Thursday, February 13, 2014
The parallel to Groundhog Day was obvious: waking up to an early alarm for four straight mornings to face the same routine over and over again. At the Dopey Challenge in Walt Disney World, I was much like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, with reality and dreaming intermingling as the days went by, sometimes wondering which was which. (But alas, no Andie McDowell.)
Well, okay, it wasn’t exactly like that, but there were a few similarities. From January 9 to 12, I arose hours before sunrise each day to run, in turn, a 5K race, a 10K, a half marathon, and then a full marathon, all on Disney property, in the quest to surpass the traditional Goofy Challenge (completing the half and full marathons on consecutive days) and gain the new Dopey Challenge status with a finish in all four races. Each day this involved early fueling and hydration, putting on the running clothes laid out the night before, with the appropriate bib on the shirt, catching the bus from the resort to the race check-in area, followed by the walk to and the wait in my corral until called to the start line. But I liked it a lot. Running is easier and more fun with the variety of first-rate on-course entertainment, including the Disney characters, bands, DJ music (I still can’t get that Katy Perry song out of my head, or that song from Frozen), and wisecracking race announcers. And each day was unique, just as no two runs are alike in any circumstances.
The 5K (the Pluto) and the 10K (the Minnie) were staged in parking lots much closer to the check-in area. The fields were smaller (with the 6,000 Dopey runners constituting the majority of each), and each was run in the dark and finishing before sunrise. EPCOT is awesome at night when World Showcase is illuminated with bright lights and torches, and we ran through most of that area, as well as, in the 10K, around the Boardwalk in the adjacent resort area. Several characters were available along the way for picture-taking, including the most popular, Dopey, who attracted an insanely long line for pictures. I took plenty of pictures and some videos with my iPod, but avoided standing in the lines. I felt a little chilled at the start of these two races (fighting off a mild bug that was wanting to give me a cold), but with the humidity en route it took no time to heat up and require throwing off layers, even as the sky was spitting out bits of rain. After each race the Dopey runners then headed to a designated queue to get a wrist band as proof of finishing each race, ultimately leading up to the Dopey medal (and the Goofy) on the fourth day, after the marathon.
As runners learn, what you wear at a race tends to make a statement, whether you plan it that way or not. The Disney-themed costumes were everywhere, more than I’ve noticed in other races. Maybe the Dopey theme attracted the biggest fanatics. I also chose my race shirts with some purpose, I suppose. On the 10K, for instance, I wore my shirt from the 2011 Bighorn Mountains race. Wouldn’t you know it, but a guy comes up to me in the pre-race corral wearing the same shirt. (He allowed as how Wyoming is getting a lot of snow this year and that the trails in June might still be pretty wet. Just as they were in 2011.) Then a woman who noticed the shirt came up to me and told me about growing up in Wyoming and having run the Bighorn race, and we chatted a bit more before our corral was called. Maybe the Bighorn races and Dopey races have something in common on some subtle level.
The half-marathon (the Donald) and the full (the Mickey) require a longer walk from the check-in area out to the corrals on EPCOT Center Drive. The wait for the start was substantial, but this year the corrals were smaller and moved more quickly. Each of these races heads north up to Magic Kingdom on another road, World Drive, and then up through Main Street USA, where spectators are allowed in the park without tickets to cheer everyone on. My goal each year is to get a good corral placement and arrive at MK while it’s still a little dark, since it’s very pretty under the lights. (I need a better corral next time.) After MK, the half heads back south, paralleling the route up to MK, giving everyone two chances to see and/or pose with Jack Sparrow and other pirates alongside a mocked up ship, once in the dark and once well after sunrise. The half then heads back for a short run through a corner of EPCOT, past the singing and dancing gospel choir, and on to the finish and back where you had checked in before dawn. The full, of course, is more varied and covers more ground. Going south from MK, it takes a detour inside the Tom Petty NASCAR Speedway, then down for a loop through Animal Kingdom, and, in the last two years, a few miles through the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex (where you had been to the Expo and packet pickup four days earlier). The WWS part includes a stint on the track, and a run inside the ballpark where the Braves have their spring training. Then it’s a couple more miles of highways, with various entertainment, including the Toy Story Army guy (who is glad to count off as you drop down and do pushups), until you get to Hollywood Studios. You hit mile 23 in Hollywood Studios, and even if you’re pretty well cooked by then your mood is likely to improve with the “smell” of the nearby finish line.
