My JFK 50-mile run started six months prior to the actual race, with many 70,80, and 90 plus mile weeks, sometimes with back-to-back marathons on a Saturday and Sunday. But eventually the evening of the ultra-marathon had to come and so it did on November 18, 2005. My running partner, Joe Reis, and I took the train from Stamford, CT to Washington, DC. We picked up our running numbers at the designated registration spot, sizing up the competition in the process – it looked mighty daunting. Long-legged, fit guys were aplenty, many boasting T-shirts as members of the 250 mile club (5 JFK ultras), the 500 mile club (10 JFK ultras) and even the 1000 mile club (20 JFK ultras). In fact, there was one guy who had run 36 consecutive JFK ultras (1 per year for 36 years)!
Back at our hotel room, like soldiers preparing for imminent battle, we checked and double checked all our equipment: gels, fuel belts, salt tablets, advils, glasses, extra contact lenses, ankle brace in case of a sprain, paper towels (serves better than toilet paper), fig newtons, double set of gloves, mole skin for blisters, double layered socks, cap, hat, gators, after-running bag, pre-running sweats, and more.
With only a few hours of sleep from the tossing and turning created by the pre-battle jitters, we left the hotel, fully equipped, at 5:45 am. - a chilly morning, with a temperature reading of only 21ºF. Our starting time would be at 7:00 am, 300 slower runners had already embarked on the journey at 5:00 am.
At 6:30 am we attended the mandatory pre-race meeting where, in tradition, the race coordinator explains all the rules. The running start line is about 900 yards from the meeting place, so the experienced runners (100 seeded runners among the 1155 runners) quickly disappeared and made their way to the starting line. The race starts at 7:00 am sharp. At 6:55 am, however, Joe and I were still about ½ mile back from the starting line, removing our sweatpants and leaving them as presents on someone’s porch. Our race began then, crossing the starting a few minutes late – first mistake of the race.
Right of the bat, Joe, an Iron Man athlete, took off ahead of me. The first “official” 2 miles were fairly comfortable, along a straight paved road. I was running fast enough to pass runners so I would not have to deal with passing them on the Appalachian Trail (the “AT”), but not so fast so as to waste energy.
The 3rd mile was fairly tough, uphill, still on paved surface, rising to meet the AT. There was a drop-off point for clothes right before the AT, and even though the temperature was still in the high 20’s/low 30’s, I decided to leave my sweatshirt. My cap came off in the process without me realizing it until about a mile or so later when the sun was glaring on my face – second mistake of the race.
The next couple miles of the AT were nice trails, leading to the first aid station at around mile 5. I had been able to drink some Gatorade from the handheld bottle that I was carrying (in addition, I still had a fully stock fuel belt with three bottles of a Gatorade/gu mixture and one bottle just with gu), so I simply asked for it to be refilled at the aid station. I also grabbed a cookie, but it was so cold up there that it was completely frozen, so I threw it out.
4.8 miles to the next aid station, and for the most part, it was up hill. At times the hills were so steep that it was simply better to walk them, as it was not possible to run them much faster. Towards the end of this stretch, the runners had thinned out. With the exception of the 5:00 am’ers, and a couple hundred of the best runners, most of the other runners were now behind me.
I refilled my handheld at the 9.8 mile station, grabbed a handful of salty potato chips, and passed on the opportunity to use the portapotty – third mistake - the next aid station would not be for 6 miles!
This 6 mile stretch of the AT was horrible: jagged stones protruding from the leaves, but at times hidden; paths so narrow that it was impossible to pass or be passed, roots, rocks, uphills, downhills… the section from hell. The more experienced trail runners would fly past me, jumping from stone to stone. I, on the other hand, was simply trying to emerge from this section alive. Around mile 12 (2 miles into this stretch), however, I tripped on a hidden stone and landed flat on my face – only by the grace of God did I not land my face on a rock but instead on a cushion of leaves. A few moments later, I sprained my left ankle on a rock, badly. I popped a few advils hoping that it would prevent inflammation. A few minutes later, I fell again – this time tripping on a log. At around this time, I had also caught-up some of the “yellows” (the 5:00 am’ers wore yellow numbers on their back so they could be distinguished and eliminated as possible contenders by the more experienced runners). Dealing with more runners, would make this stretch that much more difficult.
