Tuesday, 26 November 2013

JFK 50 miler

After the world champs I wanted one last season finale to sign off with. Looking around there wasn’t much in Europe but I knew of the JFK50 miler which I thought suited me well. It's one of the oldest and biggest ultra’s in the US and perfect for making an impression on the US ultra scene with the aim to be living here by next summer if all goes well. I’ve ran 3 ultra’s in the US now, won 3 and hold records for at least 2 if not all 3, but have yet to run one of the classics. Being the 50th anniversary of JFKs death, and the race never having had a non-US male winner I did hold out hope of grabbing a win, but a good time was my main aim.

The JFK 50 miler is basically a mix of terrain, from an initial road climb to the loose rocky Appalachian trail section, onto the almost flat marathon length section along C&O canal to finish on 8.5 miles of undulating road. To do well you need to have attributes of a mountain, trail and road runner. Some say it is a road runners course, I don’t agree. the first 15 miles along the Appalachian trail impact on you and without a trail background it can take out more than it should.

The logistics for the race were all pretty easy, regular food stations were along the course, stocked with Gatorade, fruit, gels, coke, water and almost anything you’d want, on top of that I had Gwen meet me at 3 points with options of changing clothing, Vaseline, and the old ibuprofen..

Training had gone as well as I could hope.. following my DNF in the 50k, I missed Berlin Marathon and slowly built back up to 90 mile weeks following a strength and stretching programme set by Leanne at Meadowhead Physiotherapy in Sheffield (http://www.meadowheadphysiotherapy.co.uk/view/about). I’d been slowly adding distance and managed three 20 milers with one at 6:40 pace which suggested I’d be OK for the 50 miler. Another month and I think I’d hve been 100% but was still pretty confident I was 95% back to normal. I’d ran a pb of 73 mins at the Philly Half the week before so at least over that distance I was quicker than I had been, the big question was just how I would hold it together.

It’s a race of over 1000 people but despite that the start was pretty low key and it was easy to get a good start line spot. I’d kept out of the who was who really, I knew there were a good 10 quality runners in the field but 50 milers are short enough to throw in surprises but I didn’t want to focus too much on who was who and just run my own race. Initially I thought sub 6 was a formality, but reading the race reports and looking at splits I revised that to 6:10.. Ellie Greenwood, one of the top GB ultra runners now living in Canada had run 6:12 there last year so that was useful information, we have fairly similar times over shorter distances, mine are slightly quicker but she’s a more seasoned ultra runner so I thought over that terrain we’d not be far off time wise.

The gun went and the front 10 seemed to pull clear quickly, I was sat at the front and Dave James soon joined me and we had a quick chat about things, the pace was pretty easy as we slowly pulled out of Boonsboro, the first mile was 6:43 then low 7’s as we climbed towards the trail where Jason Wolfe took the lead. Its then an initial quick section along the Appalachian trail until a much steeper road section to join the more technical part of the trail. Here we were still pretty much as a group, maybe a few hundred yards separating us, but with 45 miles to go and plenty of food stops its essentially one group.. as we started on the trail I felt the pace was a tad too slow so picked it up and moved into the lead. The others seemed quite content to really take the descents slow but I felt I could go quicker without taking too much out of myself. Josh Arthur and Matt Flaherty soon followed and we kept together until the first aid station. The trail is actually pretty technical, once you are on it there are no major climbs but its rooty with many projecting rocks, on top of that this race is held at the end of the fall so leaves cover the ground. The sun was slowly rising and casting shadows through the trees, I was actually a stunning morning and was just really enjoyable knocking through the miles early on like it was just a training run with mates. At the first aid station I grabbed some drink and Josh and Matt pulled away.. the food early on is pretty minimal so I think I made a mistake not starting with a gel in hand. As I climbed out from mile 9 I took a toilet stop and then made a concerted effort to catch the leaders who were now 400 yards ahead.. enjoying it so much I looked up and caught my toe on a rock mid stride and went flying down, cutting my leg and yelping out more in shock than anything. Luckily all was OK so I set off more gingerly but soon caught up with Josh and Matt; there was no real desire to race each other so soon so as soon as you or they pulled up behind we’d all offer to step aside but I was happy sat in with them having a brief chat about our back grounds. Due to a toilet stop and then Josh dropping his sun glasses I think I soon got in front and descended the 1000 ft down to the road in first place but with a good 5 runners or so within a minute or two back. The early section is quite dangerous because of the leaves and rocks you almost certainly roll your ankle a few times along the route..

Hitting the start of the canal in 1:58 was about bang on schedule, the plan was sub 2 to there then see what happened. It felt pretty easy so far and I was pleased to be in the lead pack but knew it was all going to change from now on as this was where you could really drop the pace. The only worrying thing was my quads, from pretty early on I just didn’t feel 100% in the legs, a few seemed to find this, I put it down to the almost zero Celsius conditions and cold wind we were running in but it was also the end of a long season.

As we descended towards the canal I grabbed a banana, some Gatorade and some ibuprofen and followed Josh down to the canal. I knew others would be hitting 6:10 – 6:15 minute mile along here but that’s only 10 seconds off my marathon pace so I planned to sit at 6:30, anything sub 7 I was happy with.. run my own race and see what happened. Soon enough Matt Flaherty, Rob Krar and Zach Miller all caught up and with Josh all 4 and pulled away. Rob especially was enviously smooth. With only 20 miles gone it was important to just run at my pace and see what would happen. I knew enough about Rob, Matt and Josh that they were top ultra runners and wouldn’t be getting their paces wrong so it was really important I didn’t try to race them at that point. The canal tow path is 26.3 miles long, people say it is boring, it’s nice enough, you run between the Potomac River and the dry bed of the old C&O canal which ran between Ohio and Chesapeake Bay along the wooded banks of the river. By now the wind was picking up but despite its strength the woods shielded us and it seemed pretty much ideal conditions for me. The one hard thing is you run up river, hardly noticeable but there are no descents and the occasional short pull up but its essentially a flat trail marathon.

