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All About the Mountain


The JFK50 for 2009 has been run.  It was a challenge to be sure.  For starters, we ran over a mountain, South Mountain, to be more exact. I found this to be both the best and the worst part of the 50.  Really, it is all about the mountain. Now I understand. We ran along the ridge for a while. Some of the views were amazing. When the stony trail smoothed out a little, you had a chance to look up–and then down to see the valleys on either side. Even in the grey of November, it is a bit breathtaking. This is Appalachian trail,  some of which I’d hiked before, and experiencing at such a pace was, well, kind of thrilling. More than kind of.

We took our time on the up-hills, walking or at a half-trot. Part of the up-hill where we mounted the trail is paved, and this felt highly unnatural, even after running up a couple of miles of road. But then we reached the summit, ran along the rocky ridge, through a series of ups and downs, and finally down some treacherous switchbacks to the river.

Once again, I found myself at several points racing down a trail, trashing my quads for the sheer joy of it and not caring one bit how I would pay later.  Only now I had to worry about having something left for the flat-ish 34 miles to come. There is something so primal about running trails. I really couldn’t help myself. At one point I just gave up, threw caution to the wind and just let the horse go. I reminded myself that more than anything, even more than finishing that day, my main goal was to enjoy this experience, and there may be nothing on this planet I like more than nimbly flying–or crashing–down a stony mountain trail. A couple of face plants and a twisted ankle later reminded me to take it easy a bit. But I was by no means out of commission.  Training mostly on the flat dirt of the tow path, city streets and the hamster mill, I soon became mindful again that running trails is so much more physically taxing than road racing, or at least taxing in a different way. Mentally taxing, you must focus on every step–and quickly. One false step could be devastating, and much like climbing, it will remind you later of muscles you didn’t know you had.

Coming down the mountain switchbacks brought on a serious bout of runner’s euphoria, and I began quietly singing to myself in Gaelic. I was careful to do it quietly. Hope I didn’t annoy anyone. From here, we could hear the crowd at the first pit stop below cheering, and this drove us on, some of us a bit delirious from the mountain run.

I was proudly running with the Reston Runners a well-established club that among its vast and varied membership includes a large contingency of seasoned ultra runners who run the JFK every year. They kindly adopted me for the experience, despite my Maryland residency, and proved to be the warmest, most conscientious and supportive group a person could be honored to have stumbled upon.

At the pit stop, I was greeted with the familiar face of my friend Leslie, a Reston member with whom I had run several times over the summer in training. She has run the JFK 4 times.  She was there cheering me on, waving and smiling. Others in the club had my drop bag ready for me, the first of a series of personally-packed bags the club’s crew delivered to various points on the run.  Much like a race car pit crew, they soon had me finely tuned and oiled with water, gels and anything else I needed for the next round.  They were invaluable to say the least. This early on,  I needed nothing more than some water and a gel, but the psychological support got me much further.

After the mountain, we only had 34 miles of nice flat and semi-flat coasting to go. As ultras go, the JFK is a piece of cake–only one small mountain, and you get it over with early. And we’d had perfect weather. It’s hard for me to imagine minding those leaf-covered rocks at such a pace in a cold rain. It made me realize what a newbie I am to this sport, and well, to life–at knowing myself–how I’ve only but grazed the surface when it comes to getting myself into shape and understanding my own needs, limits and abilities.

On the tow path, my beloved training ground, I relaxed and ran–took my time. I adopted the recommended pacing for first-timers–an on-off combination of running with tiny walk breaks.  I ran with a Marine for a long stretch as we seemed to be traveling in a similar pace pattern. We’d pass eachother, then run for a stretch together.  People were most friendly and talkative throughout, and there were people from all walks of life.

The day was lovely.  I watched the river move, and stared up at points into the endless blue. It was a joy to run along the river, the woods, and the cliffs on that stretch of tow path that was my old stomping grounds–where I used to train before I moved last March. I recalled a lot of my runs there.  I had really grown and changed on this familiar stretch of ground. And during that time, I had told myself that someday I would run the JFK, and now here I was, looking from this past perspective as if I were experiencing a tiny sliver of the future rather than the present. It was unique. It was timeless. It was real.

It took me 10 hours and 11 minutes to finish. I didn’t push it. My goal was to finish and enjoy the experience. And I did. Still, I  managed to find it in me to sprint across the finish; passed my husband in the crowd on the way, slapped him five. It was a great, strong ending to a wonderful race. Worries of dredging up bad states of mind and fears of  where the distance would take me were completely unfounded. I believe this may be due to the fact that all of the early running required a great deal of concentration, and once I reached the flat stretches, I had already reached a euphoric state. I wondered if this would wear off eventually, giving way to fatigue, but it never did. I was ecstatic from mile 28 on–and for the next two days.

Now I have had just a small taste of what is to come.  Of this, I was assured by my new friend Anna, who had just run her 15th JFK. She regularly runs 100-milers, so this was for her, but a walk in the park.  When she saw me after the race, she asked, “Well, how was it?”

I was still grinning, and before I could gather my thoughts to properly express my full joy and amazment at the experience, I paused as I saw that look of recognition in her eye. She just smiled, and said, “Ah, you’ll be back.”

The strangest thing about the experience, over-all, was how entirely natural it felt.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/26/2009 00:20

    Great race report! Very well written, capturing some of the nameless joys of running trails among rivers and mountains, the ultra community, and just running really far. I fell in love with ultrarunning a couple years ago, and now I live in the US Virgin Islands. They didn’t have an ultramarathon here yet, so I started one. I hope you will consider running the St. Croix Scenic 50 in January ( or at least tell your friends. Thanks again for sharing your story.


    • 11/26/2009 13:42

      Thanks, Matt!
      I would love to run the St. Croix Scenic 50. Not sure if that’s feasible this year, but I’ll try for it, and I’ll spread the word.
      And if I can’t make it this year, perhaps next!


  2. 11/26/2009 18:37

    Wow! you are so impressive! How do you do this and then show up at work all normal?

    • 11/28/2009 00:07

      Really, I didn’t feel bad afterward. It did seem to run my immune system down a bit, and I was a little sore on Sunday–mostly the quads–but I was nimble enough to climb a tree.
      Monday, I took it easy and stretched, but by Tuesday I was biking and running again in the morning. Put in a fast 7 miles Wednesday morning–felt like I was back to normal. I don’t think it was as hard on me as most marathons. Perhaps it’s the lack of pavement or the walk breaks–or both.

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