Every ultra runner should volunteer to crew for a friend or even show up at an event and do so for a stranger. It provides you the perspective of all the non-runners who show up and crew for their friends and family time and again. I believe that it also can renew your own desire to run, increasing the commitment that you feel to just get out the door, to train and run like you were first starting out. When I first started running ultras, I did my first one alone, on the roads in Rhode Island at the Nifty Fifty. While it provided me with a good taste for doing ultras, it also clued me in on the fact that I like trails and that is what I wanted to do ultras on. So the next ultra I did was the JFK50 in Hagerstown, Maryland. When I decided to do it, I was not sure about how I was going to do, especially alone. So I asked Julie White (nee Pinkham) if she would be willing to come along and crew for me. She said yes and the rest is history. I ran and finished and Julie was awesome helping me out.
In late September, I heard from a friend that Julie had decided to run her first ultra, the 2009 edition of the JFK50. I immediately sent her an email asking her if I could return the favor and go crew for her. She said that while she had not been advertising that she was doing the run due to the fact that she was not sure she would be ready, she was more than willing to have me crew for her. Chuck Brenker was also going down to try for his eighth consecutive finish. Julie had planned on running with Chuck but he was injured and very worried about making it to the finish. Julie sent me an email on Thursday telling me to make sure that I brought along some running togs because she wanted someone to run with on part of the course.
The JFK50 starts at 7 AM for most of the runners but there is a 5 AM start for those people who do not think that they can finish in 12 hours. Both Chuck and Julie applied for and received the 5 AM start. We left for Maryland at 8 AM on Friday morning, riding in Chuck's van with my mountain bike on the back. We shared the driving, arriving in Hagerstown at 3 PM. As we were heading for the hotel, we passed the hotel that was the host for the JFK50. In we went so the the two of them could pick up their race packets and numbers. Julie bought me a neon yellow tee shirt that said Crew Support on the back. She also talked to one of the guys who were selling jackets and such, asking if he could put a jacket away with her name on it. She told him that she would only be buying it if she finished. He had no problem with that and put it in a bag with her name on it.
Saturday morning Chuck and Julie were up at 3:15 AM. I was awake also but I had the luxury of possibly going back to sleep. They had to leave the hotel by 3:45 to make it to the start for the briefing at 4:20. After ensuring everything they needed was with them they were off. I laid back down but was unable to fall asleep right away. I watched a bit of a basketball game on ESPN and then dozed until I had to get up to catch my ride at 5:45 AM. Joe Kairys, a friend of Chuck's, had met us at the hotel the night before with his wife, Selena and two of their children, Joseph and I am such a dunce, I forgot the name of their daughter. They were giving me a ride to the start so that I could pick up Chuck's van and head to the first aid station with crew access. After arriving at the start area, it took me ten minutes to find the van. I walked by it twice before I realized it was there. After a stop at a convinence store, I headed out following the directions provided by the race. They were excellent directions and I did not have a problem all day. I arrived at the aid station just after seven and the first runners were already coming through. Julie arrived somewhere around 7:30, feeling good and enjoying the run on the trail. Chuck showed up about ten minutes later, hobbling but gamely going forward. I walked with both of them through the aid station and up the parking lot road to the next trail area, making sure that they both had everything that they needed.
I headed out to the next aid area that I could access thinking that I was leaving early and would have no problems parking. Was I ever wrong! The area where crews could see their runners is not the actual aid station, but about one-half mile before it. The runners come down off of the Appilation Trail and head toward the entrance to the tow path. The place was mobbed with people standing in the intersection of the road. I found a place to park at the end of the road, hiked back up to the trail, decided that it was much too crowded and hiked up the trail. I found a very large rock that was flat on top and parked myself on it to wait for the runners. The trail at this point is a series of switchbacks coming down off of one of the high points of the course. I pulled out my crossword puzzle and enjoyed the time sitting there. Approximately fifteen minutes went by and the first of the early runners started coming by. I tried to talk to everyone that came by and all of the early runners would reply. It was not until the first of the 7 AM starters started coming by that there was no replies. They were more serious and more focused on moving ahead. Julie showed up looking great and feeling good and I fell in behind her, running down the trail to the road. She changed her socks, got a new bottle and I told her when I would next see her. I waited for Chuck, who showed up about 20 minutes later still hobbling and still going forward.
From this point the runners run on the tow path that parallels the Potomac River for 26.2 miles. My plan was to go to the Mile 38 aid station, put everything that I needed into my backpack and ride my mountain bike along the trail to meet up with Julie and Chuck. The aid station was in the process of being set up when I got there. I rode past them and headed out. The towpath was in pretty good shape, but there were area that were muddy and some puddles. I really enjoyed splashing through the muck. I met the lead runners around mile 32 and began what I would do for the next few hours-talking and encouraging the runners. Julie was looking good when we met. She had hooked up with another runner, Sue from New Jersey. They were doing a 7 minute run/3 minute walk pace and I think that it helped hold everything together for Julie. Farther back on the trail Chuck was walking. His injuries had caused him to over compensate and he was having problems with the other leg. It would continue the rest of the day. I went back and forth between the two, giving encouragement and providing anything that they needed to keep on going.
When the runners go off of the tow path, they run on the road for the remaining eight miles of the race. There was not supposed to be any crew on the road section. The race, in their notices to the crews, said that no one who was not a runner would be allowed to run on the road. So I told Julie that I would see her at the finish. I left her at the 38 mile aid station and after checking on Chuck, headed for the finish line. I thought that I might have missed her, but after going over the times in my head, realized that I was just very early. She finished strong in 11 hours, 58 minutes. Chuck struggled in, but had plenty of time before the cut off with a finish in 13 hours and 32 minutes.
The two of them were funny at times the following day. I drove the whole way back while they nursed their aching bodies. All in all a good time. Makes me want to run another one. Next year.