by Kelly Virkler
About a year ago, I decided the give the JFK 50 miler another try in 2022. I have raced it twice before, and I was able to improve my time quite significantly between 2008 (9:45) and 2017 (9:05). I raced a couple other 50 milers in between, but those courses were so different that the times really can’t be compared. I really wanted to break 9 hours at JFK.
I took a different approach to this year of training in general. After a lot of road mileage and marathon-specific workouts to get ready for Boston, I did a lot (for me) of trail running starting in May. This was primarily to get ready for the Vermont 50k in September, which has a lot of trail miles, but I knew it would help for the 13 rocky miles on the Appalachian Trail at the beginning of JFK. Technical trail running is usually a weakness for me, and I saw room for improvement if I put some effort into it.
Almost every weekend I was doing a long run on the trails, primarily up at Thacher Park. I also focused on a lot of elevation change since I know that my legs don’t naturally respond well to downhills. I bought new trail shoes, Asics Gel Trabuco, that I absolutely love. My plan was working, because I decided last minute to race the Escarpment Trail 30k in July and ran my best time. I also ran a big PR at the Vermont 50k. I finally started to feel at home on the trails and could tell that my confidence was higher, and I was able to go much faster with the same effort.
In addition to the run-specific training, I have been rowing 1-3 times a week since October 2021. It has giving me noticeably more strength when running up hills. I feel much more explosive, and I know that my glutes and core are stronger, in addition to my upper body. I have been practicing yoga at least 2 times a week for many years and continued that routine, but I also added in a dedicated strength and mobility routine in the months leading up to JFK.
As for the race itself, I was thinking I could run 8:45, maybe even 8:30 if I could really crush the AT section in the beginning. Dan was supporting me which meant I could replace my bottles of Sword Endurance, grab more calories, and swap my shoes. I ended up coming off the AT at mile 15.5 about 10-15 minutes slower than I had hoped, so 8:30 was unlikely but 8:45 still possible. Once I got into a rhythm on the flat marathon section of the canal path, my miles were going by very consistently and just never got slower. My heart rate was perfect, and I stuck to my nutrition plan of eating a gel or cookie every 20 minutes without fail. I drank just the right amount. I kept passing other runners and never saw them again. No one caught up to me from behind the entire race after the AT.
The last segment of the course is 8 miles of rolling country roads. It starts with a steep hill that I knew I would walk. I hadn’t walked all day other than a few hills earlier on the AT. Once I got to the top of that last hill, I was amazed to still feel strong enough to continue running the same pace as before. The rolling hills actually felt good! I knew 8:45 would be close if I maintained my pace. Fortunately, I was able to slowly speed up, and my final three miles were the fastest of the day. I finished around 8:42 and was blown away by how strong I felt at the end.
My success at JFK this year confirmed that my approach to training was the right one. All the trail running, hill running, rowing and strength training, and careful nutrition/hydration practice really paid off and allowed me to speed up at the end of a long day. I have been running and racing for many years, but I’m finally figuring out what works best for me and look forward to what is next!