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Graham-Gray faces many obstacles at JFK 50

November 20, 2008|By ANDREW MASON

Susan Graham-Gray has used her speed, strength and endurance to win nearly all of the area's distance-running races in recent years.

But to have a chance to win the big one -- the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon -- she also will have to rely on something else.

Her sixth sense.

"I just can't explain it," said Graham-Gray, who is legally blind with 20/500 vision. "It sounds really stupid, but I can get a feeling through the rocks. It takes a tremendous amount of focus, and I have to stay relaxed."

It seems like most runners with perfect vision crash to the ground at least once during the course's extremely rocky and mountainous Appalachian Trail section.

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But Graham-Gray, 40, of Greencastle, Pa., is determined to persevere through that early 13-mile stretch when she makes her JFK debut Saturday in the 46th annual edition of the country's oldest, largest and arguably most prestigious ultramarathon. Roughly 1,000 runners are set to compete in the race, which begins in Boonsboro and ends in Williamsport.

Graham-Gray did a few training runs on the Appalachian Trail this fall to prepare.

"There are just so many rocks and so many different things. Depth perception is probably the toughest aspect," she said. "I just have to keep my feet up as high as I can, kind of like tip-toeing. And you can hold onto trees and stuff like that.

"When you fall it scares you, but you regroup and get back up. I just rely on so many other senses."

If she gets off the AT unscathed, her competitors should beware. The last 34.7 miles are on even, mostly flat, terrain, where Graham-Gray has been known to fly.

"Overcoming the Appalachian Trail section will be monumental," said JFK director Mike Spinnler, who also is Graham-Gray's coach. "But if she does that, she gets down to the C&O Canal towpath where she's done thousands of miles of training."

That's where she built the strength to run a 2:45 marathon to qualify for last spring's U.S. Olympic Trials -- and where she's spent countless hours this fall training for the longest run of her life.

"I have no idea how I'm going to do," she said. "I don't even want to get into time goals. I'm just going to give it everything I have. I just need to get off the trail healthy and then go into marathon mode.

"But my nature is to be competitive, especially when I've trained this hard and I've been this focused. I want to win, just being honest. I'm not in this just to finish it."

She'll have to contend with two former champions -- Bethany Patterson, 29, of Richmond, Va., who won in 2003; and Connie Gardner, 45, of Medina, Ohio, who won in 2002 and 2004.

Jennifer Davis, 38, of Princeton, N.J., is the top returnee from last year. She was fourth.

"Man, it's a tossup. We have several 3-hour (marathon) women who could win it," Spinnler said. "But I like (Graham-Gray's) chances a lot."

The men's field, like most years, is loaded with stars. The two favorites are both JFK first-timers -- Johan Oosthuizen, 35, of Middleburg, South Africa; and Oz Pearlman, 26, of New York City.

Oosthuizen is a three-time gold medalist (top-10 finisher) at the Comrades Marathon (55.9 miles) in South Africa. It is the world's oldest, largest and arguably most prestigious ultramarathon. Oosthuizen placed ninth there earlier this year in 5:50:52.

"We're surprised to get a runner of that caliber to fly halfway across the world to run our race. But this is a title he really wants," Spinnler said. "We've never had a non-U.S. citizen win the JFK."

Pearlman is a three-time champion of the Chicago Lakefront 50-Miler. His winning time last year (5:31:51) was the fastest in the world for a 50-mile race in 2007.

Pearlman said he is in even better shape than that right now.

"But I have almost zero trail experience. That's my concern with JFK," Pearlman said. "I just want to make it through (the Appalachian Trail) in one piece. After that, I know I can run 6:15-6:20 (per mile) the rest of the way in, no problem.

"I'd like to break 6 hours. That's the minimum in my mind."

The course record is 5:46:22, set by Eric Clifton in 1994.

If it's broken, others likely will suffer for it.

"Carnage occurs. Guys go with guys they shouldn't go with and blow up," Spinnler said. "It could be a spectator's dream but a runner's nightmare."

Other top contenders include: Matthew Lavine, 34, of Crystal Lake, Ill.; Mark Lundblad, 39, of Swananoa, N.C.; Pete Breckinridge, 38, of Norfolk, Va.; Jim Sweeney, 27, of Albany, N.Y.; Ian Torrence, 36, of Ashland, Ore.; Teage O'Connor, 25, of Burlington, Vt.; and Michael Arnstein, 31, of New York City.

Lavine and Lundblad, who finished third and fourth at last year's JFK, are the top two returnees from 2007, while Breckinridge and Sweeney went 1-2 in 2006 and Torrence was the runner-up in both 2004 and 2005. O'Connor, who will be making his JFK debut, tuned up by winning the Green Mountain Marathon in 2:26:38 last month. Arnstein, Pearlman's training partner, clocked a 2:31:49 at the New York City Marathon three weeks ago.

"I'm back in the dark-horse, 'Who's he?' status this year," Breckinridge said.

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