By Oksana Lightfield
The 59th annual JFK 50-miler was held on November 20, 2021. If you are a Frederick Steeplechaser, just an occasional runner, local or not, chances are you’ve heard of JFK 50. This year, it proved to be the oldest continuously held foot race of any distance in the nation.
This point-to-point, horseshoe-shaped race starts in Boonsboro, MD, at the intersection of Old National Pike and Potomac Street. It zips you up the mountain on a paved road (Old National Pike) for a good 2,5 mile uphill warm-up. As you crest South Mountain at the Old South Mountain Inn, the paved road drops you off at the Appalachian Trail (AT) entrance. You then stay on the trail for the next 15,5 miles, with the exception of 2,5 paved access road section between Miles 3,5 and 5,5 that brings you all the way up to Lamb’s Knoll. The AT section is rugged and rocky, with plenty of leaf cover this time of year, which makes it for a somewhat dangerous roller-coaster traverse along the mountain ridge if you are going at any speed faster than walking.
The Canal Section
At Weverton Cliffs, at approximately 14,5 miles, the trail drops 1,000 feet of elevation in a series of switchbacks, punctuated by huge boulders that are unrelenting for one steep downhill mile. You will now have entered the longest stretch of the race, the never-ending “nature’s treadmill”, as a fellow Steeplechaser, Evan Machusak, so thoughtfully put it. The marathon leg of the JFK 50, the 26,3-mile-long section of the towpath, better known as the C&O Canal Towpath, starts from here. It is a flat, hard-packed gravel and dirt kind of trail that follows the Potomac River.
You’d be happy to make it in one piece through the AT section and the switchback descent, but the towpath is where you will really be tested. It is flat and, well, repetitive. While your body will be screaming for a break from the use of the same muscle groups for the length of a marathon, your mind will be numbed and strained to stay focused on the positive.
The Last 8,4 Miles
When you are done with the towpath at Mile 41,8, at Dam Number 4 Road, you are not really done working hard. For the next 8,4 miles of “gently rolling paved country roads”, you’d be running, walking, and maybe even hobbling at times, forcing the visions of a finish line in your mind. It will feel like forever. At this point, you might be running in the darkness, which makes it sort of intimate. You might get in touch with an old friend, Pain, and will get to know her real good, for she is here to stay. But, we are all unique and some of us are lucky enough to not care about or experience that kind of an intimate relationship.
Whatever your mojo might be, pain-worshiper or not, delirious or self-composed to the very end, some of us will have to run those last eight miles of country roads and wonder if we’d ever make it from one port-a-potty to the next. Will we make the cut-off of 13 hours? Will we remember to smile brightly for the cameras, outshining our glowing safety vests, as we cross the coveted finish mat at the Springfield Middle School in Williamsport, MD?
Sounds like something you would enjoy? You’ve come to the right place, read on!
Steeps Represent Well!
This year’s race started off on a cool and overcast morning of November 20, flooding downtown Boonsboro with close to a thousand participants from all over the country and the world. FSRC was very well-represented this year at the event, with six fellow Steeps running it: Heidi Novak, FSRC President, Chris Dutton, FSRC Vice President, Robert Kelley, FSRC Training Coach, Erica McCann, Adam Lowe, and Ainsley Cain.
They all had great races and finished strong, despite some issues that a few of them experienced during the race. Below are excerpts from their race reports.
Finish Time 11:49:45
“There was a brief moment when I thought to myself that I wasn’t going to make it, but then I remembered how excited my Kindergarten class was for me and that I couldn’t let them down.”
“I’m doing this!!”
While I had run the AT several times prior to the race, I still wasn’t comfortable with the terrain. Luckily, there is a road section before we hit the AT. I started off with my running buddy, Chris Dutton, and we ran all the way up to the Old South Mountain Inn. I was super proud of myself, since last time I walked some of it.
Once we hit the AT, Chris took off. I was expecting this, as he is more comfortable on the trails. I kept a steady pace on the AT and made my way down the switchbacks safely and eventually. You can see from the picture how happy I was to be done with that section.