By now my stomach was beginning to act up. I didn’t know if it was because of the salt-tablets that I had been taking every ½ hour or so at the recommendation of Joe (without testing them in prior training runs – yet another mistake, specially since I new better not to try anything new during race day), or if it was the extraordinary amount of gu that I had mixed with the Gatorade, or the protein/glucose mixture drink that I had prior to the race. Regardless, the next aid station was still three miles away, and I had to go to the bathroom for some major business.
I stepped off the trail, made my way behind an oak tree, and cleared a small area for the job. With six sheets of paper towel and a ziploc to remove the evidence, I felt well prepared for this eventuality, even though I had not trained on answering nature’s call in the middle of the woods. I squatted down, barely able to remove my shorts in time. But, inexperienced in the matter, I must have squatted too low to the ground as I created a real mess down there. Six paper towels were hardly enough. “Oh well, I guess I don’t need two sets of gloves for each hand,” I said to myself. And so, one of my faithful gloves was sacrificed as a paper towel. But my troubles didn’t stop there, as in the evidence removal process - per AT protocol - my right hand got soiled, ruining my fresh air as I ran through the Appalachian Mountains.
The last ¾ of a mile in the AT was a series of steep switchbacks, bringing you down the mountain in a very short distance what had taken many miles to climb. At times so dangerous, that you could only walk it, holding on to some saplings to avoid a precipice. Eventually, I emerged, but the last 6 miles had cost me dearly. It had taken me a total of three hours to cover the first sixteen miles; my legs felt like noodles; and my stomach was still a mess!
I had no interest in food or fluids at the aid station located at the end of the AT. All I wanted was to wash my hands! I used the water from the cups to wash myself as best I could while the aid station volunteers wondered what the heck I was doing. A few yards from this aid station, I found a portapotty. It was occupied, so I used the time to remove my gators, which I would leave behind.
A “yellow” lady emerged from the portapotty, warning me that it was not a pretty sight. The yellows had created a real mess and had used all the toilet paper. At least a nice soul had left a USA Today newspaper behind. I proceeded to do my business, holding myself from the handle bar on the door to prevent another unplanned contact. My first-time experience using newspaper as toilet paper did not go well. I guess it must be a lot thinner or something, but somehow, it tore, and I immediately relived my previous prostate examination. Not good! My second glove would have to be sacrificed.
The next 26 miles of the course, a full marathon within the ultra itself, would run along a river, in an unpaved but fairly well groomed road. This section is called the canal tow-path, because mules used to tow boats along the river using this path. I increased my pace and soon found myself running with a linguistics analyst working for the US government. I couldn’t pin him down, but I am sure he was some sort of CIA agent. He had a GPS watch with him, so he kept us at a comfortable 8:30 to 9:00 minute per mile pace for quite some time.
My stomach, all along, was feeling worse and worse. Even though the aid stations had the best of everything, I couldn’t take any liquids for many miles and food was simply out of the question. I knew I needed to eat and drink to have sufficient energy to last all 50 miles, but my body wouldn’t have any of it. At one aid station, I forced myself to take some chicken noodle soup, just to gush it out while running barely 200 yards from where I had ingested it.
Despite my stomach troubles, I kept pace with my CIA buddy. He was in need of advil because his knees were hurting him. “I have some,” I said and proceeded to get out my bag with advils. Surprisingly, I only had one left yet I had started the race with six. I must have taken five all at once back at the AT, and perhaps that’s what did my stomach in.
I lost my CIA buddy at mile 26 (10 miles into the tow path), because I had to go to the bathroom again. This time, it was a more decent bathroom, which was much cleaner because many of the yellows had not made their way this far. Some volunteers waiting in line for the bathroom gave me preference, and I emerged saying “this has been the best part of my run so far.” The folks laughed and on I went. I had covered the last 10 miles in about 1hour and 15 minutes, making my time for first 26.2 miles (a marathon itself) about 4 hours and15 minutes.
The next 12-mile stretch was not supposed to have any bathrooms, so I kept my remaining set of gloves and a hat for potential sacrifice. I passed many runners, at times increasing my pace nicely. I saw many yellows struggling; I would encourage them as I passed them. Many did not look in good enough physical shape to be running a 50-mile race, nonetheless, I admired and encouraged their determination. A couple of bikers with speakers blasting Rocky’s theme song helped give the runners a second wind (or third, or fourth).
