The Trail Ends in Williamsport
The JFK 50 finishes under a banner stretched between a pair of RVs on the road in front of the Williamsport Middle School. I immediately dropped onto a chair and took a cup of water. To my surprise, with my back to the school, I was looking out over a cemetery.
Probably not the best image for many of the people coming through the finish line. It made me laugh a bit. I guess I am dark. I was wiped out but the whole scene was funny.
After weeks of hemming and hawing about doing the race, I decided to go for it on a Friday afternoon in August. Dana taught and then went to a second class that night so we didn’t talk about it but I had mentally committed. It would be a huge adventure.
Later that night, my father died.
That weekend I registered for the race and then prepared for the trip to Illinois for the services. The training and the race were never about my father or our relationship. There was no great dramatic arc to the story. However, it would be wrong to say that I didn’t use some of the time on those long runs to think through my feelings.
The day I left for the race, I went by the post office to pick up a piece of certified mail related to his death and estate. It brought up a whole lot of negative emotions. We talked for a bit; Dana counseled to “sit with my feelings, to observe them.”
By the time I arrived in Maryland and picked up my packet, I had let go of the negative thoughts. I checked in at the race, at the hotel and then lucked out by finding Austin and Erin at the restaurant.
Soon enough I was dressing and loading the car for a 30 minute trip to the Boonsboro High School for the start. I was vaguely aware of the course and new that we would start out uphill; I didn’t realize that the first three miles were from the heart of town straight up a mountainside.
A half hour later we veered right and were on the Appalachian Trail, in the woods, and rolling back downhill over a rocky, leaf-strewn path. At this point, it is not quite singletrack but narrow enough that everyone lined up single file like so many bright neon-clad ants.
The first true descent takes you to Gathland Gap around nine miles and after crossing a small grassy clearing between rows of aid tables the path points back up and into the trees. Here I heard my first bird of the day. It was not long after that I hit the deck for the first of four times; unaided by any natural grace I was brought low by stumbling over rocks, logs and roots.
The Eskimos supposedly have a 100 words for snow. Or perhaps, it is 100 words for white. I’m not sure. I believe the hardy people who settled across the Appalachians must have 1,000 words for rock.
Jagged shark-fin rocks. Smooth like a desktop but oddly cantered rock. Invisible rock that pokes through the sole of your shoe. Loose rock. Rock that reaches up to grab your heel. Rounded river rock. Rock that slips past the collar of your shoe and under your foot.
Throughout the day I only put in three surges. The first was immediately after getting onto the C&O trail. I saw Erin up ahead and ran a 7:48 mile to catch her and settle in a step behind. Later, after my fourth wipe out, once I got myself going it was about ten minutes later that I decided to try to run her down. Her group — she was with Dink and a couple others — were hovering just on the edge of visibility up the trail. I put in a 15 minute dig to chase them and made no discernible progress at which point I let them go. I was wearing myself out with little to no chance of making a catch and getting the subsequent psychic boost of running with them. I also put in a high-intensity effort for the last 300-400 meters of the day.
Throughout the whole race, the one element that I’m most proud of is not really all that impressive in hindsight. I essentially held a steady 10 minute per mile pace for the last 15 miles. Each mile was increasingly difficult and the last eight included hills. Pride is a dangerous thing but I’m proud that I held it together for about 2.5 hours after coming out of my second significant dark patch of the day. Lesson: 50 miles is long enough to have the darkness come around not once, but twice. If you keep on keeping on, it will pass.
My average heart rate for the day was 133. I was trying to target 138-140 beats per minute and 32 percent of the day was spent between 136-140 with another 15 percent of the day between 141-145.
I’m in no mood to tackle another ultra marathon soon. I certainly am not swearing them off. I need to let the weekend settle a bit — it touched deeply but I’m still trying to get my mind around it.
Like an Ironman, the race reveals beauty. Raw, powerful beauty is available to experience — like the first time you see an Alvin Ailey production or hear the work of Beethoven. It doesn’t come easy. You have to be open to it, then you have to work for it. The wind, the sweat, the sound of the river, the kiss of the sun on your face with a cool breeze and the permanence of the granite strip away all the unimportant things and leave you with essence.
To the casual observer, the JFK 50 put on display tremendous volunteerism, athlete-to-athlete assistance, a wide range of diversity among runners and rock-solid fortitude as the sun set, the temperature dropped and the racers continued to trickle in to the finish. Beyond the outer layer, there is a genuine community, profound generosity, genuine respect for others, and belief. It was a wonderful thing.
An Ironman is about strength and discipline — you are closer to the threshold of your physical limits for much longer. An ultra is about the inner vastness of your soul — of observing all that is there without judgment. When you are out, seemingly alone, on the trail moving to the cadence of your heart — there is nothing else, or perhaps more accurately, all else that truly matters is with you there, in your heart and mind.
I finished and sat on a folding metal chair outside the school in Williamsport. I gazed across at a cemetery. I laughed. I think somewhere, my dad gave a little laugh too. All around was wonder and beauty wrapped up in the absurdity of running 50 miles.