I decided after Burning River to make JFK my focus race for the fall. Priority would be taken away from marathon racing and given to consistent training for a couple of months. I was never really sure what to set as a goal for JFK. Back in the summer, when we formed our team from the Naval Academy for this year, I had thought about breaking the military team record, which I thought would take at least one sub-7 or a few sub-7:10 finishers. At the time, I thought that with some pretty serious training, I should be able to go for sub-7 hours.
Early in September my recovery from Burning River seemed to be complete. Training amped back up and plenty of quality races and training miles came in the next couple of months. I didn't really realize it as it was happening, but it was pointed out to me that I'd been traveling a lot to races. It turns out I had gone somewhere to a race of sorts for six of seven weekends starting with the UBER Rock 50K on September 24th. Of those six races, one was an unexpected marathon PR at NYC, and the only one which was less than a marathon was a 10 mile PR. In between all of these came a lot of really good training runs and high mileage weeks (for me). After all this, I was feeling primed for JFK in the best shape I'd ever been in. Under 7 hours now seemed almost like an expectation I had for myself. I told myself that I really should be able to do it, but I still wasn't sure. So much would come into play.
As I continued to try and convince myself that I should be able to break 7 in the days leading up to the race, I also started conjuring up splits and potential race strategies for a 6:45. The night before the race, my parents asked me if I could estimate when I would be arriving at each checkpoint where they would be along the course: miles 15.5, 27, 38, and the finish. I spent like 20 minutes doing mental calculations and thinking about the race, and ended up writing down 2:15, 3:45, 5:05, and 6:45 and telling them these could 15 minutes off or more.
Whatever the case, I showed up to the start with legs feeling fresher than I could remember feeling in months. I assembled with the rest of the team in the gym and, just like last year, we got a late start jogging to the starting line, which they said is a little over a half mile from the gym. We began jogging over, in good spirits, not feeling particularly rushed. Turned out we were a little late, because we were still jogging down the street in Boonsboro when a gun went off. "Wait, was that...I think that was the start?" It was indeed! We continued jogging right up past the starting line and began the race. Although we'd lost almost a minute right there, I didn't let it bother me.
The best races I had in the previous couple months were the ones I approached as fun runs without sweating all the pacing and racing details. So I wanted to do the same here. I've really come to enjoy uphills and technical downhills and rocky trails. So I knew the first 15-16 miles of JFK would be the most fun part of the race. I stayed completely relaxed, ran with Ted, and just enjoyed myself UBER style. I wanted to hit the towpath feeling as fresh as possible.
Ted and I gradually made up for the minute we had lost, passing lots of people in the initial couple of miles up to the South Mountain Inn, including a nice looking girl named Jackie who we would talk to more after the race :-D. When we got on the trail, passing people became a little less frequent, but still gradual. Last year we were a few places out of the top 50. I definitely wanted to be top 50 this year, and thought top 30 (maybe top 25) would be possible.
At some point on the App Trail, probably around mile 12, I had a strong urge overcome my bowels. Once it settled, I discussed with Ted the likelihood of having to make a pitstop at the next aid station. He was feeling it too, apparently!
|Grabbing gels from Dad!|
|sweet new Navy Ultra singlets!|
We came down off the switchbacks together and saw my parents at about 2:12 I think...right on schedule! Another half mile or so and we came to the big aid station before the towpath. That urge I had felt previously had not returned, but Ted had to hit the toilet real quick. I expected I'd have to be stopping later on and that I would see Ted again. I told him I'd continue onto the towpath and start out at a conservative pace.
The first couple miles were relatively eventful as far as running on the C&O Canal Towpath goes. I was passing lots of early starters, many of whom were in cheerful spirits. Once in a while, I would catch up with another 7am starter, run with him a little bit, and then continue on. After a few miles I caught up with a guy named Wes, who I soon learned won JFK in 1987 (I believe). We talked a bit and ran together for a few miles. He guessed that we were in the top 25 or 30 at this point. That excited me a bit, but scared me more, I think. I was feeling really good, but knew that it wouldn't last. And then, I'd surely be seeing lots of these people again. Wes told me something like, "You see that guy up there in the red? And then up ahead of him there's a guy in green. You can pass them and if you do that, then you can pass maybe 10 more people." Well I didn't know where he got his information, but part of me did trust his judgement. He'd won this race before, and run it several times...I liked to think he knew what he was talking about, as far-fetched as it may have seemed to me.
Eventually, Wes dropped back and told me to go on. I told him there was a good chance I'd be seeing him again later, but he didn't seem to believe me. One of the next guys I caught up to was a guy named Jesse. I ran with him or near him for a bit. I didn't wear a GPS watch, and I never even took any splits on my Timex, but I remember a few key points along the route. One of them was the halfway-ish point...and aid station at mile 24.8 (I think). I hit that with Jesse at 3:25 or 3:26 on my watch. I thought about last year's JFK when I hit the halfway in 3:45, and came back with another 3:45 for a 7:30 finish time. I knew that there was no reason the second half should be slower than (or the same as) the first half on the JFK course if I ran a smart race. I hoped that would be the case today.
