By George Banker
Bruce Caswell, Dave Weeda, and John Seabreeze all live in Kensington, MD and over the years completed 10 JFK 50 Mile races, many together, including the 10th. The three started on a journey, but did not have an idea where it would end. The sport of running has a way of changing your lifestyle. As the time passed, so did the level of confidence in their abilities. All achievements start with having a goal. They all reached the point of no return to be included in the 500-Mile Club of the JFK 50-Mile. There are many runners who set out to be included, but the task is difficult.
Those who have experienced the JFK once know what it is required to complete one. The average runner is one who views the first segment of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The term associated with the AT is a demanding endeavor. It requires great physical and mental stamina and determination.
How does it feel to know that you are a member of the “500-Mile Club” that many have attempted to get into?
It’s an honor — to be able to join a club that we’ve aspired to be part of for many years. The idea of it was always out there as a possibility, but you never know what life has in store for you. To have been healthy enough to compete and have had the time to put in the miles–among many other obligations–makes this a real gift for us. Sitting at the dinner and appreciating those who have gone much further, including 30+ finishes, puts things in perspective. That’s a level of commitment and perseverance that is truly impressive.
Was it your plan to go for 10, and how did you progress to the first one?
Bruce – We each did our first in different years. John and I owe Dave a debt of gratitude (or perhaps a curse of gratitude) for inspiring us to do our first one. We all came to it for different reasons. For me it was “marathon fatigue,” being in awe of Dave’s accomplishment, and being curious about how far I could push myself.
Dave — I had run two JFKs when I met Bruce and then John. I never really planned to run ten JFKs, but Bruce, John and I got along well, and that part made the training and the race more enjoyable. JFK became our “thing” collectively, so after we each got a few JFKs under our belt, it just became automatic that we were going to ten.
John — After my first one with Bruce and Dave, I knew I wanted to run a second. After five consecutive, there was no question that I would run 10 in a row, whether in a foot of snow, on an unseasonably warm day, or during a global pandemic.
The idea of going for 10 (or more) started to become a focus probably once we reached the halfway point. We seemed to be having good luck with our schedules, training and other commitments, and we began to talk about how it would feel to do 10. Once the seed was planted, it didn’t take long to grow, and the goal became a big motivation for us.
Was there a basic strategy for how you approached each one?
All – In the early years, we all probably took the training much more seriously than in the later years. We experimented with various “longest run” training runs and highest weekly mileage. Interestingly, we didn’t find a correlation between the longest training run (which I believe at least for Bruce and Dave was about 32 miles) and ultimate race performance. That finding led to a dangerous slippery slope where in the later years the “Less is More Program” (aka LIMP) approach to JFK 50 training was born. We can spare you the details, but there were a number of later races that were completed on very minimal total training miles and a few long runs.
What was the motivation for running the JFK?
Bruce — I had grown tired of marathons and was looking for a new challenge. I had heard from Dave about the JFK being an entirely different experience, and the whole ultra-community being a really neat sub-culture. I loved the idea of not pushing for a specific time but rather enjoying the course, the people, and the experience. After my first one, I was completely hooked. The volunteer support was absolutely amazing, and the other runners were so supportive. Meeting folks from all walks of life and having the opportunity to support one another through the race made us part of a larger community.
Dave – I had been running marathons for a few years and met two people at a Montgomery County Road Runners training run who were signed up for JFK for the first time. I had never even heard of it, but I was highly curious about the idea of running 50 miles. I went home and did some research and decided to sign up with them. I was curious to see how far I could push my body. A few days before the race, my two buddies both backed out. So, I went up to Hagerstown on my own. I was nervous, but the thrill of the unknown outweighed any anxiety I had.
John — Similar to Bruce and Dave, I had run my share of marathons and was looking for something more challenging. The idea of spending all day running sounded like a dream, so joining them on this journey was a no-brainer. Today, I wear the ‘ultra-runner’ badge proudly.
What do you feel was the greatest challenge you faced?
Bruce — One year we were training and a few weeks ahead of the race I tripped on a root and broke my big toe. There was no question we had to race. I figured if I could get through the AT without re-injuring it, we could make it the rest of the way. Fortunately, we went slowly (thanks to Dave and John) and it all worked out.
Dave – One year I really injured my knee around mile 15. We were on the AT, and I was jumping over and off rocks to move faster. I landed funny and really injured my left knee. Every step was painful for the rest of the race but, thankfully, I had Bruce there to keep me going.
John – The past 2-3 years, I had some severe abdominal distress after 25 miles, not being able to keep anything down. So, trying to maintain nutrition by sipping water and Gatorade, and eating a few potato chips and candy chews was quite a challenge.