Shout out to Bill Susa for being out there. It was great to see a familiar face. I got to Weverton well within the cut-off and got to see my amazing crew, Steve Dobson, and Christine Stafford. Thanks to Mike O’Grady for being there as well. I changed into my road shoes, grabbed some fuel, and took off for the next section.
After leaving Weverton, I made my way down to the towpath. I was pleasantly surprised to see Chris Bailey on my way down. I got to see Carolyn DiMaria, Ellen Saint Onge and her husband at the aid station. After crossing the train tracks, I saw Coach Lauren, Stacy Brady DiFranco, and other Run Squad members. I was feeling good and was ready to tackle 26.3 miles on the towpath, or so I thought.
Along the way, I ran into Mark Cucuzzella. We ran together for a bit and chatted about running stuff. As we passed through Harper’s Ferry, we saw Manuel Ramos and some of the HURT crew.
The next stop was my favorite stop, the Mile 19 FSRC Aid Station. Billy Clem met me before the aid station and ran in with me. It was so great getting to see everyone.
I was good after that, then all of a sudden my legs felt like they were done. I texted Steve and Lauren that everything hurt, which was a slight exaggeration. They both told me that this was normal and to keep going. I wasn’t supposed to start walking until later on, but I started walking earlier.
There was a brief moment when I thought to myself that I wasn’t going to make it, but then I remembered how excited my Kindergarten class was for me and that I couldn’t let them down.
I passed through the Mile 22 Aid Station, which was run by the Frederick High Cross Country team and got to see one of my former students. I trucked along slowly to the next aid station, where I would see my crew again. They were quite surprised to see me come in dancing, and after restocking my fuel and hydration, I was on my way.
I met lots of people during this section and was telling them all about my journey. From being inspired by Anne Shubert last year, when she crossed the JFK 50 finish line, to my own weight loss journey. There was a lot of leap frogging as we traveled on this section and as we were approaching Mile 38, I caught up with a runner I had been going back and forth with. He said, he had been waiting for me to catch up. I told him how excited I was to see my crew.
As I came into the aid station I heard lots of people screaming my name and was so surprised to not only see my crew, but lots of other Steeps there to cheer me on. I was so excited that I almost ran right through, without getting any fuel or hydration. I did forget my battery pack, but, thankfully, Steve ran up to meet me so that I could continue to get all of my cheers on the RaceJoy app.
There was only 3.1 miles of the towpath to go before we got on the road. While I had run many long runs on the towpath, I was happy to get off of it. Since it was past 3:30 p.m., I got to wear one of the lovely reflective vests. Some call it the Vest of Shame, I call it the Vest of Safety.
I got off the towpath and decided to use a port-a-potty. As I am in there, I get a song cheer. All of a sudden my phone starts playing Stronger by Kelly Clarkson and I started cracking up. Random songs, cheers, and other encouraging words had been coming across my phone all day, which definitely helped me to keep going. Thank you to everyone who sent a cheer!
After walking up the hill and meeting a runner from Florida, I decided it was time to get running. Not sure what got into me, but I just took off. I walked here and there, but for the most part, I ran the last eight miles.
I started passing lots of people and they were commenting on how strong I looked. The cheers and songs continued, as well as the encouraging words. While I appreciate all of the cheers, I have to give a shout out to Oksana Lightfield for all of her encouragement.
The RaceJoy app updates you each mile on your anticipated finish time. When I was on the towpath, I was at 12 hours 8 minutes. I told myself that I was going to get it down to 12 hours, which was my secret goal. As I picked up my pace, my anticipated finish time got lower, and Oksana’s messages encouraged me to keep pushing, and that’s what I did.
As I got about a mile away from the finish, I ran into the guy from Mile 38. I looked at him and said, “I’m back!” He told me that I looked strong, and I screamed, “We’re going to be under 12 hours!”
As I made the last turn, I heard someone scream my name. I looked over and saw Javier Montenegro, my former coach. I ran over to him, gave him a hug, and said, “I’m doing this!!” Then I took off to finish it up.
Steve met me at the bottom of the hill and ran in with me. Luckily, I was able to ditch the Vest of Safety, so it wasn’t in my finish line picture. He said he was going to run ahead, so he could get a picture of me crossing the finish line. Well, I was feeling good, and after passing a few people, I got there before he did….oops!!
