Ray Changed My Life

By Alan Gowen

Alan with wife Pam before Catoctin 50km
It’s the everyman aspect. I remember as a child hearing of the JFK. At that time it wasn’t really clear to me what it was, but I knew that there were folks out there hiking 50 miles along the same canal where I fished, rode my bike and picnicked with my family. Not ultrarunners. Just plain folks like me and my neighbors. That’s the magic of the JFK.

It’s the everyman aspect. There are, I believe, hundreds of people who have completed JFK many times, and yet have never “run” a race. To many runners, the JFK is a boring ultra, but for these folks it is a life affirming ritual, to be carried out every year, just like carving the turkey.

I have two friends, one with 17 JFK completions and one with 23. They live in the Hagerstown area and don’t run any other events. But every year they get themselves into shape and run JFK in well under 10 hours. The guy who cuts my hair grew up in Frederick. He tells of how in his neighbor- hood, the Moms would pack the station wagons with kids and they would all caravan over the mountain to Boonsboro, and this huge swarm of kids would set off to see who could go the farthest in the JFK. One year he finished it.

A 50 mile trail race, as nice as it may be, is still a trail race. And just like Bull Run, you usually start and finish in the same place. Its light when you start and its light when you finish. It’s just like all those 50K’s or long training runs in the woods that you’ve done, only it takes longer to do. JFK is a journey. The sunlight just peeking over South Mountain as you climb up the hill and the sun going down as you slog along the towpath. It’s the lights of Downsville and that one light by those railroad tracks just before the last aid station. It’s moving from one town to another and taking all day to do it. Its Boonsboro just waking up and Williamsport just shutting down.

It’s the everyman aspect. Hundreds of people who have heard of JFK for all their lives know that they can start training in the spring and succeed in November. They can accomplish something that only the smallest fraction of one percent of the population has ever done. While we slip awkwardly toward a totalitarian regime, becoming obese, celebrating celebrity for celebrity’s sake and refusing any personal responsibility in our supersized giant –screened chrome wheeled shallowness, every November, regular as Pilgrims and turkeys, hundreds of everymen can go positively ahead into their lives, more self-reliant, self assured, and a lot more self aware. This is a good thing.

Try as I might, It's hard to put into words what the JFK means. I like to think that I'm a "normal" balanced person, but where JFK is concerned I seem to be somewhat obsessive. But when I see the impact that this race has had on me and continues to have on other "everymen", it's hard not to be awed. While preparing for my first JFK I took myself to Boonsboro, began at Alt. 40 & Rt. 67, ran up to the trail, followed the trail to Weverton, and ran back to Boonsboro on the road. While doing this I met 2 guys who were also out training for JFK. I've become every close friends with them. They both are friends of Buzz. With the advent of the early start Buzz told them that he wasn't going to do JFK any more because of the trail in the dark situation. So one of the guys, who at this point had 14 finishes and a streak of 7, volunteered to run with Buzz, just so that Buzz would compete in his own event. Lloyd did this not only in 2002, but also in 2003, enabling Buzz to finish two more times than he otherwise would have. The downside of this is that by doing this, Lloyd convinced himself that he was old. This year before the race date, Lloyd announced that this (at age 64) was to be his last JFK, because the training took too much time. He went ahead and completed his 17th JFK in 9:57 (6th out of 49 ), and is so pumped that he's already announced that he'll be there next year. After all these years, JFK changed Lloyd's life one more time. Pretty cool huh?

Last year I couldn’t run JFK due to injury. I walked to the start with 2 friends. After the gun went off, as I began the walk back to the school, I felt a lump forming in my throat and I began to feel like I wanted to cry. Stuck in traffic, Phil Anderson called out to me and snapped me momentarily out of my funk. I crewed my friends all day, but it was bittersweet, sort of like kissing your sister.

