JFK 50 Mile Race Report

Photo by Paul Encarnación

At 6:30am on a crisp, chilly morning, just as the sun was just beginning to rise, my friend Tara and I dashed across the start line of the JFK 50 Mile in the little historic downtown of Boonsboro, Maryland. We had been huddled up in a coral of runners as if we were at the start of a big city marathon. We must have all been keeping each other warm in the crowd, because as soon as we all spread out down the road, the frigid air that hit us was shocking. Tara and I audibly gasped. It was like doing one of those polar plunges into a lake. Luckily the first couple miles were uphill, which would help get our hearts pumping.

Tara and I just before the race!

We zipped right up that 2.5 mile hill in no time, all the way to the trailhead for the Appalachian Trail at the top. I could hardly feel my legs they were so cold! It was a relief to finally hit the trail. Tara and I dashed by a couple runners and on down the trail, dancing across all the rocks and leaves in the process. It wasn’t long until the trail turned into a paved, mostly uphill path. I could feel my breathing becoming labored, so I slowed down as to not expend all my energy so early in the race. I had hoped to stick with Tara for a bit longer, but knew it would be smarter to let her and some other ladies we were running with go, and hope to catch back up with them later.

We hit the highest point of the course, and from there it was a mostly downhill dash on single track, technical trail. It was incredibly rocky and I found myself on very high alert. I felt really nervous about falling and hurting myself, and my confidence waned big-time. I’ve had so much experience on rocky east coast trails in the past couple years, including races like Promise Land 50K and Hellgate 100K, and the trails in my own backyard in Boston. I thought this section would be no problem for me, and in general I am a good downhill runner. Unfortunately I couldn’t hone in and trust my footsteps, and took the rest of the AT section very nervously and gingerly. I felt stressed out especially anytime someone came up behind me, because I felt like I needed to rush. Most times I would step aside to let runners pass, or sometimes I’d say, “Hey let me know if you’d like to pass,” but some runners were content to stay behind and go my pace, which felt extremely high pressure. I couldn’t help but feel wistful about my thru-hike of the AT where I could just dictate my own rhythm and pace without worrying about being in the way. On the upside, I didn’t presently have shin splints or bloody toes or feel like death.

The air was frigid cold and even though I was wearing my warmest mittens my hands were freezing (I get Raynaud’s, I should have known better and doubled up on the gloves). I knew I would need my hands to open gels to eat, and also be able to switch and tie my shoes at mile fifteen. I balled up my fists in my mitts in an effort to warm them up, then I practiced slowly opening and closing my hands inside my mitts. As a pianist, keeping your fingers warm is very important, and it is definitely possible to warm up your fingers with some movement. It took some effort to open up and eat a gel while running, but somehow I managed by holding onto the gel with one hand and tearing the tab off with my teeth. This only backfired once, as I tore the tap off at a weird angle and couldn’t squeeze any gel out. It was very sad. I was able to get two gels or about 450 calories down during this section, despite my hands not totally functioning in the cold. I had eaten breakfast and a snack right before the race too.

My stress and worry about falling just got worse and worse. I love the AT, but all I could think was, “Get me off this trail!!!” I tried to look at the positives: by moving slower I’d be conserving energy for the flat towpath section to come. This was a good thing! It was okay to take my time and get through the section in one piece. After all I needed my arms and fingers in one piece as my school and work study rely on playing the piano. The grand finale of the Appalachian Trail was a series of switchbacks down from the Weverton Cliffs. This was a nasty, gnarly, nerve-wracking section of trail, lined with yellow caution tape to help runners stay on course. The nice thing was you could actually see the rocks and they weren’t covered in leaves. One could theoretically feel confident about their placement of each footstep and tap dance their way down the trail. Mentally I couldn’t snap out of my freaked out state, and continued to take the section very carefully.

Bursting out of the woods was a big relief. Families and friends lined the course, clapping and cheering. I waved to my dad (Rodney) who had driven from Philadelphia to see me run. Then I scanned the crowd for David Horton (he’s run JFK many times, including winning it in 1985!), who came out to watch the race and help crew me at this particular check point. I checked my watch and had made it through in 2 hours 27 minutes, which was right in the range where I thought I’d be. He told me I was in 9th place for women, which was also right where I hoped to be. Despite being freaked out on the trail, everything had gone to plan to that point. It took me longer than I would have liked to switch out my gear, my hands being frozen and my mind still on high alert from all the rock hopping. I switched to gloves with fingers as I knew the temperatures would rise eventually, and I’d need to be a little more nimble with my gel opening technique. Horton dropped a hand warmer in each glove as I slipped them on. And off I went!

