JFK 50 Mile – The Untold Story

Back in the fall of 2008, I, with the help of Melissa and our friend Jess, I ran the 46th Annual John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Ultramarathon. I wrote a lengthy narrative of that event – because thats what aspiring writers do – and was lucky enough to have part of that narrative published in the September/October 2010 edition of Marathon & Beyond Magazine. As with most magazine submissions, I was subjected to strict word limitations, and so I had to condense my original 8,100 word epistle into a diminutive 3,000 word aproximation of its former self. Much like a mother, forced by her doctor into a choice of cleaving off her newborn’s ears or nose, I was traumatized by the process. Painful as it was though, it was a vital lesson for me in the power and importance of effective editing.

I’m legally restrcted from reproducing the M&B piece on this blog, but I did want to publish one of the edited parts of the original narrative. I’m currently working a temporary assignment in Frederick, MD – not too far from Washington County, Maryland where the JFK took place – and I’ve been thinking back fondly about that weekend in November, 2008. This exerpt comes from the longest portion of the JFK – the 26 mile C&O Towpath portion of the race. This portion of the race took place right after the 16 mile Appalachian Trail portion at the beginning of the JFK. I was happy to see my friends and was thoroughly and lavishly spoiled by Melissa and Jess. How people survive this portion of the race without the help and support of good friends, I’ll never understand…

*****

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is located along the north banks of the Potomac River and was built between 1828 and 1850 to aid cargo ships in navigating around the shallows, thus enabling the delivery of goods and creating markets for commerce further inland. The canal eventually fell into disuse with the rise of the railroads and much of it has since been drained and reclaimed by native forest. However the towpath remains exceedingly popular with runners and bikers alike. The surface was a welcome change – predictable, flat, blissfully boring – it is mostly clay and crushed gravel for the entirety of its length. Melissa & I quickly settled into a run-walk routine where we would run for two or three miles, then walk a bit, then repeat. The conversation was a huge boost to my morale. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about and it really didn’t matter. Just having my good friend there to talk with – to distract my focus from the fact that I still had thirty plus miles to go on this cold and blustery day – having someone with whom to share this experience – it made all the difference.

Throughout the entirety of the tow path portion of the event, I would pass and be passed by the same groups of people in a hop scotch pattern as we all ran and walked at varying intervals. As a result, we began to recognize people, sometimes chatting, sometimes just offering up a knowing and empathetic glance. There was strength to be taken from these interactions. We were all enduring the same challenges – the same discomforts of aches and doubt and weariness and cold. There was a communal spirit among the runners – a shared sense of purpose and a collective understanding and compassion which made the event much more tolerable – and at times, I daresay – even enjoyable. Misery does take great solace from company, after all. There were other people who, I have come to believe, were sent by God – because he does have a healthy sense of humor – to test my patience.

I came to know one such runner during the eleven mile portion that Jess ran with me. I didn’t know Jess as well as Melissa, so I had been looking forward to the opportunity to talk with her at length during this part of the run. Along with probably a dozen other runners on the tow path, “Kevan”, and I had been running at approximately the same pace for several hours now and we had been passing each other intermittently. As Jess & I passed through one of the aid stations at around mile 30 – enjoying a brief walk break and deep in conversation – we were approached by this now familiar runner, wearing Army regulation sweats and an oversized stocking cap cocked jauntily atop his noggin, who had a proposal for me. Oblivious to the fact that Jess and I were engrossed in an ongoing dialogue, he introduced himself to both of us and abruptly proposed that we run together for the balance of the event. I was a little taken aback by this. He volunteered that he had been observing my pace for the past couple of hours, had deducted that we would finish at approximately the same time and, no doubt tired of running alone, decided that Jess and I could use his company. Now I enjoy meeting people – I enjoy conversation as much as the next guy – but a sudden feeling of claustrophobic dread overtook me. I tend to be very comfortable as a solo runner, but I also love running with good friends over long distances because there is a familiarity and ease which allows you to fall into a comfortable silence for miles. You have the option of enjoyable conversation, or you can become lost in your own thoughts while still having the comfort of running with a partner. It is truly the best of both worlds. Running with strangers on the other hand – for me at least – is taxing. Conversation is forced, silence is awkward and it is nearly impossible to fall into that natural pace that seems to come so easily with familiarity.

