JFK 50 2016

Is it an achievement of any value? Is it an achievement at all?

Put it a different way:

Who gives a shit?

When I was ten years old I ran a one mile race at school. I prepared assiduously. For weeks before the race, I trained on the weekends (meaning I ran one weekend and talk about running a few others), I rode my bike more often (a disastrous trip to Jayson Machamoviches house) and arduously avoided my parents second-hand smoke. By the time race day rolled around, I was very pumped and hellbent on doing better than the previous year, when I had to walk much of it. 

I was asthmatic and tiny and truly had no goal other than to run as well as I could and do better than I ever had before. My PR was north of ten minutes. When it came time to run, I executed. Wheezing all the way, I came in with a time of (I believe 7:38). I came in seventh place. At the finish line, I was greeted by my enthusiastic mother who gave me a Fred McGriff rookie card as a reward. Seventh place also netted me the honor of an appearance at the gym class award ceremony as well as a cheap ribbon that I cherished for many years to come. When my name was called to come up and accept, there was applause. One of the people clapping was probably a girl I liked. It was exciting and made me feel big and great and yet as I approached the gym teacher and accepted my seventh place award, I couldn’t help but begin to stack myself up next to the six faster runners who got more applause and more colorful ribbons. Nearly twenty-five years later, what I remember more than any feeling of accomplishment is the applause, the cheap symbol of that accomplishment and the profound personal disappointment of my overall ranking. 

Was it a success because I ran faster than I had hoped (faster than I had before, longer than I had before, faster even than most of the other students in my class)? Or was it a failure because six others ran faster. Looking back, I know in my bones I feel it’s the latter.

I’m thinking a lot about this after my recent run at the JFK 50. I can’t shake the feeling that the race was an objective success and relative failure. My time of 6:40:48 is beyond what I would have ever dreamt for myself three and a half years ago when I started running and yet falls painfully short of the goals I felt capable of achieving.

"Everyday I wake up alone because I’m not like all the other boys."

A line from an album my wife and I quite like that's in my head sometimes when I run because it’s true. Even among my running friends, there’s something about my personal relationship with this activity that isolates me. I suppose that’s true of every runner in his or her own way. As happy as it makes me (us), it also sometimes makes me (us) sad. I don’t regret that but it is undeniably true.

This year of running before this race was isolating in its own frustrating way. My body never felt right and there was always some injury or some threat of injury, which felt worse, the vague existential threat of insidious structural defect. In retrospect I suffered a sore knee because of a tight IT band, a strained calf because of inactive hips and loose core and a perpetually tight piriformis muscle that would occasionally, no rhyme or rhythm, strangle my sciatic nerve. Work with PTs teaching me how to stretch and working out weak areas, and vitally important hydration regime, I was able to get healthy enough for a settled into a solid block of training before my heartfelt “A” race, the JFK 50. I wasn’t running the hundred mile weeks I had hoped to be hitting when I first laid out the plan for my year, but I was consistently running fifty to sixty miles a week well and had a few decent showings with a couple of PRs at shorter distances that bolstered my confidence. 

(For whatever reason, I didn’t totally nail the last hard block of training but I knocked my last big long run out of the park and felt pretty strong. A sub 7 hour performance at JFK was all but assured and though I set a goal of 6:45 when I crafted my training plan in late August, I went into the race with my eyes set on sub-6:30 - sub-6:29:59 I would tell folks in the hours before and during the race proper.)

My goal for this race was 6:29:59 (or better).

Why?

I don’t know. The first answer is that sub 6:29:59 is a sexier number than 6:44:59 (right?). The second is I think I’m capable of running this course in 6:20:xx one day. Maybe better if I really work hard and stay healthy. The atheists gods-honest truth is that 6:29:29 or betterI had a pretty good shot at the top 10 (for probably the last year ever for this race). There was also (is also?) a question of legacy. I’m 33 and running out of years to establish my place in the history of the sport. So while JFK isn’t the most competitive 50 mile field in the country, it is one of the fastest and has the sort of history that a top 10 finish lives on a runner’s resume forever.

6:29:59 (or better).

