"The need for increased attention to physical fitness is clearly established. The Government cannot compel us to act, but freedom demands it. A nation is merely a sum of all its citizens, and its strength, energy and resourcefulness can be no greater than theirs." - John F. Kennedy
Many of these challenges in different parts of the States ceased after the assassination of JFK, but this one in Maryland “changed it's name from the JFK 50 Mile Challenge to the JFK 50 Mile Memorial in 1964” and kept going.
Secondly, JFK is also big. I have never seen 1000+ runners at an ultra race. I believe the course made this possible. Unlike Leadville 100 with 750 runners, which received a lot of negative feedback in the past two years for congestion on trails, JFK started with two miles of road before getting on the Appalachian Trail and only stayed on the trail for 15 miles. Runners then take the wide Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) towpath, which parallels the Potomac River, for the next 26.3 miles. Finally, runners finish up on some rolling hills back into town.
All is all, JFK 50 is unique in its historicity, field size, and its variety of terrains -- reasons which led me to registering.
I drove up the Maryland on Friday for packet pick-up. Upon entering the hotel lobby, I found myself in a mini-expo! Hokas was there to demo shoes. Vendors were there selling JFK apparels and accessories, as well as other running gears. For the short time that I lingered, I saw many veterans -- bumper stickers, shirts, jackets, and patches. Tomorrow I’d find out what kept them coming back.
Race started on Nov 23 at 7 a.m. (except for a group of about 100 runners who applied and started at 5 a.m.). I positioned myself with 30-40 runners in front of me, though I knew I wasn't fast. However, I also knew I had to get in a good position to avoid being held up in a bottleneck when we got onto the A.T. The first two miles go continuously up, only vary in degrees. We got onto the A.T. and it continued to go up. The first 5.5 miles of the race gained 1,172’ in elevation. Once we reached the top, steep grade was replaced with gentler grades and a lot more rocks.
This section of the A.T. was beautiful. Though technical, most of the trail was wider than the usual single-tracks, allowing runners to pass more easily. About a dozen runners passed me during the next 15 miles, which I had expected. Megan Hovis, who ran the race last year (in 7:20!) and had written my training plan for this race, advised me to take this section fairly easy and save my legs. I followed her advice and just soaked in all the scenery as much as I could, knowing I’d be staring down a flat towpath in the next section of the race.
At about mile 14.5, the trail transitioned into a steep downhill switch-back, which dropped a 1,000’ in a fraction of a mile. Once on the ground, we continued on the C&O Canal towpath. Oh, the section which I had been dreading. As it turned out, it was long...but wasn't that bad. After finding out in a few occasions that looking up would only bring anxiety and desperation, I kept my head down for the majority of it.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” (Matthew 6:34)
This scripture pretty much carried me through this section. Doing all that math of how many miles I still had to run did nothing. Worrying about how I were to get through them did nothing. Even trying to distract myself did nothing. However, remembering that I only had to be faithful at each step and the miles would take care of themselves brought peace. I felt as if I was lighter at the thought of that. From then on, I ran from aid station to aid station, even lost track of mileage at one point. It did get tougher and tougher as the miles wore on me, and the lure of stopping and taking walk breaks even between aid stations became louder and louder. I passed some, but also got passed by a few. All that was irrelevant, I was just happy to be there and running.
At mile 31, I remembered how Veteran Tom Patch had told me the sense of relief he felt having passed a major milestone. At Mile-38 aid station, I remembered the sweet potatoes a gentleman had mentioned earlier (though I saw none!). Then, at Mile 41, a turn sign came into sight. The end of (seemingly) endless towpath!
Volunteers signalled me to turn onto the road and the rolling hills began. Here, I finally gave in and took walk breaks even between aid stations. Two or three runners who had more left in their legs than I did passed me. All of whom I had leap-frogged the whole race. As big as this race was, I only crossed path with a handful of runners, and had chatted with maybe three of them. “Less than an hour of running,” said a runner whose blue shirt had become a familiar sight, “You got this!” I believed I knew that, too, unfortunately. My mind was at the finish before my body was. More than ever, I wanted to stop. More frequent than ever, I told myself to keep being faithful and keep moving forward. Finally, after two or three other aid stations, the finish was in sight. I pushed, but my legs weren't following. I pushed anyway, till I crossed the finish line. After 8:00:29 of running, I could finally stop. Someone walked up with a big smile to put a medal on me. The race director came up and shook my hand. “You've cracked the top 10. You are our 10th female finisher. Congratulations!” Needless to say, I was shocked, pleasantly so.
After standing around for a couple minutes, chatting with a few runners, and letting my my mind to clear up, I headed towards the school where post-race food, drop bags, and awards were. I made it to the dining hall, saw the benches and sat down. For the next 15 minutes, I just sat there. I sat and sat till my body felt better, good enough to get up and crawl to get my dropbag. At the award about an hour and a half later, my name was called. I got my trophy, stood in front of a roomful of people, and tried to smile. It was a little...awkward, but in a good way.
In the season of thanksgiving, I have so much to be thankful for. But as my friend, Kevin Childs, has reminded me, “to Whom I am thankful > for what I am thankful.” I am grateful and thankful to the One who gives me so much more than I deserve, who walks with me at all times, and who only asks me to be faithful with what has been given.