John Calabrese

60th Annual JFK 50 Mile Race

I tell myself I am not really concerned about getting faster times on races anymore. I just like to do lots of races and hang out with friends. But going into this year’s JFK 50 Mile race, I wanted to go fast this time and get in the top 100. I knew this would require an 8 hour run. I wanted to run this race harder than normal because my girlfriend and her mom live in Williamsport and the race is such a big part of the community there. I also wanted to give her mom the JFK medal.

Pre-race stretching demonstration

The last time I ran JFK was in 2018 and I finished in 11 hours. I made many questionable decisions in 2018 about what to do in various aspects of the race, I’m not going to say they were mistakes I made back then, but just signs of my lack of experience at that point.

This time, I was not going to have a crew because my girlfriend, Denise, had to work but she and her kiddos were going to meet me at the finish.

The week of JFK my daughter had a lot going on with school and sports so I was very busy leading up to the race. Denise was very kind and picked up my bib on Thursday because she lives there and her son Liam goes to school at Springfield Middle, the JFK 50 finish!

It takes a lot of swag to put on a 50 miler …

Friday, after taking my daughter to dance class, I headed to Williamsport. When I got to Denise’s house I organized my gear and then we watched Napoleon Dynamite. I hadn’t watched this movie in forever and it was fun.

I woke up around 4:00, ate breakfast and got ready. It was very cold Saturday and I didn’t want to overdress because I had no crew and didn’t want to make things complicated. I wore shorts, a singlet, arm sleeves, light gloves, a buff and a Williamsport hat. One big strategy change from 2018 was I decided to wear road shoes the entire race, Nike vaporfly 2s. This was a gamble because JFK does have rocky parts but I felt confident from doing so many technical races this year plus I didn’t want to waste time swapping shoes. Instead of using a pack like I did in 2018 I chose a hand held water bottle.

John Calabrese pre-race - staying warm and getting pumped!

To stay warm on the way to the start I had 2 survival blankets. Denise dropped me off around 6 AM at Boonsboro and I headed to the start. It was very cold out. I had hand warmers and they were nice but my torso was what was cold heading up there.

5 min until go time I take off the survival blankets and put them in the trash. That was rough because I was so cold. I got up as far as I could to the start line and..

Moments before the start in downtown Boonsboro

6:30 and it’s on!! I try to start the RaceJoy app and I’m struggling it’s really silly seeing me trying to troubleshoot this while I’m running but I figure it out. Only reason I needed to use this was that Denise needed to know where I was so she could have everyone waiting at the finish. I was using 2 SPI belts, one had 5 gels in it and the other my phone. My plan also was at mile 19 to grab a JFK cookie for Denise.

With my gear set, watch on, and RaceJoy app tracking, I moved into race strategy.

I know it’s counterintuitive to speed up at the very beginning of a race but, when running JFK, if you are far back going onto the AT you’re in trouble because of all the traffic. I pressed pretty hard, the pace was great and I was at a good spot. To me the start (and getting in a good position for the AT) is one of the most stressful parts of this race.

Early on in the race I had a terrifying realization. Things were freezing on me because of how cold it was. I was chafing as a result and I was extremely uncomfortable. My thought was just get on the AT and it will warm up. Sure enough, when I got off of Route 42 and on to the trail, I started feeling better, but I had been extremely worried. On the AT I got lucky. I was around people who were going pretty fast. I passed only a few people, and then only when it was absolutely necessary.

So this was the biggest risk I took on the race, using carbon-plated road marathon shoes on the AT. I had a few close calls but I somehow escaped any falls. I got lucky on the AT with this approach, maybe because I’ve been doing a lot of technical races this year and have run ultras in sandals and other non-trail shoes. I saw many people fall out there who were wearing trail shoes, so I feel that you should just wear whatever you’re comfortable with and what fits your JFK strategy.

Going down the Weverton Cliffs I told runners behind me that I was in road shoes so if anyone wanted to pass to have at it. I don’t think anyone did though because I ran the Cliffs pretty hard. There were people taking pictures. I can’t wait to see them! [Editor’s note: paging Paul Encarnación!]

John enters the aid station at the bottom of the Weverton Cliffs, and at the end of the Appalachian Trail portion of the course

Done with the AT! I see the big crowd and get fired up I start yelling to rile them up, then I see VHTRC out there!! I say hi and they take pictures.

I’m dreading what’s next — I know it’s nice to change up the terrain, but the C&O always hurts me. I DNF’d the C&O 100 Miler this year. I got to mile 70 and was just done. My body just gets tired on it.

First couple miles on the C&O I do around a 9 min pace. I get to mile 19 and the aid station with JFK cookies! I ask for 1 and they give me 2. That was so nice! I put the cookies in one of my SPI belts and now everything is out of balance. Takes a bit to get the belts to be comfortable again.

This to me was the absolute hardest part of the race. I tried my best to maintain pace and just think about things in terms of aid stations and not miles and the daunting task. My pace slowly crept up, then around mile 33 or so I had to start walking here and there. JFK does an amazing job on the C&O with the aid stations. All of them are incredible but by far my favorite aid station on JFK or any other race is the Christmas aid station. It’s incredible. Santa is there and all kinds of Christmas cookies. It’s amazing. The stretch between that aid station and the next aid station is the hardest part. During this time I realized top 100 would be out of reach. So I came up with a new goal: 9 hours 15 min. Seeing that I got 11 hours in 2018, this would be a major improvement that I wouldn’t totally kill myself trying to achieve. I get to the next aid station and I see VHTRC again! I needed to see friends, I was in bad shape. Legs were just extremely tired. I drank a lot of broth and ate some red velvet cake. I left and was happy it was almost time to be off the C&O.

Denise’s mom gets her medal

I then ran with a lot of people who were also struggling but I had to walk because I was really hurting now. Finally the end of the C&O! I turn off onto the road and run when I can and walk the hills. Many people passed me on the road. I wanted to go faster but didn’t want to push too hard, feeling like I was at this point. I love this part of JFK because seeing all the farms reminds me of where I live in Culpeper.

I get to the last aid station and just keep going. I really want to be finished so I run the whole way. I ran a 5k on the 4th of July in Williamsport and done many training runs there. I thought about those times and how much I love Williamsport. It’s such a unique place that loves JFK and running. I get to the school and push to the end. I get my medal, then see Denise. She was so kind — she gave me a comfy blanket so I could get warm. I hang out with her kids and Mom. I gave the medal to her Mom and she gave me a kiss. It was really nice. I wanted to give her that medal for a long time.

Ready for some pizza!

We go inside the school, we take pictures and eat. I drank a black coffee and ate a slice of pizza and it was amazing. I got dressed then we talked to friends and took more pictures.

This was my favorite race of the year. C&O 100 and Quad State Quad Buster had me ready for this race. I felt like I did very well on the AT but I have to think about more strategies to not fade out on the towpath! I plan on running it with Denise next year and I know we’re going to have an amazing time. We hope to do it every year and make it our race.

A warm finish

Editor's note

2022 JFK Results (which include finishers’ videos)

Cover photo taken by Paul Encarnación
Weverton photo taken by Sarah Smith
All others photos supplied by the author