That was the case with me. We had our best weather on marathon day and, feeling good and more energetic that day anyway, I was really savoring the last few miles. We proceeded on along the Boardwalk, World Showcase, and again past the gospel choir (how do they keep doing that all weekend?), all along with me pulling out my iPod taking pictures and videos of characters and even the cheering crowd (finding out, however, that shooting videos while in motion requires practice). I further savored the party atmosphere of the finish area, and especially the pint of local brew that aid in post-race hydration. (For the beer tent purchase, I was thankful that I wore the new “Magic Band,” which serves as your room key and credit card, and other things Disney World, all in one.) Speaking of savoring, I topped off the day with our traditional dinner buffet with friends Santa Steve, Joyce, and Kc, at the Boma restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge. I will say that is worth waiting and saving your appetite for.
So how did I like the experience, and would I do it again? Affirmative. I might do some things differently next time. I really should get more sleep, and maybe spend a little less time roaming the theme parks after the races. But I am fully open to another go at it, should that work out. This four-day venture included my fifth Disney marathon and fourth Goofy, and I think I still have more in me. I’m running marathons and ultras anyway, so getting in the training to make it relatively comfortable is not a big factor. Doing these races, particularly in the laid-back atmosphere of WDW, proved to be more doable than expected – just as Jeff Galloway was telling us in pre-race pep talks -- and I was able to run slight course bests in both the marathon and Goofy components (to the extent a personal best at WDW really matters).
There’s a huge diversity of running talent in these races. The overall Dopey champion, Mike Wardian (from nearby Arlington, VA), who surely ran all four races with a clear purpose and a focus, mentioned in a recent podcast interview how much fun he has racing at Disney, with all its bells-and-whistles entertainment. This is an elite runner, who trains very hard and races very fast, race after race. But you could hear in his voice how much fun he has with the sport. There’s room for everybody in these Disney races, the fast and the not-so-fast. So long as you’re willing to have fun.
flickr pix: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12843394@N00/sets/72157639994764035/
Monday, December 31, 2012
Sunday, September 16, 2012
For those who know the story, Lewis and Clark hadn’t yet really seen the ocean when Clark wrote that line, and they were experiencing a lot of more cold and rain, and misery in general, than any joy. My Labor Day Marathon along Huntington Beach (Surf City), Calif., was mostly the opposite. It was warm, comfortable, with great views of the actual Pacific Ocean and its thriving beaches the entire course. It was my first race in the Charlie Alewine Racing (CAR) program, a series of low-key, limited enrollment races (i.e., up to about 25 runners each) from the 5K level up to 100 milers staged mainly in the southern California area, a natural attraction to Marathon Maniacs and other runners alike.
I planned this trip initially around a bucket list idea to run the Disneyland Half Marathon, an interest which grew out of the fun I’ve had running at Disney World in Florida, including its marathons and the Goofy Challenge, which begins with a half marathon on one day, followed by the full marathon the next. I have come to see the Goofy as the “only way to go” at Disney World, since it gives the maximum chance to explore the full length of the resort, with the maximum exposure to the “magic” that the 10-year-old in me still enjoys (forgetting for the moment that I just turned 60). So when the flights and frequent flier mile options came into alignment, I set up my own Goofy challenge with the Disney Half, Anaheim version, coupled with the 26.2 miles up and down (and up and down) Huntington Beach’s paved bike path the next day. (This race is not to be confused with the Surf City USA Marathon in February, a more traditional marathon fare in the same beach area. http://www.runsurfcity.com/) And I could still come away with multiple items of schwag, including two shirts and three medals (with Disney’s nice Coast-to-Coast bonus medal for running both Disney resorts in one calendar year).
