Shonda and I talked about signing up for this race, the JFK 50 Mile, last year after we had an awesome race at the 2019 Chicago Marathon.
For a few reasons we didn’t, but Shonda did sign up for a different 50 mile race in May of this year. It ended up being canceled due to COVID and she ran it virtually from her driveway, with a group of runners pacing with her for different sections so she was never alone. I ran miles 30-45 with her.
I had been debating whether or not I could or wanted to attempt a 50 mile race. The longest training run Shonda had completed prior to her 50 mile race was 30 miles. So when I ran those 15 miles with her on race day, each one was the new longest-distance she had ever run. Her pace didn’t slow, and she continued to feel “fine” (more on that particular word later).
Watching her continue to run, further and further than she had ever run before, made me confident that I could, too. Shonda is a much faster runner than I am, but I am strong. Speed has always been difficult for me, but distance hadn’t been. Yet.
We signed up and created a training plan using our normal marathon training schedule, layered with Krissy Moehl’s ULTRA training schedule. It was 24 weeks. There is some debate on when we started… maybe week 3 or 4. We both had a strong base (Shonda was just coming off her 50 mile ultra-finish) and I was able to run up to 15 miles at a time.
The biggest difference between our normal marathon training plan and this ultra plan was that Krissy had us running two long runs a week instead of one. This was my 8th marathon training cycle and I have figured out that I do much MUCH better running fewer days per week. In my first marathon training cycle (Chicago, 2014) I was running 6 days a week, and while I hit my goal of finishing in under 4 hours, I suffered an IT band injury and limped for the last 10 miles (I was miserable). I couldn’t run again for months.
Last year, when I ran my best marathon time at Chicago (blog post here) I was only running two days per week. TWO. A speed workout and a long run. I was crossfitting the other days, I weaned off RX workouts and ditched the speed runs about a month out from race day. And I PRd. To thine own self be true.
Shonda is a totally different runner. She probably doubled my miles in training for the JFK 50, but we’ll never know since she doesn’t like the google doc LOL. Currently it says that I ran 819.55 miles in 24 weeks and that Shonda ran 83. She tried.
I ended up running 3 days a week for most of this training cycle. I stopped doing speed workouts after Week 13 and traded that run for a trail run. There is a trail behind Boston Scientific near my house that has decent elevation but in NO way prepared me for the worst of the Appalachian Trail.
The longest run we completed was 30 miles, which we did in Week 19 out of 24. That week I ran 12 on Thursday, 30 on Friday, and 15 on Sunday. That 30 mile run was better for me than both our 28 mile run the week before (I was MISERABLE) and also our Virtual Chicago on October 4th (I WAS MISERABLE).
Lucky for me, Shonda is used to this. I will usually get a wave of misery (or two, or five) on any given run but they always (usually) pass. I had several waves of misery during the JFK 50. God bless her, she didn’t mind. I also had waves of euphoria, and even in her darkest moments, I didn’t bother her.
Here’s a rundown of the days leading up to, the race itself, and the course.
My dear friend Nikki (an actual Angel sent directly to me by sweet baby Jesus himself) offered to come with us, to help with the driving, and support us on the course. This was the best thing we could have done, and if you ever run an ultra I highly recommend bringing support and also having someone who will drive the whole way home. She has worked as a race director for years and organizes mainly trail ultras. She was in her glory and we were incredibly lucky to have her.
We broke the drive down to Boonsboro into two days, which was also genius. We went to New Jersey on Thursday afternoon and finished the trip to Maryland midday Friday. We had plenty of time to get settled, get unpacked, complete a shakeout run (ironically, up a freaking MOUNTAIN), and psych ourselves up for 50 miles.
I want to note that we took several COVID precautions before and during this trip across state lines. I ended up quarantining the 10 days prior to our departure and we all received negative tests before leaving. We entered stores and public restrooms briefly, and we only got take-out, never eating inside any restaurants. The JFK 50 staff and volunteers put together an incredible COVID-19 protocol and we felt completely safe from packet pick-up through the finish line.
If it were not for Nikki, we would have had to take a bus from the finish line back to the start, and that would have been the closest in contact to other humans in an enclosed space that the race had. We were very fortunate that we did not have to get on that bus.