Kevan was one of those people – you know the kind – who does not necessarily require that you be comfortable with (or that you even consent to) his presence in order for him to find perfect happiness spending time with you. It had nothing to do with Jess or I at all, really – he was simply craving human contact of any kind – we just happened to be there. And so, having been caught off guard and unable to come up with a quick excuse (and also, unable to find a large tree branch with which to smite him dead), the three of us started off running.

Kevan was an interesting guy to say the least. It was obvious to me that he had been dying to talk with somebody for some time now by the way he latched onto us and began, unbidden, a lengthy monologue on all manner of subjects. He began by extolling the virtues of Vaseline and it’s near miraculous capacity to soothe “hot spots” and prevent chapped lips. He never specified where exactly his “hot spots” were located, (this was left to the imagination), but he did speak passionately and at length about the matter. I knew his love of Vaseline was genuine because as he spoke, I noticed that an over-application of the stuff, hanging from his generously proportioned lips, had quickly frozen into petroleum-based icicles, reminding me of stalactites on a cave ceiling. He told us about his military service – he claimed to be an Army Ranger, and being an admirer of the military, he held my attention for a while with this subject. He went on to talk with mind-numbing detail about his three children. Two boys – both named Kevan, and a daughter, named Kevana. He lost me about right there. Was this guy serious? Who does he think he is, George Foreman? Jess and I remained silent but exchanged glances that asked “what the hell have we gotten ourselves into?” From there he discussed his long and illustrious career as an ultra marathoner. He discussed a 24 hour, 100 mile run he did along this same tow path years ago. It seems he had become disoriented during the night portion of the run and stumbled off the tow path into a ravine, some twenty feet below. I silently debated asking him to recreate this fall for purposes of illustration and clarity, but thought better of it. He also shared that he had done the JFK many times before and had developed an air-tight plan to finish in less than 12 hours. “The thing about me”, Kevan droned, “is that I can devise a plan and stick to it. Not many people can do that.” (insert now, more “WTF” glances between Jess and I).

Kevan loved to talk about himself. One of his greatest attributes however, was that he was so engrossed in his own ramblings that he failed to visually engage his audience. This opened the door to silent and conspiratorial communications between Jess and I in the form of me hanging myself and Jess shooting herself in pantomime. We entertained ourselves in this fashion for a couple of miles while Kevan prattled on mindlessly about, among other things, President Bush (Kevan no like), skydiving (Kevan like very much), the economy (Kevan worried but optimistic) and a brief revisiting of the hot spot topic (Kevan concerned as always). Yes, it was childish, and quite possibly mean-spirited of us to make fun, but you would have done the same thing and you know it.

At long last we came to another aid station at around mile 36 during which Kevan stopped for something to drink and, of course, more Vaseline (the man’s vigilance on the matter of hot spot avoidance cannot be overstated.) We took this occasion to quickly and unceremoniously inform him that we were going to move ahead and pick up the pace a little bit. Surprisingly, it worked, and we said our goodbyes. And so Jess and I, suddenly feeling unencumbered and fleet of foot, quickened the pace and began our conversation anew. This, until a mile and a half later during a walk break, Kevan caught up with us again. I wanted to cry – emotional stability during an ultra is egg-shell-fragile, after all. Then, to my great surprise and eternal admiration, Jess spoke up politely yet forcefully, advising him that we were in the middle of an important conversation and could use a little privacy. And so he bid us farewell again and we both wished each other much luck and God speed. I had a newfound respect for my friend, Jess.

*****

Jess, Me and Melissa at the JFK finish – Boonsboro, MD – circa November 2008

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