The Disneyland Half and the CAR race are about as different from each other as they can be – truly separate Bizarro worlds from each other. Disney is, of course, a big race with a big expo and a lot of glitter and costumes. It features dressed-up characters during your run through Disneyland itself, right after running through the adjacent California Adventure Park, recently dressed up with a billion-dollar improvement to include the new Cars Land section and a remaking of the old Buena Vista Street that Disney himself saw when he arrived in California in the 20’s. The parks are started up good and early for your 6 a.m. race start, with theme music playing through the different sections, a water-and-light show running in Paradise Pier (it looks much better at night), and the 50’s do-wop music and neon lights greeting you in Cars Land. Then it’s on to the streets of Anaheim, with high school bands, mariachi dancers, Hawaiian singers, and a unique touch with dozens of re-configured antique cars and not-so-antique Mustangs and Corvettes parked along the course courtesy of the local car clubs. A run through the Anaheim Angels stadium was another high point, a couple miles before heading back to the finish in the Disneyland Hotel parking lots. The cold towel with the temperature activated by adding water was a nice touch, and I particularly liked getting the two medals at the end – which I really couldn’t wear again because they are so clunky – kind of like the Goofy medals in Florida. And, unlike in Florida, I was able to walk the few short blocks between the start and finish lines and my neighborhood hotel, and when ready, I could walk back to dine at Downtown Disney, or head to the parks. No shuttle buses or monorails needed.
The CAR race the next day, of course, was quiet, run mostly alone, and serene for the most part. You meet in the lot behind the Jack-in-the-Box and embark on a 6.55 mile route along a paved bike path, with an aid station at about mile 4, followed by a dedicated dog beach, all of which I covered four times during the marathon distance. No crowds cheering, no one dressed as Princess Jasmine (she was fast) or Tarzan (not so much) as in the previous day, although one denizen of the beach noticed my singlet and shouted out “Go Maniac.”
I will say that the beach started getting crowded the last two legs, as Labor Day picnicers replaced the earlier morning’s laid-back surfers and the bike path became more and more a challenge of navigating the foot traffic, just as the sun bore down without mercy on my partially sunblocked shoulders. And I would add that the beach parking lots were full of RV’s and tailgaters, and the smoke of barbecues became pretty much an unavoidable presence. The race had several Maniacs, including Yolanda and Larry, out to break their Guinness record of numbers of marathons, and Mad Hatter Fancy Pants Ed, who graciously offered to run me in the last mile, while he was putting in his 50-mile day (on top of the 100-miler Run-de-Vous a couple weeks previously, and however many of the quadzilla of CAR races that weekend).
It was a fun, interesting, and very busy Labor Day weekend. My race times (about 2:23 and 5:14) were a slight improvement over my Goofy totals at Disney World. More importantly, getting back to Disneyland was a great dose of some real nostalgia for me, having visited there once as a little kid with my family and a couple times in college with my brother.
I was glad to be able to share the trip with my son. And I’m happy to report that Disneyland takes no back seat to the mammoth resort the Disney company built in Florida, and the race was about as perfectly done as you could hope. Yes, the trip was very tiring, and the lessons learned about the logistics of the trip would be put to good use next time. I really wouldn’t hesitate to go back and do either race again, time and money allowing -- perhaps a different CAR race, and perhaps the 10th Disneyland anniversary race coming up in three years. I also hear that the big Surf City Marathon in February is a real blast, with miniature surfboards as finisher’s medals to boot.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The ideal opportunity presented itself this month, with the availability of three marathons within driving distance of my home: the Lower Potomac River Marathon in Piney Point, MD (March 11), the Rock ‘n Roll USA Marathon in DC (March 17), and the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, VA (March 18). And why would one want to do this?
Reason No. 10: Because it’s there. There’s no requirement to have to fly all over the country to do these things, and when the stars properly align and simplify the logistics, you might as well go for it.
Reason No. 9: It’s my anniversary. Yes, I ran my first marathon 10 years ago this month (in one of the rare marathons run within the boundaries of DC), and it was time for a new challenge. Ok, that really had nothing to do with this whole thing, but it did turn out to be nice timing.
Reason No. 7: No apologies needed for being slow. People will forgive you if you just complete the damn thing. In fact, my running friends were very supportive and e-mailed and tweeted me along the way with advice and encouragement. One of them, An, even showed up on his bike and rode with me along the Anacostia River and made sure I stayed relatively coherent. Of course, the pressure of being in the e-spotlight also added an element of performance anxiety, but probably all for the good.
