Ultrarunning Magazine

January / February 2011

You Don’t Just See It, You Feel It

By Brian Boyle 

The race was a nonstop adventure.  I have a very limited background in trail racing so the JFK 50 was my initiation to this style of running, and was also my first ultramarathon.  I went into the event 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 running a strong AT was my main strategy for the day.

When the race began, everyone kind of clustered together in a large pack, with many conversations going on all around as we ran.  After a few minutes on the road, the pack started to break up into smaller groups.  When we got to the rolling hills some people would start to walk in order to conserve their energy, with some even walking backwards up the hills.

After we left the paved roads that comprised our first few miles, we finally made our way to an ominous-looking sign that said “Appalachian Trail” 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 road marathons, I’ve never experienced anything even close to this.

The trail itself was decked out with splintered rock, boulders, roots, sticks, tree stumps and logs.  I found that the real struggle was knowing how to position each foot because every step had to be so soft and precise.  As new and difficult as it was, I was loving it because it was such a new experience and 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. Everyone was very courteous, too, so if somebody missed a step or tripped or even fell, those around would make sure they were okay, it felt like a really safe environment because we were all in this together.

My legs were pretty beat up by the time we hit the C&O Canal.  After the first mile or so, I went on autopilot and just focused on moving forward at a steady pace.  I would walk through the aid stations and pick up the rhythm again for the next three to four miles to the next station and found this to be a pretty good strategy.

At mile 27, I saw my parents and my training partner (an English bulldog named Daisy) and that really gave me a boost.  My parents have attended every one of my athletic events since I was a kid, and we have been through a lot together.  This was our first ultramarathon and they were really relieved I’d made it through the AT unscathed.  I liked the sound of finishing in ten hours, but I knew that I had to keep a steady pace for the rest of the race to accomplish that.

Miles 30 to 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.

Miles 40 to 48 were all about moving forward in a mode that could only be described as tunnel vision.  Time seemed to stand still as the trail transformed into a never-ending path of dirt, gravel, and leaves.  At this point, it was a team effort amongst all the runners and everyone was pushing each other to stay strong and dig deep for the final segment.

I know that I don’t have the best running form or technique, but I run on pure heart and determination; in my darkest moments, when the thought of stopping or slowing down is surfacing in my mind, I reflect on the long road to recovery I’ve been on since 2004.  I think about being in ICU, being confined to my bed with the thought of never walking again, seeing my parents suffer as they looked upon what used to be their vibrant son.  In moments like this, it’s almost like something ignites within and my heart explodes with a surge of energy that only happens after my body has been pushed to that limit. 

It was about mile 49.5 where I could hear the cheers from the spectators at the finish line.  I gave it everything I had left and sprinted in for a time of 9:50:16.  My first ultramarathon – complete!  I can now fully understand why runners love ultrarunning so much, and with my first 50 under my belt, I’m already setting my sights on the next goal: a 100-miler.

On a personal level, I find that the finish line is where you really see the spirit of the runners.  You look around at all these athletes who have been preparing for months, even years, for this event; who have been out on this treacherous course for ten to 14 hours, and you don’t just see it, you feel it.  It’s so emotional; instant camaraderie when you cross that line.  You see people you have interacted with and cheered for since the early morning, overcoming the same obstacles together, and you share in the triumph together.

As I crossed the finish line of my first ultra, with many more to come, it was an amazing feeling.

Brian running in the JFK 50


Now an Ironman triathlete and an ultramarathoner, a little over six years ago, Brian Boyle was nothing more than a skeleton on his deathbed.  One month after graduating high school in 2004, he was coming home from swim practice and was involved in a car accident with a dump truck.  The impact of the crash ripped his heart across his chest, shattered ribs/clavicle/pelvis and collapsed his lungs, with damage to every single organ along with kidney and liver failure, as well as loss of 60 percent of his blood.

After spending two months in a coma on life-support, 14 operations, 36 blood transfusions, 13 plasma treatments, Boyle had lost 100 pounds.  In a wheelchair for over two months, he had to learn how to talk, eat, shower, and live independently again.

Boyle says, “I strive to live everyday to the fullest and competing in these ultra-distance events is all about the thrill of the challenge and celebrating life.”