Why run 50 miles?

Why would anybody want to run 50 miles?

I suppose there are as many answers to that question as there are ultra-runners.  When I first mentioned to family and friends my intention to run the JFK 50, I got a LOT of questions:

  • How many days will that take you?
  • Will anyone else be out there running too?  (Implied – are there other crazy people that do this??)
  • Can you stop and sleep during the race?
  • What about your poor knees??  

I explained each time that, if my luck held, it would take me between 9 and 10 hours to run.  That yes, in fact, there were over 1200 other registered runners.  Since there was 12 hour time limit, I would not need to stop and sleep.  And fortunately, my knees have never caused problems for me, so I was sure they’d hold up just fine (my IT Band – now that’s a different story….).  But I stumbled every time on how to answer that first question:  why did I want to run 50 miles?  Truthfully, its taken me over 10 years to figure it out.


2001.  I was a novice runner, training for my first marathon, and chatting with my neighbor.  She was primarily a triathlete (with a recent Ironman under her belt) and she mentioned that she had run ‘JFK’ a few years before.  “What’s that?” I asked.  She replied it was a 50 mile race up near DC.  I was skeptical, and dropped the subject.  As far as I knew, 26.2 miles was as far as humans were capable of running.  A few months later, I got curious and googled “JFK 50”.  I was amazed to learn that not only was it a real event, it had been run every year since 1963 in Washington County, Maryland where I grew up.  I still thought 50 miles was a crazy distance, but it I were to ever run that far, I knew where I’d be headed.

As I logged the miles for that first marathon, I found that rhythm and patterns of running suited me.  I worked through problems and stresses of the day, made new friends, and enjoyed the challenge.  When the world seemed to fall apart that September, I ran and tried to make sense of it all.  Three weeks later, with the Pentagon as a backdrop, I finished the Marine Corp Marathon.  I carried that enthusiasm into 2002, with several triathlons and another fall marathon.  But a month after running Chicago, on a crisp-blue November Sunday, my world was shattered.  My cousin Joanna was killed.  She was 32.

I didn’t run much after that.  While at the time, I muttered excuses about being burned-out, it was simply too hard to focus on training.  Over the next nine years I ran sporadically – usually just enough to get through the Monument Avenue 10K.  Life continued, I became a mom to a beautiful little girl in 2005 and two other daughters soon followed.  I quit my job to be home with the girls.  I didn’t need to run:  there is no workout like swinging a baby in its car seat so it will stay asleep  or chasing two toddlers through a crowded shopping mall!  But at the same time, I lost touch with a bit of myself.  For the first time in many years, I wanted to lace up my shoes and head out the door.

I found my way back to running in the dark winter months of 2011.  It started as a way to improve my fitness, but I soon found that I needed the solace and quiet of my morning run.  I ran a few 10Ks that spring and as the weather warmed I ran just a bit further each week.  I was hooked!  Running gave me the patience and energy to be a better mother.  My girls loved cheering at races and helping me set up a “Running Mix” for our iPod.  By the end of the summer, I had to admit that I was secretly training for the Richmond Marathon.  As the crisp days of autumn returned and my mileage increased, I dusted off a thought that had long lay dormant:  JFK.

Now I had no idea how I was going to run 50 miles, but as soon as the Richmond Marathon was over I started to plan.  A good friend mentioned that she was running the Holiday Lake 50K in February, so we trained and ran it together.  Through the Richmond Road Runners I met a great group of folks who showed me around the James River trails.  I looked forward to our Tuesday night runs as my night off from dinner & bed-time duties.  Maybe it was the increased focus on trail running, maybe it was the novelty of training for something that seemed beyond reach, but I had so much FUN over the summer months.  When we went on vacation, I explored the island through long runs.  A family visit became an excuse to fit in the Catoctin 50K – a gnarly, rock-filled trail ultra with several rattle-snake sightings.  Training became a catalyst for new friendships, an excuse to eat really great foods, and a way to find a bit of the kid I used to be.  And throughout it all, I thought of my cousin Jo.  This adventure was so much like the ones we had growing up.

Ten years ago, the JFK was held on the last full day of Jo’s life.  This year, I carried her memory with me when we set out from Boonsboro at sunrise.  As we climbed the first two miles up to the Appalachian trail, I thought of the South Mountain ghost stories she’d tell to scare my little brother.  Over the rocks and roots we ran, and I remembered our weekend explorations.  Soon, the Potomac River was in view, and all along the endless canal I recalled biking trips and our summers on the river just a few miles upstream.  When we finally turned onto the last nine miles of roads, I laughed.  This is where she taught me to drive – how much fun we had over these rolling hills!  And across the finish line, a stone’s throw from her old home, we finished.  50 miles, an amazing day.

A few days later, after the soreness had left my aching quads and the eupohria subsided, I realized that I had the answer to my question.  Why do I want to run 50 miles?  To celebrate life – past, present, and future.