Never before had I teared up while standing to face the flag for the National Anthem. But this time, I was 18-years-old, and I’d just completed my first day of basic training in the U.S. Air Force. Although it’s likely my eyes had filled up due to fear as much as patriotism, there was also an overwhelming sense that I was now part of something greater than myself.
Serving in the military gave me so many things. It got me out of the house and out on my own. It gave me excellent training and funding for college. It allowed me to see and live in other parts of the world. And, of course, it’s where I met my husband, Craig.
“There are two of us on the run
Going so fast, every doubt we had is coming undone..”Lucious
So, on a recent morning in late November, when my eyes filled with tears again, I was sad that Craig wasn’t standing next to me. Don’t worry, nothing had happened to him. He had ducked out to take some things to our car just before the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon that we were about to do. In the pre-race briefing, the race director talked about the history of the race and how so many active duty and former military members participate in it each year. He asked those of us who fell into that category to stand, and everyone applauded. Once again, my eyes got watery and I was filled with a sense of something greater than myself… and, let’s face it, a little bit of fear about what we were going to attempt. I wished Craig had been there just then, because he embodies everything I think of when it comes to grit, endurance, and service to those around him.
Race Director Mike Spinnler held up race number 1 and explained that no one would be wearing it in this year’s race. It belonged to William “Buzz” Sawyer, who organized the first edition of the event back in 1963. Buzz passed away at age 90 in February. So this year’s race would be a memorial to both him and its name sake. As a high school coach, Buzz had pulled together a group of his athletes to join him in a 50-mile challenge, inspired by the one President John F. Kennedy had given to his generals and administration around that time. Buzz kept it going for 30 years before turning it over to Spinnler.
Kennedy had touted the importance of physical fitness even before he took office, when he wrote an article called “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated. He wasn’t the first president to call attention to fitness, however. His predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man himself, had established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, which Kennedy continued and expanded. And, it was upon learning about an executive order that President Theodore Roosevelt had given to his Marine officers in 1908–to finish 50 miles in 20 hours–that Kennedy decided to put the same challenge to his military. His brother and Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, took on the challenge and completed it, as you can see in this short video.
The 50-mile challenge inspired other events around the country, by groups like the boy scouts and high school teams, just like Buzz and his athletes. Our friends, Jon and Terese, would be our support crew for the race; and it was cool to learn from Jon that his father had also completed one of the 50-mile challenges back in the early 60s. As a civilian working for the Operations Evaluation Group on assignment to Quantico, Va., his father had joined a battalion of U.S. Marines on such a hike to and from the Basic School, where they stopped mid-way for a steak lunch!
After JFK was assassinated in 1963, other 50-mile events around the country stopped running. But the one Buzz started continued and is today the oldest ultramarathon in the country. Buzz put together a route in Washington County that followed a similar path to the one we would traverse, including part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the C&O Canal Towpath. His group finished in just over 13 hours, and that is the current time cutoff for people doing the race. We would start at 0630 and needed to finish by 1930 (that’s 7:30 pm for you non-military types 😉 ).
I was most concerned about the AT portion, which takes place in the first 15.5 miles of the race. Craig and I had done a handful of trail runs, including some on the AT. But we knew that one mis-placed foot and a trip on the rocky, hilly terrain could leave you severely injured and derail your whole race. Because the first major time checkpoint on the race was at the point where you come off the AT, Craig instructed me that if he should fall, I was to keep going and not miss the cut-off.
We both knew that it would be hard for either of us to keep going if the other person fell. So, it seemed to work out well that I got ahead of him by running up the hill coming out of Boonsboro at the start of the race. This way, I wouldn’t be around to see if he fell… Many people chose to walk this steep incline (which was probably a smart way to save your legs). But I was afraid I’d be walking enough later in the race, so I kept running.
That put me about 20 minutes ahead of Craig by the time I exited the AT. And that was my only goal – to get off the AT in one piece and before the cut-off! After that, I was going to accept whatever I could do… We had trained pretty well for most of the summer, getting up to distances of around 30-32 miles. But due to injuries and traveling schedules, our training had dropped off during the last month or so. Therefore, it was anyone’s guess whether we could finish this thing.
Jon and Terese, the perfect race-sherpas, were there at Weverton when I came off the AT and offered me food and the opportunity to change shoes or socks. I felt pretty good. I was actually amazed at how good I felt! But I knew the next checkpoint would come fast and I should keep going. I ran pretty well to the next major checkpoint which comes at about 28 miles. It was nice to run on the flat C&O trail, in the cool fall air and with the river keeping me company. The only nagging thing was that my GPS watch was telling me I was a mile further than the aid station signs said I was. I found out later that Craig’s watch was even worse – showing that he was up to four miles ahead of the actual distance. That really messes with your head!