Reason No. 6: See more of your neighborhood in a short time. I’ve seen more of the trails and back roads of metropolitan DC/MD/VA than I ever would have without having taken up this hobby. Kind of like that, these three marathons provided a pavement-level tour of lots of new ground: the beauties of the Piney Point and St. George Island, MD, area, the cultures of the diverse neighborhoods of DC (if you’ve only seen the Mall you haven’t seen it at all), and some rural outskirts and military bases outside Virginia Beach you’ll never see just hanging out on the ocean front.
Reason No. 5: That’s what I’m talking about. No two marathons are identical, and that’s all the more true for three. There’s simply more of the basic beauty of the race to experience by cramming the hassle and discomfort of multiple events into a short time. You’ll adjust to it. Here, I had Piney Point, a small-town marathon put on by marathoners, for marathoners. Person for person, head to head, it had one of the best running fields I’ve seen in a race (and the most Maniacs), with enough of a grace period to fit in runners like me. With great scenery to boot. Rock ‘n Roll DC brought to town the Competitor group’s well-oiled, big-time operation, and I freely give those folks a thumbs-up. There’s something to be said about being able to roll in the trucks, set up like Barnum and Bailey sets up the circus, recruit the local music talent, and get it on. Well done. And Shamrock, a more mid-sized race, has the tradition and local support and awesome venue to pull it off nicely in its own way. Find your own trifecta, and vive la difference.
Reason No. 4: Pain can really be temporary. There are such things as getting a second or third wind, or working out cramps by running through them, or starting an endurance event with long slow warm-ups. What else could explain having hip and foot pains going into the first marathon, or having a strong case of “marathon legs” after the second one, but feeling smoother and more comfortable during the third one? Or finding the “zone” at the end of the last marathon and enjoying the last mile more than I had run in the month previously? Maybe I’m kidding myself and just blocking things out, but it was truly surprising how well that third marathon went. That’s the way running is, right? Sometimes things come together when you’re least expecting it and you get to have your little moment of Zen. You’d never have the experience if you don’t give it a chance.
Reason No. 2: Say goodbye to the post-marathon blues. You got no time to weep when there’s appointments to keep.
Reason No.1: It’s great preparation for a Quadzilla!
Sunday, January 29, 2012
“Caution, runners: speed bumps ahead. Caution, runners: speed bumps ahead. . . .” And so went one of several recordings over the PA system, at both the half marathon and full marathon. I first thought this was a joke, but it became obvious they were serious. This was just another example of the detail put into the planning for the Disney World Marathon weekend. (Yes, the crowds at times got so compact you really could use a warning that the terrain underfoot was going to change.)
Running the “Goofy,” the combo of a Saturday half and a Sunday full at WDW, is becoming a New Year’s rite of passage for thousands of runners like me. It’s a natural time for runners to assess their plans and goals for the coming seasons – how did my races last year go; am I over those injuries; should I go for shorter races in the spring and focus on a fall marathon; work in an ultra; or do more marathons and add a “Marathon Maniac” star or two – so why not start the year with something a little challenging but that’s also a lot of fun? Part of the reason you’re a runner is you really don’t want to grow up anyway (right?), so you might as well go run at the ultimate place for acting like a kid. Then you can see how the races go and narrow down your plans for the coming year.
This was to be my second WDW Goofy weekend, and third overall WDW marathon. My son Toby and I flew to Orland Friday morning, Jan. 6, and checked in at the Wilderness Lodge, a great resort environment that emulates a big lodge built in a western national park. He got out his laptop and went to work on some school assignments while I caught a bus down to the opposite end of the WDW complex to the expo to pick up my bib, shirts, and goody bag. I noted that one advantage of the Goofy seems to be shorter lines to pick up your packet, which is pre-assembled with the shirt for the half (Donald), for the full (Mickey), and for the Goofy. And yes, I like the way the shirt quality has been upgraded from two years ago, the first time I “went Goofy.” I’m walking around the expo wearing the t-shirt of the WDW Radio Running Team -- to which I pledged a little money for its campaign in support of the Make-a-Wish Foundation which grants seriously ill children their wishes to travel to some place fun, like WDW -- and the host of WDW Radio, Lou Mongello, spots me in the shirt and graciously comes over to chat. Eventually back at the hotel, I decided it was too late to take in a park (thanks Delta, for altering our reservations and getting us in an hour later than planned), but the priority was to get in a good dinner anyway. I order the bottomless skillet meal at the hotel’s Whispering Canyon restaurant, full of barbeque and cornbread and the like, something that should guarantee a slow time at the next day’s half-marathon. (And it does.) Well, come on. There’s just no way I’m going to eat sensibly at Disney World. The good food opportunities are way too abundant and an integral part of my pre-travel planning.
