Graham Peck, who competed for Virginia Tech’s triathlon team, has chosen to focus on the longer distance races this year.
Baltimore’s own Graham Peck chose to take a step into some unchartered territory. A realm which most runners would not entertain entering in their wildest dreams. After finishing the Chicago Marathon in 2:25, Peck, a Dulaney High School grad, opted to make the JFK 50-Miler–one of the most highly-regarded ultramarathons in the nation–as the next stop in his race itinerary.
Graham took the time to jot down some thoughts regarding his experience, and though he makes long-distance racing look easy, he admits he’s still a little bit sore from the race. Along the way, he exchanged some words and strides with one of the top runners in the ultra-racing scene.
My expectations going into JFK were to enjoy the 50th running of a great race and to leave 5-10 minutes out on the course so that I could recover quicker. It’s been a long season already. Well, that went out the door pretty quickly… oops. Here’s some quick background on the year before I jump into the actual race report. Running the Chicago Marathon under 2:30 was my big goal this fall. Everything came together on race day and it really was the perfect season of training for me leading up to the 2:25 on race day. 45 degrees with light winds on the fastest course in the world doesn’t hurt either. Not running technical trails, not going to the point of exhaustion/cramping on long runs, and not power walking hills were all on my list of things to do this summer and fall.
This past spring I had been training for a half marathon and tried to “tack on” a marathon at the end of the season. Although I didn’t have a bad race, it was not up to snuff with the half marathon I had nailed 6 weeks prior. Based on that experience, I figured that whatever time I did end up with at JFK would not be my 100% best-case scenario performance anyway. It’s the 50th running, the race director and two-time winner has high hopes for me, family (including my dog, Mack) and friends are on the course, and there are several elites here to kick my ass on their terrain… so let’s have some fun, right?
The hope was to run 6:30 and maybe I’d be able to sneak into the top 10. 2:20 for the rugged first 15.5 mostly on the Appalachian Trail would leave me with 35 miles of very runnable terrain where I’d need to average 7:00/mile to get just under that 6:30 mark. Onto the race!
The first few miles are mostly uphill on the road where I ran around 7:00/mile in a good sized pack in about 12th place. A couple of people mentioned the phrase, “early days”… apparently this is common jargon in the ultra-running world but I found myself singing the theme song to the TV show, “Happy Days” instead. Emily Harrison passed me while walking up the steepest section of the asphalt road paralleling the AT and I couldn’t help but think she’d freeze to death in her sports bra and spandex shorts if she had walked like I was. I had a long sleeve shirt, a hat, and gloves on still.
I let the ninja trail runners float past me once we were on the AT. I had no desire to start racing people with 5 hours of running ahead of me. I noticed that Ellie Greenwood (ultra-running goddess) had been on my heels for a few minutes and couldn’t help but ask her, “Do you actually like running on these damn rocks or are you looking forward to running on the flats?” She informed me, “I love this rocky stuff!” Shudder… I couldn’t wait to get off and onto the fast section of the race. She then said that “early days” things again, took off, and was out of sight within a couple minutes. Sunday, Monday, Happy Days…
Hopping off the trail I was in about 16th place (despite my mom telling me I was in 11th… wishful thinking?) and my split was 2:08. 12 minutes ahead of schedule! The temperature had warmed up to almost 40 (29 degrees at the start line according to a bank sign) so you could get away with a singlet, shorts, and cotton gloves the rest of the way. I know that all 15ish of the folks ahead of me don’t have the marathon speed that I do if I have my act together… so maybe I will be knocking on that top 10 door.
I spoke to every runner along the way while soaking up the great scenery the C&O Canal Towpath has to offer. Before I knew it, I was looking at my watch at three and a half hours and still feeling pretty good. Reeling in almost all of the people who passed me on the AT was a big confidence booster. This really is like a road race. I can do this thing! My 3-mile splits for the first 21 miles on the C&O Towpath were: 20:01, 19:04, 19:59, 20:06, 19:10, 20:14, 20:08. I’ll take it.
I caught up to Zach Bitter and we ran together for almost an hour I’d guess. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I could tell he knew he was experienced with these races compared to me, though. Later I found out that he had won the Tussey Mountain 50 miler (US 50 mile road racing championship) a month ago. Yikes! He actually knew my name after we exchanged marathon times and (maybe jokingly) mentioned that I might get the best of him once we got on the roads. We held a good pace and worked ourselves up to 7th place. I’m not sure who said it but one of us pointed out that there’s no way in hell that 10 people are going to break 6 hours. If we keep it up, one of us will have a shot at top 5. He was kind enough to share his gatorade bottle with me. Not something that every competitor would do when you are both in contention for a spot at the top of the heap of a big race. Thank you, Zach!
I came through the 30.2 aid station at 3:45. 20 miles at 6:45/pace gets me a 5:59? Holy moly, I could be the 20th person (not counting the handful this year) in JFK history to break 6 hours at this thing. Now that’s actually a distance I can relate to. It’s not some 4 hour trek in the woods anymore; it’s 20 miles of road racing. I haven’t run 20 miles on the road in over 2:15 since… ever! My brain was telling me 5:59 might actually be doable but the increasingly more frequent twinges in my legs had other plans. Press on!
I noticed that nearly every runner had a handheld bottle with them. Uh oh, they know something that I don’t. Over the course of the first 41 miles, I had 3 s-caps, 1-2 little cups of water/gatorade/coke at each aid station (10 aid stations so far), a few gels, a power bar, a PBJ, some fruit, and some chips. I have no experience with running for 4+ hours so I wasn’t sure if this was enough but the answer for this 165 lb guy proved to be, NO.
Somewhere around mile 36, Zach stormed away from me and a couple other runners passed me before I managed to find someone, Jim Sweeney, going my pace. My form was not what it had been. Stomach, legs, and mind were not all firing 100% l but I reminded myself of something David Horton tells first time ultra-runners, “It never always gets worse.” Mr. Horton was right.
As the vast majority of JFKers do, I walked up the very steep hill leaving the C&O Towpath and gave up around 30 seconds to Jim who was in 10th place. There were two bootleg beer stops over the next couple miles and I’d be lying if I told you the thought of dropping out and having a few beers while waiting for my dad didn’t cross my mind. But hey, 10th was right there for the taking. I got my form back together and was running strong once more and got a 10-20 second gap over Jim.
I was really hitting my stride again but unfortunately, my hamstrings really ceased up on me around mile 45. Both at the same time? I didn’t even know that was possible. I was moaning like a drowning cow and hunched over a fence when Ellie and Jim caught me. They offered some encouragement but the young buck with marathon legs was gassed. From then on I was walking up every hill and pondering how comfortable the roadside ditches would be.
Emily caught me with a mile to go and we exchanged some words before I had to walk the bunny hill with 1/2 a mile to go. She darted into the finish beating me by over a minute in the last 800 meters. Ouch. Well played.
Still, 6:18 is well under my goal time and it’s something I’m proud of. I’ll be back for more at JFK at some point. Not in 2013, probably not in 2014, but sometime before I get too old. Some better nutrition planning and a couple 3+ hour training runs/races should do the trick to get me into that 5:50’s range, maybe faster?