History in the Making: The 50th JFK 50 Mile

A look back at the history of the JFK 50 mile upon its 50th running.

By on November 14, 2012 | Comments

JFK 50This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the JFK 50 Mile, one of the biggest and oldest ultras, and one responsible for bringing many newcomers into the sport of ultrarunning.

Beginning as a Marine walkathon created in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy to test the military’s fitness, the challenge was for Marines to be able to walk 50 miles in a day, as was first laid down by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 in an executive order based on the premise that maintaining such speed was essential in times of battle.

After Kennedy’s announcement, 50-mile challenges were taken up by military personnel, and even some civilians in several places around the country. As the idea quickly caught on, the challenge even spread as far as England. However, the JFK 50 is the only one of these events that has survived the test of time.

Buzz Sawyer, the race’s first director ran the course in March of ‘63 with fellow members of the Cumberland Valley Maryland Athletic Club. With this first running, a tradition was then born out of the challenge to make better time on the course each year.

Almost from the start, the JFK 50 Mile began making history. In the late ‘60s, just as distance running was becoming more popular for men, women began taking it up as well. In 1968, Donna Aycoth became the first woman to run the course, just 11 months after Kathrine Switzer made history by running the – then all-male – Boston Marathon. Aycoth tied for second place, and continued to participate in the JFK 50, claiming the women’s championship six times consecutively from 1968 to ‘73.

Sawyer continued as the race’s director for 30 years, then passed the torch in 1993 to Mike Spinnler, the race’s current and only other director.

“[Sawyer] first discussed with me the possibilities of me becoming his successor after I won my second consecutive JFK 50 Mile in 1983. He knew that I had evolved from a finisher who barely beat the time-cutoffs to the course record holder,” said Spinnler,  “[and] that I knew the JFK 50 Mile from top to bottom and lived for the event.”

In Keeping with Tradition
The course itself has not deviated from that first run Sawyer and his fellow club members took in ‘63. Runners line up to begin the horseshoe-shaped, point-to-point course around sunrise at 7 am in the tiny town of Boonsboro, Maryland, fidgeting in the morning chill on the main road as the town slowly wakes, lights appearing in one or two shops; many of its residents already lining the streets to cheer the runners on. After a couple of miles of paved road, flat at first, the course quickly climbs to the top of South Mountain to join the Appalachian Trail in an area rife with American Civil War history. The first five to six miles climb 1,172 feet from the pavement onto rocky, technical, singletrack sections of the AT, which then travels across the mountain’s ridge. After roughly 15 miles, the course drops precipitously through a series of steep, rocky switchbacks and down to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath to follow the Potomac River for 26 miles, finally turning again onto pavement, but remaining on relatively gentle rolling hills for the last 8.4 miles to the town of Williamsport, Maryland.

“We’ve tried to keep the event as traditional as possible over the years,” said Spinnler, “The most significant change I made was instituting fully-stocked aid stations around the course; fourteen of them designed to make it possible to do the event without bringing along a personal assistant…  We made this change in my first year, 1993. The course is the same, the date – the Saturday preceding Thanksgiving – and the highlighting of the military aspect of the race have remained consistent from Buzz’s directorship to mine.”

Despite the large number of civilians from all ages and walks of life who participate every year, the race remains, in essence, a military race, and attracts a good number of military personnel, who often run in teams. Winning military teams are awarded the special Kennedy Cup.

In addition to the military aspect, the race differs from many 50-mile ultras by its large field size of 1,000+ runners, and in that much of the midsection of the course is run on the flat C & O Canal towpath. This flatness attracts a lot of first-time ultrarunners, though it is said by some to pose as much of a challenge as courses with more elevation climbs. It also makes for a rather social race for many in that the field is often thick with runners who find the long, flat stretches relaxing – even monotonous after the highly technical singletrack AT. Conversations are struck, friendships form, and many runners find themselves forming their own traditions, returning to run the course year after year, maintaining friendships that live only during the running of the JFK 50 Mile.

Anna Bradford has been running the JFK 50 every year since 1995. “I still run it because I, like most runners, am hooked by the streak and the meaning I put on this particular streak. And because the actual event is typically amazingly joyful for me,” said Bradford.

In addition to participating, Bradford is responsible for introducing many first-time ultrarunners to the race, and organizes teams of runners and volunteers for the Reston Runners, a club she belongs to in Reston, Virginia.

“I don’t have a real count, and I can’t tell how many people I’ve ‘introduced’ to the JFK since it’s probably more of a household word in the running community than before. But I would guess at hundreds. I have been organizing teams and supporting newbies since 1996 – sometimes this means introducing them to the concept of ultras, and sometimes this means supporting their long held interest,” said Bradford, “[The Reston Runners have] had about 20 or so new runners [come to participate in the JFK] every year for the last 15 years. I think my role has become less about introducing people to the JFK and more about helping them recognize their own capacity to complete the distance. I’m all about helping people acknowledge their hopes and dreams and tap into their strengths. An ultramarathon is one really simple way for people to get the message that they are truly able to accomplish big stuff and to believe in themselves a little more than they did before.”

The 50th Milestone
Perhaps in the keeping of tradition, not much will differ this year to mark the JFK 50 Mile’s 50th running. “We are planning very little change… but the finisher’s medal this year will be gold, honoring the 50th, instead of the traditional pewter,” said Spinnler.  “We expect some participation in ceremonial roles from members of the Kennedy and Roosevelt families. Also for the first time we will have a post-race celebration at our race headquarters, the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center, on the evening after the race. This activity is the brainchild of 15-time JFK 50 Mile finisher Rich Zeger who is now a valuable member of the race management team.”

Spinnler looks back humbly on his 20 years as the JFK 50’s director, and then to the race’s future, which from the present, appears secure.

“I have always felt a great responsibility in keeping alive what Buzz Sawyer began,” said Spinnler,  “What he did, basically single handed, for three decades has never ceased to amaze and inspire me. He handed me his baby and I’ve done my very best to raise this child properly. I feel the pressure sometimes, but I then think of the man who handed me the keys to the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club. I just hope that when the time comes I’m as successful as he was in finding the next kid to pass the baton. Having him see me fit to direct the JFK 50 Mile is the greatest compliment I have ever received.”

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
If you’ve ever run JFK, we’d love to hear your stories to mark the race’s milestone running!

[Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for more coverage of the 50th JFK 50 Mile in the coming days.]

Dani Seiss
Dani Seiss is a runner, certified coach, musician and writer who works for The Washington Post. She has been running ultras since 2009, but has been running long in the mountains of Appalachia since the late 1980’s. She blogs about her running adventures and misadventures at danirunner.wordpress.com, and occasionally writes about running for The Washington Post. Currently, she is working on a book about how running saved her life, and how it can change yours.