I leave the hotel at 3:30 a.m. for the next day’s race, which is to account for a bus ride to Epcot, loosening up at the runner’s village/family reunion area, and walking nearly a mile to the corrals for a 5:30-something start. I find that I’m placed about two corrals back from where I should have been, so I spent the first few miles (still dark, but with sufficient lights on the road) running on the grassy island to move ahead of the rather slow crowd. I convince myself to take it in stride, since there’s nothing I can do about it other than keep moving, at my still-slow pace. The roads open up as we get closer to Magic Kingdom, and I enjoy the sights of the castle and other attractions still in the pre-dawn light. I see Lou and the WDW Radio support team on Main Street cheering us on with some welcome high fives.
It is light by the time we leave Magic Kingdom at about the half-way point and turn back to Epcot. The race goes rather quickly. It has the usual variety of on-course entertainment, including numerous photo-ops with costumed characters, and to celebrate the 15th anniversary it includes roadside videos of old Donald Duck cartoons. I think I enjoy the audio stuff more than anything, including a nice variety of music over the PA systems, high school marching bands (mostly playing in the first hour just off the dark roads), and a lively Gospel choir just before the finish.
The full marathon is similar, but has less Donald Duck and the added routes through Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios with the related sights and sounds those provide, including some birds and animals brought out by their handlers, and additional in-theme characters (like Safari Mickey and Minnie). I find that I don’t mind the rather desolate road stretch from mile 18 to 22, because the course always offers something different, and you know that this is only a temporary segment since Hollywood Studios, shortly followed by a return to Epcot, will not be far away. In the “desolate” section I encounter Joe Taricani, the host of the Marathon Show podcast, and he comes over to interview me “on air” when he sees my Maniacs singlet. We chat a couple minutes into his microphone, and I move on. (Later I listen to his show about the marathon, and apparently my interview ended up on the cutting room floor. A good thing for the show, I’m sure.) Even at my slow pace I was passing people almost the entire full, but I found it less of a bother than in the previous day’s half. I found that I was telling myself to settle back and enjoy the last few miles for a change, because you seldom get to have an experience like this. I again pass the Gospel choir and run past the finish line, then suddenly find myself clapping, just for everything. I’m happy with about a 10-minute improvement over the last Goofy, and with the fact that I feel fine and perfectly able to walk around the parks without much post-marathon dragging.
I later enjoy a great post-marathon dinner with Toby and some new and old friends at Boma, Flavors of Africa (again, all you can eat), my third time for such a dinner so it’s now a solid post-marathon tradition. (Thanks, Rebecca!) Toby and I enjoy more of the parks (I think he likes Epcot the best, which I probably do, too), and then we head home Tuesday. I find that I have plenty of ideas going through my head for 2012 and 2013 races, mostly non-Disney, but there’s certainly more Disney in my crystal ball. This year I turn 60, but so far have no plans to grow up.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
"We too had lively times.”
Mattie Ross, True Grit
I didn’t know it would turn out that way when I first started thinking about running the “Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run,” about a year ago. I just knew it would be another fine race coupled with a visit to some of my many favorite spots in Montana. But when I mentioned the race at a party last fall in Bethesda, things started to happen. The next thing I knew there was a group of seven of us making our plans for Sheridan, WY, for the June 18 race. For the next several months we studied maps, trained on hills, and scheduled races as training runs. In my case, there was some step-back time as I nursed various sore extremities, particularly an aggravated tendon in my foot. But in sum, we did all the things runners usually do, albeit with a goal of preparing to handle 50K in decent fashion in altitudes up to 8,000 feet. It seemed a daunting task when you’re accustomed to the low altitudes of suburban D.C., but everybody was up for it.
