This last fall, I had the opportunity to run the JFK 50 Mile footrace in northern Maryland. I say opportunity because the race is one of the oldest ultra marathons in the country, in its 51st year and fills up fast. I originally registered for it last spring, nearly 7 months before the start. From the race website…
…the JFK 50 Mile is in spirit a military race. It always has been and always will be. In 1963, the initial inspiration behind the event came from then President John F. Kennedy challenging his military officers to meet the requirements that Teddy Roosevelt had set for his own military officers at the dawn of the 20th Century. That Roosevelt requirement was for all military officers to be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to maintain their commissions. When word got out about the “Kennedy Challenge”, non-commissioned military personnel also wanted to take the test themselves as did certain robust members of the civilian population.
The race has a strict 12 hour cut-off time. The other interesting aspect is the ban on personal listening devices. I’m one who constantly runs with music or audio books, especially during longer runs. I even had a playlist queued up only to find out the day before. The mental challenge just got tougher.
The first 5.5 miles of the race gains over 1,100 feet in elevation. From 2.5 to 15.5 miles the course is on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and is very rocky in sections as it rolls across the mountain ridge.
After that, we ran on the C&O Canal towpath which stretches a marathon distance from mile 15.5 to mile 41.8. This was the most challenging part of the race for me. It was totally flat, dirt and gravel, without much variation in scenery. And no music! I knew this was going to be the “low” point of the race (mentally) and was prepped for the thoughts of quitting. It’s funny how preparing the mind for negative thoughts can make them more tolerable.
After the canal, the final stretch follows a gently rolling, country road for 8.4 miles to the finish. If you get to the country road after a certain time in the afternoon, you’re forced to wear the “vest of shame”. This vest is reflective and meant to protect you from vehicle traffic but also serves as motivation for middle of the pack runners. I ended up reaching the checkpoint just after the cut-off and was handed a bright orange vest. No shame was felt, as I was finally on the home stretch.
The final stretch suddening dropped in temperature and the wind picked up. I was tired, exhausted and just wanted to walk. So really, the cold air was a blessing in disguise and forced to my pace to at least a jog. I did it, crossed the finish line and immediately started searching for Michelle. I knew if I sat for too long, I’d end up falling asleep. I’m not sure if I’ll do another 50 mile race after the JFK. It was a great challenge but also very time consuming to prepare one’s body. No regrets though, I’m glad for the experience!