Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Dream: 2011 JFK 50 Mile Race Report

Where do I even begin?

If you're here reading this race report, you probably already know how this story ends. If not, here's what you need to know: On November 19th, 2011 all the puzzle pieces fell into place for me at the 49th running of the JFK 50 Mile. I was able to break the legendary Eric Clifton's course record at the nation's largest and oldest ultra marathon -- a course record that was set in 1994. No one had even come within 4 minutes of Clifton's time in the last 17 years. But, more personally gratifying was the fact that I had to overtake Michael Wardian, the pre-race favorite and one of the top ultra runners in the world, to win the race and capture the new course record (CR).

Eric Clifton and myself after the race.

I am struggling to find the words that might best describe my emotions. I'm inclined to say that the race was a dream come true. To be perfectly honest though, that's just not the case. You see, I never dreamed that it would end quite like this. As strange as it might sound, I dreamed of being able to tell everyone that I was the guy that broke the JFK course record, yet wasn't the current record holder. The best ending I could even fathom was finishing second behind Wardian. And I knew that goal was even a long shot with the stellar field that had been assembled for this year's race. I believed the course record was within my reach, but I put Wardian in a class by himself. I still do. But this particular day everything worked out perfectly for me and I very likely ran the race of my life.

Wardian led out hard from the starting gun. We started much more conservatively when I ran JFK for the first time last year (2010 race report). I wasn't surprised by the brisk pace this year because Wardian made it clear before the race that he was looking to take a big chunk off the CR and would need to run hard from the start to do so. I laid back a little as we climbed the road the first 2.5 miles to the Appalachian Trail (AT) section. The pace wasn't ridiculous though, so I pulled up on Wardian's shoulder just as we entered the trees.  Matt Woods, Kalib Wilkinson and I traded positions a couple times as we let Wardian gap us a little on the climb to the course's peak elevation at 5.5 miles. Woods and I were able to catch and pass Wardian shortly after we started descending a technical trail section.  The eventual third place finisher, Jeffry Buechler,  came flying around all of us and led the charge into the mile 9.3 aid station.

Seconds after the start.  Photo by Derek Schultz

I was already 4 or 5 minutes ahead of my pace from last year, but I still felt very relaxed and was much more patient in my bottle exchange with my dad who was crewing for me. Woods and I left the aid station together, but he immediately commented that his stomach wasn't feeling so well. I knew it wasn't a good sign to have stomach trouble that early in the race and that's the last that I would see of Matt. I spent the next few miles of technical trail focusing on running relax and fast, but being careful not to fall. On some of the climbs, Buechler would come back into view but I was content to let him go on the descents and he disappeared from sight once I made a brief pit stop.

The 5 AM starters or trekkers were absolutely fabulous again this year. I began passing these folks and they were super considerate, stopping and stepping to the side giving us plenty of room to pass. Then they would yell "runner" to their friends ahead so we would not have to waste our precious oxygen to warn of our approach. If you're a trekker and are reading this: Thank you!

Nearing the end of the trail section.
Photo by Derek Schultz

The Weverton Cliffs are a series of tricky switchbacks that drop you about 1000 ft in a mile. Last year I nearly busted getting a little too aggressive. I was more careful this year and cleared the switchbacks without incident. With only about 200-300 meters left on the trail, I lifted my eyes to plan my approach into the spectator area where my dad would be waiting for me. WHAM! My right toe caught on something, probably a rock, could have been a small stump, but whatever it was, it instantly ended my foot's forward motion. It sent me sliding forward on my hands and knees. A trekker that I had just passed watched me fall. She yelled forward, "Get up!" with a frantic concern in her voice, obviously worried that she had just witnessed the end of my race. Luckily it was a smooth, leafy landing and I was able to roll out of it and continue running with almost no hesitation. My toe smarted for a bit, but other than that I suffered no ill effects.  I was lucky.