There was a tad bit more single track trail after that, which was a little stressful, but then finally I got to make the glorious right turn onto the tow path. The moment I had been waiting for! 26 miles of flat, fast, unencumbered freedom…. or so I thought. Even though I logically knew I was safe, and didn’t have to worry about the rocks anymore, my mind was still on very high alert. If you could visualize my brain as a thermometer with the mercury bursting out the top, that’s what it felt like. It wasn’t rational, but I felt extremely shaken regardless. I’ve had some pretty bad tumbles in the past, two that have taken me to the emergency room. After the first incident, for months afterward, I had nightmares about falling, the kind you have right after you close your eyes and are about to drift off to sleep–a little clip of the toe, the whoosh to the ground. But I did get over it eventually, and have gone on to run plenty of technical trail races and the entire freaking Appalachian Trail. Why had that fear decided to manifest today?

I ran in a panic, trying to shake it all off. Despite having taken my time on the AT section, I felt really wiped out already. I glanced down at my watch and saw I was running right around 8:00/mile pace. I thought for sure I could clip off 7:30-7:45s in this section feeling like a piece of cake, why did this feel so hard? To add to the stress, even though there were hardly any runners around, there was one particular runner that decided to latch onto me and match me step for step. If I sped up they sped up, if I slowed down they slowed down. I felt like screaming. I’m sure that person had no idea the stress and mental state I was in, they were just doing their thing and probably happy to have someone to run with on the otherwise lonely tow path. They even tried chatting with me a bit, and I gave some one word answers and tried to be polite, but I just could not carry on a pleasant conversation in that moment. Not a good time, buddy, so sorry!!

The adrenaline wore off after a few miles and I just started to crash, even though I had been taking in calories. I slowed down even more to mid-8:00s and felt tired and confused. How could this be happening? Was I undertrained? Should I have run more trails and hills so that section could have felt easier? Was I relying too much on experience and not well-practiced enough currently? I think the cold and stress might have taken a lot out of me in the first section, but to that extent? Nineteen miles into a fifty mile race and I felt sapped of energy. I also had put on a new hydration pack that had a full bladder of water in it, which I thought would be nice so that I don’t have to constantly refill or a bottle or rely on aid stations. I regretted my decision however, as it felt heavy with each step.

I slowed down approaching the aid station at mile 23 and just stopped in a daze. I skimmed the tables to see what was being offered, and it was pretty much anything I wanted. Grilled cheese, potatoes, candy, gels. I didn’t know what I wanted or needed, however. David Horton was there, which I hadn’t expected. I looked at him and said, “I don’t know what to do.” He asked, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “I don’t know, nothing’s wrong. I’m just moving really slow. I don’t know what to do. I just feel so disappointed with myself.” One of the aid station volunteers overheard me and came over to help. She offered me electrolyte tabs, which I took, and some ibuprofen, which I also took, and a banana. She said, “I totally understand and I’ve been there, honey.” They offered me some last encouraging words and on I went.

I proceeded to slow down even more to 9:00s, then 9:30s. How could this be happening? But, that’s what my body was allowing. Before the race I shared with Tara, I don’t have exact paces in mind, but just whatever my body will allow. Well, here’s what my body was allowing. I at least had a ballpark idea of what I thought I could do, and this was just completely off the charts, not what I expected at all. I got passed by a deluge of runners. I felt so fatigued that my eyelids felt heavy, like I could pull over and take a nap. The last time I’d felt that kind of fatigue was at the end of a really tough track workout the month prior.

I continued to just feel so disappointed and wondered how I could have been so off in estimating my own ability. Was I just delusional thinking I could run much faster than I was presently? I thought about quitting… a lot. I thought back to how many days on the AT that I had literally walked fifty miles in a day. I couldn’t quit. I could walk the entire rest of the way and probably still make the cutoff. I would feel much worse about quitting than walking the remaining 25 miles. And I wasn’t walking, I was still running and my body felt fine. So, I continued on at a shuffle that felt manageable and tried to keep my chin up, and just sort of accepted that this was how my day was going.

I continued to get passed by others over and over. I lost count of how many women were ahead of me. My guess was I was now in 15th or 16th place, and later my dad told me at some point I was somewhere between 15th and 20th. Two women in particular passed me like I was standing still. I desperately wanted to go with them but all I could do was say, “Good job!” and keep plodding along.

There was a long stretch where I was totally alone, just me and the tow path, the bare trees that had lost all their leaves in recent weeks, and the Potomac River to my left, glittering in the sun. Ahhh. This is more like it.

I came up on another aid station at mile 31, still a bit foggy, dazed, and in my own little world. A volunteer asked me what I would like. “Pretzels? Chips? Pickle juice? Brain cell?” I smiled at the last one and said, “Yes, that.” I ate some watermelon and had a pickle, I hate pickles, but it seemed right in the moment. And on I went. At some point I saw David Horton again at another aid station, I didn’t need anything so I just smiled, gave the thumbs up and kept going. He said, “You’re coming back!” And I said “Ehhh I don’t know about that!” But clearly I was feeling a little better, much better than when he had last seen me.

I started to dip under 9:00 minute miles again, feeling a little more chipper. Down the path I could see my dad, somewhere in the mid-30 miles. I waved to him so he would know it was me from far away. He smiled and took his phone out to get a video of me. As I got closer he told me I was doing great and asked how I was feeling. I said something like, “Not going as expected, but I recalibrated and feel better than I did.”