At Anteitem, the second stop where we could meet our support crew, it was good to hear from Jon & Terese that Craig was doing well. He had fallen about five times on the AT, but didn’t really hurt himself. He joked that he was doing “emergency push-ups” each time he fell. I knew that once he was off the AT and could socialize with other runners on the course, he would do pretty well. I told them I wasn’t sure how much further I would go, but that I wanted to get beyond 30 miles. They thought I could definitely finish the full 50 with no problem, based on my current pace. But I was trying to take it bit by bit.
During the next section, as we pushed along to mile 38, I found that talking to other people on the course and trying to run/walk with them was a good strategy. It really pushed me to try to stay with a man and woman who were running together. Their running pace was a bit faster than mine, but they were run-walking, so I knew I could get a break every now and then. He was a heart-attack survivor and had done the race several times. He was closely monitoring his heart rate, and every time it got above a certain point, he’d stop and walk for a short period.
When I stopped to see Jon & Terese at Taylors Landing (mile 38), it was starting to get colder, and there was a possibility of rain. I knew I would be walking more from here on out, so I wanted to get my rain jacket from them in case I started to get cold. At this point, I only had a few miles to go before I’d be off the C&O trail portion and onto the road which covers the last 8.5 miles of the race. That was my new goal. Craig was about an hour behind me now and would be pushing close to the time cutoffs. I had calculated that I could walk the last portion and still finish in time. So, I was going to try to conserve energy now. Although I knew I could finish within the cutoff of 13 hours, I wasn’t going to believe it until it happened. So, I couldn’t relax too much.
I ran with another lady for a while on the final C&O portion. But her pace was a bit too fast for me, so I told her to keep going. When I got to the road, they gave me the “vest of shame” – which is the reflective vest they give to anyone who gets to that point after 3 pm. That was okay by me, though, because I had forgotten my head lamp, and it ended up being really dark on the road. I did have a small green light that Craig got for each of us. So, it was better than nothing. I pretty much walked the final portion up to the last half-mile, and then I ran that last bit across the finish line. It was only then that I realized it was raining. I didn’t quite beat 12 hours – finishing in 12:02. But just finishing at all was way more than I expected. It was definitely another emotional moment for me – to realize I had completed this bucket list item!
After a very welcome shower at the high school in Williamsport where the finish line was, I went outside to join Jon & Terese and wait for Craig to finish. It was raining a bit harder now. At this point, there was about 15 minutes before the final time cut-off. We didn’t know if he would make it, and we knew it would be a huge disappointment to come so far and get swept up by the sweeper van. With less than 10 minutes to go, I kept looking for his small green light. We knew he had a head lamp too, but only the green light would distinguish him from the other few people coming down the road.
The race announcer pointed out that we could now see the sweeper van coming down the road, too. A few runners were still in front of it. All I could think was that if it were me, I would refuse to get on it if it stopped me that close to the finish line! Just then, I could see that one of the runners was Craig, his green light shining on his left shoulder. It was so exhilarating to cheer him in! We knew he would make it at this point, and he finished in 12:54, with six minutes to spare!
We had no clear goals for the JFK 50 Mile – other than to try it. We knew it would be hard for us. Even though we are both Ironman finishers, neither of us are super-fast runners. But it was fitting to complete it together. We spent our military careers together, and we had marveled at the JFK 50 since Craig had supported one of our friends from the Air Force when he did it years ago. It was a really cool experience, and I recommend it to anyone who is considering it. If we can do it, you can do it!
Being on the AT and the C&O trail was really peaceful, almost transcendental. You feel stripped down to the core of your being. And then, you’re surrounded by people who are in the fight with you, so to speak. They’re all happy to help you and encourage you, while also trying to do their own race. It’s times like these that I feel barriers come down between people. In the divided political climate of our country right now, I want to believe in something true and honorable that make us all American in the best possible way.
I don’t know if we embody JFK’s idea of being physically fit and non-soft Americans. We were definitely sore Americans for a few days afterward! Still, it’s cool to feel a part of something so historic and bigger than ourselves. It made me feel nostalgic and hopeful.
“I stopped believing in black and whiteFlyte
Or in left or right
I stopped believing in Hollywood
In only the bad
In only the good
I stopped believing in dreams come true
But I still believe in you…”