Monday, December 3, 2007


The JFK 50 mile has fascinated me for quite a few years. It is the largest ultra in the U.S. with over 1,000 runners, it is a very competitive race, and it has a variety of surfaces to run on: technical Appalachian Trail; flat and fast dirt C&O Canal towpath; hilly paved roads. I finally decided to run it this year. Goals: 6:20-6:30 and top-10.

Although I was flying solo going out to MD, I met up with a great friend who I hadn't seen in years, Lucia, who was nice enough to let me stay at her house and to crew for me. After a short and crappy night of sleep, I got up at 4 a.m. (1 .am. OR time) for the 90 min. drive to Boonsboro, MD, for the start. Despite 1200 runners, being so far from home meant I didn't know too many other runners. So I ate a bit, chatted with Lucia, and did a little warm-up.

After the masses marched from the gym to downtown for the start, we were off promptly at 7 a.m. The weather was in the high-20s and clear - perfect for shorts, long sleeve, beanie, and gloves (wind-brief would have been nice, too, but I kinda forgot it!). I briefly introduced myself to teammate Greg Loomis. He told me to be prepared for a fast start. I was prepared, and knew better than to give in to peer pressure. Many flew by me the first downhill 1/2 mile. Then the road angled up for the next 2 miles to the AT. I easily went by some guys who were clearly breathing way too hard. I entered the AT and knew these next 13 miles were going to be the toughest part of the course for me. Within 5 minutes, I went down HARD. Some guy behind me picked me right up and I was on my way again, a bit slower. A few minutes later, c.r. holder and ultra-legend Eric Clifton flew by me. On his way around, he told me that this was the section he used to set himself up for his sub-6 runs there - stud!

I made it to the first big a.s. at 9 miles in 1:10ish. I have no idea where I was in the field, but felt good. A swap-on-the-fly bottle exhange with Lucia and I was on my way for 6.5 more miles of AT splendor. The next 6 miles were pretty darn technical. I was trying to imagine I was Bronco, dancing across the rocks, but I still sucked. I was passing a lot of early starters in this stretch, who all graciously gave me plenty of room to pass and usually a "rah-rah," too. Although technical, the AT is pretty wide, so passing (or getting passed!) really wasn't an issue while on it. Loomis caught up to me with a couple of AT miles to go, as did Eric again (I must have passed him at the a.s.). The 2 of them, Leo Lutz, and I made a little train on the way to the 15.5 mile a.s. As I was fantasizing about being done with these stupid rocks, BAM, I went down hard again, only 1/2 mile before the a.s. Leo picked me right up and I was gingerly on my way - bloody knees and fingers and all.

As I finally exited the AT and left my demons behind, I did another on-the-fly bottle swap with Lucia. I hit the C&O, mile 15.5, at 2:12. Although many people told me the towpath marathon was the worst part of JFK, I ignored them. My goal was to take it easy and make it through the AT relatively unscathed, which I did. Then I wanted to go to work on the C&O. I did that, too. From the moment I stepped on that path, I only passed people for the rest of the race; well, at least for the next 19 miles, then I was solo the last 16. I felt great. I passed a lot of people. The more people I passed, the better I felt. My plan was working. I saw Lucia again at 27.1. I think I was there at 3:39. Still no idea what place I was in, but just by seeing how excited Lucia was, I could tell I had moved up a lot in the last 12 miles.

Although feeling great, I was a little nervous to push it too hard, too soon and blow (ala-McKenzie Invite). A little before mile 30, I saw a cut-up sleeveless shirt and funky tights coming back to me quick. Obviously it was Ian, and obviously Ian was having a rough day. I slowed for about a minute to chat with him. He said he was just having a bad day. He didn't need anything, and my attempt to get him to run with me for a bit went unanswered, so onward I went. A couple miles later, on long straight stretches, I occasionally saw glimpses of the Seattle Running Co. logo. Crowther. He, too, came back fast. I caught up to him at 34, and could tell he wasn't in the fun zone. I asked if he needed anything. He just wanted to be done - he said he was going to drop at the next a.s. I asked if he was injured. He said no. In not-so-many words, I basically told him to suck-it-up and finish. Much to Greg's credit (and a little to his wife's for not being at that next a.s.), he did. He even thanked me at the finish. It's pretty easy to finish a race when everything is going well; not so much when everything sucks. Greg gets an atta-boy for sucking it up.

I saw Lucia again at 38.5. I have no idea what my time was, but someone told me I was in 8th place and I was still cruising along and feeling great. A short 3.3 miles later, I was off the C&O at mile 41.8 in 5:27. That meant I ran the towpath marathon in 3:15 - not great, but solid, and I felt good the whole time.

Only 63 minutes to go for a 6:30; I knew that was going to be hard. I charged onto the pavement and was rudely interrupted by a wall! Hal warned me about this, but I kinda forgot. After all the flat on the towpath, it was hard to get the legs to change to climbing gears. I got up, then just got in a (too) comfortable 8 min/mile groove for the remaining hilly road miles. Occasionally, I would see a white shirt way up the road. I uncharacteristically didn't really have any desire to play catch. At the last a.s. at 46, Lucia gave me a bottle with the magic potion of Coke and water. Mmmm, so good. A volunteer told me I was only 3 min. from 7th. But still with no desire to push any harder, I was content to just cruise on in.

I happily crossed the finish line in Williamsport in 6:34:08 for 8th place. A 15 min. p.r. and top-10 in the largest ultra in the country. I was happy. Probably most noteworthy was I didn't puke! I was surprised to learn that the white shirt 3 min. up the road from me was defending champ Pete Breckinridge - also having a tough day. Michael Wardian smoked to the win in 5:50 for the 2nd fastest-ever JFK time! Joining Wardian on the podium were Zachariah Miller and Matthew Lavine, all 3 of whom exercised their right to run WS08. For the ladies, Anne Lundblad won for her 2nd time in as many tries in 6:42; Annette Bednosky and Francesca Conte joined her on the podium.

It was a true pleasure, and almost surreal, to be be recognized with the other top-10 guys and receive my cool trophy in front of the very appreciative crowd. And to top off the race, the Montrail team of Eric Grossman, me, Bryon Powell, and Greg Loomis won the men's team competition!

A huge thank you goes out to Lucia for being uber-crew extraordinaire in her first time crewing. Hopefully she will be at many more of my races to come. Also, it was cool to meet my teammates Bryon, Greg, and Eric. Atta-boys all around for running fast and winning the team title!


Bret said...

Sean,congrats on JFK, an amazing time! Also on getting in WS. I tried but they knew I would be too slow so they taped my ticket to the bottom of the jar!:) Good to see you in "Blog World".

Rod Bien said...

Nice job, ole man. You're just going back east cause you have a new chick, aren't ya? :)
Well, remember you have to work with me in good ole' Bend as of April.
Good race report, good runner.

Tony C said...

Sean, nice race and report! The course sounds nice except maybe that rocky section (you should show us some pictures of the blood ... I can barely see it in the pic ;-)

Also, nice going with G.C. - I hope he appreciates your encouragement. You're right about it being tougher to finish when you're having a bad day.