How it happened
Some weeks ago, a friend of mine announced he was running his first ultra. As I wanted to do one, I thought this might be a good opportunity. After checking the website, it appears that registration was still opened. I sent a check of $210 and after a few days, my name was on the registered runners. I was ready for an adventure in Maryland!
Joining this event was not just about running but also the opportunity to evaluate the efficiency of the training I set up for myself. I am not a registered trainer but help people and defined my own plan. I wanted to have evidence that it actually works: if I can complete an ultra injury-free, this would shows and proves that the way I trained is sound and adequate (at least for me). In addition, last weeks were though and intense from a physical and mental perspectives. I needed to find an outlet, something that will give fresh air to my mind. Running has always been a good way to meditate, so, I was also hoping that this run will help me to find a way of redemption. Also, the JFK50 is the oldest ultra marathon (first edition in 1963) in the country. More than a thousands runners join this event every year. So, doing it is also an experience for any ultra runner and I was curious to see how it was.
After figuring out the race day details (hotel, packet pick up, etc.), I was all set. My partner in crime will then follow and support me along this 50 miles race. Even if I do not need anything special, having somebody can be useful, especially for your first experience. I did not plan anything special, the only request I had is to have the ability to switch shoes after the trail section, around mile 15.
Planning and establishing the best race strategy
The Race Strategy
After signing up, I looked at the race description: aid stations, stops, elevation profile, etc. After few minutes of investigation, it seems that the first 15 miles were the only one with hills (in the Appalachian Trails), that the course had a lot of aid stations all along the 50 miles and that there was a lot of parking for potential spectators. Then, the strategy was quite simple:
- no nutrition/support, no backpack. Just a handled bottle and the aid-station food/fluids. Start to drink at mile 8 (when starting the down hill section) and eat around mile 10 (prepare to stabilize the sugar level)
- no specific drop bag, just ask my partner in crime to come after mile 15 to switch shoes after the hilly section
- take it easy on the hilly section (first 15 miles on the Appalachian trail) and then, alternate run/walk on the last 35 miles. Try to find my own pace during the run
Preparing for my race
For the last part, I relied mostly on my last training runs. During a 18+ miles in Moraine State Park, I felt quite good. So, I figured that doing the same thing on a smaller distance would be ok. Also, I completed 40 miles the week end before during the Delaware Half-Marathon and Bucks County Marathon, which are very flat courses. I figured it should be ok to go for 35 miles on flat course, once I crossed the 15 miles section in the Appalachian Trail.
Finally, as for the preparation, I stick with simple rules:
- do not overeat or “carb-load”: through the week, I ate a reasonable diet with about 2500 Kcal per day packed with vegetables, grains (almost no meat during that week!) and fat (load the peanut butter buddy!)
- do not exhaust my body but do not taper as well: stick to tempo runs, keep doing 10 miles a day to commute but do not try to challenge myself or try to work specific muscles
- be sure to get enough rest: sleep between 7 to 9 hours a night all week long
Again, these are very simple rules but this is by following them that you avoid any unexpected issue and make sure you will be prepared on race day.
How I get there
We drove the day before the race from Pittsburgh, PA to Hagertown, MD. We got early enough to get the packet at 04pm, check in at the hotel and prepare for race day. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Hagerstown and could not ask for more: the rate was reasonable ($89/night), the room has plenty of space, the hotel was 15 minutes from the starting line and they were very accommodating with runners (with breakfast starting at 04am on race day!). I could not have asked for more and if you plan to run the race, I definitively recommend this hotel.
Packet pick-up was very basic: you get your bib, get your tee-shirt and … that’s all! The expo is almost significant with very few vendors. There was a Hoka sales with 20% off. Also, before going to bed, we explored the area and ended up at Dan’s pub, a very nice location for beers, sandwich and desert. Everything you need to visit the bathroom at every aid station.
The swag contains few stuff: t-shirt, bib and timing chip. About the timing chip, you have to return it, this not a disposable chip! So unfortunate, especially considering the price charged for this race! The swag could contain more (a sticker, a discount for local food vendors, etc.) and I was disappointed on that side.
JFK50 – Map
The course is pretty basic (see the workout on mapmyrun): you start at Boonsboro (in the main street), go on the Appalachian Trail for 15 miles. Once you get out of the Appalachian trail, you go on 27 miles on a flat trail. The last 8 miles are on the road and you finished in WilliamSport. The start is pretty steep, you have to run on a hilly section. It continues to go up until mile 5 and there are still some part to climb for a couple of miles. Once you reached that point, this is all downhills.
You stay in the woods until mile 15.5 on a technical, rocky section. Runners not experienced with trail running should be very careful and watch out for potential rocks that might be hazardous and let you fall. Once you get to mile 15, this is flat until mile 42. The route is very scenic, which helps to avoid the boredom of the elevation. You can see the river, the waterfalls and the nice color of the fall season.
Once we get to mile 42, you go on the road (some parts have to be shared with cars!) for the last miles. This is not very steep but rather rolling hills. Some appreciate coming back on the road, other are totally mad at seeing some hills. Obviously, once you get to that point, your brain is not longer able to feel the difference and just keep going until the finish.
JFK50 – Elevation Profile
Coming from the Apalachan Trail
You start the day at Boonsboro and meet at the High School. A pre-race meeting takes place were basic instructions are given (do not litter, take care on the trail for rocks, eat your veggies, etc.). After that, you walked about a mile to the starting line in downtown Boonsboro.