Were there times when you doubted your abilities?
Bruce – Too many to count! At the legends dinner this year, the guest speaker talked about the race in the context of the “Five stages of grief.” He was not only hilarious, but spot on. Probably for all of us, the miles from the mid-20’s to the mid-30’s were always the hardest. I think that equates to the “despair” stage. There was one year, however, when we got to Weaverton and hit the C&O canal, and I felt absolutely exhausted. That was perhaps when I was most despondent. At the same time, one of the reasons we all do the race is to learn how to overcome moments like that and push through limits. Over the years, I’ve really come to appreciate your body’s ability to recover during the race with the right balance of exertion, hydration, and nutrition. We’ve all had races where we’ve gone from completely wasted to rejuvenated in a few miles.
Dave — Over a 50.2-mile trail race, everyone hits the Pain Train at some point. The few miles approaching Dam 4 are always the worst for me. I’m tired, cold, and miserable. I always think I see Dam 4 in the distance, and I get excited, only for Bruce or John to tell me that I’m seeing things and then I fall back into despair. Dam 4 is my ultimate JFK nemesis.
John – During my first JFK when I reached 35 miles I burst into tears (luckily, Dave and Bruce had gone up ahead a few miles earlier). I stopped and asked myself, “What the hell am I doing? This hurts so much.” But as I left the C&O, I knew I had it in the bag. Last year, at just about the same spot, I told Bruce and Dave to go ahead–I was going to take a nap on the side of the trail. They convinced me to sleep while running instead.
How did you transition to ultramarathons?
Bruce – Not much more to add here from what I said in the “motivation to run the JFK” section. That said, it was probably 50% personal motivation and 50% peer pressure!
Dave – In 2003 I was lucky and got lottery entries in the Marine Corps Marathon and New York City Marathon, which are a week apart. After I ran both of those on back-to-back weekends, I naturally started to get curious about how far I could push myself. I met the two people from the Montgomery County Road Runners at the perfect time in my life.
John – It was all about the training. Committing to two marathons a year, and a summer and fall of 40-50 miles weeks, was a bigger transition than actually running the 50-miler.
When you ran the JFK, which was more important time or effort?
Bruce–Not surprisingly, as the years passed, time became less of a motivator for me and I was more focused on finishing feeling relatively good. It was that feeling that would propel me through the next year and to the starting line again. That said, we always wanted to feel like we gave the race our best effort. More important than time or effort was commitment to my running partners. Every year we ran together, each of us would come to the start with different levels of preparation – sometimes more extreme than others – so we would all adjust our race strategies to maximize the chances of going wire-to-wire as a group. While we would always say to each other “Go on and I’ll see you at the finish,” when we were feeling our darkest, we rarely separated. When we did, we often reconnected later in the race. My memory is that there were a few races that we started together where we didn’t finish together.
Dave and John — Bruce summed it up pretty well.
You can add any additional comments.
Bruce — Two more things you should know about our group: (1) Dave ran the race a number of years in flannel pajama bottoms, leading to countless shouts along the course and at aid stations of “Hey, pajama man!” In his honor, Bruce donned the pajama bottoms for #10. (2) There is a good chance that we know about each other all that is possible to be known. Over thousands of cumulative training and race miles, not a story goes untold (at least once), and many stories told are on the race course. In all seriousness, like many running groups, we marked the normal events of life through our time together – kids growing and going to college, changes in careers, the passing of family or friends, and the evolution of what running means to each of us. To be able to spend the last Saturday before Thanksgiving together with no other task than running, for so many years, has been a real gift.
Dave — JFK has definitely been a big part of my life. There is so much that a runner goes through in that race. It helps to put a lot of things into perspective. As Bruce mentioned above, the three of us spent a lot of time together. We sometimes joke that we are each other’s therapists. I could not be more appreciative of my running buddies.
For my first JFK, I was so nervous because I had no idea what I was doing. So I started looking up some finishers from the year before on LinkedIn and messaging them out of the blue, asking how to run a race like that. Everyone I contacted responded with advice back and notes of support. JFKers are a tight community.
John — I have a wall of medals from marathons on four continents. But none are more memorable or meaningful to me than my 10 JFK 50 milers. And I have space already prepared for five more.
Finally, for a number of years we’ve raced under the team name of “Kensington Bucks.” And where did the name “Kensington Bucks” originate? During one of our many training runs along Rock Creek Trail, we came across some young male deer who were strutting around confidently with their new antlers. Feeling particularly young and confident in ourselves that day, we took on the name. Of course, we’re all much older now and the name invariably elicits humorous comments from our wives and running friends!