Race Recap: The JFK 50 Ultramarathon - Part 1: The Appalachian Trail

I am not sure how to put this race recap into the right words. I will sure try, but I doubt that it will give it the justice it deserves. I mean, how does one best describe a race they trained 24 weeks for? A training which put my body and mind through an alternate running reality...

Well...here goes nothing!!!

I woke up at 3 am and was surprisingly calm. I had my clothes already picked out, bag already packed up, electronics charged, and breakfast prepared.

Overnight Apple & Honey Oats

I had little to worry about. All I really had to do was eat my breakfast, put on my clothes and TA-DA! I was ready!

A photo posted by Lindsey Szakacs (@lindseyszakacs) on

Peter and I left for Boonsboro High School and were a few of the first people to arrive. I guess it helps when you are locals!

I spent this time making frequent visits to the bathroom (my bladder goes into overdrive prior to all races) and listen to the pre-race debriefing. It was general overview of rules, guidelines, cutoff times, etc. They also took time to recognize veterans who have run the race multiple times and what their anticipated finish was. This was helpful for newbies who may want someone to pace them.

After the debriefing, the crowd of 5 am starters walked about a half mile to the square of Boonsboro. For those of you not familiar with the JFK 50 Ultramarathon, it has 2 start times: A 5 am and 7 am start. I was a part of the 5 am group. Participants in this group must be race veterans, those who have been in the military, are of certain age, or who contributed at least $500 to charity. I fell into the charity category and took full advantage of this privilege. Partaking in the 5 am start meant that I would not have to worry about cutoff times for my first ultra and that was just fine with me!

Shortly after reaching the starting line, I kissed Peter goodbye and it wasn't long before race officials were counting down to the start. I was in disbelief that this was it. Twenty-four weeks after starting my training, I am standing at the start of my first 50 mile excursion. There was a lot of uncertainty floating around in my head, but I kept reminding myself that there was nothing to it but just to do it. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When the gun went off and I began to run, my emotions began to swell. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. I had a 14 hour timeframe to finish this thing and I was already near tears within 30 seconds.

The first street which leads up to the Appalachian Trail (AT) has a few rolling hills. I watched most people actually run these hills, but I held back and stuck with my plan of walking all hills.  I knew that this would help me conserve as much of my energy as possible. Besides, the hill that followed was about a mile hike going straight up. Running it seemed pointless. In fact, those who did attempt to run it didn't get far ahead. Wasted energy, if you ask me!

As I scaled the mountain, my legs could feel the camber in the road. One side of me felt overworked while the other seemed as though it was just along for the ride. Since we were instructed to stay to one side of the road, I had to make it work. It was a bit frustrating as I was only 20 minutes in. Relief came quickly, however, when I saw the sign for the South Mountain Inn. Its parking lot holds an entrance to the AT. I went into trail mode and headed down the gravel path which lead you to complete darkness.

I was equipped with a Petzl headlamp. I paid nearly $70 for this bad boy just for this race. It was going to be really dark on the trail and I wanted something that was going to keep the rocks at my feet in site. I was prepared to walk nearly everything until the sun came up, but because my lamp was incredibly bright, I was able to run like I would have typically. *2 thumbs up for Petzl!*

As I continued, I meet a guy who was running his 10th JFK. He had said that he was running them since he was 17 and has only missed 2. He chose the 5 am start in effort to finish way before his other family members did . They were starting at 7. We only stuck together for about a quarter of a mile before the first aid station at mile 4.

At this point in the course, runners hop off the AT and begin scaling a paved road. This is quite a climb and lasts nearly a mile and a half or more. The hills are very steep and leave you winded very quickly. Before making my ascent, I said to the volunteers, "We're almost at the finish, right?" I think I remember one saying that I was running the wrong race.

As I made my climb, I talked to a few of the participants along the way. I advised that although I hadn't done the actual race before, I knew this was the worst climb of the entire course and if you could get through this, you had nothing more to worry about in the miles ahead (other than exhaustion I was later going to face). I also found that walking up this mountain in the dark was easier than doing it in the day. I could only see the hill I was working on, rather than the hills to come. It helped me remain focused.