The farther into the race I got, the more unexpected things seemed to happen. I saw one runner off to the side crying and being consoled by her partner. I was tempted to say, “Run with me and we can cry together!”, as I felt like crying a little bit myself–this was really hard. And then a little later, a woman that had flown by me earlier just happened to stop at an aid station, whereas I just kept running by. I imagined she’d catch me again.

I continued to feel a little more upbeat. I think some of my gels had fallen out of my pack as I put it on back at mile 15 as I had already gone through all my food, so I made a point to drink a cup of Gatorade at every aid station, and take an item with me on the go each time. I wasn’t picky about what I grabbed and ended up eating some hilarious/gross flavors, luckily my stomach seemed to be handling everything just fine. I had some weird liquid orange concentrate pack, a tutti frutti gel (blech) a “pineapple roctane” gel (yuck), and some other questionable items.

Whatever I ate seemed to work some magic, plus I could feel my excitement growing as I was getting closer to the end of the tow path section past mile 40. Once you’re off the tow path, you go down a paved road, up a short/steep-ish hill, then it’s eight or so miles of rolling paved roads all the way to the finish. The bit of the tow path I felt especially ready to get the heck outta there, as the trail was getting softer and my feet slipped a tiny bit with each step, juust enough to be annoying.

Hitting the pavement was like flipping a switch. I was fueled up, energized, and motivated to finish the race. I had heard about the dreaded hill, but I zipped right up, excited for a change of terrain and scenery. At that point there was no one around me, but as soon as I got to the top of the hill and around a bend, I could see the country landscape and rolling road ahead, and a string of runners to chase.

The rolling hills in this section reminded me of the Oregon Wine Country Half Marathon. It was nice to get the occasional momentum of the downhill, which gave me the recovery needed to charge on the uphills. I felt like I was in my element. I was speeding up, my first paved mile 7:53 even with the first hill, and the next one 7:21 on rolling hills. I felt so excited and couldn’t believe what was happening. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” popped in my head:

I’m a shooting star leaping through the sky like a tiger
Defying the laws of gravity
I’m a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva
I’m gonna go, go, go, there’s no stopping me

Seeing runners ahead of me over the next six miles was like fuel for the fire. Just catch that one, then the next, then the next. I stopped at one last aid station for one last cup of Gatorade with maybe four miles to go. Eventually the gap became too big between me and the next runners to catch anyone else, but at that point the finish line was less than a mile away. I gave myself landmarks to chase instead of people. Just get to that next corner. Just get past the water tower. Past the police vehicles. Finally I could see the finish line off in the distance, and could hear the race announcer over the loud speaker. As I drew closer, he called out my name and announced me as the women’s 9th place finisher. I couldn’t believe it and buried my face in my hands and shed a few happy tears. I crossed the finish line in 7:36:54.

Photo by Daniel Kauffman Herald-Mail

I was greeted by my dad, Tara, David Horton, and Ashley Kniss my friend and host for the weekend. Tara had run phenomenally, placing fifth for women with a time of 6:48. She’s just had an incredible year and only seems to keep getting better. Tara Dower–remember that name! We shared happy hugs and were told the award ceremony would take place in the gymnasium momentarily.

In the gym they gathered up the top ten women and the race director shared that this was the deepest women’s field in race history, including Olympian Caitriona Jennings who placed second, and winner Sarah Biehl who set a course record in her third running of the race. The RD said the tenth place woman, Jana Fridichová, would have won the race in many years past with her time. I felt myself just totally beaming being up there with all those incredible women, then receiving a neat trophy and even some prize money ($275) to boot.

Afterward we celebrated with a fantastic meal at the 1836 Kitchen and Taproom in Lovettsville, VA at the invitation of Dawn, one of the owners. Tara and I were given some spots right by a wood stove: a literal warm welcome! Thank you, Dawn!!

I am happy that despite having a rough go for most of the race, thanks to working through the mental games–not quitting!!!–and taking care of the basics like eating and drinking frequently, and running as quickly as my body and mind would let me in the moment, it turned around in the end. I had two goals, top 10 women (check!) and finishing under 7 hours. I feel a little disappointed the sub-7 didn’t happen, but it makes me motivated to go back to the drawing board, put in the work that needs to be done (mentally and physically), and try again another year. Maybe when I’m not in grad school. Haha. I don’t believe that I ran to my potential, but if anything that just makes me excited for the future, and what I might be able to pull off when everything goes right.

Big thanks to the JFK 50 organizers and volunteers for putting on a top notch event, Tracksmith for their support, Ashley and Mike for hosting me, Dad for being there for me, David Horton for crewing me in the early stages, Karl Meltzer for being a great coach, Tara for saying “yes” when I asked if she’d want to do this race with me, GG who gives me great advice that I never listen to and is somehow always right in the end, and to everyone that has sent words of support and encouragement. :) Thank you.

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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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