Devon Crosby-Helms leading at the the 34 mile mark. Photo: Jenny Ueshia
Devon Crosby-Helms leading at the the 34 mile mark. Photo: Jenny Uehisa

Crosby-Helms and Crowther triumph at America’s largest ultramarathon.

Written by: Bryon Powell

Perfect weather greeted the thousand runners who gathered on the streets of Boonsboro, Maryland in the pre-dawn hours Saturday morning for the start of the JFK 50 mile, the largest ultramarathon in the United States. The cool, overcast conditions would allow for some of the fastest times in the 47 editions of the race.

The women’s field was full of familiar ultrarunning names.  Two well-known runners, Annette Bednosky and Jill Perry bolted to the front early, but were quickly joined by Devon Crosby-Helms and Megan Arbogast during two and a half miles of pavement running en route to the Appalachian Trail (AT).

Crosby-Helms hit the AT first with Arbogast just a few seconds back.  Both runners handled the trail’s treacherous rocks equally well and they exited the AT in positions identical to those in which they entered the trail 13 miles earlier.

Crosby-Helms quickly built a commanding lead once she hit the 26.3 miles of flat towpath along the C&O Canal. Her prowess on the flats should come as little surprise, as earlier this year Crosby-Helms placed 4th at the road 100k world championships.

Coming through the 24-mile mark in 3:20, Crosby-Helms had a five-minute lead on Arbogast, but would need to run a 3:10 final marathon to match course record of 6:29:42 set by Anne Lundblad in 2005. Upon exiting the towpath for the roads with 8.1 miles remaining, Crosby-Helms had but an even hour to better Lundblad’s record. Coincidentally, she had been holding exactly that 8.1-miles-per hour pace along the entire towpath.

Never slowing, Crosby-Helms  (27, Sausalito, California) crossed the line in 6:29:21 or 21 seconds under the course record. After the race she said, “I truly just enjoyed myself out there, smiled the whole way and put together a fantastic run. I just had fun!”

Arbogast (48, Crovallis, Oregon) finished second in 6:56:05, which was good enough for the masters win. Bednoski (42, Jefferson, North Carolina) rounded out the top three in 7:02:52.

Where Crosby-Helms was quick to take the mystery out of the women’s race, the men’s race saw several lead changes and the tightest finish in race history. As is usually the case, the depth of the men’s field rendered relative position at the end of the AT meaningless.

Scott Jurek (left) congratulating Greg Crowther (right) on his JFK win. Photo: Jenny Ueshia
Scott Jurek (left) congratulating Greg Crowther (right) on his JFK win. Photo: Jenny Uehisa

David James raced down the towpath with the lead until Michael Arnstein passed him around mile 27. Through the remainder of the towpath Arnstein made a push toward Eric Clifton’s 15-year-old course record of 5:46:22. Just a mile after turning on to the final eight-mile stretch of pavement, Arnstein eased off the pace after calculating he could not break Clifton’s record. That’s when things got really interesting.

Greg Crowther, who came off the AT seven minutes behind the leaders, had been surging down the towpath and up the road to move into second. With just four miles remaining, Arnstein had what looked like a commanding lead of two minutes and 11 seconds. It took Crowther , a former USATF 50k and 100k national champion, less than three miles to make up the gap and pass Arnstein in the penultimate mile.  In the final 10 minutes, Crowther (36, Seattle, Washington) put another 45 seconds on Arnstein to take the men’s title. His 5:50:13 was the second-fastest time in race history. Crowther summed up his JFK win by saying, “It was a perfect way to end my year (ultra-wise) after spending most of the year doing trail races that don’t suit me as well as JFK does.”

Arnstein (32, New York, New York) crossed the finish in 5:50:58 for the fourth-fastest time in race history. To give you a sense of how fast a day it was at JFK, prior to 2009, only four runners had run faster than third-place finisher Matt Woods’s (30, Falls Church, Virginia) 5:54:10. Chad Ricklefs (42, Boulder, Colorado) took the masters win in 6:06:51.