my first Ultramarathon – JFK 50 Mile Race Recap

Two weeks after finishing Ironman Florida I competed in the JFK 50 Ultramarathon on November 20.  The JFK 50 Mile was first held in the spring of 1963.  It was one of numerous such 50 mile events held around the country as part of President John F. Kennedy’s push to bring the country back to physical fitness. When Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, most of these events were never held again.  The one in Washington County, MD changed its name from the JFK 50 Mile Challenge to the JFK 50 Mile Memorial in 1964.  The JFK 50 Mile in Washington County, MD is the only original JFK 50 Mile Challenge event to be held since then.  This is the oldest ultra-marathon in the country and because of the terrain and also the endurance needed to run to course, some don’t even make it to the finish line.

This race was a nonstop adventure all the way through.  I have a very limited background in trail racing so this was an initiation to this style of running, and since this was also my first ultramarathon, it was my first time going beyond 26 miles on foot.  I went into this race with the hope that if I could get through the Appalachian Trail (AT) section, I could push through and make it to the finish, so this was my main strategy for the day. 

After the first few miles of rolling hills on the road we finally made our way to an ominous looking sign that said “Appalachian Trial” in very rugged letters, and it quickly became really clear why everyone says that this is a very technical trail.  With my background in triathlons and marathons, I’ve never experienced anything even close to this; my limited experience on trails when training could not have prepared me for this type of terrain, but I just tried to do what everyone else was doing. 

The trail itself was laid out with splintered rock, boulders, roots, sticks, tree stumps and logs, so every step was basically upon something that wasn’t flat.  But, I personally found that the real struggle was knowing how to position each foot when making your way through because every step had to be so soft and precise.  As new and difficult as this was, I was loving it because it was such a new experience and it was a nice change from running on flat surfaces for miles at a time.  Every turn or hill on the AT was something new so the senses were hurrying to react with every split second. 

I don’t even know how much time passed during the AT trail because I felt like my body was just reacting with the trail, and because of this, my mind was focused entirely on having smooth and clean steps.  There were a few moments when I was descending some of the really rocky areas that my legs were moving so quick that they didn’t even feel attached to my body anymore, but luckily, they kept me upright and that is all that mattered. 

After being on the AT for about fifteen miles, we finally exited and headed to the C&O Canal, which is a majority of the length of this race.  My legs, feet and ankles were pretty beat up at this point, but at least we were finally on some flat terrain.  After the first mile or so, I went on auto-pilot and just focused on moving forward at a steady pace.  I would walk the aid stations and pick up the rhythm again for the next 3-4 miles until the next station and I found this to be a pretty good strategy.  At the halfway point on mile 25 I stopped to loosen up my shoes a little bit and had a quick lunch break for about ten minutes where I had a few conversations with some of the other first timers; they were telling me about some of the horror stories that they heard or witnessed of people taking some really bad falls on the trail.  I didn’t hesitate to count my blessings at this point.  Finishing in a certain time wasn’t my goal, I just wanted to finish so ultimately I was just happy to make it through the AT safely.

After mile 27, I was really interested in seeing how my body was holding up because this was the longest I ever went on foot, so I was happy to see that things were still going well.  Miles 30-35 were consistent, but I could feel some heavy fatigue setting in, and I was being haunted by the fact that my body was still in recovery mode from my Ironman two weeks ago.  But I kept one foot in front of the other and did my best to overcome this psychological battle taking place. 

By mile 38 I was joined by my friend Ray who is an elite ultramarathoner who ran this race several times, but was taking a break this year and helping a few of his buddies who were running it.  He and I were talking about the day and who won, the course itself, strategy for trail running, his experiences from running it the past few years, and before I knew it, we were cruising at 10 minute miles and the best part was that it didn’t hurt as bad as the 12 minute miles I was hitting during the past ten or so.  Having Ray there was such a motivational boost and I was so grateful that he was taking the time to pace me, and in the next two miles we were clocking sub-9 mile splits. At mile 45 he had to go check on his friend, so for the last five miles I ran solo and I dug deep while trying to hold the same pace that we were at.  I just felt this surge of adrenaline because I couldn’t believe I was running at this pace after already covering almost 50 miles – having Ray there for the previous hour made such a positive impact on my ability to finish strong. 

It was at the 49.5 mile marker where I could hear the cheers from the spectators at the finish and that is where I gave it everything I had left and sprinted to the  line in an overall time of 9:50:16.  My first ultra marathon – complete!