My pace did slow but I ran the 26.3 mile section at an average pace of 6:53 having hit the canal with an average pace of 7:23.. I knew I needed sub 7:12 pace to beat 6 so slowly worked the average pace down but I was worried how much my pace would slow on the final hills along the road which I had no real idea about. The marathon actually flew by, with the food stops it was quite easy to forget the bigger picture and just run each section and clock through the miles with Gwen scheduled to meet me at miles 30 and 40. It must have been somewhere before mile 30 where I caught Josh who was struggling with his legs but apart from that I saw no one until mile 34 or so when predictably Mike Wardian caught me. I was pretty sure I’d hit the canal ahead of him but he’s a class ultra runner, numerous times USA champion at various distances with a marathon pb of 2:17.. so I knew he’d be hitting the low to mid 6 min miles along the canal. Only 6 days before he’d ran 2 marathons in the same day in Texas and Las Vegas in 2:31 and 2:57 so I did wonder how much that would affect him but soon enough he was on my shoulder and moved past. Luckily for me he was going at a pace just quicker than mine so I was able to step up and get pulled along and for the rest of the race Mike stayed within sight. I’d not been out of the top 5 all day and was keen to hold that. Despite sore quads I was still running sub 7 for most miles bar the odd stop for food. I was doing the Maths and if I ran 7:30 to the end I had my sub 6..

Irunfar were tweeting updates of the race and it was funny reading back through.. this was the update just as we approached one of the final aid stations on the canal: “At mile 38.7, Mike Wardian (+13.5') looks great in 4th, while Iain Ridgeway (+14') not so good in 5th. #JFK50mile”

I actually felt OK but was definitely starting to hurt. I felt marathon fit but hadn’t run over 20 miles since the world champs and was now pretty much in the hold on camp. At the 100k in March I’d lost 8 minutes over the final 20 miles when my average pace suddenly dropped to 7:20-7:30 but even that would have been enough to get my time.

At the end of the canal section we passed Rob Krar who was walking, I was pretty surprised as he looked so comfortable just a few hours before but now I knew it was between Mike and I for 3rd which I still held out a faint hope for but I know Mike’s pedigree so wasn’t overly optimistic that he’d suddenly come back towards me and he never did.

At the end of the canal is a steepish road section and I tried to push up there to keep my pace low and it was actually not as bad as I feared. We then entered the final 8 miles along the road and Mike was maybe 200-300 yards ahead. With the undulations I kept thinking I was catching but by mile 45 he seemed to have pulled ahead. Sub 6 hours was now pretty much a formality if I just held it together, my only worry was how long the actual race was as I’d seen a few different distances from 50 to almost 50.5. at the final aid section a sign said 1.5 to go of the 50.2 so now it was all done.. the final 3 miles were 7:00, 7:00, 6:50 and 6:31 for the final section which I was pretty happy with and finished in 5:57:26, two minutes behind Mike. Zach Miller was 1st in 5:38 and Matt second in 5:44. My 5:57 puts me in the top 20 JFK performers of all time and not mamy more have broken the 6 hour barrier in its 51 year history. US based UK runner Ian Sharman ran 5:51 there last year and in better conditions, with that bit better run up I think sub 5:50 could be attainable, so all things considered it was a successful race.

Along the road I actually held it together OK and averaged 6:57 min mile, and 6:54 min mile for the final 35 miles so I was pretty happy overall and suggests a sub 7:15 100km could be a realistic target next year.

My aim for the race was just be competitive, show that the world trail champs performance wasn’t a fluke and hopefully compete with some of the top US runners. The wind and cold weather certainly affected times but I agree with Matt Flaherty, it was probably just a matter of minutes, 2-4 minutes for the front runners, but as the wind grew later in the day it would have affected the later runners more. I still need to work on my short distances, most of those at the front, if not all are sub 70 half marathoners, sub 2:30 marathoners and if I am to compete at their level I need to work on those times as well.

Great race and the atmosphere all day was great even if I didn’t show it towards the end as I was really starting to hurt. Despite our obvious competitive natures the front of the field is typically really friendly, in an ultra you just run your own race and there's time to chat before, during and after and it was a very friendly race. Obviously I wanted to finish as high as possible but sub 6 was more important to me than a slower time and higher position. Run of the day was from Zach, stunning debut at the 50 mile distance. Of those who pulled away from me on the canal I thought I’d most likely see him again, he was unknown (he does in fact have a strong running pedigree (31 10k etc) but looked young and you always doubt the stamina but he just ran a stunning race and in better conditions could have probably taken the record set by Max King, a former olympian, so certainly someone who will be at the front end for a good few years yet. Also worth mentioning he works on a cruise ship , so when we moan about not ideal training conditions he copes with a lot more and still operates at that level. It’s been a long season and the race battered me so it’s now an easy few weeks and then build back up and target London Marathon in April and then look at the ultras for next year.

Thanks to Gwen for supporting me, I don't think I was too grumpy, just a few diva moments.. Mike for putting on a great race and all the volunteers at the various aid stations.