61st Annual JFK 50 Mile
Denise and I were really looking forward to this race all year because, she lived in Williamsport, MD (where the race ends) before we moved in together, and her family still lives there. Denise’s mom, dad, and brother love Williamsport and and are very involved in the community. This is important because the JFK50 is all about community and tradition making. It is not only a very old and iconic race, but one that truly makes you feel part of something special. Friends and neighbors opening up their community and coming out to welcome the runners into it. You truly become a part of the race and its history with every running of it. They pride themselves on recognizing those that finish not just one event, but over time you are recognized and placed in progressively more elevated and distinguished categories as you rack up miles with each new finish. These folks are very proud of their accomplishments, and also very down to earth and willing to joke and trade stories with you.
A series of unfortunate events and obligations separated our star crossed lovers from being able to attend the expo on the Friday before the race together. It is not a huge event but very cool and community based. Local coffees and patches made by multi year finishers are offered along with a partnership with Brooks that allows runners to pick up any needed last minute essentials (try telling Denise new trail shoes are not last minute essentials… she ain’t listening!). I was in and out before Denise arrived and headed to her parents house for all the good foods and sleep. Denise found friends and took her time before heading to her parents to show me all her expo booty. Then it was lights out. 4 am comes quick!
Speedy Gonzales has nothing on our race gear game. Denise was dressed as a scout in no time flat and I was ready to represent our VHTRC as well as donning the original 1960’s scout kerchief that Denise was able to get for each of us. The race had its inaugural running in March of 1963 and was attended in part by a Boy Scout of America troop and their scout master, so this was a very special score indeed!
We hit our old haunt, Sheetz of Williamsport, for coffee and had the pleasure of running into 3 gentlemen with JFK bibs on themselves…. all 3 had participated in 18-22 JFK50’s over the years. This is JFK Country for sure! After, Denise’s father dropped us off near the start, and we hung out at the Boonsboro volunteer fire department. We met up with Martha Wright who was going for her 100th ultramarathon! Martha’s friend, Sonja (who is also a legendary ultra runner) was crewing her and was kind enough to agree to help Denise with her shoe change conundrum. She thought there were drop bags, but was corrected, and now Denise could wear her awesome new trail shoes and change to faster shoes for the canal.
We talked to an awesome firefighter who gave us a tour and even let Denise get in the driver’s seat of the fire truck!! It was awesome!
It’s my understanding this is the first year JFK had the volunteer firefighters participate. They let us hang out and they had PortaJohns, places to hang out, and the truck to stow your finish line bag. It was truly an amazing setup for the runners!
We saw Pat Early, James Bren, and Justin Contois, and we took pictures and counted down the time until the race. It was much warmer than last year. I was happy, because I remember straight up freezing at the start last year!
I felt good and took off. I was just feeling it. I got far ahead and thought maybe about going for top 100 male. I ran very hard up South Mountain and the AT, but then something happened. I can’t tell you I didn’t want to race, but I felt bad about leaving Denise, missing out on running her first JFK50 with her, and seeing her go to Williamsport and see her family.
I stopped on the C&O and waited for her. It was the right thing to do. While I was doing this, Denise had actually formed a band of brothers and had her own little troop going down the AT. In the position she was in at this point in the race, there were not many women (there were actually only about 200 women total in almost 1200 runners). They were keeping her company and making her laugh as she hopped from rock to rock in her full Scout garb. She exited the AT as the 14th overall woman, but that position was short lived. After a quick shoe change from the incomparable Sonja, Denise hit the C&O….. but the C&O hit back like Holyfield. Our heroine was in trouble.
Mile 19 Aid Station and Beautiful Cookies
I waited here for the Denise and rested and fueled. I was asking anyone if they had seen my boy scout. This struck me as funny and got some good laughs. When Denise rolled in she was happy to see the JFK cookies. A lot of love goes into JFK. The race even has its own cookies that are unveiled on social media before the race every year. It’s a huge deal!! Denise grabbed ours and put them in her pack for our moms. Special JFK cookies are for moms only! No time to waste… Romeo and Juliet were together again and they needed to get moving!
