The JFK 50 is one of the big fall ultras on the US East Coast. It was my first ultra in 2011 and I ran around 10h50m after a long and tough second half. After an initial 2 miles on the roads the JFK famously runs along the Appalachian Trail (AT) for about 15 miles. The AT otherwise does not allow organized events, but an exception is typically made for the JFK due to its long history on the trail. After the AT the race continues on the C&O Canal for 25 miles before the final 8 miles to the finish along rolling country roads. The long stretch on the C&O canal and the final road section makes the JFK mostly flat and it was a great first ultra to run. The race didn’t go very well for me. I struggled in the second half and was reduced to a walk for quite long stretches. When that happens it really hurts your finishing time. I knew I could do better. But I didn’t think it would be another full 2 years until I got to try again. The other week however I finished the Stone Mill 50.

Photo by Christina Hade Henriksson

Stone Mill 50 is mostly run on the Seneca Greenway and Muddy Branch trails in Montgomery County, Maryland (MD), with the start and finish at the Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, MD.

I did not do much race specific training for this race, but instead relied on my spring and fall marathon training. I was hoping that it would carry me through the 50 miles and it mostly did. In the spring I ran the Gettysburg Marathon. That race had a perfect small-town atmosphere and the course went mostly along sleepy backcountry roads. It was a great experience and it was my first marathon where I actually felt in control throughout the entire 26.2 miles. A great feeling! As a bonus my parents were visiting from Cyprus and were able to meet me at two locations mid-race as well as at the finish. Christina and Elsa waited at the finish line together with Cheryl, so all together it was a great finish line reception. I finished with a new personal best of 3h26m.

Later in the fall I ran the Baltimore Marathon for the second time.1 I wanted to go even faster and managed to squeak out a 3h9m after having had to slow down the last few miles. The Baltimore Marathon was 5 weeks before the Stone Mill 50 so I knew I wasn’t going to get any significant ultra training in after having recovered from the marathon. To help me through the 50 mile run I instead had to focus on recovery and rely on the training I had already built up.

My brother Aron arrived for a conference in Washington DC the night before and would join Christina and Elsa to cheer me on during the day. Aron was also kind enough to take over my Twitter account to live tweet throughout the day for the benefit of my many followers.2 I left our house around 4am to get to the starting line in time, pick up my racing bib and have time to get organized and ready to run. The start was low key, people getting their gear organized, going to the bathroom and then standing around the starting line where the race director was giving last minute instructions and rattling off some statistics about this year’s participants.

The race started in the dark with a lap around the high school before the string of headlamps disappeared into the woods on a narrow trail. The first section was a not-so-interesting out-and-back loop presumably added to make the race just long enough. Coming back from that loop daylight started to break through and the need for a headlamp lessened by the minute. The race had started.

The halfway point of the race was at the Pennyfield lock on the C&O Canal where I was expecting my “crew” to meet me for the first time.

From the beginning I settled into what felt like a comfortable pace, running sometimes by myself and sometimes with a small group of other runners. I often enjoy running by myself, which is what I’m used to from training, but running with others help to distract, to make the time go faster and the miles fly by.

Photo by Ken Trombatore

I felt great in the first half, except for a little niggle that ultimately would cause problems for me for most of the day. I had an issue with (what I think to be) IT band syndrome in my right leg. A pain on the outside of the knee that, apart from the direct irritation and pain, made it difficult to bend the knee. It probably altered my gait some which could have resulted in others issues, but I didn’t feel it ever came to that. The knee pain was manageable at times but also limiting. It was especially painful whenever I stopped and tried to get started running again, making aid stations a mixed blessing. I was particularly worried when the sensation in the knee made its presence fairly early in the race, around the 15 mile marker or so. Would it become bad enough that I would have to stop? Would it go away? In the end the issue never went away. It was manageable, but definitely limiting and it detracted from the overall experience. However you never control these things entirely and have to make the best of them, adapt if you can.

I knew the area around Pennyfield lock as we had often visited there with our dogs when we lived in the area a few years ago. I was a little surprised when I got there after around four hours of running which was on the early side of my predictions.

