Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2010 JFK 50-Miler

A friend and I ran the JFK 50-miler on Saturday, November 20th. This was the 48th running of the oldest, organized 50-mile race in the U.S. I won't go into the history behind the event as you can read it on their website:

The race is not a loop or out-and-back. It's general shape is that of a 'C' where the finish is about a ten to fifteen minute drive from the start. They have shuttle busses at the finish to take you back to the start if you left a car there. Race Day packet pickup is at the Boonsboro High School and there is a pre-race orientation meeting that is recommended but not required. It begins on Main Street in Boonsboro and literally runs right out of town. The race starts at 7:00 a.m. but there is an early start option (5:00 a.m.) for those who need a little extra time to make the cut-offs and to finish by 7:00 p.m. The start line is roughly a half-mile walk from the high school, but when you're in a 50-mile race, it seems a little odd to complain about a half-mile walk. I should note that pre-race packet pickup is at the host hotel (Clarion) where they also had a pasta dinner.

I'm not sure how many people were registered, but based on the results, there were a little over a thousand finishers who started at 7:00 a.m. We encountered quite a few early-starters as we went along the course, so I would guess that a couple hundred more people started at 5:00 a.m. Anyone at the early start needs to bring a headlamp for use on the Appalachian Trail portion of the course.

I think I remember the details of this run better than when I ran with another friend in 2007. The first couple miles are highway with a couple pretty good hills. Essentially, you're climbing up to the trail. At around mile 2-3, you get on the Appalachian Trail for the next 13 miles. The Trail is a mixture of easy dirt running and semi-technical rock hopping. Unfortunately, the trail is its most narrow on the more technical portions, so passing is difficult. Most runners move over to let you by when they hear you coming, though.

There are a couple parts to the AT section. You ascend and run the first part, descend to an aid station. which will have a pretty good-sized crowd cheering the runners (and waiting for their runner.) Then there is a paved section, that re-enters the woods and has some pretty good hills. You descend again and run a final stretch of a few miles, back in the woods. A large, rock upthrust will follow you to your left for much of this final leg of the AT.

The Tow Path section brings out groans from many of the runners. Not because its particularly hard or because it lacks scenery. The primary 'complaint' is that it is just such a long, unvarying, stretch. At 25 miles lont, the Tow Path part of the race is basically a marathon in and of itself. It has a dirt surface and a gradual rise that heads upstream along the Potomac River. There are some very crowded (with supporters) aid stations and often they line the trail so you feel a little like the mountain scenes from the Tour de France when people were within reach of the bikers. Some of these 'lines' went on for 50 or more yards. You'll encounter a little bit of non-race traffic on this path. A few runners and some bikers, mostly. The entire Path is over 80 miles long so some of the bikers you pass are carrying camping gear and making a weekend out of it.

The final leg of the race is on asphalt--highways with minimal to moderate traffic. It's a bit anti-climactic because, while not unappealing, the scenery is basically farmland with a few stretches of residential. There are rolling hills along this stretch and at one point you experience your first downhill since coming off the AT (roughly 26 miles back.) You'll likely still find yourself around runners, even after all this distance. This leg is 8 or 9 miles and the final four or so have either an entire lane coned off for runners or half of an extra-wide lane, so traffic is not really a problem.

The finish is at Williamsport High School. The RD (or someone) has a megaphone and is making comments about the race and the runners as they come in. If they can see your number, they do a quick look on the entrants list for your name and city. If they knew the runner (like maybe a local,) they'd elaborate. Inside the school, the showers in the boys and girls locker rooms were available. There were a couple massage therapists and someone was selling additional JFK-branded merchandise. In the gym, an awards ceremony takes place (well before the race is ended) and Mo's Southwestern Grill made burritos. I also saw someone with pizza but don't know if that was something they brought or was available somewhere else in the gym.

The aid stations were well-supplied, though early ones had fewer options than later stations. Some things I noticed included: packaged PB&Js, pretzels, M&Ms, chips, bagels, fruit, Ramen noodle soup, Hammer Gels, Powerbar Bites, cookies, and even little boxes of Wheaties Fuel cereal. Water and Gatorade were at all stations and they added Coke and Mountain Dew at later stations. There were also people with gallon jugs of water and Gatorade ready to refill your water bottles. Every aid station volunteer was exceptionally friendly. A couple stations were themed. The one at mile 34 had a Christmas Theme (Miracle at the 34th Mile Aid Station) and had Christmas cookies and the opportunity to get your picture made with Santa. One around mile 46 had (I think) a Hawaii theme. I wasn't paying much attention by that point.

This is a bigger race than I typically run and it is the biggest "trail" race in terms of people I've run. I really don't need crowd support, but if you are the type that appreciates it, then there should be enough to keep you motivated. Volunteers line the AT section to keep you on-trail and they'll offer up words of encouragement as well. The race is fairly expensive ($150) though on a per-mile basis, it's about like a $75 marathon or a $9 5-K. Hagerstown has all you could need for lodging and pre-race dining. There is also a huge outlet mall if some of your family comes with you but doesn't care to attend the race. Post-race, we went to Uno Chicago Grill for Deep Dish Pizza, which I highly recommend. I think JFK is a good first 50-mile for the support alone. As long as you keep within your limits along the AT portion, it's manageable for any type of runner.

*** EDIT *** I forgot to mention that unlike the last time I ran this event, this race was chip timed. There were mats at the beginning and end of the AT section, at the end of the tow path, and at the end of the race. The start was not chipped. This way, you could see how much time you spent on each section of the course.

JFK 50-Miler

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