With that goal in mind, I toed the line of the 54th annual JFK 50 and when the gun went off I took it out at-

-a completely comfortable and sensible pace. My split for the first 2.5 miles was 20:45. That was more than 2 minutes slower than the average of the first 10 runners that finished behind me at the end of the day. It was a little weird to be running my “A” race easy and I had to find the confidence to just let a bunch of runners pass me unchallenged. I tried reassuring myself by asking fellow runner Liz Gleason, “how many of them do you think we’ll pass later?” She (running her first JFK) said, “there aren’t that many of them!” She wasn’t wrong but I still knew we’d catch a bunch, although we parted on the AT, I’m sure she passed at least ten on her way to a solid fourth place women’s finish.

I committed to sitting back in the saddle and taking the road and the AT as easy as I possibly could. I even power hiked (ultrarunnerspeak for “walking”) the steep road climb early in the AT. I was content to gobble Pop-Tarts and chill. It was a nice morning with a beautiful sunrise (I briefly considered stopping to photograph) that went by in a relative flash. I completed the AT and crossed the Weverton checkpoint at mile 15 in 2:14:xx in 30th-something place. I was forty-five minutes behind the leader and five minutes behind my goal pace. I had relaxed a little too much but felt good going into the real test of this storied course: the C&O Canal.

Fate smiled on this stupid runner and sent an angel named Caroline Boller. One of the best ultrarunners around, she finished the AT section right in front of me and set an aggressive but doable pace on the towpath. I settled in behind her and made a deal with myself that if she didn’t push it past my marathon pace (6:30ish/mile), I’d stick with her for as long as I could. I was a chickenshit and never took the lead because I didn’t want her pushing me outside of my comfort zone (holy lack of confidence, Batman). At one point I did ask her if my drafting her was obnoxious and if she wanted me to hang back and cut it out. It surely was but she said it wasn’t and in fact was helping her keep pace. Too kind. The mark of a real champion. We rolled. I don’t know if she saved my race, but she certainly helped right the ship after I took the AT too slow and it was a thrill to run with a runner of that caliber. 

She dropped me at the Antietam aid station (mile 27) after I took a much-needed bathroom break but I tried to keep the pace (around 7:00/mile) for as long as I could. I made it to Taylors Landing (mile 38) before my pace dipped far below that mark and I made my decision.

Decision. Might not be using that word entirely truthfully. Here’s the thing about making decisions in a race or any long run, really: sometimes you don’t even know you’ve made one. Something changes (subtly, typically) and you go with it or you fight it but you try to take control. In any event you’re making a decision, there’s never real passivity, merely the illusion of passivity, in this sport. As in life, sometimes our decisions backfire and sometimes they stack and compliment and magic happens. 

My decision was to play defense. I didn’t want to blow up. Cramping would cost me precious time. I also did not want to get passed by anybody and much didn’t care if I caught anybody else (I knew I was out of the top 10, but top 20 was assured. The time was more or less set in stone at that point because looking back at the Strava data (https://www.strava.com/activities/780072198) it’s clear I never had the shot at gaining 11 minutes to go sub-6:30 in those last 9 miles off of Dam 4. This so-called decision was a psychological game I was playing to let myself off the hook for taking the road/AT so slowly and not being aggressive enough on the back half of the towpath. But, as a great philosopher once mused: “whatever.”

I powerhiked (you remember what that actually means) up the steep climb to the road into Willamsport and settled in for an hour or so of not terrible discomfort. I was still running pretty well, finding that sweet spot between conservation and use of energy.

I passed a dead raccoon and two more guys on the road. These encounters gave me confidence. I felt better than these guys looked (especially the raccoon) and was heartened that we all about to join the sub-7 hour club.

In the bag. Keep going. Now about two miles from the finish, an orange blip on the horizon. 

A runner, maybe a minute ahead of me. Could I catch him?

Two miles sounds like a lot of space to chase somebody down but the math isn’t really in your favor unless you’re running considerably better than the person in front of you. I could tell watching this guy run that I was running better but not THAT much better. If he was a minute ahead of me, I’d need to run thirty seconds a miles faster for each other last two miles to catch them in a sprint to the finish (which would require a real deep dig). On this day, I stuck with the conservative, apparently passive plan and decided the math wasn’t on my side. In retrospect, this is the part of the day I want back the most.

