I have wanted to run this race from the moment I heard of it. Which, if we are counting, was probably sometime in 2005 when I ran my first marathon and trained with a group of runners who are by far the most inspiring bunch I've ever met.
The race takes place on the weekend closest to the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For those of you not up on your Stephen King, that would be 11/22/63. November 22 also happens to be my dad's birthdate. When he died, I ran. It was the only thing that propelled me for many years. It pushed me from my depression and gave me a focus. I set my sights on the JFK 50 as the ultimate goal.
This weekend, I achieved that goal. I'm still grappling with what that means. It feels very different from any other achievement I've ever reached. I don't feel as if it's an end of the story, but in a lot of ways, it's the end of a chapter for me. This chapter started in 2007, and ten years later, it's been finished. That, my friends, is a labor of love and grief. Even if I someday run a 100 mile race, it will pale in comparison to this. I'm still coming to terms with how odd that feels.
The race itself was spectacular. It was harder than I could have imagined. I did try to imagine it on all of my long training runs. I spent hours concocting every fantasy and scenario in my mind. Training isn't just about conditioning the body, but about conditioning the mind to hang on to reality as you tediously repeat the mantra "right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot." All in all, the race took me 10 hours, 43 minutes, and 59 seconds to complete. A solid mid-pack performance , and one that I am quite pleased with. But doing any one thing for that length of time is difficult for the mind.
The course is interesting in that it can be broken down into sections. The first 16 miles were primarily on the Appalachian Trail. The next 24ish were on the C&O Canal trail. The remaining 10 or so miles are on rolling roads leading into the town of Williamsport, MD.
The Appalachian Trail was by far rockier than I had remembered it. I grew up hiking on that trail, albeit very different sections of it, and it was a place I'd wander off to when I was in college in order to find solace and solitude. I was unprepared. The 16 miles were both the most beautiful and the most irritating in that they made my poor training very obvious. I have never felt so inadequate as a runner. It was humbling. I have never seen beauty like a red sunrise painting the brown leaves and white blazes on the AT a brilliant orange. I wish I had taken a photo, but the memory of that image is seared into my mind.
By the time I came off the mountain and met my amazing personal handlers, I was more than ready to open up and run. I quickly ate some Pringles, changed my shoes, and headed off. I had energy and I needed to just cut loose a little. The flat, monotonous towpath was perfect. Unfortunately, pacing is not my strong suit and I did open up and let loose a bit too much. I ran the first part of that section rather hard, and I paid for it later. At this point in the day, the sun was still shining and temperatures were near 70 degrees. It was beautiful.
By the second half of the towpath section, the weather had taken a drastic turn. We encountered strong wind gusts, swirling leaves, dirt, and random debris, and the temperatures were plummeting quickly. I was struggling with my pacing so I decided to do a 5:1 run/walk ratio to break it up and engage my mind a bit. There was no scientific basis for my numbers. It was simply the easiest math I could handle at the time. I had never tried run-walk intervals before. Nothing new on race day, right? Using this method, I was easily carrying an 11min/mile pace. It kept my mind engaged and it broke up the monotony of that damn towpath.
Boys, skip this section if lady issues bother you. At mile 40, just as I was making the turn off of the towpath and onto the asphalt, I stopped to use a port-a-potty. I had a little too much Coke and Gatorade at a few of the aid stations. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but my period. At the same time (yes, literally the exact same time), I heard a strange sound on the plastic of the port-a-potty. Not rain exactly. No, this was harder than rain. Ice. The sound of sleet and freezing rain assaulting my momentary shelter. The last 10 miles of this race would feel like hell as my brain tried to convince my body to curl up and die. It was a blur of pain and an internal battle that I felt I had no control of. It was as if I had been lifted from my body and was only observing what was happening to it.
The light faded and I was pushing through the cold and the dark with no idea of where the finish was. Then there were lights. And voices louder than the ones in my head. I saw the finish line and I pressed toward it. I heard the cheers of my personal handlers and I followed them. I was cold and hungry and relieved. I was done.