The towpath was as long and monotonous as ever, and I had multiple highs and lows along the way. Sometimes, my legs, especially my quads, would cramp up for a mile or two at a time. For nutrition, I was taking a gel basically every hour starting at about 1:15 into the race, carrying Gatorade in my handheld which I would refill every 10 miles or so, and usually grabbing an orange slice or two and sometimes a couple pretzel sticks at each aid station. The gels became a little more frequent later in the race.
Sometime shortly after seeing my parents at mile 27, I definitely started feeling the pace. I was getting tired, and the miles of the towpath were taunting my mental state. It would be 11 miles before I saw my parents again, and I was really hoping to be looking good each time they saw me. There was a guy up ahead of me who I'd been able to see for a while, but he appeared to be running stronger than I was. I kept my eye on him up in the distance for the next few miles. At one point, he stopped to pee, and I got a little closer to him before he finished and got back to running. Then, a little later, he stopped to tie his shoes and I caught up and ran by him. He finished soon after I passed and quickly caught back up with me. He was definitely feeling better than I was, so I decided to let him go. I started trailing behind him again, but not far back. Soon enough, I came out of the semi-low point I was having. Maybe it was the motivation of having someone to run with. I caught back up with him and ran stride for stride with him for a few miles leading into the mile 34 aid station. He was pushing the pace a bit for me, but I figured it was worth it to stay with him. At one point, he looked down at his Garmin and appeared to be doing some mental math. After a minute, he said that if we continued our current pace, we'd run a 6:25 or 6:30.
Mile 34 to 38 was tough. This marathon (26.3 miles) of towpath was painful both physically and mentally. But after 34 miles, I knew I'd be seeing my parents again at the next aid station. I probably slowed down a bit in this section to preserve myself for when they saw me. That was a long 4 miles, and I was definitely hurting when I rolled into that aid station. But my dad greeted me telling me I was 16th (later learned that it must have been 17th).
|Coming into mile 38 (I think)|
|I look tired...|
Well, shortly after leaving mile 38, Meghan Arboghast caught up with and passed me back. I was almost positive it was her, so I greeted her and found out I was correct. She seemed like she was in a good rhythm, and kept on going to finish second for the women.
I had to pee. I looked at my watch and it said 5:21 or so, and decided I'd keep moving until my watch said 5:30. Then I'd break up this last little section of towpath and reward myself with a little pee break. I really wanted to...I was struggling.
So I did that, and then the end of the towpath aid station came sooner than expected! This was my longest aid station stop (still probably only a minute or so). I think I took a couple bites and sips of some random different things, then headed onto the road. One guy who I had passed earlier in the race (I think at the very beginning of the towpath) passed me at that aid station.
I thought about keeping up a jog up that "hill" at the beginning of the road. But then I got to it. I welcomed a quick walk break up it. I knew there were aid stations every 2 miles or so from here on out, and that was very uplifting. Even more uplifting was how I began to feel once I started running again after that hill. Then I looked at my watch when I passed the 8-miles-to-go marker. 5:40. My watch was at 5:40. I could run the last eight miles in 10 minute pace and still break 7. That sounded perfectly doable.
The mile markers (now every mile) came and went quickly. And with each one, my mental math comforted me more and more. I felt "great" ...as much as I can feel "great" after 45 miles of hard running. I recognized the spot right around mile 47 where Jackie came blowing by me a year earlier. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I actually turned to look behind me real quick at that point. But there was nobody to be seen, and that last guy to pass me was still visible a half mile or so up in the distance. I had slowly been closing on him, but he seemed to be finishing strong too and was out of my reach.
The only split I took on my watch the entire race was the last mile, just because I was curious what it would end up being. It was a 7:04, which I considered a good strong finish. The last eight miles was about 61 or 62 minutes, so under 7:45 pace. Looking at the chip time splits on the results, it appears my 26.3 miles of towpath was covered in 3:18:29, or just over 7:30 pace. I must have been moving when I was feeling good, then.
The clock read 6:42:36 when I crossed the line in 19th place. I was glad that the minute or so we had lost before the start didn't come back to bite me in any way. I was almost 2 minutes behind the guy in front of me, and not within a minute of any significant time landmarks (that is, I was a little worried in the beginning that I might end up running a 7:01 or something..). The announcer had some nice things to say over the loudspeaker as I approached, introducing me as the first military finisher and the youngest finisher so far, or something along those lines.
It was a perfect race. Everything went better than I could have asked for...I couldn't believe I was in the top 20. Then, to top it all off, we clinched the military team trophy in what was apparently a close race with the National Guard team! And Jackie came through with another top 10 finish, second year in a row! It was one year ago at this race that I met her - first when I passed her at mile 4, and again when she passed me at mile 47. I have to say it must have been the Halloweeny 50k in the snow that was our most valuable training run on the JFK trails this year. But seriously, Jackie and the Navy guys were such an important part of JFK training...lots of fun miles with them!
|8 straight years!|
|That Jackie girl I saw in the beginning of the race!|