JFK-50 Mile Run - November 23,2013 By Mike Mackert
I went into 2013 edition of the JFK 50 Miler with mixed emotions regarding my expectations of performance and whether I wanted to even do it – that should have been a warning. I resolved in my mind that this would be my second and last JFK no matter the outcome but of course, like anyone, we go out on top,rightt? PR? Sure. That’s what I want to do.
The morning started out pleasant enough (as if that's pleasant) but I was actually anxious to attack the course. I had that nervous anticipatory anxiety that I usually have before a race but felt like I was ready. Got to the gym, all systems go, take the team photo, off to the start, and wait for the gun. Yup, just chillin’ out, making small talk and CRACK!...the race started!
This is it. Time to execute that sub-10 hour race plan. Pace yourself, pace yourself, don’t get too excited, it's a long day. Good advice but hard to follow when the adrenaline is coursing through your body. The smart ones, the ones that have been there many more times than me, they are the plodders, climbing up the hill toward the Appalachian Trail (AT). I was running slow but didn’t seem to be breathing hard so I figured I’m in good shape so far – only 48 more miles to go (insert sarcasm here).
After a brief trail run we encounter the paved fire road that must have a 45’ incline in places. Walking this hill is imperative and I’m not even tempted to run it. At last, after what seems like an hour, we finally hit the AT. Well I’m feeling pretty spunky here so I’m dancing around people and I’ve got my rock jumping glide going. This day is mine!
I pass Gathland Gap and our RR volunteers are shouting encouragement and telling me how great I’m doing. YES! This is my day. I continue walking at the appropriate times (think mountain goat steep rocky hills) and dash along the “smoother” sections. I’m hopping from rock to rock, leaping over the logs, and WHOA! Didn’t quite make the leap over one of the logs and caught a toe. No time to adjust so just absorb the fall, which I did. I did a textbook dive roll which won me an epithet of admiration from the runner behind me. “Nice roll!”, he says.
Miraculously, nothing hurt and I’m once again nimbly bounding down South Mountain and through the switchbacks to the cheering welcoming volunteers from RR. I change shirts, have some soup and bend to take my shoes off to get dry socks. Wait! Where’s my chip? I’m missing the timing chip that was attached to my shoelace. Before I can even panic, a runner comes by our aid station and asks, “anyone lose a timing chip?” What? Yes! Ellen grabs the chip and says use this one. I look at the back of the chip and its number 373 – my bib number. I can’t lose today!
After my pit stop I’m feeling great. Not too long before I get to the C&O Canal Towpath. Feeling strong, I’m keeping a measured pace that is very comfortable. I employ a Galloway method of running 10 minutes and walk 1. Eventually I get to the Antietam aid station and I’m still feeling pretty good. I don’t feel any need to worry. I’m better than half finished. In good spirits, I run off. By now though, I’ve gone to 9 run and 1 walk but no sense of impending problems.
At mile 30, Mary K runs past me and says “c’mon Mike”. It was about then that I noticed that my pace was falling off a bit and my legs were feeling VERY heavy. Soon after, those same legs that were dancing over rocks had become two lead weighted appendages that happened to be attached to my torso. They suddenly developed a mind of their own and decided they had had enough running.
What the heck happened? I was feeling so good and so optimistic. Now, I’m thinking, how in the world am I going to go 20 miles with dead legs. Surely people would understand when I finally limped into Taylor’s Landing that I couldn’t go on and would support my decision to drop out. Wait. Uh, no they wouldn’t. Yeah. I can make it but how? Ok. Just keep walking and run when you can and you’ll think of something. You’ll find a way.
About the time I was feeling sorry for myself and trying to come up with a mental strategy to get me to the finish, I pass a guy in an orange t-shirt. The shirt read Darke Ultra Marathon Boys, or DUMB. I had seen him a bit earlier and he wished me well as I shuffled past him. I said “oh, you’ll pass me again soon enough playing leap frog”. We chuckle and I move on. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he’s passing me and we start a conversation that would not end until we crossed the finish lines some 18 miles later.
For about 5 hours, Bill and I talked each other through moments of what I called shuffling; since it barely resembled running or walking. Our mantra became shuffling is faster than walking although anything that would get us to the finish would be adequate. But the best part, we were having fun. We were laughing. Since we both wanted to break 10 hours at the start, we decided that breaking 11 hours would be good enough. We waited for one another when one had to stop for extra water or some extra food. We decided we were going to finish this thing together.
Through the last two windswept miles of a blistering headwind and hills we cursed and laughed in the same breath. We knew we were close to the end but those mile markers were coming ever so slowly. Finally, we came to the street leading to the school and the finish line. The lights seemed as bright as the sun rising and we knew we were no more than a quarter mile from the finish after we crested the first hill on the street. Lets run it in we both said, and so we did. Bill and I crossed the finish line at 10 hours and 56 minutes and yelled out a cheer of relief when we did. I don’t know if Bill and I will ever run together again or even speak again although he and his pals may come run our Runners Marathon. That would be super! But that afternoon, we were the best of friends.
Endurance athletics is full of tales such as mine and certainly with more drama and extreme. However, that Saturday afternoon, I had one of my most incredible running moments if not life moments. Many runners have a similar tale of kinship if not friendship that was borne from moments of adversity. As my thoughts of breaking that magic 10 hour mark faded with each passing mile, I found myself thinking of my environment, chatting with my new friend Bill and the thought that I was going to finish this thing albeit slower than I had planned. There was never another moment of doubt. I tapped into a reservoir of strength that had never been tested like this. I find it emotional to think about it now.