I exited the trail and traded bottles with my dad for the second time. After crossing under the bridge, I hit the real aid station where I grabbed a cup of coke and quickly downed it. As I crossed the timing mat which signaled my entrance onto the towpath section, a race official clearly indicated that I was in first place. That took me by surprise because I was fairly certain that Buechler had been ahead of me leaving the trail. I sure wasn't going to stop and argue, so I turned my focus on running 6:35 pace for as long as I could the rest of the race. Buechler caught up to me a few miles later and explained that he had stopped at the aid station to change shoes.  Mystery solved.

Transitioning to the towpath.  Photo by Ray Jackson Jr

Buechler and I ran together for a while until I had to stop and pee again! I resume running alone and try to concentrate on how relaxed I should be feeling with more than half of the race left. I'm also making sure to focus on my nutrition. I take my second gel of the day, but as has been the rule recently, I struggle to get it down without gagging. I eat probably half of it and throw the rest away at the aid station. After trouble on my third gel, I decided to give up and go the rest of the race on the GU Brew that my dad would give me, cokes at the other aid stations and a salt tab or two every hour.

Then the inevitable occurs. Wardian appears. Quickly. Very quickly. He's probably running around 6 flat pace or better to my 6:30s. He backs off briefly and encourages me to roll with him, but I politely decline his invitation. I explain that I want to be more consistent than I was last year when I ran with him for a few miles in the middle of the race and paid for it later on in the race. He doesn't wait around. That was right around the 27 mile aid station. At the mile 34.4 aid station, they tell me he has 4 minutes on me. You do the math.

Gorgeous shot of the towpath.
Photo by Derek Schultz.

I figure I won't see him again until the finish, but this was to be expected right? This is how the dream goes.  Wardian wins, we both break the course record. Everything is falling into place. Except I'm currently in third place. But it's not long until I catch back up to Buechler. We run together for quite a while. It helps to break up the monotony a little. We're much less talkative now than we were when we ran together around mile 20.  I'm still clicking off 6:30s like its my job. Eventually I pull away from him and am alone in second. The dream comes into focus.

Miles 35 to 41 were the toughest for me. This is where the irrational thoughts start to creep into the head. I'm sitting here in 2nd place, on course record pace, and I'm wondering why I keep doing this to myself.  "Why don't you just quit and find an easier sport?" I knew from experience that those demons would appear around this time. I had rehearsed it in my mind. "Just keep moving." I knew one thing. I wasn't going to drop out. I took my mulligan for the year at the 100k World Championships. Somehow logic won out and I focused on making it to the end of the towpath.

Before I get there, Andy Mason who's covering the race for the local paper, the Herald-Mail, yelled over from his car that I had whittled Wardian's lead back down to 3 minutes. "That's interesting," I thought. "I wasn't even trying to mount a comeback." But I was still not in my happy place, so I didn't have much of a reaction. Finally I reached the aid station at the end of the canal section. I had just run a sub 2:53 marathon on the towpath. The aid station volunteers informed me that Wardian wasn't that far ahead and looked vulnerable.  Our split from the chip timing system say I was 3:13 behind with 8.3 miles to go on the roads.

Now the gears start turning in the head a little bit. But first I have to get up this darn hill. It's short and steep, but really a welcome change in the stride after almost 3 hours of pancake flat. The legs seem to find a little more pep. "Ok, let's see if I can get close enough to see him."  First, the cars following him came into view. I started reeling them in first. That gave me a boost. Then a lady in a car pulled up next to me (turns out it was Dani Mason, the wife of Andy Mason who was covering the race for the local newspaper). She had the radio blaring "Sweet Home Alabama." It was like the first 28 years of my life (when I lived in Alabama) flashed through my mind in an instant. Everything and everyone that had helped me get to mile 43 of the JFK 50 Mile was suddenly captured in the notes of that song. I began to choke up. It's really hard to breathe properly when you're crying though, so I quickly had to gain control of my emotions and focus on the task at hand. I pressed on.

