Running The 2009 JFK 50 Mile Run In Memory Of A Friend

My friend Phil Hill passed away 2 days before the 47th JFK 50 Mile Run, the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the Country. Phil died of Heart Failure.  In 1979, Phil completed the Pittsburgh marathon on his 57th birthday, six years after quintuple bypass surgery and 17 years after his first heart attack.  He lived life to its fullest every day despite having severe heart failure.  As his heart condition could not be reversed, he treated himself with vigorous exercise daily so his muscles could perform despite his heart condition.  3 years ago doctors wanted to place a “ventricular assist device” on Phil to squeeze his heart more.  Phil said “don’t do that to me…I’ll walk my way back to health”.

The first year I lined up for the JFK 50 mile in 2006 Phil came to watch.   Coming off 2 marathons of 2:31 and 2:32 in the 2 months prior to the race, I felt ready for the new challenge.  Made some rookie mistakes by taking too much food and running a bit too fast.  All the food ended up back on the trail at mile 25 while running in 2nd place. It was a blustery afternoon. Phil watched at Antietam Aqueduct at mile 28 and then proceeded to the finish in Williamsport.  My body shut down between mile 28 and 38 as nothing would stay in my stomach.  A miserable experience and I exited the course at mile 38.  Phil was still waiting at the finish.  I had no way to get a hold of him.  He waited for 4 hours and then phoned my home where I was warm and recovering and he was still out in the cold.

No runner is content after not finishing a race and the JFK was no different. My last DNF was the 1989 Boston Marathon, but have returned there successfully 16 times since. At the 2007 JFK 50 I applied the lessons learned to a 16th place finish in 6:57.  Content in having finished the race, I attacked it a bit more in 2008 for 11th place and first Master in 6:45.

This year the plan was more conservative based on a crazy busy fall which included a full time job, kids, directing a major race (, and working hard to change our local culture in a small West Virginia town to one of the active life. This piece from the West Virginia Journal Views and Visions gives a bit of what we are trying to do here for health. Scroll to page 46.  I ran 2 marathons this fall but other than that, had a few 16-18 mile runs in the middle of some 60 mile weeks.  Not ultra training by traditional standards, but glad to be healthy and running.

An international caliber field was assembled (see race preview) and the weather perfect. The course rises up South Mountain from Boonsboro MD, crosses the rocky and treacherous Appalachian Trail for 14 miles, cruises up the dirt C&O Canal for 26 miles, and then finishes with 8 miles of rolling rural roads to finish in Williamsport MD.

My shoe choice for the variable terrain was the Newton Neutral Racer. Although not a classic “trail” shoe it was perfect for the varied terrain when using midfoot landing technique and picking your foot up quickly.  The independent lugs functioned kind of like independent suspension as the surface was never smooth.  They allow a stable platform on every landing, whether it rocky AT or uneven dirt of the Canal.  And the best thing was when I got to the road at mile 42 there was energy return felt by relaxing my feet, Achilles and calves.  Most experience a deadened feeling 42 miles into a run.

I use a technique known as ChiRunning which focuses on landing midfoot, avoiding the braking of heel strike, using the core muscles as power generators, applying a quick cadence, relaxing and rotating the pelvis and extending the hip for increased stride length, and employing a slight lean to get some gravity help.  It works for long distances as one cannot push off with the small muscles of the feet and calves for nearly 7 hours. There are several focuses in ChiRunning all of which I rehearse several times during an event this long to optimize movement and minimize effort. This technique perfectly complements the Newton Shoes. 

Nutrition and understanding proper pace are critical too. Physiologically a body can absorb 240 calories an hour while running.  That is 2 to 3 gels an hour. There were full meals available at the aid stations, but I stayed with the familiar gels. Besides the fueling strategies another trick to get through an event like this is finding the right “hybrid” effort.  Using fat as fuel is efficient and essential, this is electric mode.  If one goes too fast- the fuel is gas, easier to access but way less efficient.  Like a driving a Prius, the transition is subtle….a little too quick and you are operating on gas and before you realize it you are running dry.  You start the race with a full tank of gas which can be topped off a little along the way, but you must get 50 miles off your tank.

I felt Phil’s spirit over the last several miles of the JFK 50 mile run yesterday where it is easy to get complacent.  After entering the road section you begin to see the miles count down. The first one you see is “8 to go”.  The mental ploy after jogging past is “only 7 miles and change to go”.  At marker “7 to go”…only “6 and change”…and so on, one at a time.  Reached the finish in 6:54 for 22nd place and looked to the sky and thanked Phil for waiting.

This was the  strongest field ever with a record 25 runners breaking 7 hrs (prior no more than 18 below this). Looked to the sky and thanked him for waiting at the finish too. Greg Crowther of Seattle passed Michael Arnstein with less than 2 miles to go for the win.  See the post race story.

As a physician an often misunderstood concept is disease vs. illness

Disease is a biological process

illness is the impact the disease has on the patient’s life

Phil’s daily physical activity allowed him the strength to pursue a life of service, despite significant medical problems. Phil was never ill, though by doctors standards he had grave disease for years. 

Long may you run Phil, we’ll miss you.

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