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JFK50, Mountains, the Moon and You


The mountain looked as if it were encased in spun glass. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun set a soft mood for a steady crawl over the icy, wind-whipped Cresson summit.  I tried to focus on the flute and those beautiful, if stilted, glassy trees. Circumstance it seems had me making that lone drive once again up through the Pennsylvania highlands’ stormy weather for holiday with family.  But in my head I was not driving. I was out in that wind and rain. I was running, floating over the mountain. Despite all of times I had spent navigating the perilous Cresson summit, despite all of my wonderings about these mountains growing up, it seems that after this November I would never view the mountains of Appalachia in the same light. My respect for them had deepened. This mountain, I knew, on which I was now traveling had taken many lives. Now I knew that in addition to taking life, mountains were capable of giving it.

November used to be the month I dreaded more than any other.  The cold, short days, the leafless trees and gray-brown landscape; the time of year when many gave up the ghost, could be overwhelmingly depressing. But like it has done with so many other things for me, running has turned November around.

It is quickly becoming a big race month for me, and this  year by Thanksgiving, in addition to my health, my wonderful husband, loving family, and awesome colleagues, I had even a great deal more to be thankful for.

The month’s two 50-milers came and went without DNF or injury, and left me with nothing but new friends,  smiles, good memories, and a positive outlook for the season to come.

Saturday, I ran the JFK50, my last ultra of the year. It did not disappoint. It was enormously fun, even more so than last year. Knowing better what I was in for, I could relax a bit. And two weeks before, I had run the MMTR which gave me a great deal of confidence.

Since I am new to the sport and have but a few races under my belt, I cannot yet personally compare these east coast 50-milers to any of the vastly different races held elsewhere.  But my experience of them and of two JFKs has solidified the notion that no two races are ever alike.  So despite their proximity in time and place,  it felt as though the only other thing they had in common was the distance, and a few of the runners.  My experiences of them really couldn’t have been more different.

In addition to the difference in the terrain (JFK goes up over one mountain, climbing around 1200 feet over some rough, extremely rocky single track of AT , and is followed by mostly flat, river-side miles.  MMTR has stream crossings and connects two mountains, climbs 9200 and drops 7200 feet with most of the serious climbs in the second half of the race). MMTR has a field of roughly 300 while JFK has roughly 1000. The folks racing the MMTR, though there were some first-timers and a few newbies like me, were mostly hardcore, seasoned ultra racers–an impressive if humble, welcoming, fun-loving group, but nearly all strangers to me (of course, I’d read about a lot of them–to me they were more legends than people). And though the aid station folks were extremely nice and helpful, I had no one crewing for me that day.  I was in essence alone with my heroes and strangers in the mountains. At the JFK, in addition to many seasoned racers, there were plenty of newbies, and it seemed there were sooo many people I knew, either running or crewing, it was as much a reunion as a race.

Both were fantastic experiences, and I cannot say I preferred one to the other. It is a comparison of apples and oranges to be sure. Both tested me differently. While the vertical climbs of one were challenging, the continuous faster pace on the long, flat distances of the other was as well. But both managed to pull me out of the confines of self and make me one with the landscape. Both challenged my brain to grasp at wisps of that beauty and vastness that is the universe.

For the JFK, the weather could not have been more perfect. And since I was feeling strong, and had the support of so many wonderful people, spectators, fellow runners and crew, especially my Coast Guard friends and the Reston Runners, who are the most fantastic group I could have ever lucked into finding,  I decided to race a little bit,  and managed to shave 42 minutes off last year’s time.  Coming in just under 9 and a half hours (9:29:15) placed me at 292nd out of 1014 finishers; not too bad for a slower runner like myself. I guess it surprised me. It gave me confidence. Sure, like all runners, I want to be fast. But at the same time, I don’t run to race, and I love the slower pace of the long races. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I just didn’t want to waste the race purely focusing on a fast finish. Maybe if I WERE fast, that would make  sense. But I did feel a challenge to do better than last year, and to offer something to show for all of the loving support I was given.

Even though it was not the first time, it was still a great feeling just completing the race distance. I read in a fellow JFKer’s blog that less than one tenth of 1% of the U.S. population has ever completed a 50-mile race. While I’ve heard the stats before, I still find it shocking, after seeing the large crowd at JFK, and after seeing how the running boom has transformed marathons into these huge commercial running festivals.  When I went to register for Boston this year, I was quick to do it, and just made it in, it seems. They had a record 8 hours before the registration filled.  Last year it took 2 months to fill.

I find myself with mixed emotions about this running boom. Truly I want everyone who can to run, and to run far. I think running is one of the best things a person can do for their physical, mental and emotional health. And I think running a marathon (or an ultra) is a most worthy goal. I try to encourage everyone I know who shows even the least bit of interest to try it. Like with my own, running far has changed the lives of so many I know. It heals like nothing else.  And setting a goal like a marathon helps make that happen.

Yet I see what the boom has done to racing. I worry about the commercialization of the ultra world and how that might change the closely-knit, selfless, ultra community. I wonder if eventually ultras will become the circus that marathons have become.

At the start of the race, I spoke with a runner who was running his 18th JFK. I asked him how it has changed over the years. I rather expected to hear how big the race has become, how commercial it is by comparison with previous years, but he said the that it ebbs and flows. He didn’t share my concern.  Booms are faddish after all, and ultra distances are not for everyone.