One of my training races was the well-staged Salt Lake City Marathon in April, running at around 3,000-4,000 feet. This trip doubled as an excuse to visit my old childhood friend Dan, and his wife Marcia and his mother Marge, to experience their great hospitality and the best four days of home cooking you could hope for in any bed-and-breakfast. Maybe it was all due to that good eatin’ and pampering, but that race convinced me that I had nothing physically holding me back for Bighorn, so upon my return I resumed training as much as I sensibly could. And so it went.
We flew into Billings, MT, June 16, two days before the race -- Ken, Emaad, and I arriving on a noon flight, and Jennifer, Clay, Rebecca, and An arriving at midnight after stopping in Denver for storm delays. By then, we Three Amigos had already sampled some of Billings’ finest brews, and then had had supper with my high school classmate, Janet, enjoying the golf course view from her patio as golfers kept pounding the side of the house with wayward shots. (“Did I hit your house?” one golfer queried. “No,” Ken replied. “But this isn’t my house.”) On June 17 it was on to Sheridan, with a stop at Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn National Battlefield. This mysterious ground has had me spell-bound since I first visited it about 15 years ago, and I was delighted to see the Maryland gang take it in with interest. Ken had not only read up on this battle, but on Crazy Horse and several other battles of the Indian Wars in this area, and we had developed a list of about 10 potential sites to visit.
Post-race, some of us visited the site of the Fetterman Massacre and part of the old Bozeman Trail, but Ken’s energy level was down after spending two or three days with rather severe intestinal problems. He still managed to complete the 30K course, even in his electrolyte-depleted state. His excellent write-up in his blog describing the course and many of the other events is a must read. You can bet that he’s thinking he’s got to go back soon and do the 50 miler as originally planned.
I can never do justice to the scenery of this course through mere words, or mere digital photos. I would have to include somehow the sounds of the countless trickling and raging streams, fed by record-amounts of snow melt. But I could hardly describe the buttes, the forested hills, the view from the climb up The Haul, the fields of wildflowers, the trek through the field of birch trees, and craggy cliffs that looked like Easter Island figures and castles. Truly, I could scarcely blink for fear I would miss something. I was reminded of Meriwether Lewis’ journal entries about passing the White Cliffs of the Missouri Breaks of Montana: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary enchantment would never have and end . . . .” Well, there was an end, and after 4,000 feet of descent the last five miles of flat road was a welcome relief for my tired legs and feet.
Dinner that night at a steakhouse was a major treat. With spent legs and reeling from exhaustion, we giddily exchanged stories from the race, as Jennifer and An ate their giant steaks that looked like they had come from the flanks of a Brontosaurus. Emaad and I talked about the many interesting characters running the 100-mile course, including "Yosemite Sam" and others who looked like they had just emerged from the Old Dutchman mine, and the two elven spirits, a pair of six-foot-tall women who we were convinced had just arrived from Middle Earth as they glided along the ground in their effortless trek to the end. Jennifer told us about the woman who unleashed a barrage of profanities when asked “Aren’t you glad we’re almost done.” Or the woman who was picking out her “next boyfriend” among the guys passing her on the trail.
Post-race, the Three Amigos spent time in Billings at Janet’s house, while the two couples went on to Yellowstone. Ken and I explored the sights of Billings, including the Pictograph Caves State Park. Janet arranged a nice happy hour gathering with several of our classmates from the great class of ‘70, and Ken was surprised that some women were still willing to admit having dated me back in the day. We had to put an end to that talk when we left to go to the Mustangs’ minor league baseball game, putting a fit end to a great trip. What’s next? I’m certainly wondering when I’ll be able to do this race again. I have a few more marathons in the next few months close by, the Disney World in January, and maybe work on another Maniac star next spring (requiring 3 states in 9 days). Next summer my priority will probably be to go back to the Missoula Marathon, and along the way catch a group 60th birthday celebration with my classmates now living in Billings. To be sure, I won’t be forgetting Bighorn for a long time, and I probably won’t be satisfied until I get back there. For now, many thanks to the gang for sharing this great trip with me.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
I remember fifth grade pretty well. It was school year 1962-63, the year we lived in Mill Valley, Calif. The Giants indeed were giants, bigger than life to all school kids in Marin County. Living legends Mays, Marichal, McCovey, and Cepeda dispatched the hated L.A. Dodgers and took it to the last game of the Series with the Yankees. We got through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Kennedy, certainly among my young crowd, was more popular than ever. He continued to emphasize physical fitness, with backyard touch football games, and with his challenge to the military (and his staff) to complete 50-mile hikes, which quickly became a national fad. Politicians, high school students, Boy Scouts and congressional staffers all started getting into the act. I even remember a joke from the time: (Lewis and Clark came back from their big expedition out west and met with President Jefferson. “Mr. President,” said Lewis, “I’m all for physical fitness, but this 5,000 mile hike business is getting ridiculous!”)
