Sunday, November 18, 2012

JFK 50th: new king and queen for a gold anniversary

I have had en eye on this major ultra North American race, the mother of all modern ultra running events, for a couple of years and, when I saw last year that 2012 would be the 50th edition, I got really excited about participating, even anxious about not being able to make it through the selection process (several thousands applications for about one thousand spots). I FedEx'ed my application on the first day of the A-standard qualifying time window, early May, and was relieved and super happy to receive a positive confirmation in the mail a few weeks later: It was such a unique celebration and, after 76 ultra races, that was going to be my first on the East Coast, a long due opportunity to cross the Mississippi and meet this other ultra community.

And what a celebration! A "grand cru" with the coronation of both the new king and queen of this oldest American ultra event. Of course, I was way behind and too busy with my own run to follow the head of the race but I got a glimpse of the winner's performance as I was entering the Taylor's Landing aid station at mile 38.4 and a volunteer announced to others: "Max King has already finished, setting a new course record!" Geez, my GPS clock was indicating 5:42 and I had still 12 miles to cover...
Last year, after a duel with Michael Wardian, David Riddle set a new course record at 5:40:45 improving Eric Clifton's 17-year old CR by more than 5 minutes! This year, Max shaved another 5:47 minutes off David's performance!

At the award ceremony, Race Director Mike Spinnler told us it had been fascinating seeing the fierce competition for both the men and women overall lead (thanks especially to his skills for inviting the best North American distance runners to his race), seeing David taking the lead upfront before having to compromise for 3rd place, still in 4:45:26, a time faster than Eric's long lasting 1994 CR! Here is David, still leading the race at mile 15:
Trent Briney from Boulder, CO took 2nd in a blazing 5:38:09, trailing Max by less than 3 minutes.
I met Max earlier this year at Chuckanut and stopped by after my finish: he admitted the last 5 miles were very tough for him. With an average pace of 6:43 min/mile (!), and 10 miles of technical trail, he must have run a few miles at 5 min/mile!
Mike said that the women race was as exciting with the top 2 finishing 6 minutes apart, after 50 miles and 6 hours of neck to neck competition. Or, should we say emulation like on the men side, which also led to an incredible improvement of Devon Crosby-Helms 2009 CR by... 17 minutes and 22 seconds! New women CR: 6:11:59!!! Ellie Greenwood, who lives in Canada but runs for Scotland and wins everything on the ultra circuit these days, if the new JFK Queen and she looked at the finish fresh and ready to run the course in reverse direction! Here is Ellie, hoping over the last rocks of the switchbacks:
Running her first ultra marathon, Emily Harrisson, 26, from Virginia, challenged Ellie and did beat the previous CR too, finishing in 6:17:29 and 13th overall (Ellie took 10th). All the results are available on the JFK 50 mile challenge's website.
Here is Ellie, all smile as she is most of the time when racing hard on the trails:

On my end, it has been a much slower story, yet a reasonably good outcome given the circumstances; some would say actually quite a performance too. Let's talk about the circumstances, the "excuses..." First, there is the back to back with my Personal Best at 100-miles 7 days before JFK (14:55:15), not quite following the standard tapering idea... Thanks to Vespa in particular, I was actually feeling ok after last week's race if it wasn't for a cold which I contracted in Brazil the day before and which turned really bad during the week leading to JFK. On Wednesday, I still manage to work but had to go back to bed 3 times during the day between conf calls, shivering, coughing, sneezing... Thursday was slightly better but I'm still fighting the cold after the race, so it was a new experience for me to run an ultra with a cold, definitely not optimal nor recommended... And then there was the shoulder: Saturday actually corresponded exactly to the 5th anniversary month of my shoulder fracture on the TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail) and I still haven't fully recovered the mobility and strength of this complex joint. But this Saturday was the first time since June that I carried a bottle with my right arm so there is progress!