Every time I get to the finish line at any event it is such an overwhelming emotional experience; I can honestly say that I’ve never crossed the line without tears in my eyes because I’m just thrilled to be able to have the opportunity to even compete at all.  Six years ago in November I was just released from the hospital for the second time, and was still in a wheelchair.  Now six years later, I crossed the finish line of my first ultramarathon and it is such an amazing feeling. 

I’m often asked about why I want to push my body so much after what I’ve already experienced in the past few years, and the answer is simple – when I cross the finish line, it is my way of saying Thank You to everyone who has supported me along my journey back to life.  Whether it’s a 5K, a marathon, an Ironman, or an Ultramarathon – it is about showing my appreciation and getting to the finish line is the final result of their support.   

To everyone who has been a part of this journey, Thank You for always believing in me.

Click here to watch a news segment about Brian’s JFK race.


2010 Ford Ironman Florida Race Recap

Brian at the swim start for the 2010 Ford Ironman Florida

On November 6, 2010 I competed in Ironman Florida (my third full Ironman in my triathlon career) and achieved a personal best of 40 minutes by finishing in 10:14.  

I really enjoyed this race a lot and I loved the course. Ironman Florida is typically one of the most competitive age-group races of the year. The swim takes place in the Gulf of Mexico. The water is warm enough for a comfortable swim, but cool enough to allow wetsuits.  The bike course is flat and fast.  The run passes through one of America’s most popular state parks, and just as it is on the bike, the run course is also flat, and, in theory, fast. The run starts with a mile along the beachfront before winding its way through a series of residential neighborhoods. During this part of the course, the athletes enjoy almost non-stop support as people wait outside their houses to greet them. 

On race day, the weather wasn’t typically what you would consider “warm and sunny Florida” because the temperature was in the 30’s when the race began; the air and sand were so cold that we all huddled around in the water before the cannon went off.  As soon as the race began, it was such an amazing sight to be swimming in the Gulf while getting a few glimpses of the rising sun.  The swim itself was very aggressive since it was a mass swim start and it took about 500 yards to finally find some space to get into a rhythm.  The swim portion consisted of two 1.2 mile loops, so after you finished your first lap you would get out, run by an aid station on the beach, and hop back in the water.  I was planning to make a mad dash out of the water, get something to drink, and dive back in for the second lap, but for some reason my legs have a tendency to cramp during the swim so I jogged through the aid station and eased into the next lap.  The overall 2.4 mile swim went great and I was able to set a personal record by improving my swim time to a 1:05. 

As soon as we exited the water and made our transition to the bike, I was ready to go all out on this course that was known to be fast due to the single loop that wrapped around the long and flat sections of Florida highways.  I kept a strong and steady pace as soon as I got on the bike and pushed through the headwinds that never seemed to go away during the entire ride; the air temperature was so cold already but to add the headwinds just made it even more brutal. My fingers were so cold at one point that I had some trouble switching the shifters to change the gears, but as the race continued on things gradually warmed up. I was able to make it to the halfway point of the 112 miles with a time of 2:23 and felt really good the entire way even though I knew I was using up some extra energy fighting the wind.  I was able to maintain the pace the entire duration of the ride and finished with a bike time of 4:57, which I was so thrilled about because I really wanted to have a sub-5 bike split for this race. 

The temperature had warmed up a little bit more by the time we started the run.  The crowds of spectators really gave a much needed boost of adrenaline to start the marathon out with a good pace.  I was able to keep the first six miles in the 7-7:30 range, which began to slowly rise as the race went on to 8 minute miles to even 9 minute miles by the halfway point and even a few 10 minutes here and there near mile 20.  I was able to get back down to the 8 and 7 minute splits near the last few miles and made a strong finish with a marathon of 4:03. 

When you travel to an Ironman event, you don’t just see the Ironman spirit in the athletes, you feel it.  There is an energy in the air that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.   

During the race, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much improvement has taken place since my first Ironman in 2007.  To go from finishing in the high 14’s to the low 10’s is such a great feeling because I’ve been working so hard in this sport; I’m so fortunate to have had all the support from those around me on a daily basis. To everyone who has been a part of my triathlon and running career, Thank You for always believing in me. 

Overall, Ironman Florida was a great success and I highly recommend it to anyone, both first timers or top age groupers.  Congratulations to everyone who competed this weekend!

Brian Boyle #198

Rank: 180/3000

Swim: 1:05:41  Bike:  4:57:03  Run:  4:03:09  Overall:  10:14:20