Thanks to challenges from fast marathoners and excellent weather, the JFK 50 Mile winners smashed the course records Saturday in western Maryland.
Results A year after David Riddle took a little off the top, Max King lopped more than five minutes off to lower the men’s record to 5:34:58. Trent Briney, from Boulder, Co. followed in 5:78:56, with Riddle in third in 5:45:17. Canadian Ellie Greenwood (6:11:59) responded to a challenge from Emily Harrison (6:17:16), leading both under the course record. Elissa Ballas, from Colorado, (6:44:45) followed in third.
King is a utility player is distance running, capturing the 2011 world mountain running championship and the XTERRA trail running world championship, but also dipping down to the 3k steeplechase. Race director Mike Spinnler’s strong recruiting push and an opportunity to run what he considered his first fast 50 mile drew King to Maryland.
“To come out here, to one of the largest ultras with such history, it’s really an honor to win,” he said. “I made this race fit into my schedule.”
He sat behind Riddle for the first 16 miles after leaving Boonsboro, over the technical Appalachian Trail portion, before taking off on the C&O Canal Towpath. Despite his trail and mountain running pedigree, King’s training in Bend, Ore. means he’s typically running on less treacherous ground.
“That uneven footing throws you around a bit,” he said. “It wasn’t easy.”
From there, it was a long 27 miles of sporadic spectators and a few cyclists on the towpath. When he hit the stretch to the finish in Williamsport, eight rolling miles of pavement, his effort from the towpath caught up with him and he had to switch his focus from speeding up to holding onto his lead as Briney made up ground.
“I was hurting pretty bad, I just tried to not push it too much,” King said.
Briney never thought he’d have a chance to compete up front. Caught off guard at th
e start, he dropped his clothes a half minute before the gun and went to the line without gels or fluids. Josh Brimhall had one to spare, Briney sucked it down and when he hit the towpath he started moving. “It was the longest 8 miles of my life, I just wanted to finish.”
“I was worried people were way too far ahead of me, I wasn’t going to be part of the race,” he said. “I was supermotivated when I got off the trail.”
Despite his deficit, Briney made up ground, about what anyone could expect out of a 2:12 marathoner who was an alternate for the 2004 Olympic team. He picked off runners but took a while to have a clear idea of his placing. Throughout the ragged running and the haze of the sub-six-minute miles on the towpath, what he took away from the race was the beauty of his surroundings.
“I guess that’s part of the reason we do these races,” he said. “Trail running gives you scenery you don’t always get on the roads.”
While King ran with the lead for the last 34 miles, Greenwood, a Vancouver resident whose JFK finish was her fifth longer than 50 miles this year, was embroiled in a battle with Harrison, who was making her first attempt at the distance. Greenwood was a bit worried, though.
“Her marathon is a good 10 minutes faster than mine, so I had to be sure not to get caught up in racing her,” she said. “You have to have the confidence to run your own race here.”
She did what she could to use her experience, and willingness to push herself based on how she’s responded before, as an advantage.
“People say you can’t win this race on the trail, but psychologically at least it feels good,” she said. Though Greenwood held a lead coming off of the Appalachian Trail, Harrison took it and ran ahead for 14 miles before Greenwood could regain it.
“I started to have trouble with my stomach, I couldn’t eat or drink anything,” she said. “It was even harder because it’s so runnable, by the river, I felt like I was wasting a chance to run fast.”
She caught up to Harrison around 30 miles, passed her a few miles later, then focused far ahead on reeling people in and breaking Devon Crosby-Helms’ 6:29:21 record.
It might seem odd that barely a year removed from her 2:32:55 marathon at Twin Cities that Harrison would move up to an ultra, but her coach Ian Torrence, a Flagstaff, Ariz. resident, said it was crucial to getting her to look past life after the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials.
“She needed something to light a fire under her, and this was it,” he said. “It gave her a challenge to go after, and she saw how well she could attack a long race.”
Though she’s new to running such long distances herself, Harrison was not new to the JFK 50. Growing up in Front Royal, Va., it was a short trip to watch her mother compete for two years when Emily was a teenager.
“That gave it a personal touch,” she said. “It wasn’t too had to get up here to check the course out.”
Her main transition workout, moving up to the 50 mile, was a two-day sequence of 20-24 miles at 50 mile goal pace, followed by 14-18 miles at marathon pace the next day.
The race has been personal for Torrence, too. He grew up in Gaithersburg, so he’d make the race part of his Thanksgiving trip home. This year was his 18th, and his most successful in five years.
“I never thought I’d break seven hours again,” he said. “It’s my 10th time under.”
On his 18th trip to the JFK 50, Jim Bradford, of Vienna, ran out of his mind to record a 50-minute improvement.
“I have no idea how it happened,” he said. “I’m just happy to be done.”
Bradford’s son Jesse and ex-wife Anna run the race, too. He was also one of several men named Jim racing on the Reston Runners’ Team Jim.
He broke up the tedium of running on the towpath by weaving around the trail.
“It was an awesome day,” said Laura Greeson, of Alexandria, despite falling twice on the Appalachian Trail.
What was not awsome was the second part of her two-day preparation workout, similar to Harrison’s. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon, then came back the next day to run 20 miles, which ended up being the day Hurricane Sandy swept the D.C. area with wind and cold rain. It did, however, force the school where Greeson teaches to cancel classes, allowing her to do those 20 miles in the daylight, rather than after work, as she had originally planned.
The race saw 943 finishers out of 1041 who took to the starting line.