I could hear lots of people screaming my name and the race director, Mike Spinnler, announced that the President of the Frederick Steeplechasers Running Club had just finished. I was so happy to be done and see all of my friends.
My finish time was 11:49:45 and I managed a 50K PR during my 50 miler. Blues Cruise, my first 50K was 9:14:07 and during the JFK 50, I ran a 7:05:09 50K. That’s a 2:08:58 PR!!!
Finish Time 10:23:24
“I find myself thinking back on the day in awe of how incredible the race was, the volunteers, and everyone out there supporting all of us.”
“It was just a perfect day and, honestly, I had so much fun during the training and on race day. I think, I may have to do this again.”
I find myself thinking back on the day in awe of how incredible the race was, the volunteers, and everyone out there supporting all of us.
I was dealing with a hip injury around August that had all but disappeared…until race week. All of a sudden, it was hurting a bit, my hamstring was tight, and my back hurt. I knew some of this was just in my head, so I just tried to put it out.
The ultimate goal was to finish, but Lauren [Coach Lauren Kramer] and I felt I could get a 10-hour finish.
On race morning I felt great and ready to rock. My running buddy, Heidi, and I cruised up the hill to the AT together. Once I got up the fire road, I was ready to settle in because all the climbing was behind me.
Throughout training, I had become very confident in the AT section so I was not worried at all. No falls, barely any trips and I was off the AT about 10 mins ahead of the lower end of my goal.
Quick change of shoes and a restock of Nuun from the awesome crew of Christine and Steve, and I was onto the canal.
I was a little concerned about this section because our last training run did not go well for me on this section, but it was a little hotter then, so I hoped for the best. I locked in at about 10:30-11:00 minutes per mile pace and just hit cruise control.
Around Mile 30, my legs were getting tired (no surprise) and I was feeling a little nauseous, but I was making good time and needed to plow through. I finished the canal in just over five hours, which was a little off from the plan, but still well in the 10-hour range. In my mind, I was going to hit the road and fly home. Not the case.
By this point, I was hurting and feeling sick from so much Nuun. I couldn’t stop or slow down too much because I was really hitting my goal. A couple of more turns, and when I saw the finish line, I have to admit, I got a little choked up. I crossed the finish line in 10:23:24.
If you told me in March, when I signed up, that this would be my finish time, I would have thought you were crazy. It was just a perfect day and, honestly, I had so much fun during the training and on race day. I think, I may have to do this again.
Finish Time 12:41:32
“Two years ago, I had never heard of the JFK 50.”
“I’ll definitely be back in 2022 with an ambitious goal!“
I am officially a member of the family of JFK 50 Mile finishers!!
Two years ago, I had never heard of the JFK 50, but my running club (the Frederick Steeplechasers!) was looking for aid station volunteers, so I signed up.
The race atmosphere was so awesome that I decided I wanted to do it! I didn’t sign up in 2020 because it was going to be a scaled back event and I knew I would need all the aid station and spectator support I could get out there!
When registration for 2021 opened up, I registered right at midnight, so that I couldn’t talk myself out of doing it.
A week before the race, I didn’t think there was a very good chance of me being able to finish (I hardly ran at all the past couple weeks leading up to race day, because I aggravated my injury that I’ve been working back from since March), but I wanted to get out there and at least try.
I ran the first 36 miles with my JFK 50 training buddy, Ainsley Cain, and at that point I couldn’t keep up the 3-1 jog/walk intervals. I was a little worried that I’d fall off the pace and put myself in a tough position, but I worked hard to get to the 42-mile mark with 2,5 hours to go, making it possible for me to walk it out if I started struggling. I maintained a solid pace for those last eight miles and finished strong!
I’ll definitely be back in 2022 with an ambitious goal!
Finish Time 12:14:55
“2021 has been my lowest mileage year to date. I barely ran 50 miles in a month.“
“I knew going in, I was physically under trained. But I also knew that my mental toughness could carry me far.”
“I felt great all day long.”
