All pain, all gain, JFK 50 taxes body, lifts soul

November 30, 2003|by ANDY MASON

As I laid sprawled on my back on the grass in front of Springfield Middle School in Williamsport last Saturday afternoon, without a single muscle in my body which wasn't either cramping or throbbing in pain, I knew I was living through the most near-death experience of my life.

That's how high in the heavens my spirit soared.

I had done what seemed almost incomprehensible to me, completing the 41st annual John F. Kennedy 50-Mile ultramarathon.

As you can see on page B8 in today's sports section, I certainly wasn't alone in my plight. What roughly a thousand competitors - representing nearly every state of the U.S. and a half-dozen countries - began, 829 finished.

Those participation numbers are maybe even more inconceivable than the number of grueling miles separating the start in Boonsboro from the finish in Williamsport.

The JFK is like the World's Fair of endurance freaks. It would be the perfect credit-card commercial.


Admission: $65. Completing the entire tour: priceless.

Or late-night-TV, paid-programming ad: For only $65, you'll receive a number to pin on your outfit. In less than 14 hours, you're guaranteed to lose at least 10 pounds, while eating every peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich within reach, or double your money back.

"You can get in line and take what they give you, or make your own choices." Miller Lite would probably like those who choose the JFK, too. Although, I'm sure all the finishers fell like dominoes into their beds that evening. And there was nothing light about the postrace beers I drank.

It's easy for me to be so lighthearted about the whole thing now. I'm still lightheaded from it all.

But don't get me wrong, the JFK is definitely one of the most serious challenges I've ever tackled.

I ran myself weary in October, doing four runs of 20-28 miles each in a 20-day span. After each one, I could barely imagine going a step farther. Just the thought of doing 50 cost me more than a few nights of decent sleep this fall. I think I only slept a combined seven hours the last two nights leading up to the race.

I've finished six marathons, at least a dozen half-marathons and countless races of shorter distances. But the JFK is a different game with its own set of rules.

You need to get off to a slow start to ensure an even slower finish. In between, roughly a quarter of the race is on the Appalachian Trail, which could leave even the most advanced of Boy Scouts breathless at spots.

Survive the AT and your on your way ... only 34 miles to the finish line. It takes patience, stamina and a relentless urge to keep moving forward, the kind of drive you can probably only call upon every so often in this lifetime and one that needs an absolute purpose - such as completing a legendary 50-mile run - to do so.

Call it an extreme test of perseverance or a maniac's footrace, the JFK is a little bit of both.

The pain I endured the last 15 miles of the race is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. The 1,000 milligrams of ibuprofen I swallowed during that stretch to help mask it probably wouldn't be advised either.

Still, the experience of competing in "America's Ultramarathon," as the JFK - North America's oldest race of its kind - is billed, is one I'd highly recommend to any runner looking for "something more."

Having that official finisher's medal slung over your head in Williamsport has to be pretty close to the ultimate runner's high. At least I know it will keep my kite flying until next November.

Good Lord willing and the Potomac crick don't rise, I will likely attempt to do it all over again.

Andy Mason is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at

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