Struggling on the C&O
Denise had residual issues from the AT. I ran her pace with her and tried to push her when possible but she was not feeling good. Whenever possible I tried to get her to eat, drink, take salt, etc. I was trying everything but I think it was around mile 25 or so that I asked Denise to drink some soda. That seemed to really help! Something finally clicked and she came alive again. We started passing more and more people and people asked “what did you give her?? Caffeine?!” She thought this was funny because it was a whole new game now and not the suffer fest of the previous miles.
The Miracle on 34th street North Pole aid station is not just my favorite JFK aid station but my favorite aid station in the world. You got Santa and cookies, it’s just what you need after all these C&O miles! We were so looking forward to seeing Santa and made sure catch a selfie with him and whisper our Christmas wishes on our way to grab some amazing cookies from his elves.
Family and Friends Help You Conquer the C&O
Denise and I were ready to get off the towpath badly. We were really looking forward to seeing Karen Mitchell and Clay Shaw at the aid station around mile 40. They had told us they would be there, and we had our eyes peeled for their happy faces. Denise had refused to take off her uniform (which was not being friendly to her poor body) because she had told Clay she was wearing it… and by golly she wasn’t going to back down at this point!
We both were in much need of a pick me up but when we saw them we freaked out! They took pictures of us and gave us love.
Then we got another surprise. Denise’s family was there!! We did not expect this and she was so happy. I couldn’t keep up with her at this point, she had electricity. Manuel Ramos took a picture of us with Denise’s mom and we were off to the end of the tow path!
John Starts Struggling
Denise was fired up from her parents and brothers support and I was just trying to keep up. It was an intense struggle for me to keep up to the end of the towpath.
I cannot begin to tell you how happy I was when I got to the aid station at the end. Denise was ahead of me with a new trail buddy we had made and I had to be quick here. I turned right onto the road and as much as I was happy to be done with the towpath I also just wanted to be done.
The Road to Williamsport
Denise was still ahead of me. I was trying to get a feel for the road. I finally caught up with Denise and then she kept getting ahead of me. It wasn’t until about mile 46 (the miles start to count down on the road) that I bounced back. I got ahead of her and started pulling her now.
When we got to Williamsport I ran alongside her because this is one of the reasons I had waited for her. It’s an amazing experience even for someone not from Williamsport, but for someone like Denise who’s lived there it’s very special. I really wanted this to be a great experience for her.
We came to the bridge there, then you see the blue Williamsport water tower, then make a right and go past the local mechanic, and up the last hill to the middle school. Denise’s son Liam went to school there. As we got close we held hands and ran it in.
Her family was there waiting for us and she was so proud because she was in the top 100! She got a gold medal!
We both gave our medals to her mom. Her family really took care of us. They said to go in their hot tub and gave us a lot of food!
Family, Community, and a Running Legacy
You may have heard negative things about this race. Perceptions people have, dislike for organizers of the race or just a general dislike for the event. This race is not only extremely important to a whole community of runners and supporters and an entire county, but its history is bountiful and deep. It’s a military race first. Started by the great President John F. Kennedy himself, to challenge his troops to go beyond what they were comfortable with. To be strong and compete with one another for their own personal victories. He was killed only months after its inaugural running in 1963, and this race has been put on every year since. It is the only organized event allowed on this portion of the AT and it is a challenge to be sure.
If you think anyone can run it… do it! Challenge yourself and become a part of its history and be welcomed into a community that really goes all out to embrace you. It may only be one day out of the year, but for that one day… you become one with the other runners out there fighting along side you for the chance to finish a race as rich in history as it is in the love and support that go into it. You may be surprised by who you find out there on the course. Denise and I had a wonderful time and I’m lobbying Denise hard to run JFK again next year…. We shall see!
2023 JFK 50 miler results including Denise Freeman’s 35th place among the women (7th in her age group)! John Calabrese came in 254th overall. Congratulations also to Martha Wright, 50th overall female and 1st in her age group.