Saturday morning Nikki drove us right to the start line (if you drive yourself, you have to park at a school which is a decent walk from the start line). We used the porta potties and got ourselves situated. Shonda and I both carried enough food & water for 5 hours, at which point we would see Nikki to refill our packs. We were Wave 1 with a 6:30am starting time. Usually the JFK 50 has ONE start time, but due to COVID they had 3 waves of 250 people or less, 30 minutes apart.
As we were walking to the starting area (everyone was socially distanced and masked-up), we heard the MC announce “David Goggins to the starting line! DAVID GOGGINS to the starting line!” I grabbed Shonda’s arm “OHMYGOD we’re starting with David Goggins!” we both exclaimed. I read his book Can’t Hurt Me early in quarantine and it was a big inspiration to try ultra running. He finished the race in about 7 hours and then WENT BACK to run the last 12 again with a friend. We didn’t beat David, but we did beat his friend.
The clock struck 6:30am and we were off. We knew that there was 1,172 feet of elevation gain in the first 5.5 miles and we had talked about walking if we had to… LOL. Shonda’s husband who is an experienced trail runner and endurance racer had instructed us to walk steep inclines and conserve energy. There was actually no way on God’s green earth that we could have run. We ran the first mile and almost immediately began walking. Our calves and ankles cramped the incline was so intense. My left shin was in agony, Shonda’s Plantar Fasciitis hurt. We joked with fellow runners about how we didn’t train for walking. An ABOVE THE KNEE amputee passed us (his one remaining leg was SUPER LONG, just for the record!)
We continued to walk/run until mile 2.5 where we first got onto the Appalachian Trail (heretofore referenced as the AT). We immediately began running the trail and it felt great to finally be moving. We continued, able to trail run, for the next mile. At 3.5 we switched to the AT bike path and began another ferocious ascent… and we were back to walking. For the next two miles, we ran when it was flat enough, and walked when we had to.
At mile 5.5 we got back onto the actual AT and began to run again. The terrain got more and more technical as we proceeded…. Initially I felt very confident and prepared for the trails, but the further we got onto the AT, the less confident I felt. I fell hard around 6.5 and continued to get more and more frustrated with the terrain. I had to hike more than I could run. I kept stubbing my toes on roots and rocks, and I was pissed. Shonda asked if I was ok at one point and my response was: “I’m FINE. I’m IRRITATED but I’m FINE.”
Fine is our mantra. When I am miserable but able to continue I am fine. We don’t feel great but WE ARE FINE.
Eventually Shonda and I separated. She fell at one point, but I was no longer with her. I was MISERABLE. My head hurt from focusing on the trail, where to step, trying not to trip.. I don’t wear my glasses when I run, and that’s usually fine. But I didn’t get out of the woods until I hit 3 hours and 36 minutes and my brain hurt from the energy it was exerting to traverse the rocks.
Our last mile of the AT was a 1,000 foot descent on nasty switchbacks. Here, if you fall you don’t get hurt, you die. I finally FINALLY dipped out of the woods to the cheers of volunteers. “I made it! I made it!” I was practically dancing I was so relieved. But I didn’t see Shonda. And a volunteer was directing me back off the road… what? He said to me “there’s another half a mile until you’re off the trail!”
You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me. I almost cried.
THANK GOODNESS it was mostly flat and runnable and I found Shonda waiting at the next aid station. Our feet were KILLING us from the descent and I shoved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Gatorade into my face, while turning on my fanny pack speaker and connecting to SoundCloud so we could play Big Bootie for the next section.
The terrain up to this point was so much more intense than I was prepared for. I couldn’t wait to get through the first 5.5, and then the next 10 I didn’t think I was going to get through. But I did. Toward the end of our time on the AT the only word I can use to describe it is “treacherous”. I am in awe of those who were able to run it.
The next section was 26.3 miles of unpaved towpath along the Potomac river. It was pretty, but the same, and actually the gravel made me want to kill myself. BUT! But, we were finally able to run. Not fast; we were throwing down about 10:00/mile.
From 15.5 to 27.3 we listened to big bootie (No. 18 twice, because there was NO SERVICE), we went to a lot of porta potties, utilized many aid stations, and talked to a lot of runners who were returning for their 5th, 8th, 12th race (WHO WOULD EVER DO THIS RACE AGAIN??)