JFK changed my life. Literally. Actually it was JFK that got me out the door and running. Running changed my life. Well, really it was the old PATC Dogwood Half Hundred that changed my life. Wait a minute. It was really Ray. Ray changed my life. Every year, beginning in 1991, I would hike the Dogwood Half Hundred. This was a 50K hike on the Massanutten and Tuscarora trails, beginning and ending at Powell’s Fort Camp. In 1996 after finishing and while I was waiting for Pam to finish, some guy named Ray came up to me and struck up a conversation. It was Ray who in April of 1996 told me about JFK. He told me that he had done the Dogwood and the JFK. Ray told me that if I could finish the Dogwood, that I’d be able to finish JFK. I thought about this over the spring, and in June decided to try running. One thing led to another and that November I completed my first JFK. That positive experience kept me running, and the bottom line is that running changed my life and changed me. Running trails in the summertime mountains and running dark country roads in the steel cold of a bitter star-lit winter’s night have spawned revelations of the natural world that nurtures so well the wonder within me with its power to startle my senses and surprise my mind out of its ruts of conformity; to compel me into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful. The weird, lovely and fantastic natural world that I refer to here has the curious ability to remind me—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that beyond this, out there, is something older, greater and deeper by far, that surrounds us, carries us and sustains us. The logic of this, which try as I might I simply can’t escape, is that if this natural world is marvelous, then all that created it and shaped it, and sustains it, is marvelous. There is something out there in the distances just out of reach, reflecting light, but impossible to touch, that forces me to consider endless possibilities, as far fetched as they may at first appear.

He didn’t know who I was, but I saw Ray last Saturday. He was doing JFK for the first time in 10 years. He was hiking, and he was right on the cut-off bubble. Hope he made it.

I’ve heard that most runners, at one time or other, experience that “perfect race.” JFK gave me mine in 2000. It’s a long story, and it follows if you’re still interested.


Alan with Pam after Catoctin
It's a big deal to me. The act of running is so simple, and on the face of it, it seems so inconsequential. And yet through running I have brought clarity to some otherwise cloudy issues, and helped to define the I, in who I am.

I am a goal person. It's how I operate. When I was a small child, at the end of one of those I had to play inside because of the rain days, I would inevitably be sitting in the center of the room, surrounded by a hurricane of toys. When the orders came to pick it all up, I would be so overwhelmed at the magnitude of that task, what with the blocks, cars, Lincoln Logs, erector set, and so on, that I was frozen into inaction. Mother's suggestion. Why don't you just pick up the blocks first? An attainable goal. I could do that. Then the cars. Then the next item, until almost like magic the storm wreckage upon that living room floor was gone. It's been that way ever since. Figure out the goal, and identify the critical path. It is what I do every day of my life.

I tried jogging for the first time in my life, when I was 32 years old. I got to where I could jog 3 miles. I didn't like it. It was hard work, and it didn't make sense to me. I just didn't get anything out of it. No goal here. And so after a couple of months I stopped.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy stated that a well trained Marine should be able to march 50 miles in fourteen hours. Some young guys in Hagerstown decided to give this concept a try, and thus an event known as the JFK 50 Mile Hike, was born. It continued every year, and evolved into more of a run than a hike, with runners coming from throughout the country to compete. November of 1996 was to be the 34th annual rendition of the run, and I wanted to give it a try. As an avid hiker, I knew that I had the endurance to go the distance, but since I wasn't a runner, I didn't know if I could complete the course in the allotted time. I knew that I would have to run some of the course to make it to the finish within fourteen hours. I really have a goal now.

So in June of 1996, at the age of 46, I tried running again. I jogged 1/2 mile down the gravel road in front of our house, and walked back. After a while I could go a full mile on our tree-covered lane. Up and down the road I went, with the security of knowing that on our lonely country lane, no one would see me and laugh. Did you see that old fool chugging along? After a few weeks, I got up the courage to head out onto the more heavily traveled paved road to try to go a longer distance, and where I felt like I would be on public display should I have to endure the shame of my sloth-like jogging deteriorating into nothing more than a walk, and the thought of that embarrassment, was enough to keep me jogging along.

The summer passed, my training progressed, and before I knew it, it was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and race day was upon me. The race started before sunrise, and for me the finish was considerably after dark. I knew inside me when I started that I would finish. I knew that I could do it. But then again, I feel this way about just about everything. Twelve hours and seventeen minutes. I won't even begin to describe the euphoria I felt. My life would never be the same. As I stopped moving forward for the first time in twelve and one quarter hours, to have a finishers medal hung around my neck, I already had a new goal. I had to do it faster next year.

Over the next few years, I ran more and more, and trained harder and harder. In 1997, my finishing time was 11 hours and one minute, one hour and sixteen minutes faster than the year before. In 1997, Pam started to run, and to train for other ultramarathons. In 1998 and 1999, Pam and I ran 10 ultramarathons on trails in the mountains of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Alabama. In 1998, I finished the JFK in 10 hours and 48 minutes, just 13 minutes faster than the year before. My finishing time last year was ten hours and thirty one minutes, only 17 minutes faster than the year before, and the satisfaction of having just completed another 50 mile race, was dampened by the fact that I felt that I should have been able to do better.