And so it struck a chord a few years ago when I started running marathons and came to learn of something called the JFK 50 Miler, in Washington County, Md. It obviously had something to do with the old 50-mile hikes, but I didn't know just what until I read the web site material. I studied the route and could see its ties to Civil War sites, including the transcendently amazing Battle of Antietam. The race claims its pedigree back to March 1963, a few weeks after Bobby Kennedy walked 50 miles of the C & O Canal in his oxfords. (It’s now run in November, and sometimes coincides with the anniversary of JFK’s assassination.) People kept telling me that “if you can run a marathon you can finish JFK.” Several practice runs and now three JFK finishes later, I’ve become very fond of this remarkable territory. But I continue to wonder: what is the point of going to the expense, tedium, and discomfort of signing up for the race and doing 50 miles of it in one day?
Many people run JFK year after year, and many run it once and never again. My reason for signing up this year was largely ego. My two prior finishes, with the support of co-runners and crew, each took a little longer than 12 hours. My goal was to train better and improve that time: it didn’t really matter how much, just so it was down in the 11’s. I signed up in the July lottery and got accepted. It was clear this would be largely a personal quest, as none of my friends were signing up this time. Our Montgomery County Road Runners Club was starting its own 50 Miler on the beautiful Seneca Creek Trail, and many of the Club’s best trail runners were signing up for that. That was ok. I would get this JFK under my belt, improve my time, and probably be done with it.
Well, I lost some prime training time with an injury – a rolled ankle in early September and residual foot pain that kept me out of serious training for over a month. JFK was looking like money down the drain. And then I recovered. I found that I could run just fine, albeit slowly. So if I could just get in a couple marathons in the month before JFK, not only could I qualify for the four-star level in Marathon Maniacs (if you don’t know, don’t ask), but I might be able to get my legs semi-JFK ready for a shot at a somewhat respectable finish. Why not try, since I’m already signed up. And so it went: Niagara International Marathon on Oct. 24, and Marshall University Marathon on Nov. 7. Time now to get on the Internet and reserve my room at the Super 8 in Hagerstown, near the Nov. 19 race check in site.
I am in the 5:00 a.m. start – a nice handicap for the slower runners who then get a full 14 hours to finish -- so I leave my Super 8 a few minutes after 4:00 on race day and drive to the Boonsboro High School where the runners gather. I miss most of the “mandatory 4:15 pre-race briefing,” but I already know I’m supposed to run single file on the trails, not litter, etc. We walk about a mile to the downtown start, and I see on the bank sign that the temperature is about 34 degrees, about 15 degrees warmer than the last time I ran. People switch on headlamps and flashlights and we’re off. I have trouble getting my new GPS watch to lock onto satellites, at least until after we leave the skyscrapers of Boonsboro. We go up the now-familiar U.S. Alt. 40 to climb up to the South Mountain Inn, where we turn right and get on the rocky and cranky Appalachian Trial. New this time is chip timing, and the first timing mat is at the start of the trail, an odd thing to see in the woods.
