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.