I have achieved more through running than I can possibly even begin to measure. But for the goal oriented person that I am, I was consistently falling short of what I knew I could do in the JFK. The past two years, I had finished solidly at the 50th percentile, something that I should probably have been content with. But based on my times in other races, I knew that I should be capable of running a considerably faster time at the JFK, than what I had done the past couple of years. It's true that I was getting older, but even in my antiquated state, my other race times were still coming down, and it really bothered me that at the JFK I seemed to have reached a plateau where my speed was concerned, that was considerably slower that it should have been. I had also been toying with the idea of entering a 100 mile trail race, but knowing how I felt at the end of a 50 mile race held me back. I knew that I wasn't ready for a 100 miler, even though it was something that I really wanted to do.

After the 1999 JFK, I set a new goal for myself. I was going to finish in ten hours. I trained through the winter. In the late winter, Pam and I spent many Saturdays running on trails all day long. I entered more races in the spring. As the weather warmed, a Saturday morning run of 16 to 22 miles became the norm, and stayed that way for the rest of the summer. Summer evenings were spent running through the countryside, and at least once a week I was at Camp Hashawa, running my 10 mile loop on those trails through the woods. In August, I mailed in my entry for the JFK. Pam wouldn't be running the race this year, because parent’s weekend at Charlotte's school was on the same date as the race, and she felt that she should be there with Charlotte.

The JFK 50 mile course can be broken down into three distinct sections. The first section, I call the Appalachian Trail section. The race starts in the middle of MD Rt. Alt. 40, in downtown Boonsboro, Maryland. The course follows Alt. 40 east for about three miles as it climbs steeply up South Mountain, where it intersects the Appalachian Trail. The course then follows the Appalachian Trail south, until at about the 16 mile point, it reaches the towpath along the C&O canal. The second section of the course is the towpath section, because the route follows the towpath for the next 26.2 miles, which is the exact distance of a normal marathon. The final leg of the course I call the road section, because at about the 42 mile point, the route leaves the towpath and follows country roads for the remaining 8 miles to the finish in downtown Williamsport, Maryland.

The race date this year was two weeks earlier than the traditional Saturday before Thanksgiving, and all too quickly the November 4 date arrived. Pam and Charlotte had been talking, and they both thought that it would be more fun to be my crew, than to be at parent’s weekend. Go figure. Anyway, we left the house at 5:00 am, and before the start of the race we had time to visit with friends from other races, and to get reacquainted with the rest of the JFK family of runners that we see every year.

I have very serious doubts about being able to meet my 10 hour goal. I always feel like I can do anything, but based on my past performance at this race, I am filled with doubt. Every year, I attack the Appalachian Trail section. A lot of the people that do this race aren't used to running on trails, but I am. So each year on the trail section I pass a lot of people. The trail is very rocky. There are softball size rocks and football size rocks, and everything in between. And most of these rocks are hiding under the freshly fallen leaves. The hills are steep and unforgiving. The footing is terrible. And every year I blast through the trail section, only to arrive at the towpath, 16 miles later, completely exhausted.

Every year the towpath has been my undoing. It seems as if it should be easy running, because the towpath is flat. But the scenery stays the same. It has always been so monotonous. There is nothing that demands my attention. Running on the Appalachian Trail demands total focus. The rocks. The leaves. The hills. The time flies by. But the towpath is similar to being in an airplane flying through a cloud. I can't tell that I am moving. And the towpath has a marker every mile, so that it is easy to chart my lack of progress. But with nothing demanding my attention, I am left to dwell on my misery. I just seem to keep thinking about how tired I am. And about how bad I feel. And I search and search for the next mile marker. And the time passes so slowly. And I just keep going slower and slower. Since the terrain is perfectly flat, I use the same muscles all the time. And I can never relax. There are no hills to coast down. It's as if I were on a bicycle and if I stopped peddling I would fall over. Constant effort, with no relief. The never-ending sameness of the scenery. The crushing fatigue as the miles grind so very slowly past. And all those people that I passed on the trail, are passing me now.

"Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space shuttles and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it. There is no fame, and frequently not even the approval of my peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. Ultrarunners know this. I feel it instinctively. And I know something else that seems lost on the sedentary. I understand that the doors to the spirit swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances I answer a call from the deepest realms of my being. A call that asks who I am."

