Reflections on the JFK 50 Mile Run
By Anstr Davidson
Note: These are personal thoughts on the JFK 50 Miler. This is not a report of the 2004 event. It would be an impossible task to tell all of the stories of any JFK. This piece doesn't even try. The photos cover many years. You can display larger copies of some of the smaller photos by clicking on them. There are links to many other pictures at the bottom of this page. --Anstr
Occasionally, I catch myself thinking, "I love the JFK 50." That's wrong, I don't love this event. The feeling is different. JFK is more like a demanding religion. You don't love it, but you are dedicated to it. I don't love being in Boonsboro every November, I just have to be.
One loves Christmas. One can't love JFK. It is too tough. JFK is rarely fun. It is a constant quest to the shower at the finish in Williamsport. Even the start is hard, or at least stressful. You run up Route 40 Alternate on a gentle hill to the AT trailhead. This road is runnable, but it increases your pulse rate. Do you run or walk? Your first of many hard decisions all day. Run and pay later, or walk and look like a wimp. Gain a few seconds, or allow people to pass you who will soon block your way on the trail.
The Early Start
Actually, in the modern JFK, whether to run or walk the first hill is your second big decision. The first is whether to take the early start. Under the new format, you must finish by 7 PM, but you may start at 5 AM, two hours earlier than the traditional 7 AM start. The problem with starting early is that you will miss seeing many of your friends. Worse, early starters get a yellow, four-digit number that screams "Second Class Citizen!" If the dual-start format helps RD Mike Spinnler manage the race, then I am all for it. But it presents a tough decision for someone like me who now finishes in over 10 hours and is slowing down. There is at least one runner I know who took the late start and finished the 2004 race in a couple of minutes over 12 hours. He was not considered a finisher because he was a bad decision maker, not a bad runner. His time was better than at least 150 "finishers."
Maybe a compromise could be to start everyone at 6 AM. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, the sun would be peaking out. Everyone could go home by 8 PM. And at the end, the slow late starters would not be compressed in with the early starters. But that's just me. This is all up to Mike.
The Parts of JFK
JFK, like all Gaul, is divided into three parts -- the trail, the towpath, and the road. Those parts are like the NBA basketball season. The trail is the pre-season -- completely different from the regular season, almost fun, and eventually, of no consequence to the final outcome. The towpath is the regular season -- long, boring, and only determinative of how you are seeded in the playoffs -- a lot of effort for little impact on the final result. The road section is the playoffs. This is what matters. Everything before the road is merely prelude.
The notion that the road section of JFK is the most important is a turn off to those who believe that their feet should never touch pavement. It is the miracle of JFK, however, that by the time you get to the Dam Four Road, you are very happy to be on pavement. You realize that asphalt is the perfect running surface if speed counts. One would think that a flat, smooth, dirt towpath would be a great running surface. It's not. You can run much faster on the pavement.
The High School
There is a fun part. It's the hour before the start in the Boonsboro High School gym. This school never seems to change. Well, it changes a little bit. For example, there is the banner for the 1992 Maryland state football championship. That banner was not there the first 10 times I ran the JFK 50.
The high school gym is the place to visit old friends. While there are many of the "usual" VHTRC folks, I treasure most the opportunity to talk to people I see only once a year. Unfortunately, many of them were in the gym two hours ago and are now on the trail. Certainly Art Moore and Joe Trask were. Fortunately, I will see Joe later. But I never see Art. Not seeing Art at an ultra? That just shouldn't be.
Ok, the start is fun. You joke, you talk, you can even see the leaders for awhile.
Ok, Crampton's is fun too. Going down the hill into Crampton's is one of the coolest parts of the race. There are many spectators here and you are fresh. You run through the aid station feeling pretty important. In the "good old days," I would come in here at 8:35 AM each year. Unfortunately, I am 10 minutes slower.
Ok, Weverton is fun too. The downhill, however, is getting scarier each year. This year, it was particularly treacherous because of the wet weather.
Important note prompted by Alan Gowen: Weverton is not supposed to be pronounced "Weaveron." It is a JFK-thing to pronounce it "Weaverton," and it's ok to do, but you are wrong.
Weverton also is the site of one of the quirks of the JFK. One of those factors that will always keep JFK humble. The train. In 22 years, I have only been caught by the train one time. But each year, it catches someone. This year, as I descend into Weverton, I hear the train's horn blaring. I can only picture the scene as one last runner tries to make it across the tracks before the train closes off the crossing. My nightmare is that the train will one year affect the outcome of the race.
When Mike Spinnler took over the race, among the things he did was to try to recruit Ann Trayson to run it. I had this fear that Murphy's Law would prevail and, as Ann approached the railroad crossing, the train would catch her and not Mike Morton who would be only a minute ahead of her. We would still be hearing the whining from Californians today if that had happened.
For the record, there is an solution to the train. The trail under Route 340 goes above a small stream valley. There is an underpass that allows that stream to go under the railroad, the canal, and the towpath on its way to the Potomac River. One can use that underpass to get to the towpath without crossing the tracks. The PATC and the railroad should decide that it would be better to relocate the AT under the railroad tracks than requiring hikers, as well as JFK runners, to cross the tracks. Maybe that will happen some day. Until it does, there will be a special urgency in running that last trail section of JFK fast.
