptured as I got passed around 43 miles moving back to fourth. I would get back to a run on the flat sections and could still run 6:20-6:40 per mile but the uphills basically killed my shot at maintaining any sort of good pace. I was passed again around 46 miles and was told there was a decent gap back to the next guy. It became damage control as I did not want to get passed by anyone else. I reached the last aid station which was 1.5 miles from the finish and couldn’t help but just be extremely bitter. I made the turn to the finish crossing the line 5th overall in 6 hours 9 minutes 51 seconds for the 50.2 miles, way back of the lead and my time goals.
It is tough looking at a race like this where things went well for 60k before going up in smoke and trying to find some positives. I am very happy to have at least swallowed my pride and finished despite it being a very sub par result. Sometimes the ego needs a big hit like that to make you hungrier for next time and walking 25 minutes of the last 8.4 miles is a massive blow to the ego. The nutrition went well and I felt like I was getting in a good amount of calories and never felt like I was hypoglycemic. I would like to think if the mud and snow where not a factor on race day I wouldn’t have had the issues with my achilles and would have ran under 5:45. I have never had these problems with my achilles so I am thinking it was all the skating in the mud that did them in. Looking back on training I was extremely prepared and ready to tackle this race. I was in the best shape I had ever been in and it honestly feels like a wasted opportunity. It is hard to not feel pissed off about it and I apologize if this blog post comes across as bitter or arrogant. I don’t mean to discredit the guys who beat me because they all ran exceptionally well but I am disappointed in myself. Sometimes she goes, sometimes she doesn’t and at the 2018 JFK, she didn’t go for me.
I would like to give thanks to my parents and brother who drove almost 9 hours to Maryland with me to give me support and aid during the race. I wouldn’t have been able to even make it through the race without their support! To race director Mike Spinnler for having me at JFK once again. The love and dedication that Mike has for this race is incredible and he truly gives all his time and effort into putting on one of the best ultra marathon races in the world and keeping the JFK 50 a historic event! In terms of what’s next for me, I do not know. I’ll take this week off to try and plan a race schedule moving forward into 2019. As this is most likely my last performance of 2018 I have to look at it as fairly successful. There were some high performances such as winning the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships at Cayuga and running faster at Run for the Toad 50k. There were some average results like running 2:24:44 in Phoenix way back in February and the there were some bad performances such as Calgary half. I am looking at these past two years as learning experiences and will hopefully take the things I learned into 2019 with some solid races.
Good luck to everyone racing ACXC or enjoy your break if you are currently on one as I am!