The ultramarathon experience is unique in all of sport. Most ultras offer no prize money. No one is paid to appear. There are no Kenyans, stealing the show. At the starting line of any ultramarathon anywhere, I can stand on the starting line next to the very best runners in the world. No other sport offers this kind of equality. And we are all there for the same reason. And it is not to win. It is just to compete with ourselves, and set our spirits free. Just to see what we can do. Just to see what we are made of. Of course there is an elite group that can be quite competitive. But because of the length of these events and the physical demands on the human body, even the elite runners are supportive of every other runner in the race. When I did some drag racing years ago, there were a lot of guys that had to drive their race cars to the track. And then, in the vernacular of gasoline alley, they "Run what you brung." Well, that's why we are all at the starting line. Not to win, but to let our spirits soar and to just to run what we brung.

Alan with Pam (left) and Charlotte at the Women's Half Marathon
The starter's gun fires at 7:00 AM. One last look back at Pam and Charlotte, and I am running along with about 800 other people. Alt. 40 is closed to traffic, and with a state police car leading the way, we begin our climb up South Mountain. I love being outside running, and I'm afraid that my anxiety about hitting my ten hour goal will ruin the day for me. I'm worried about the canal. And with good reason. Three weeks before the race, I took myself to the towpath and ran the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, and it took me 20 minutes longer than I expected. And I felt terrible when I was done. But I have a game plan that should get me to the finish in ten hours, if I can just make it happen. I really try to conserve my energy as we climb and then turn onto the Appalachian Trail. Pam and Charlotte are supposed to be waiting for me at the 9 mile aid station, with a full water bottle, but as I run in, I can't see them. There must be 300 people here, all lined up, making a gauntlet for the runners to pass through. There they are! All I have to do is to hand off my empty bottle, pick up the new one, and keep on running. There are 15 aid stations during the race, and part of my plan is to minimize my time at each one. I try to hold back on the remaining trail section, and when I come into the 16 mile aid station at the towpath, Pam and Charlotte are there. We do the water bottle thing, and Charlotte is already on her bicycle. She falls in along side, and pedals with me as I make my turn onto the towpath. I feel good! I have more energy at this point than I ever have. And even though I used different tactics on the trail, by holding back, not passing people, and being conservative with my energy, I arrived at the canal faster than I ever have. My pace on the canal is good, and I feel very strong. Charlotte rides along with me all the way to the 27 mile aid station at Antietam Creek. When we arrive there Pam is waiting with the water bottle. She and Charlotte trade places with the bike and in a few minutes Pam catches up to me and rides along with me to the 38 mile aid station. From the 38 mile aid station, I have four more miles on the Towpath, and then I finally make my turn onto the road section for the last 8 miles. Four miles from the end, the course goes through the small village of Downsville where my crew is waiting. Pam begins to run the final four miles with me, as Charlotte drives on to meet us at the finish.

As I start up the last small hill, I can see the lights at the finish line. A little closer and I can hear the music. I can hear the loudspeaker announcing the arrival of those in front of me. As we pass the photographer's flashing strobe, the finish is only a few hundred yards away. Pam slows to a walk, and lets me go ahead. I don't know where the energy comes from, but I start to run faster. A little closer and I'm sprinting. The crowd is cheering, and I'm flying. I've run 50 miles, non-stop, and yet I'm running as fast as I have ever run in my life. Charlotte is in the crowd, and she is cheering me on. I'm running flat out. I see the clock. 9:40! as I fly across the finish line.

My joy knows no bounds. I am momentarily overcome with emotion. I did it. My official time is 9 hours, 40 minutes, and 50 seconds. 225th place out of about 800 starters. And I was the 31st finisher over 50 years old.

We stay at the finish for another two hours, cheering others across the line. We visit with friends. We swap war stories. I'm tired, but I'm on top of the world. We finally get in the car and head for home. On the way out of town, we pass other lonely souls, shuffling on through the darkness toward their own victories.

There are moments in life that we call moments of grace. When everything just seems perfect. In discussion with others, I have come to realize how blessed I am, because I feel these moments all the time. There are frequent times when I am running through the woods, that everything is so perfect, and so in sync. that it becomes almost surreal.

Well, JFK 2000 was a day of grace for me. I spent the day with my "Best girls." I answered that call from within that asks who I am.

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