When you reach the top, there is a power station, which is basically the landmark that tells you you've made it! Here was yet another aid station. I skipped it as I already had plenty on me. Instead, I took my last moment on asphalt to take off my shoes and dump the debris that had already fallen in before taking on the trail again.

It was definitely slow moving at first since some areas are tight and you have to follow other runners in single file. So if the person in front is walking, you are too. When the trail did widen in areas, that is when you would take your opportunity to pass.

I was very surprised at how I avoided rolling my ankle trail running in the dark. There were days in training where I would roll my ankle every other step, but not today. I felt light on my feet and they were landing in all the right places. I mean, there were some bits that my ankle did take a rough turn, but nothing that debilitated me from keeping good speed.

As the sun began to rise, my fancy schmancy headlamp began to dim on its own (it self adjusts to light!) and I ended up turning it off just after 6:30 am. Another runner and myself admired the beauty of the sunrise and talked about the course. He was from PA in a city about 3 hours away. He said that he had to come down here for training runs more often since it was so beautiful. We met up with another runner later and discovered we were all first-timers to the JFK. They seemed really cool I wish I could have run a little bit more with them, but when we hit mile 10, the Gathland Park aid station, we went our separate ways.

My dad was here waiting for me with one of my bags. At this point, I didn't need anything, I just needed to shed the headlamp. We talked for a minute or 2 and he seemed really impressed that I was nearly 40 minutes ahead of my goal already. We quickly planned to meet up again in Weverton. I had about 6 miles until then, but that would take me about 2 hours at most. I would more than likely need more food and to drop my jacket at that point in the day.

After a short break to quickly use a bathroom (there wouldn't be any until reaching Weverton), send out a group text to the family, and eat half of a Clif protein bar, I was back to it! In my opinion, the second half of the trail is far more technical. There are more uphills and more rocks that sprinkle the area. I did roll my ankle just a few times through this area, but it was nothing that I couldn't continue through. There were also far less runners in this portion, but I did enjoy that only because I felt less rushed. I am not the most skilled trail runner so I didn't want to avoid holding up other runners, especially in the areas which you had to be in a single line.

Speaking of line formation, we were advised during the debriefing that at 8:15 am all 5 am runners needed to stick to the right side of the path to make way for the elite runners. This made me extremely nervous. I stayed to the right when I could, but after 30 minutes, I still did not see the front runner and I was about a half mile away from the switchbacks. WHERE HAD THE TIME GONE!?

At around 8:30 am, I heard the 1st place runner approaching. As he sailed past me on one of the most technical areas of the trail, my jaw dropped. His stride was like 10 feet in length (kidding) and he showed no doubt in each step. And here I was...embarrassingly baby stepping it at a 20 minute pace.

No elites followed for about 15 minutes...that is...until I actually reached the most challenging/dangerous obstacle of the entire course: The Weverton Switchbacks. I literally got down one switchback before I heard "on your left" shouted from behind me. A similar 10 foot stride sailed down the cliffs without fear or doubt. I froze until they safely passed. When I would hear another elite approaching, I would do the same.

At one point, Michael Wardian passed me and I briefly had a fangirl moment. I first learned of Wardian in 2013. He passed me on his second lap of the Freedom's Run as I was still running my first. It was the first time I had ever ran alongside an elite runner. It may have been for 5 seconds, but I was amazed by how his running appeared effortless...like he was flying. Since then, I have enjoyed spectating or reading up races he has competed in. I went to watch him run the 2013 JFK 50 at mile 38. It was in that moment of watching him that I decided I would one day do the JFK. So running this race was because of him.

Anyway, back to the race!

After making it down the switchbacks and on to stable ground, I found my father at the Weverton aid station. I took off my jacket as the temps were now in the 40s and would rise into the 50s. He helped re-pin my racing bib to my back as I ate the remaining half of my protein bar. I grabbed a new one to replace it. I sent out my mandatory group text of my current progress. As I did, I was able to see some of the replies I had seen from earlier.

It is always motivating when you see your support group cheering you on!

Now...it was off to the canal for me. I made my way under the 340 bridge as more top runners zoomed past. I was envious because they would be done in a matter of 4-5 more hours after only running for 2. I had already been running 4 hours and had an estimate of 8 hours to go!

But I was off to the easy part....or so I thought.

Part 2: The C&O Canal.

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