rabbitPRO Eric Senseman went into this past weekend's JFK 50 hoping to defend his 2017 Championship, but knowing it would be a tall order. His competition after all was HOKA One One professional Jared Hazen and The North Face sponsored ultrarunner Zach Miller. Each one boast accolades as impressive as Eric's. What transpired on the snow and mud filled trails and roads of Maryland was nothing short of an epic battle; a historic day for the country's oldest ultramarathon, recounted in full detail by Eric below.
Photo: Andy Mason
The JFK 50 Mile is a 50.2-mile race from Boonsboro to Williamsport, Maryland. The race starts on a road and ends on a road, and in between the course covers about 11 rugged miles on the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the full marathon distance on a dirt towpath that hugs the Potomac River. It’s had the most starters of any ultramarathon in the U.S., the most finishers of any ultra in the U.S., and the event has now taken place 56 times. It’s a historic race whose list of winners have accrued nearly every accolade in the sport of ultrarunning.
If you know anything about me or anything about the history of the JFK 50 Mile, you might know that I won the race last year. If you know a little bit more about me, then you know that I love to compete. And if you knew that I was planning to run the JFK 50 Mile this year, then you knew that I was going to try to win the race again. I bet Jared Hazen and Zach Miller knew all of those things.
So, when the gun went off at 6:30am on Saturday, November 17th, gloves were quickly drawn, and punches were immediately thrown.
Miller instantly rocketed to the front of the race as the mass of starters lurched from the line. Jared made haste to go with him. I did the same. We were 20 seconds into the race and a gap had already formed between the three of us and the rest of the field. We would go on to cover the first mile in 5 minutes and 45 seconds. For context, that was an uphill mile and three-time winner, Jim Walmsley, covered that same distance in 6 minutes flat when he set the course record of 5:21:28 in 2016.
Photo: Andy Mason
Fifteen minutes and 38 seconds into the race, our trio had covered the first 2.5 miles—a section that includes a touch more than 500 feet of climbing. That’s 6:15 per mile pace. Zach Miller was constantly at the lead and seemed intent to push the pace from the gun. When we breezed through the first aid station at mile 3.6, I turned to Hazen as we trailed Miller by 10 meters and said, “Just so you know, he’s pushing the pace really hard right now.”
Hazen smiled, said “I know”, and took off after him. I think that’s when I knew that this year’s race might turn historic. It did.
Two days before the race, the course received six inches of snow. In the weeks leading up to the race, the area received torrents of rain. The conditions on the AT were laughably slow. For context, I asked Ian Torrence, a 23-time finisher of the race, how the trail conditions compared to other years. His answer? "The worst I've ever seen."
The Gathland Gap aid station is 9.3 miles into the race. When Jim Walmsley set the course record, he flew through this aid station in 58 minutes and 30 seconds. I first emerged at Gathland Gap this year in 1 hour, 1 minute, and 46 seconds after pressing the pace down a technical downhill just before the aid station. Miller and Hazen were seconds behind me.
From mile 9.3 to the end of the race’s AT section at mile 15.5, our pace slowed but not for lack of effort. Each time we hit an uphill, Miller commanded the lead and strung Hazen and me along with him. When the course rolled downhill, Zach and Jared would hitch their wagons to mine as I surged ahead. It was all rather futile since the course’s conditions wouldn’t allow anyone to pull away. Hazen was the ultimate strategist during this section, as he sat back and remained absent from the jockeying.
I hit the towpath at mile 15.5 in 1 hour, 54 minutes and 18 seconds with a slim lead: just 45 seconds ahead of Miller and 90 seconds ahead of Hazen. For context, my time off the AT this year was only 16 seconds slower than my time last year—a year when the AT was in remarkably better shape.
Miller caught me on the towpath within about two miles. Within a few more miles, Hazen caught us. For the next 15 miles, we formed a three-part human metronome that knew how to do only one thing: cover miles jointly and consecutively in 6 minutes and 10 seconds. But the continuous pacing wasn’t stale. There was constant strategizing and maneuvering and, in the words of the race director, Mike Spinnler, it “felt like watching the 10,000-meter on the track.”
If I love to compete, then Zach Miller lives to compete and Jared Hazen races to compete.
Miller often gets characterized as a guy who goes all out from the gun. It turns out that that’s an oversimplification. In fact, Zach is a guy who will do everything he can to stay at the front of the race for as long as he can. Remember when my 45-second lead evaporated in 2 miles once we hit the towpath? That’s because Zach covered the next two miles in 11 minutes and 20 seconds. That’s 5:40 per mile. But once he caught me, we ran together at roughly 6:10 per mile. His pace slowed dramatically. Zach wasn’t trying to hammer his brains out for as long as he could. He wanted to compete with someone for as long as he could.
We’re at 22.4 miles and the race is on. pic.twitter.com/UuzSSE0Dsb— Andy Mason (@Andrew_M_Mason) November 17, 2018
Hazen often gets characterized as a young kid, and maybe a young, naïve kid who’s in over his head against a big name like Zach Miller. It turns out that that’s not exactly true. What happened when Hazen caught us? Jared went by me and got on Zach’s hip while I slid back 10 yards to let them jockey. But they didn’t jockey. Jared didn’t try to pick up the pace any further: he coasted tactfully behind, like a witty veteran, and let Zach continue to do the pace-setting.
Our tri-pod human metronome passed through the 27.3-mile aid station at Antietam in this fashion, a mere 1.8 seconds separating the three of us.
Somewhere soon after Antietam, Hazen fell back. He wasn’t even in sight. I thought he was gone for good and it was down to two. Zach and I ran stride for stride through an aid station just before 31 miles. I then noticed that Zach started to look at his watch repeatedly, which I thought was odd because we still had quite a long way to go. And practically imperceptibly, Zach began to pull away. I tried to cover the gap. I would pull impossibly close but again the gap would widen. This went on for some miles.
When I saw Zach after the race, he asked what happened. I told him that he broke me. He said that that was his plan.
“Did you notice that I started looking at my watch a bunch? I decided that it was time to try to break you, so I started doing intervals.” It worked.
Meanwhile, Hazen had accidentally made a brilliant move. He choked while taking in nutrition and the gag reflex caused him to slow to a halt and puke. He started back up at an easy pace while he negotiated the loss of calories. After a few miles, he felt better and picked the pace back up. By Synder’s Landing at mile 34.4, just as Zach was slipping away from me for good, I looked back to see Jared no more than 100 meters behind me. Less than a mile later, he was prancing past me while I was dragging through the mud.
As he passed me, I turned and asked: “Jared, is it foggy out?” He muttered “yes” and forged ahead. He would later tell his crew (roughly): “After I went by him, I realized it wasn’t foggy and then I thought that was an odd question to ask. That’s when I knew Senseman was f*cked.” I couldn’t say it better myself. I dropped at mile 38.7.
Jared made quick work of Zach once he caught him a few miles later. Zach would later note that he was “relatively gassed” from the mid-race interval work. Oh, and Zach had probably torn his hamstring by then. Given the conditions, Hazen’s winning time of 5:34:21—the second-fastest in race history—was simply astounding.
And that’s how Zach Miller and Jared Hazen broke me. They broke me with strength, with tactics, with sheer force of will, and perhaps with a stroke of luck or two. They did it with a combination of patience, intelligence, and pure grit. They did it by slowly wearing me down. They did it by being better runners.
Since I love to compete, and I don’t like to break, Jared and Zach have left me with one option: I’ll have to be a better runner next time. I can’t wait to try to be.
rabbitELITEtrail athlete Bethany Patterson finished as the 5th female and Dan Goldstein was 27th overall. Full results here.