My legs were going, but my stomach still wanted nothing to do with this race. I had not been able to drink or eat for many miles and this was beginning to worry me. Nutrition during the race is just as important as all the training prior to the race. By mile 38, it was clear that I was not going to use the bottles of Gatorade/gu, which I had so carefully prepared the night before. I simply tossed my $50 fuel-belt, along with all its supplies at this aid station, which is known as the “38 Special.” All in all, I probably left $200 worth of equipment along the course, which reminded me of Patton’s quote, “all the strategic plans for a war go out the window the minute the first bullet is fired.”
I used the toilet again at mile 38; this time, blood was gushing out. Not good! I still had 12 miles to go, and I was not about to quit. I was not about to lose more blood either, so I left my “emergency” gloves and hat at this station - I would simply have to hold any bowel urges from now on. I left the rest of my gear at this aid station as well, except for my handheld bottle. I filled it with water and drank a few sips of Pepsi while there.
I managed to take a few drinks of water during the last 3 miles of the tow path (miles 38 to 41). I sprayed most of the water on my head and face, I was burning hot (on 40ºF weather). From now on, it would become all mental. The body had already quit, giving every possible warning to abandon this feat. It was time to dig deep within you. For me, prayer became my fortitude.
The tow path finally ended; 8.9 miles to go, along a paved road of rolling hills. I walked the first hill; it was simply too steep this late in the race to run it. I thought of the remarks of a very experienced ultra-marathoner, who is Joe’s friend. “You can always fake the last 10 miles.” I was trying to figure out how to fake them; it was just not possible; they had to be run and there was no faking it. I thought of walking them, but I had not come to walk but to run.
I passed a couple of runners and a couple of runners passed me during this stretch. I only had a few miles to go – an easy task when starting fresh – yet so arduous after more than 40 miles. Every mile would become exponentially more difficult than the previous one. Time seemed to slow down; every minute on my Ironman Timex felt as five. The scenery was beautiful but solitude was my only companion.
I finally reached the last aid station at mile 48.5. The volunteers were there with everything you could possibly need or want, including words of encouragement. I asked for some aspirin (my right hip was hurting badly by now) and for my handheld to be refilled with plain water. I poured a few cups of cold water over my head and on my face. It was freezing, yet I was boiling.
I tried to enjoy the final stretch best I could, I knew it was a special moment. One half of the water bottle went on my head, face and chest, and the balance I managed to drink one sip at a time. I knew I couldn’t catch the two runners in front of me; they were about 3 minutes ahead. I had nobody behind me for quite some time. I simply went deep inside me, and gave it all I had. The cheering crowd during the last few hundred yards and the MC at the finish line announcing my name, pulled me in. I crossed the finish line in 8 hours and 34 minutes, placing 98th among the 1155 runners who had started.
As I entered the changing station an EMT asked me if I needed any help. I said, “no, thanks.” Unbeknownst to me, he followed me anyway. I was looking at my friend sitting on the bleachers as he was happily yelling, “Jose, you finished sub 9!” I needed to finish under nine and a half hours to qualify for the ultimate Western States 100 mile run. Joe, of course, had finished way ahead of me, in 7 hours and 17 minutes, placing 26th overall.
All of the sudden the EMT is grabbing my arm and saying, “Sir, you are coming with me.” He took me to the EMT station and hooked me up to an IV. I was the perfect guinea pig for the EMTs’ in training. The head EMT would say, “soon he is going to start shivering.” Sure enough, I would start shivering uncontrollably. He would then say, “now he is going to start cramping.” Sure enough. The trainees must have thought he was an oracle. In any event, after 1500 ml of IV fluids plus whatever else they did to restore my glucose by more than 30 points, I was rejuvenated.
It was certainly a once in a lifetime experience, well worth the six-month investment in training and the agony during the feat. Would I do it again? The JFK race is a phenomenally well-planned and supported race worth running. But I may not run it a second time; the AT path is just too dangerous for a non-trail runner. Will I run the Western States 100 mile Endurance Race? I would need a few more 50-mile ultras before attempting it. Maybe an Iron Man (2.4 miles swim, 112 miles bike, 26.2 mile run) is the next one.