You can start at two different times: 5am or 7am. The early start (5am) is dedicated to charity runners, senior athletes or people that completed 10 JFK. Other folks asked to start before and they were denied. I assume the race organizers have a good reason but obviously, I do not understand the rationale for such a decision: road closure are already effective, insurance is already paid for early starters, so, if somebody wants to start early, why it is not possible to let him go? Considering the entry fees ($210) and that the race was not sold out (heck, considering the price, this is not such a surprise!), it is hard to understand why they made such a decision. For some people, making the cut-off is difficult and completing this race is just a dream: why not letting them start early so that they can increase the probability to make it to the start line? For sure, there are constraints for the cut-off (for obvious safety reasons, letting runners in the dark is just not responsible), but the reasons for not letting people starting early are more difficult to understand.
JFK50 cookies – Photo by Harriet Langlois
Overall, the race is pretty well organized: there are aid station very regularly so that you do not have to carry any nutrition or more than a bottle of water. Also, when being appropriate, roads are closed (especially for the first miles and the last eight miles). In the Appalachian Trail section, there are a few spots with volunteers that are able to provide first aid support (in case you fall). Overall, the support is very good and appropriate if you plan to make your first ultra/50 miler.The race volunteers are wonderful and there are stations every 2 to 5 miles (so you can do the whole thing without support). I ran the race with a handled bottle of water and just rely on what was provided at the aid station. All stations has basic stuff you can expect at an ultra: M&M’s, P&BJ sandwich, pretzels, etc. Some of them provide even more: aid station 19 made cookies with “JFK50″ on it (see picture), aid station 34 was offering home-made cookies served by Santa and aid-station at mile 38 had red velvet cake! JFK50 is probably the race you can eat more calories than you spend (which is probably true for all ultra races by the way).
Fantastic support crew
Also, at mile 34, I see a guy with an incredible (the Disney movie) costume, a lot of US flags that was cheering. This is the type of support that give you extra energy and help you when you are in a down time/period at that moment.
There are spectators area over the course at mile 15.5 (after the Appalachian Trail section) , mile 27 and mile 38. It can give the opportunity to a friend, family member or whoever you want to cheer and potentially give you new clothes, items, nutrition, etc. My girlfriend came at each spectator spot and that was a huge motivation: knowing that somebody is waiting for you is a motivation and help you keep pushing during the last miles before the spot. The spectator spots seem very well organized as well, with plenty of parking for everyone!
The finish area was simple on the outside: the finish mat and … nothing else! Then, you have food, massage and the award ceremony inside the High School in Williamsport. Volunteers are making and distributing various food items (pizza, pulled pork sandwich, etc.). A nice thing is to be able to have a shower (with hot water!) in the gymnasium, which is appreciated after such a race!
Support on this course is … incredible (photo by Jimmy Wilson)
One of the main disappointment I got was that my girlfriend paced me during the last 3 miles. Good opportunity to have somebody to run with before crossing the finish line. Obviously, considering that I was close to the 9 hours finish, it really helped me to avoid walking and make it under 9 hours. As she started to step away from me in the last feet, I asked her to join me. I wanted to cross the finish line with her, holding hands and take a picture of this achievement together. When arriving, the guy from the timing company asked us if she had a bib and we say “no”, did not ask to leave but grabbed her and was about to push her away. While asking pacers not to cross the finish line is ok, being violent and rude is clearly not ok. I have to admit that it really diminished my experience, especially at the finish, one of the highlight of your day. Again I understand the rule, but it has never been written in the instructions or notified by the dude.
Homemade cookies at Aid Station 34 (photo by Jimmy Wilson)
After the race, I discussed the matter on the facebook page of the race to share this experience and the comments astonished me. Some folks reported that it was normal and they were thankful to the guy for not letting my girlfriend crossing the finish line. But this rule was never written and they are many races you can cross the finish with your pacer. Beyond these considerations, this fact highlights a big difference in this community and the competitive approach of some folks.
From my perspective, I still does not understand some folks are so inquisitive, aggressive and appropriate with others: running is not about achieving a goal or a time. This is about finding yourself, being happy. Engage, with others try to establish a connection in a society where we are more and more lonely and where we are more careless to each other. If I want to cross the finish line with somebody else, as long as I (or she) did not cheat and does not diminish the pleasure of somebody else, who cares? If this means a lot to me to cross the finish line with the person that is part of this adventure since several months, is it the business of somebody else? Is that such a big deal? Does it change the experience from other runners? I do not think so and after reading comments and considering the time wasted to argue, it showed me what I do not want to be.
After discussing with some folks, I see an interesting fact that would interest many preachers of the “carb-load”. A 56 years-old dude finished the race in 7:45. But what is amazing is that the dude proved that many new training techniques and buzz products are bullshit: he fueled himself only with water and 5 pieces of dark chocolate. Nothing else. I admire such folks with a contrarian approach that demonstrates running is more a matter of training and dedication than using the right gear or adopting the last trendy product.
Pacer disallowed to cross the finish with its associated runners? Nothing in the rules!
Waterfalls before coming back on the road (photo courtesy of Jimmy Wilson)
Let’s do it?
The JFK50 race is a big deal: is a part of the ultra-running community in the USA! If you are looking for a good first ultra marathon, that is definitively a good easy one with a flat and scenic course. There is a good support to do it without having to carry nutrition. The volunteers are amazing and this is a pleasure to run from aid station to aid station. On the other hand, this race is expensive for what you get (the swag has nothing special) you can really find something cheaper with a similar support (think about the Groundhog Fall)
The JFK finisher medal for the 2014 edition
- Amazing volunteers (homemade cookies anyone?)
- Good support: spectator spots well organized, lots of folks for aid station, road closures, etc.
- Easy route for a first 50 miles
- Scenic view for … well … a lot of miles!
- Expensive ($210!), sounds like the Disney of ultra-marathons
- The swag is very basic (especially for that price)
- No possibility to ask for a 5:00am start so that it might be hard for slow runners to make the cut-off