We saw Nikki for the first time at mile 27.3. Shonda changed her shoes. I ate. We got back to running. I did something I hadn’t done in 20 years… I drank COKE. They have it at the aid stations (of which there were many, staffed by the most wonderful volunteers, who were all masked and incredibly kind). My blood sugar kept dropping and I was delusional at times, and at every aid station from probably mile 20 on, I kept chugging coke. And it was amazing.
Around mile 28 I was having a good moment. I looked at Shonda, “Shonda!! We can totally run for 22 more miles. Can’t we run for 22 more miles?”
“I don’t think I can,” she replied. And in that moment, she meant it. She dealt with serious nausea for most of the race.
**She also said she might never run again after this race, but SPOILER ALERT: on Sunday morning she said she’d do THIS RACE again. I would not. I would definitely do another 50 mile, or even a 100k race… but ON THE ROAD. This was my version of hell.**
My watch died. My phone stopped connecting to SoundCloud. We saw Nikki again at mile 38.7. We were still on that damn towpath at this point, and I was ready to drill my eyeballs out.. We just had to make it to mile 41.8 and we’d be on paved road… I gave up and threw her the fanny pack speaker and the extra charger. I shoved as many pretzel chips in my mouth as I could possibly fit. I told her I was going to change my sneakers at this point, but then I didn’t bother. My feet hurt and I didn’t think it would make a difference. Also, our quads were killing us, but other than that we felt decent.
We continued on, those last 3 miles on the towpath were the longest of my life (except for maybe the last 3 miles on that god forsaken trail). Right before you exit the towpath, there is one last aid station. Volunteers put reflective vests on us (they don’t close the roads), and I was so confused by what was happening. We finally made it off the damn tow path. I told Shonda I was miserable and that I doubted that it would pass before we finished.
A runner we met earlier on the towpath had told us that when you get to the paved road at 41.8, there is a hairpin turn and an immediate steep ascent. We had decided we would walk it. He was right; the ascent was insane. We walked for maybe ¼ of a mile and Shonda facetimed her husband and sons. Once the road leveled off enough, we were able to start running and it was the best section of the entire race.
Even though we had been running/walking/hiking for 42 miles, I felt the BEST during those last 8.4 miles on the road. It’s where we excel (well, Shonda is good on the trails, too). We passed several runners on the hilly country road who had passed us earlier in the day on the AT or the towpath. We hit miles 43, 44, 45.. and we were still running! Even I couldn’t believe it. I told Shonda I wasn’t even miserable anymore! Mile 46 was our second fastest of the whole race. Second only to our first mile.
The country road was much like running Reach the Beach in New Hampshire… you have no idea where you are, there are very few runners, there are lots of cows… and a few Trump signs. Other parts of this race that felt like Ragnar were that there were very few turns (even over 50 miles) and maybe 3 miles markers (exiting the AT, and at the two spectator spots).. However, when we got onto the road there was something I had never experienced: mile markers marking how many miles we had LEFT. A few minutes after we hung up with the Morris boys I saw a sign on the left hand sign of the road that just said “8 MILES”.
I told Shonda I would be happy when we got to the 5 mile sign, as we could run 5 miles in our sleep. She said she’d be happy when we got to the 3 mile sign, but when we got there she said the 2 mile sign would make her happy…. Then the one mile sign (there was no one mile sign).
I think at mile 46 (or was it 48?) a volunteer offered me a shot of fireball and I strongly considered it.
A cop directing traffic told us we had 1.5 miles to go, and that the finish was just past the water tower WHICH WE COULD SEE. Shonda said that was the best thing he could’ve told us. Having the actual finish in sight made it possible to get there. The last 1.5 miles were rocky highway shoulder and I worried that if I tripped I wouldn’t be able to get back up.
We finally crossed onto the road where the high school and finish line were. We crossed, side-by-side (I took my vest off and told Shonda to do the same: we looked ugly enough without those things on), at 10 hours, 14 minutes, and 32 seconds.
Nikki was there, cheering us on, taking our picture, and carrying our sweatshirts. I have been incredibly grateful for Nikki’s friendship many times in the almost 10 years we’ve been friends, but in that moment I think I was the most grateful.
I didn’t know I could run 50 miles. I didn’t know I could run for 10 hours.
But we can do hard things.