With that, my 2 biggest fears were 1. not fall on the rocky section and 2. asthma, with my lungs already irritated by the cold before the start, not to mention the freeing air at the start. Add a 3rd one with Agn├Ęs reminding me of my friend Pierre-Yves spending 2 weeks in the hospital after collapsing a 1/4 mile from the finish line of Ohlone 50K, having started the race with a... cold... Yet, I still thought I had a shot at breaking 7 hours and, as crazy as it might look given the circumstances again, I started the race with that goal in mind. Speaking about starting, we were still walking to the starting line from the gymnasium with my son Alex and my friend Steve who crewed for me, when I realized it was time to trot to the start line which I barely reached by the time the gun detonated. On the way, I hugged California-resident Beverly Anderson-Abbs who was competing today for Team Canada.
I passed quite a few people in the first mile, before settling for a 7:30 min/mile pace for these 2.5 uphill miles on the road and one volunteer indicated I was in 50th place when we hit the first trail section. I then passed a dozen or so other runners in the following steep uphill section on another asphalt section before we came back on the famous Appalachian Trail. That's where fear #1 came to play and forced me to slow down. I got passed by a handful of runners, or should I say monkeys or chamois as they appeared so much agile as I was, and eventually connected to 2 other prudent/careful runners and we ended up running the next 10 miles together. I was in 3rd in this slower yet steady "train" and following a runner who I found out later was Dennis Wallach, 55. Dennis tripped several times and felt twice, just before me, which just scared me more and I focused even more on every rock which almost gave me a headache... There were the easy flat rocks except for the fact that their angle with the ground always varied, the super sharp rocks, the roots, the wood logs as random stairs, the rocks hidden under the leaves, the lose rocks, and the early starters we had to pass on the side of the trail. Then, to just make the torture perfect, this section ended with a series of super sharp switchbacks plunging into the crowd near the Weverton aid station at mile 15.5, the point we were reaching the C&O canal for 26 flat miles. I was glad to see Alex and Steve there, Steve refilling my Gu2O bottle. I was still wearing 3 long-sleeve layers and decided to keep them despite many others running in singlets! Between the chilly temperature and humidity of the early morning along the river, and my cold, I was... cold enough.
I saw Alex and Steve again 2 miles later near Harpers Ferry where Steve lives and work as COO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Then at the Antietam aid station by mile 27 and Taylor's Landing at mile 38 for another and last Gu2O refill. Along the canal I was initially able to maintain a pace around 7:35-7:40 min/mile. Bev had passed me in the switchbacks and I had her in sight for 4 miles, before she had to do a pit stop. I kept going at this steady pace but had to stop myself at the Antietam aid station where she passed me again and I wasn't going to see her again. She eventually finished in 7:14, taking home the Masters title and 5th woman overall! Dennis Wallach also passed me and would easily win the M50 division in 7:14 too! Here he is (we are...), carefully negotiating the end of the switchbacks:
Being on a business trip in DC before the race, I had packed light and taken only two pouches of Vespa which I used respectively 45 minutes before the start and after 4 hours of running when I met my crew at mile 27. Ordinarily I would have taken another one at the start and 2.5-3 hours in the run. I was off my marks then and, with an energy tank already lowered by last week's 100-mile and bad cold, I had to slow down to an 8:30-8:40 pace. I even thought that I'd walk most of the last 12 miles but, once I realized I wasn't going to make 7 hours, I focused on just keeping moving to at least get under 7:30. I was surprised by how much uphills there seemed to be in the last 8 miles but managed to stay under 9 min/mile by not walking nor stopping at the last and frequent aid stations, even sprinting in the last hundreds yards when I heard Igor Stevic closing on me (we had traded places back and forth for the past 20 miles...). I crossed the finish line just under 7:24 (7:23:58), an 8:53 min/mile average pace. I had been "chick'ed" 8 times, and finished 51st overall and 11th M40-49. I was really pleased with my breathing (no trace of asthma, phew!) and ability to keep moving despite the fatigue, something I improved a lot on this year. The other thing which kept motivated in the last miles is the so-called "gold finisher medal" instead of the silver one the previous year. Owner of several Western States (real) silver buckle, I was counting on some pure gold, but not quite as I found out at the finish (even my World Masters medal of last year looks more golden). Oh well, we just run for the mental and physical challenge anyway, and it was an honor to be able to participate to this half-centennial milestone. Here is Race Director, Mike Spinnler,
with one of JFK's great-nephews who presented the awards:
A special thank to Alex and Steve for giving up their day from dawn to dusk, to Alex for the photo coverage, and to the volunteers who stayed in the cold, yet provided much and warm encouragements. It was cool to see a few familiar faces (Max, Ellie, Bev, Ian Sharman who took 4th, Ian Torrence who slashed 32 minutes from his 2011 time) but, overall, it was more than 1,000 new faces I met this weekend. Like what I started with Chuckanut and Leona Divide, getting outside of my comfort zone and exploring new territories... ;-)

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