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.