“The aid stations were the highlight. I loved seeing familiar faces, many food choices, young kids, adults, coaches, parents, volunteers!”
“My biggest word of encouragement is always believe in yourself!”
In 2020, nearly every race I had signed up for was cancelled; however, JFK 50 happened, so Chris and I went to spectate.
I signed up for the race in the spring of 2021. I have always volunteered at this race, since the race director was my college cross country coach and this race was his pride and joy.
I knew this year was not about running fast but running far – 50.2 miles. To be able to start before sunrise and finish after sunset. Long stretches of time to master getting in your own head.
I had some health concerns that peaked in the spring. I discovered that I was iron deficient anemic, which effects breathing and running. Then, a few months later, I also found out that I might have had adrenal fatigue, which manifests itself in draining your energy.
2021 has been my lowest mileage year to date. I barely ran 50 miles in a month. I added acupuncture, pre-race chiropractic adjustment, started drinking a superfood protein and collagen smoothie every morning. I added vitamins to my day. I prepared my body the best I could but I knew that at some point during the race I would feel the pain of running an ultra marathon.
I knew going in, I was physically under trained. But I also knew that my mental toughness could carry me far. I never felt any pain or discomfort throughout the entire duration of the race. I felt great all day long. My feet got tired after Mile 30.
I had a single 20-mile training run this cycle. I contribute my lack of training to feeling so great on race day. My body didn’t have any nagging injuries, my body wasn’t beaten up. I am not a high-mileage athlete ever.
The aid stations were the highlight. I loved seeing familiar faces, many food choices, young kids, adults, coaches, parents, volunteers! The aid stations were something to look forward to during this run. During the day, I consumed a whole variety of food choices: coffee, grilled cheese and PB&J sandwiches, coke, Gatorade, water, chicken broth, cookies, red velvet cake, and boiled potatoes.
I also took Hüma gels, known for being easy on the belly. Nutrition and hydration is key for 50.2 miles. I ate and stayed hydrated all day long.
I never once doubted that I could finish this race. When I signed up, my only goal was to finish.
It helped to see familiar faces out on the course, to have friends and family come out and cheer me on. I am thankful for Chris VanSant, who crewed for me and coordinated everything, met up with friends to help cheer me on. He kept everyone up-to-date on my whereabouts. Unfortunately, my phone and Garmin watch died around Mile 32.
I crossed the finish line feeling amazing. Hearing my former Coach’s ecstatic cheering that his former high school sprinter just ran 50.2 miles gave me a real boost.
I even proceeded to go to Walmart after the race because I wanted to hit 100,000 steps for the day.
I slept great the night after the race and took a Nuun rest tablet with magnesium. I woke up feeling tight, not sore. I have no blisters, chafing, or any other types of injuries.
People have asked me if I’d do this again. My answer was no. It was a one and done…but then again, never say never and we shall see!
My biggest word of encouragement is always believe in yourself!
Way to go, Steeps! You trained, you toed the line, you worked hard and your never gave up! We applaud your resilience and mental toughness.
Mile 19 Aid Station
Not to be forgotten in this story are our beloved volunteers at the JFK 50 Continuously Voted Best Aid Station at Mile 19. FSRC puts out awesome aid with Harriet’s World’s Best JFK 50 Custom Decorated Cookies, among other things. However, it’s the uniquely designed cookies that make us drool every year and almost make some of us sign up for this epic race, just to get the coveted cookie.
“Other things” at the FSRC Mile 19 Aid Station include warm grilled cheese sandwiches, lovingly cut for you into bite-size chunks, various beverages, and snacks to your liking. All of this will be served to you by a small army of volunteer Steeps, who run a tight ship with the aid station, who will know you by your name, will drop everything and run alongside of you if you need them to, tie and re-tie your shoes, put Band-Aids on you, wipe your tears, listen to your problems, and will tend to your every need. You will be as good as new then. With a swift and metaphorical kick in your rear for the purpose of stiffness prevention only, you will be ready to rock the rest of the mileage with a cookie in your hand and plenty of encouraging words to last you to the finish line.
What are you waiting for? Sign up for next year! Registration opens on March 1, 2022. Reserve you cookie!