The LED headlamps light up things quite well in near-pitch dark, and I enjoy getting on the trail. It’s a bit crowded for a while as people figure out their pace. The crowds thin out when we hit the fire road on the trail, a two-mile respite from having to dodge rocks and roots, but no break from the climbing. Then it’s back to the “real” trail. I start looking forward to the first signs of dawn at the top of the mountain, when it gets closer to 7:00, and you start seeing subtle pink sky off in the distance, growing brighter over time, and the trail gradually becomes more visible (and your headlamp becomes worthless). I reach the aide station at Gathland (part of the Battle of South Mountain) within my usual time, continue the hassle with the never-ending rocks, and eventually enter the switchback trail to come down the mountain. I compliment a woman on her nice race uniform, which she tells me she and her sister are wearing in the name of their brother, who loves the race but isn’t with them today. (Turns out he is on a hunting trip in Montana.) I am again amazed at seeing the leaders from the 7:00 a.m. start to pass me by on the switchbacks, admiring how fast they can run on such difficult terrain. I come off the mountain and see Ken Swab who graciously awaits with my drop bag with change of shirts, hat, and shoes. My feet are already starting to blister, caused I think by my “size-up” trail shoes which make my feet slip around on top of the hard surface of my orthotics as I cover the uneven terrain. When I change my shoes and socks I notice the top of my left foot is red, a little irritated I guess by the shoe when I twist and turn over some of the rocks I step on. (Note to self: do more training on the trails.) Anyway, the change of shoes feels great, and off I go. I pass the Weverton check-in station at my usual time of about 4:22 and head to the towpath for the next 26.3 miles, remnants of the C & O Canal on the right and might Potomac on the left.
This monotony can be as much a test of one’s sanity as it is physical prowess. This time my mental fitness was ok, but it was a physical grind. I had the strength to keep going, but no real “spring in the step,” so to speak. I dueled the rest of the way with the blisters and what turned out to be a bruising on top of the left foot that had started to swell up. Nothing was excruciating, but it was continually annoying. But I still enjoy the various landmarks on the trail that are becoming more familiar. I spot Harpers Ferry and its bridge, and later approach the Sheperdstown bridge and hear the crowds from the football stadium. I miss seeing Don Libes and his interactive aid station at Taylor’s Landing, but it was a lot to ask of him to keep coming back. I miss Coach Cathy who has moved away and no longer can organize our training runs and drop bags as she did in prior years (but I still remember her training tips). I notice a couple of our black MCRRC shirts made for prior JFK’s, so some of the club has turned out. The Reston Runners are out in force, more organized than ever, with nice matching drop bags with a sponsor’s name printed on them, arrayed together at specific aid stations.
Unofficially, I reach Antietam Aqueduct (27.1 miles) about 5 minutes slower than last time, Taylor’s Landing (38.5 miles), about 32 minutes slower than last time (bad patch there), and Dam #4, the last point on the Canal, about 30 minutes slower than last time.
I stop to take a picture of the dam, and a volunteer offers to take a picture of me, with the sun getting low in the sky. It’s obvious I wouldn’t be finishing anywhere near 5 p.m., and thus would be running well after dark, still wearing my sunglasses. (I’ll take them off before the finish line. No sense trying to look cool.) The last 8.4 miles, after leaving the towpath, are on rolling country roads, code words for “hilly”. If I could run all the downhills and walk briskly up the hills, I should be able to at least finish under 13 hours. My new Plan B. I soon get to enjoy the sunset, on my left, and the full moon rise, on my right, simultaneously. I have trouble keeping up Plan B, but pick it up as I get closer to the finish, at the usual Williamsport Middle School, managing a time of 12:56:36, about 50 minutes slower than last time. The road section was tough, but I’m happy as I cross the finish. But I’m never doing this #*(&^*!? race again. I enjoyed the catered burrito supper in the gym, and managed to limp into the shower for one of the last warm showers left in the pipes. I chat a little with a nice guy who I had seen wearing the shirt “The chemo is over, now it’s time to run.” He was talking about how much he enjoyed the race. Several times I thought about Coach Mike, who never even got to the chemo part. Yeah, I think I can handle a few blisters.
I took the last bus back to Boonsboro, where my car was parked, riding with a group of friendly Reston Runners, including one poor fellow who got pulled from the course because he wasn’t making the 14-hour cutoff.
My next few days were marked by sore feet and quads, and a morbid fear of stairs, but I’m fine by the following Saturday. Maybe I’ll reconsider that “never again” thing. After all, what goes around comes around in time. Mays and McCovey were in the parade celebrating the Giants’ Series victory this year. The White House is again preaching fitness. And the 50th JFK 50 Miler is only two years away.
Thanks for reading. You can click here for an interactive Google map of the course, with an option for Google Earth view if you like to play with that. Let me know if it doesn’t work.