Wardian himself first came into view while turning the corner at the mile 44 aid station. I could tell I was closing quickly and that only added fuel to my fire. I was still paying attention to my nutrition though, and I calmly took the time to down a cup of coke before continuing my pursuit. A mile later the cars started pulling over to clear the road between me and Wardian. It reminded me of the Tour de France when they pull the cars out of the gap between the breakaway and the rapidly closing peleton.

I made the catch shortly before the aid station at 46 miles. What do you say to someone that you have tons of respect for in a situation like this? I tried to say something motivating, knowing full well the place where he was at mentally and physically. I've been there before. The pass was made decisively. I couldn't afford to risk allowing Michael Wardian back in the race. I can't imagine the emotion and surprise of my dad as we came into view at the Downsville aid station with me now in the lead. I was three minutes behind the last time he handed me a bottle.

The pass had just been made.  Photo by Rich Secrest.

The dream is no more. It was once Wardian's race to lose. Now it was mine. I knew that as long as I didn't cramp up I would run away with it. Naturally, that's when the twinges in my calves started, signaling cramps weren't far behind. I took a salt tab and sucked down some GU Brew. I had built a decent gap and relaxed the pace a little as well. I had quit paying attention to my watch miles ago when I started racing for the win, but I knew my time was going to be great.

The rest is just a blur. I crossed the tape in 5:40:45, breaking the course record by over 5 minutes. Relief swept over me, but I was oddly unemotional considering what I'd just run. I struggled to comprehend the gravity of my accomplishment. I knew the facts: the 49th running of JFK, Clifton's record had stood for 17 years, the great runners that had tried before and failed. I fumbled for the right words during the media interviews. It still doesn't make sense to me today. I just ran. Like so many races that I've done before, I just ran as hard as I could. Why was this one so special?

Just a little excited.  Photo courtesy of Reiko Cyr.

There really is no explanation. It was just a perfect day for me. Everything fell my way. Wardian rolled the dice, went really big, and came up a little short. If he had sat on me at mile 27 he probably would have won. He can run faster than I did on that course if he runs it right. He's going to need some good weather and maybe a full two week taper, but he can lower the CR. He's still the best all-purpose ultra marathoner in the country.

But I will never forget the day that Wardian coaxed out of me the best running performance of my life.

Riddle and Wardian.

My Splits
Trail:             1:55:04 1:55:04 (7:25 pace)
Towpath:       4:47:43 2:52:39 (6:34)
Road:            5:40:45 0:53:02 (6:19)


  1. Great recap. Congratulations! I too ran JFK this year - not quite as fast (ha), but it was fun to read what it was lie at an elite level. You are a class act. I appreciate how humble and complimentary you are to other runners. Guys like you make this sport great and give all of us a good name. Thank you!

  2. This is one of the best race recaps I've ever read! I was there too, just much further behind you. :)

  3. Thanks for sharing that; very fun to read. And congratulations on a great race!

  4. CR's in your past two races, both well-established, well-known records? Particularly JFK? Wow, nice job, David. Congrats.

  5. I ran the Stone Mill 50 miler the same day as JFK, your recap was amazing! Hearing a winner's point of view, and what racing is like from an elite standpoint, was so exciting! Congratulations!

  6. Fantastic job! Loved reading about the race.

  7. Well, it was one of the great thrills of my life when you and the other lead runners passed me on the trail. I was one of the many that yelled 'runner' to the early-starters ahead of me. My memory is seeing the amazing speed you could move across the rocks, and that you would kindly reply to comments of 'nice job' while on your way to a new record.

  8. David, thanks for the write-up. It brought me back to a week ago. You rocked it, and it was a pleasure to witness. -jeffry

  9. Congrats David! I was the final 5am "trekker" that you passed, at Mile 22.5 of the race along the towpath. Very cool, how Eric Clifton also ran the race and passed the torch onto you.