Sunday, November 20, 2011

Race Report: JFK 50 Mile

After years of being told I have to run JFK, the largest ultra in the country with over 1,000 finishers and possibly the oldest continuous existing ultra, I had signed up for the 2011 race. This race started out from a comment by Theodore Roosevelt that all military personnel should be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours. The first race was held in 1963 under Kennedy's administration.

I rode down to the host hotel in Hagerstown, Maryland with long Island runners George Worth, Jim Morris and Tim Henderson (first pic above). We received some shocking news at the pre-race briefing by race director Mike Spinnler, that the administrator of the Appalachian Trail, Pamela Underhill, not only refused a permit for an additional 500 runners but stated that no permit would be given for the Appalachian Trail after 2012, saying "the runners won't mind not using the Appalachian Trail"!!! What's up with officials refusing or rescinding permits for ultras (as in Morris County, NJ)?!?! Mike is hoping to get a Congressional resolution passed to allow continued use of the trail for six hours one day a year for future races. Please check back with the JFK 50 web site for details and updates.

But back to the race. I hadn't run this race before, and I haven't run any 50-mile race in quite a while, so I really had no idea how I would do. Only the first 15.5 miles is on hilly, tough trails, so I was estimating something between 6:30 (on the very optimistic side) and 7:00. I wasn't planning to worry too much about competition, just to get on the trails, which I don't do too often, step outside my comfort zone a bit and enjoy one of the most celebrated ultras in the country with the richest tradition.

I'm guessing that most people reading this have either run the race or know people who have, so I won't bother with a course description. The weather was good, cold at the start in Boonsboro at 31 degrees, but a forecast high near 50. Once we got on the Appalachian Trail, I understood what everyone meant when they warned me about the rocky trail. Most of it was fine and with some careful foot placement was very runnable, but a few sections were really tricky and tough to maneuver. Still, I was happy with my pace on the trails as I descended the switchbacks on my way to the to the towpath.

And once on the smooth, flat towpath I tried to get into a good road-type pace, hoping to pass some of the runners ahead. It was hard for me at this point to judge my pace, but there were mile markers on the side of the path, so when I did check my pace, I was happy to see it near 7:00 per mile. The scenery along the Potomac was beautiful to be sure, but I was getting a little chilled when the path went into the shade. But it was similar scenery the entire 26-mile length, and after roughly the 30-mile point I wasn't seeing any other runners, so it was getting a little lonely and it was tough to feel like I was making forward progress. The aid stations helped a lot with both of those issues, and they were tended by an amazing bunch of volunteers. So I was counting down the miles on the towpath, even as I did slow down a little the last several miles.

After about a 3:20 marathon on the towpath I finally turned onto the road for the last 8.5 miles, and I felt like I was home, being on pavement again! I was able to pick up the pace a little bit, and I saw a runner a couple hundred yards ahead of me, and I had hopes of catching him. Starting at eight miles to go, mile markers were place alongside the road, allowing me to really feel good about getting near the finish. Still, I was never able to get any closer to the runner in front of me, but I wasn't too concerned with that. Coming off the towpath, I looked to be well on track for a sub-seven hour finish, hopefully under 6:50. But as I neared the finish, I pushed a little more and was looking to take a few minutes off that as well. At this point I have to thank my friend Mike Oliva, an outstanding runner himself, who finished JFK in 2010 in 17th place with a time of 6:44 and I didn't remember how many seconds, because his time became my goal near the finish! The last mile seemed to take forever, but I finally finished in 6:44:24. It ended up being 19 seconds faster than Mike's time, so I do have bragging rights, at least for the time being!

So finishing at the school in Williamsport, the runners had massages, medical help, food and showers, and a lot of opportunities to meet and greet and swap stories, which really is the reward for all the work and pain we put ourselves through!

David Riddle won the race with a new course record time, unfathomable, of 5:40:45. Michael Wardian, continuing his amazing year (not to mention his career) finished a close second, also under the old course record, with 5:43:24. Cassie Scallon won the women's race in 6:31:22 and Meghan Arboghast, at age 50, got second with 6:35:16! Fellow New Yorker and past runner-up Mike Arnstein got 5th place. I was happy to see I just cracked the top 20, getting 20th overall, 18th male, and I was especially pleased to see I was 2nd male master, after Jon Lawlor, who finished 7th. My travel companions George, Tim and Jim all finished in excellent times, George taking an hour off his 2010 time. Many other friends ran and finished as well, too many to mention, but a big congratulations to all who ran! A big thanks to Mike Spinnler and all the staff and volunteers, and of course also to Tim Henderson, Jim Morris and George Worth for letting me tag along with them. And as always, a big thanks to my physical therapist, Dr. Jack Mantione, for helping me get the most out of this old body, and without injury.

Pics (sorry there aren't more): 1. Me, George, Jim and Tim back in NY at the GWB Bus Station; 2. Me and Serge Arbona after the race.


  1. Nice job Phil! I always enjoy (and actually read) your race reports. How do you get them written so quickly?

  2. Funny, some of us don't feel at home until we LEAVE the pavement. At any rate, nice job Phil!

  3. Thanks, you guys! Sheila, I know, I'm weird that way! lol - Phil

  4. Congratulations on the great result, Phil. And when I think of those rocky trails I shudder. I agree completely about feeling at home on the pavement. Some folks were just born to love trails -- not to suggest that you don't -- while others were born to love roads. It's nice that we can all co-exist on both surfaces!