By Jeff Nations
Emily Harrison has much to be thankful for this week.
The former Front Royal resident, once a standout runner at Warren County High School and later an All-American at the University of Virginia, is back in the area to run in today's 50th Anniversary JFK 50 Mile Run which starts in nearby Boonsboro, Md., and covers much of that state's Washington County.
The race gives Harrison a chance to reconnect with family and friends -- she lives across the country now in Flagstaff, Ariz. -- and revisit some of her old running haunts. Harrison is thankful for the chance to run close to home, and she's thankful for something else as well -- after struggling with injuries for several months, she's feeling strong and fit once more.
Harrison certainly made a strong debut as an ultra-distance runner last year in this same race. Just months after competing in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Harrison decided to tackle the much longer distance the JFK race required last year.
Harrison handled it, and then some -- her finishing time of 6 hours, 17 minutes, 16 seconds smashed the old course record by more than 12 minutes. It still wasn't quite fast enough to win, though -- ultramarathon veteran Ellie Greenwood also shattered that course record with a winning time of 6:11.59, relegating Harrison to second place.
Greenwood won't be back for today's 7 a.m. race start, leaving Harrison -- depending on her fitness -- as a favorite to win this year's women's race. Her most recent race only seems to confirm that -- Harrison said she decided on the spur of the moment to run in the Nov. 9 Bootlegger 50K in Boulder City, Nev.
"It was a last-minute decision. I signed up on the day before race," Harrison said. "It was all right. I finished in second place, which was not too bad considering I hadn't really planned for it. It wasn't a goal race."
Harrison, 27, finished that race in 4:22.49, less than three minutes behind the women's winner.
That gives her some confidence heading into today's JFK 50 Mile race, as does the experience of having run the course last year. The JFK race is relatively flat for an ultra race, with a gradual climb of 1,172 feet up a road to start the first 2.5 miles, followed by a mostly rugged 13-mile segment on the Appalachian Trail featuring plenty of uphills and downhills. That part of the race is only about 8.5 miles, with the next part of the race -- 26.3 miles -- covering the mostly flat, dirt/gravel canal towpath. The final 8.4 miles of the race covers gently rolling country roads before ending up in Williamsport, Md.
"I'm a little more comfortable on the course now," Harrison said. "It's still unknown in many ways. My fitness is pretty good, but it's hard to compare to last year. Last year I was doing my training in Virginia and running a lot on the [C&O Canal] towpath. This year I've been training at high altitude in Flagstaff, so that's a lot different."
Harrison said she's expecting competition from a handful of runners, including a couple marathoners in the sub-three hour range. Few can rival Harrison's resume as a ultra-distance runner now. After her debut in last year's JFK race, Harrison doubled that distance to run in the famed Western States 100 Mile race in June. Shortly after that, she had her injury setback.
She's feeling better now, and is glad to get another crack at the JFK 50 Mile course.
"I think I definitely had my eye on it," Harrison said. "It's nice to have another reason to come back home."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>