A day like Saturday.
It is hard to imagine a better start to the 50th JFK 50-Mile run than the one I enjoyed as I stepped to the starting line in Boonsboro, Md., with about 150 other runners in the 5 a.m. wave. (Another 900 swifter participants would follow us at 7 a.m.). It was 30 degrees in the pitch blackness, no wind, no rain. I had trained for months and was in good shape. I had even managed to get a few hours of sleep, which usually eludes me on the eve of a race, before rising at 3:15 a.m. to prepare for the longest run of my life.
I felt strong and comfortable as we trudged up the long hill that leads out of town to the Appalachian Trail, occasionally chatting with others bound up in the challenge of the nation’s oldest and most famous ultramarathon, but often alone in a bubble of light from my headlamp.
I picked my way cautiously but confidently along the trail, running where the terrain allowed, slowing to a walk when I encountered fields of jagged rocks below my feet. I welcomed daybreak high on the spine of South Mountain, where I had to stop for a moment to admire the view. Four and a half hours later — 30 minutes sooner than I’d expected — I was a half-mile from conquering the most difficult 15 miles of this arduous race as I skittered down the steep, treacherous switchbacks at Weverton Cliffs that would take me to the flat ground of the C&O Canal towpath.
You weren’t expecting a fairy tale, were you? Good.
Because that’s where one rock, one small bump of granite, reached up from its insignificant place in this great, wide world and grabbed the big toe of my left foot. Suddenly I was airborne, arms out ahead of me like Superman diving out a window, then skidding on my chest along the trail and slamming my left hand into something I don’t remember.
Then I tumbled off the trail a few feet down the steep embankment into a thick, cozy bed of dry leaves, where I decided to stay for the rest of my life.
Trail runners call this a “face plant,” but it was my left hand and the left side of my rib cage that hurt badly. The guy behind me tried to drag me back up the embankment by my right arm, like one of those tiny fishing boats winching an 800-pound tuna onto its deck in stormy seas. Eventually I climbed back up by myself.
As I began to run again, the bones in my left hand clicked with each step and my ribs ached with every breath. About six miles later, I stopped at a rest station for first aid, where a nurse told me my hand was broken and offered to splint it with cardboard. In the end, she just taped it up firmly. There was nothing she could do for my ribs.