Christina, Elsa and Aron hadn’t yet arrived at the lock, but I managed to borrow a phone and leave a message to let them know that I had passed through and carried on. After the aid station we spent a few flat miles on the canal towpath before turning north again to go back to the high school and the finish line. At this time I ran mostly by myself and pressed on as best I could. It was during this stretch that I had the first and only problem with course markers as I (and others) left a trail section and came out onto a road and didn’t know whether to go left, right or keep going straight into the woods. I tried to go straight but was soon called back by another runner who had found a marker down the road. I probably lost a few minutes here.

I obviously wasn’t going to win the race, but I still like to keep track of the runners around me and know if my competition is ahead of me or behind me. So after losing a few minutes I started playing catch-up and soon found myself behind two other runners that I had been close to for most of the day. We stuck together until the mile 35 aid station.

Photo by Christina Hade Henriksson

Christina, Elsa and Aron were waiting for me here. It was great to have their moral support, and have the ability to change my shirt, hat and re-stock my supplies. I felt decent coming into the aid station. After spending just a few minutes eating and changing clothes, I felt terrible leaving the aid station. My knee had stiffened and I had to hobble back onto the trail. I also felt bad for Elsa who had not been feeling well throughout the day; I felt bad for having her out there. This started the roughest part of the day for me.

Most of the next section was slow going and somewhat of a blur. I tried to keep going forward as best I could and stay positive. My knee bothered me quite a bit, especially going downhill. Whenever there was a runner close by I tried to stick with them. There was an small aid station around mile 38, and then a more fully stocked one around mile 43.

Christina, Elsa and Aron were there waiting, after having had some lunch. In particular, Elsa had eaten and was feeling better, which made me feel better as well. I ate some noodle soup and refilled my bottle. I also drank a few cups of coke which in hindsight really seems to have been effective. All that sugar revived my energy. After a few miles of tough going, I was feeling better and more positive. Elsa was feeling better and I only had to make one last push to the finish.

Photo by Christina Hade Henriksson

After the aid station I started running with two others for a mile or two. After that I decided I would give it one last hard push so I started picking up the pace. It felt great drifting away from the other runners and just going as hard as I could. Surprisingly it didn’t hurt, but felt good. I knew I probably couldn’t keep that pace all the way to the finish, but it would get me closer. It felt like I ran hard for a long while, but in retrospect it probably was shorter than I remember. Nonetheless, it made me realize that amazingly it is possible to resurge and start feeling better towards the end of a long race.

When I reached the final aid station around mile 47 I thought I would be closer to the finish than I really was. The last 3 miles would be quite tough and slow moving, but at least I knew this really was the last stretch. When you can smell the finish line, there is no negativity left. All that remains is the happiness that you’re about to finish what you started; a great sense of accomplishment. The race ended with a steep climb up a grassy slope, right before the finish line.

Photo by Christina Hade Henriksson

The official finishing time was 9 hours, 21 minutes and 31 seconds. All things considered I had a great day on the trails. I wish my knee hadn’t bothered me, especially so early, but these things happen. It didn’t prevent me from finishing. I improved my time from two years ago by almost one and a half hour, which considering the tougher terrain is not bad. I would love to give it another try, and I hope it’s not 2 full years until I get the chance to try again.

A big thanks to Christina, Elsa and Aron for being out there supporting me for so many hours, driving from aid station to aid station.

Running for 9 hours may seem like a long time, but it’s nothing compared to the number of hours put into training in order to get ready for the race in the first place. Training is time away from family and other responsibilities. It’s early mornings in the dark with a flashlight. It’s cold days with freezing temperatures, and running out of water on steaming hot summer days with miles still to go. It’s a personal endeavor, and with other responsibilities, it seems selfish. Is it? Geoff Roes tackles the notion head on in Is Running Selfish?:

"People don’t typically run long distances hundreds of times a year unless they have a deep passion for it, and I believe that anything that we have a deep passion for gives us a deep sense of joy and accomplishment which in turn does an immense amount of good for the world around us."

I hope so! It’s time to get out there in the cold winter weather and get back into shape for next year.

Photo by Dan Reichmann

  1. The Baltimore Marathon was my first marathon in 2010.

  2. I believe I currently have about 3 followers, which is not bad.