You get to the Weverton aid station and no train is in sight. You tank up, cross the tracks, and turn right. This is the most abrupt change of pace in ultrarunning. The pressures of getting caught by the train and slipping on the rocks are gone. The long downhill is over. Your crew and the aid station are passed. You now have a marathon on the towpath.
This year, my thoughts of the next 26 miles were diverted by the litter on the path. JFK, unfortunately, attracts some who also do the New York Marathon. These people litter the towpath with empty cups and other run-related items. This is unacceptable. As I run, a jerk in front of me calmly throws his cup by the side of the path. I pick up the cup. I have thought for many years about what to do next. I catch up to the a.h. (that's easy, the adrenaline is flowing) and hand him the cup, saying, "You dropped this." But I chicken out. This particular guy has a bottle belt from Masochists, just as I do, but I don't recognize him. I don't get his number. Had I identified him, I might have snitched him off to Spinnler, but I would definitely have ensured that any entry he submitted to a VHTRC event would be "lost."
[Since this is a family Web site, I am using the term "Jerk." Think "a.h."] As an old curmudgeon, there are many things that annoy me at JFK. None are caused by race management. In fact, all are violations of the rules of JFK or civilized society. Here is a list of some of them:
- Jerks who litter.
- The jerk who looked disappointed when the volunteer told him that her aid station didn't have hot dogs. When you go to someone's house and ask for a Scotch and water, and the host says he does not have Scotch, do you moan about how you really wanted Scotch, or do you say, "Actually, I don't even like Scotch that well, do you have bourbon?" Well this jerk isn't like you.
- Jerks who support runners on bikes. This is bad on the towpath. It should be a death penalty offense on the road.
- Crews who try to support their runner on the road. The locals are never the problem on the road. It's the idiots with Pennsylvania and Ohio license plates. What are they thinking? When they nearly clip a runner on that narrow road, do they ever think, "Maybe there was a reason that race management said that I shouldn't go down this road." Do they ever feel just a little guilty for screwing up the road? No, they don't. They are giving their runner aid he doesn't need and that is more important than anything.
- Jerks who think that when I run in nature I want to hear a scratchy boom box playing trite, "inspirational" music from a bicycle.
Boy, it felt good to get that off my chest!
For every jerk, there are many wonderful people. One of the most wonderful is Joe Trask from Cleveland. I first met Joe in 1983 at Laurel Highlands. We ran many miles together that day before we each dropped out. For many years, Joe was one JFK finish ahead of me. We would see each other each November and renew our friendship. Then Joe had hip replacement surgery. He could not run JFK for a couple of years and I passed him in total finishes. But he came back, and he has now finished JFK seven times on an artificial hip. As I run down the towpath I see him ahead. (He had taken the early start.) I run/walk with him for awhile and renew a treasured friendship. Joe is always upbeat and he is moving well. He runs for 30 seconds at a time and moves fast when he walks. It energizes me to accompany him. He ends up finishing well under 14 hours. Next year, Joe will go for his 20th JFK finish.
I don't see Art Moore. I guess he took the early start and I never caught him. That's appropriate because Art is one of the toughest runners I know. Among Art's achievements is running the Laurel Highlands "double" -- he ran the event and then turned around and ran back to the start, all under 36 hours. Lately, Art has been slowing down a bit. A couple of years ago, I passed Art on the JFK road section. It was a strange, not very pleasant feeling. I should not pass Art, and I don't want to because it will never be because I am running well. At my best, I could never beat Art. I can only beat Art if he is slowing down, a prospect I do not want to acknowledge.
The End of Regular Season
The towpath eventually ends. You keep subtracting each milepost number from 84 and finally obtain the magic result of zero. (You get off the towpath just past MP 84.) Now it's time for my badge of shame -- a reflective vest.
Back in the good old days, we would drive away from Williamsport and see people finishing in the dark. I used to think, how could they still be out there? Those poor people! I will never be there. I will live forever and break nine hours forever.
But now I am there. About a mile from the end of the towpath, I look at my watch and realize that I had previously finished by now. But not today and not for several years. This is one of the many down sides of getting sucked into running JFK repeatedly. It eventually rubs your nose into your decline.
So now a little kid gives me a reflective vest since I will finish in the dark. Given my level of training, I deserve this.
This is where the race really begins. Run eight miles to the finish. Run. That is the key. The walking and goofing off are over. Surprisingly, one can run. Your disposition can change upon your release from the confinement of the towpath. The asphalt is a much better surface if your goal is to move quickly. JFK is, more than any other event I do, about trying to run fast. That is what makes it hard.
The road section presents an immediate gotcha for those who think it is eight miles long. You go for what seems like a long time, and then you see the eight-mile-to-go sign. The first year I saw this, I was greatly annoyed. Now I know about it and can discount it. Each of the last miles is marked. As I step across each marker, I go down to the next "mile and change." So when I cross the five mile mark, I have "four miles and change." You use every trick you can.