A minute or so from the line I heard the PA mispronounce master Hal Koerner’s name. Hal Koerner was the runner ahead of me. Ugh. I fucking blew it. My race could have ended in a duel between me and one of the champions of the sport.

Instead, it ended when I crossed the finish line forty seconds behind the two-time Western States Champion, with a time of 6:40:48:7. It was a new PR and a big achievement and even though it was much better than my time the year before, it felt like a little bit of a letdown.

Based on intel from the aid stations and my headcount, I thought I would finish in 15th place and I did. I was confused and admit my heart raced a little when Mike Wardian (himself) told me I was the 10th man across and invited me to a picture at the finish line. After checking with a scorer, I told him I wasn’t the 10th man and couldn’t join them but he said to get in the picture anyway (what a guy). I found myself getting dragged by Mike Wardian into a picture with Jim Walmsley and the first hour or so’s finishers (everybody who stuck around). I didn’t know if Jim set the course record or even won (though I suspected both) but since I found myself with my arm on his shoulder, posing for the most fucking surreal picture I’ve ever been in, I asked him, “did you get it?” He smiled and said, “yeah man.” That was an awesome thing to be a part of. I excused myself from the group as an impatient photographer demanded the top ten only and the feeling of being a complete fraud was too much to bear.It was great but next year I’d like to earn that picture.

I commiserated with my proud crew-of-one (my ironically-named uncle Jeff Davis, who, on this day running near, over and through the sites of storied Civil War engagements turned out to be a good partner in crime). I headed to the locker room, changed my clothes and fanboyed out on a half-naked but totally cool and gracious Hal Koerner. I downed some food in the cafeteria, thanked Race Director Mike Spinnler for a great day and drove home to see my family - the only thing better than a finish line hangout with Walmsley, Wardian and company.

Unlike in the days after my rookie JFK last year, in the wake of what I considered to be a really disappointing time of 7:09:xx, my mood has never completely soured. I was able to run Monday. I got a little down about the missed opportunities four and five days later when the thrill of a proper finish wore off. Ten days later my body feels totally fine and I have a pretty swell story and good lessons for next year.

Totally true story: I got a great fortune cookie fortune a few days after the race that said:

"Discontent is the first step in progress of a man or a nation."

Google tells me this is an Oscar Wilde quote. I like it. 

One way of reading all of this is that I’m an insufferable basket case and that I’m missing the forest for the tress. Why shouldn’t I be happy with a time at a distance that is truly unfathomable for most people on this planet?

Another way of reading all of this is that I’m committed to getting better and holding myself to high standards to get there. I ran well but I know I can run much better and I won’t give up until I do.

Both can be true. What I hope for myself in 2017 is that I can find a way to appreciate the genuine successes and digest the relative failures before they become poisonous.

What are my big takeaways from JFK 50: The Sequel?

I was too complacent, too early. I wasn’t brave enough. I should have pushed in on the C&O Towpath. So what if Caroline Boller would push me? I’d try to hold and that would be rad.

I was simply not aggressive enough at the end. Not catching Hal Koerner Not even chasing Hal Koerner at the finish will be an all-time ultrarunning regret. I learned a lesson that day and I will never, ever, let a runner in my sight go again.

In total, I can’t say this race was a failure anymore than I could say this year was a failure. It was part of the process. It was a necessary step in my evolution. Was it where I wanted to be? No. But it was closer and that’s the right direction.

I love this stupid sport. You run on days you don’t want to, when it’s raining and shitty and you do it so you can be your best on the days that are sunny and beautiful. I can count on one had the successes I’ve had running and have lost count of the failures and I still feel like I’ve come out ahead. It’s that great when it’s great and this day was pretty great.

"It feels like something just stole my spirit, snuck up on me when I couldn’t see it."

Another earwormy lyric that repeats in my head on the hard and easy days alike. Sums up how I feel about running in general and the JFK 50 in particular. The race is a complete test of your skills as a runner. To master it, a runner must have skills on the trail, the flat and the road and a runner must be fast. You cannot hide on this course. It will test your strengths and reveal your weaknesses. I look forward to running it again and again and again.

Adrian Spencer