While marathons can get up to as high as 20,000-30,000 in field size per race, only around 20,000 people total in the U.S. participate in all ultras combined over a given year.  So there is a difference. And plenty of room for more folks to try an ultra. While many find the distances daunting, they are certainly achievable. And not as painfully as one might think.

Now that the racing is done for me a few months–well, maybe for a month–and winter is setting in, it is a time once again for me to focus on other pursuits, and to perhaps dream a little.

Maybe it is true I have lofty dreams, but I believe it would do us all good to run a little farther and dream a little bigger. So. Join me in dreaming this year of bigger and better things for yourself and for the world– things like democracy in Burma and running ultra distances.

If you haven’t run an ultra and are thinking about it, go for it! Shoot for the mountains and the moon. What you experience will be priceless, and you may just surprise yourself.  : )

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/26/2010 19:03

    What a wonderful piece — I so enjoyed reading it!

  2. Javier Hamann permalink
    12/10/2010 02:13

    Truly inspiring article. I ran my second marathon in October and am now thinking ultra. But it seems daunting, as I have never run on trails. Any advice?

    • 12/11/2010 17:10

      Hi Javier,
      Thanks much for the kind words. I’d be happy to help in my limited, newbie way.
      Based on my experience, the first thing I recommend is to do at least a little trail running if possible. If you don’t know of any trails in your area, do some investigating. I recently moved to a major metropolitan area, and had to dig a little to find nearby trails, but it seems there are trails to be found wherever you are. Check with local running orgs. Even a little trail experience will make all of the difference. Not only does trail running use different muscles, but also it requires a different kind of concentration, and you will need to acclimate a bit. The fall issues of Runner’s World and Running Times magazines had good articles about beginning trail running. These may be worth a look for some suggestions. There are a few ultras held on pavement as well. (I have not tried one of these–trails tend to be much kinder to the joints–something you may want to consider when going the longer distances.) That said, I have done much of my training for the ultras I ran on pavement (and ahem, even some via treadmill as this summer’s weather was so hot). A combination, while maybe not ideal, seems to be fine.
      When choosing a starter ultra race, since you haven’t done much trail running, you may want to aim for a shorter one, such as a 50K(31mi). There are plenty of 50K ultras round the country, and this way you could focus on acclimating to the trail surface over a distance to which you are more accustomed. Though it’s not much farther than a marathon, plan to move much more slowly on this terrain than you would racing a road marathon. From the 50K, it is an easier step up to a 50 miler. If you start with a 50 miler, remember to keep a slower pace, especially starting out. Even so, you will most likely have enough time to take walk breaks. If a good portion of the race is semi-flat like the JFK, many first-timers follow a pattern of running a mile, walking a minute or two, running a mile, then walking a minute or two, etc.
      Ultra races that are good for newbies will often say so. Look for ones with lots of aid stations. Look for descriptions of the surface: is it rocky single track? (maybe good to avoid or keep to a minimum for a first race) or maybe soft jeep trail? what are the elevations? Will you have to climb mountains? (this has its pros and cons. Though it’s exhausting, climbing will offer rest to tired running muscles, and use a different, fresher set, etc.), do you have to cross streams? You may want to start with something close to home, so you will have at least some familiarity with the flora and fauna, climate, elevation, etc.
      You could also look for other ultra runners in your area for advice on where to train, and for more specific training plans. Prepping for an ultra is a lot like training for a marathon only there will be more emphasis on (more of your weekly mileage will go into) the long run. Predictably, you will put in longer long runs than for the marathon though the group I first trained with (Reston Runners) for the JFK50mi recommended running one marathon for training about a month before the race as the farthest distance necessary to cover before the race. They are a well-experienced group, and offer mentoring via email if you are interested. (I try to put in a couple of 30-milers before a 50miler, but mostly this is for my state of mind.) Once you have chosen your race, look for advice on training specifically for that race. While it may not require specific training, ultra runners often provide a lot of good friendly advice on dealing with the specifics of many ultras, and it helps to tailor the training to the conditions of your race.
      In addition to the trail surface, there are a few major ways ultras differ from marathons that you need to consider. You will be on your feet for much longer, and as a result may be exposed to varying temps and weather conditions. Many runners rely on crews of one or more people to provide them with drop bags of amenities (a change of clothes and/or shoes, favorite foods, first aid )at various aid stations along the course. I ran one 50-mile ultra without any crew, and but one drop bag, but I made a point to carry first aid and removable layers of clothing, gloves, flashlight, etc. Most ultra runners carry a water source (a water pack or a hand held for example) and food source (I like gels) in addition to the water, sports drink and food offered at aid stations, and electrolytes (sodium/potassium tabs). You will have to consume many more calories than you would for a marathon, so if you are not accustomed to eating and running, use your training long runs to try some different foods and see what works for you.
      This seems to cover most of the bases. I’d be happy to communicate more about it if you like over email.
      Hope this helps get you started. One more thing that might be worth mentioning again: ultras are tremendously fun!


  3. 06/06/2011 14:10

    Hi! I stumbled across your blog from the Reston Runner’s site. Very good blog! You have a lot of great information. I’m interested in this post about the JFK50 race. The post was excellent and I appreciate your advice for a newbie. I’ve only ran 1 marathon and my next one is Chicago. I’m very interested in running the JFK50 this year! Hopefully I can get in!!! Thanks!

    • 06/07/2011 00:23

      Thanks much! Just be sure to apply as soon as possible (July 1st I believe) and you should be able to get in! I’m still a newbie myself but am happy
      to share any info I can. The JFK is a lot of fun! Hope to see you there or before! Cheers, Dani

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