This road has become fairly familiar after all these years. For example, there is the house just off the towpath that proudly displays the Confederate flag. Maryland went both ways in the Civil War! Then there is the house with the colorfully painted polls on its front porch. I have always hated those polls, but in the gloom today, they do not detract from the otherwise nice house as much as usual. Of course, there are the cows. My new found running friend from Iowa is right at home. Maryland is a farm state.
There are three aid stations over this last road section. (In 1983, there were none.) But the time for aid stations is past. You just want to finish and stopping at an aid station only delays that. I only stop at one aid station and then only for a small sip of water.
My greatest recollections of JFK are of the times I blitzed these eight miles. On a few occasions, I have run every step of this except for that hill at the three-mile-to-go mark. In 1989, Paul Blackman and I smoked this section and produced my PR. One time Chris Scott and I powered through this section in the rain. This year, for the first time in several years, I feel good on this section again, and we pass several people. The miles seem so much shorter here than on the towpath.
The Last Hill
There is a small rise just before the finish. From the top of this rise, you can be seen from the finish line so if you need to freshen up, you need to do it before you crest the rise. Now that I am finishing in the dark, it probably does not matter as much. But still, I walk these last few feet, crest the hill and run the last third of a mile to the finish.
There it is. The big motor home where it always is in front of Williamsport Middle School and across the street from the cemetary. All of a sudden it's over. This part is fun. Time for the shower. Whatever else you say about JFK, you gotta respect the water heater at the school. I got a hot shower even though I finished well after most of the field. (I actually finished in the middle of the field, but most crossed the line before me since many had a two hour head start.)
The boys locker room has the same sign on the wall that is on 90% of all locker rooms around America:
"Winners never quit and quitters never win."
This quotation seems banal and silly. It does nothing for me. (Actually, in ultrarunning, "winners" quit a lot. Good ultra runners drop out of runs on their bad days far more frequently than back-of-the-packers.) In any event, JFK is not about platitudes. You just gotta run 50 miles. That is all there is to it!
Of course, for me, I have to deal with my streak. My race number this year was 21, the number of consecutive finishes I had as I stood on the starting line. I admit that I am proud of the string, and it is certainly part of what brings me back each year.
At JFK, you can be an "important person" even if you can't run fast. Mike made me a seeded runner and gave me number 21. Sue Johnston, who had won the race in 1999, was number 22. This is impressive. To me anyway.
But ultimately, my streak is not that impressive. It is based more on luck than it is on accomplishment. I move up on the list of "streakers" because people ahead of me sustain injuries. I realize that for the last 22 years in late November I have been lucky not to be sick, injured, or sent on a business trip.
"Late November," that is the key. Sure the streak keeps me going, but the real reason I want to come back to JFK is that it has become part of the yearly cycle of my life. JFK marks the beginning of the holiday season. It is as much a part of the calendar as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. It is a unifying force in my life. So many things have happened since I ran my first JFK in 1983. No matter what, JFK has always been there each November.
Other than the JFK run itself, Brenda has been my most constant factor. She has been my crew at every JFK since 1985. She was there when there were no aid stations, and you really needed a crew. Her first JFK was exciting. After Weverton, she took a wrong turn and toured northern Virginia before catching up with me a couple of stops down the towpath.
Brenda has become an expert on the checkpoints along the course. I have never driven to most of these places, but she knows them well. Under the new format, she can go to only a few of the places she could go to before. But she is still there, even on those years where JFK lands on November 22, her birthday.
Chris Scott definitely does not love JFK. He claims to hate pavement and the towpath. He has, however, seven official JFK finishes and one or two other "unofficial" ones. Chris has run JFK with me several times including my 10th and 20th. He says he will come back for 25. I am sure he will be there for my last JFK, assuming I know which one will be my last.
My last. That is the rub. For many years, I thought I would run JFK until I died. Back then, I had five more hours to give away and still finish. I still have a three hour cushion, but that is not the point. The run is becoming less fun. I need an exit strategy. Cal Mahaney quit in 1999 with 30 consecutive finishes, the longest streak at the time. He now works an aid station. That sounds better than missing the cutoff some year.
I am not sure when I will quit, but I think I should go voluntarily before I am forced out. In any event, it is only because JFK is such a firmly grounded institution that I can even contemplate being in the 2012 race.
Buzz and Mike
How can one even think about the 2012 JFK? Only because of two men -- Buzz Sawyer and Mike Spinnler. Buzz was the RD for many years. Mike has now been the RD for over 10 years. Both love JFK and have made it the great institution that it has become. Perhaps their greatest success was how they handled the transition between them. With apparent goodwill, the race changed leadership, changed some important aspects of it (like, for example, aid stations), and yet retained the important essence of the event. Everyone owes these two men a big debt of gratitude.
See everyone in Boonsboro next November!
Some JFK Photos:
RD Mike Spinnler with Anstr in middle school at finish
Correspondent's Arch at Crampton Gap in the fog, 2004
Back to VHTRC News
Virginia Happy Trails Running Club
Home | News | Events | Membership | Members Only | Photos
Bull Run Run 50 | Massanutten Mt. Trails 100 | Training Runs | Links