WeRunFar Profile: Mike Spinnler

An in-depth profile of JFK 50 Mile race director Mike Spinnler.

By on November 2, 2017 | Comments

A 12-and-a-half-year-old boy stood on the 1971 JFK50 Mile starting line, readying himself for his first-ever foot race. He looked around, copying others as he pinned his bib number onto his t-shirt.

His white canvas shoes were nearly six sizes smaller than the others along the line, but a signed waiver from his dad provided the legitimacy for him to be there.

Fourteen hours later, the young man crossed the finish line, completing his first go at the JFK50. His name was Mike Spinnler.

Two days after, he showed up at Little League practice and went on with his life. He continued to play football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball and soccer come spring and fall, while keeping a future race goal in the back of his mind.

Telling his dad, after finishing nearly eight hours behind the winner of that year’s race, “One day I’m going to win the JFK50.”

It wasn’t until Mike experienced his first JFK50 DNF that he began to take that goal more seriously. In 1974, due to horrendous weather, he was part of the 83% of competitors who dropped from the race.

“It was a failure that changed my perspective of being a runner,” Mike said. “I was so disappointed and so embarrassed. The day after the race, I started running.”

Mike morphed into a runner, as posters of Bill Rodgers lined his bedroom walls and Sports Illustrated running articles became his main reading material.

“I didn’t do anything, just focused on running. I told myself, I’m not going to go back just to finish, I’m going to do something special, and I did.”

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Mike Spinnler congratulating 2003 JFK 50 Mile champion Dave Mackey. Photo: Andy Mason/Herald-Mail Media

Mike graduated from high school in Hagerstown of Washington County in Maryland and continues to live in the same town with his wife Maria and two sons, who are currently in college. He is the youngest of seven brothers and sisters and it was his oldest brother, a runner who is 17 years older than him, who was the primary inspiration for the 12-year-old Mike to run the JFK50.

Mike went on to run cross country and track at Frostburg State University in western Maryland, majoring in parks and recreation administration to return to work in his local YMCA. By the time he graduated, he was already coaching, and training two to three times a day toward that one goal.

The goal of winning the JFK50 one day had been secretly growing each run, each day inside Mike’s mind. Night after night, he would dream of the day he crossed the finish line, breaking the tape.

“When I was growing up, I had dreams of winning the JFK. I had dreams and dreams. I would visualize it–coming down the last straightaway, and I turn my head back and then look ahead and see the banner. I dreamed that dream over and over and I would wake up sometimes disappointed that it was just a dream. Then I would get up and do the morning run and pursue that dream.”

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Mike and family. Photo: Dimitri Pazarentzos

Well, it wasn’t until Mike was running with a friend Terry Baker, a 2:15 marathoner, and Terry’s coach one Christmas break morning during his senior year of college that he started to truly make that dream a reality. Baker’s coach, Greg Shank, asked Mike what his future plans were, thus initiating a bond between the two.

By that year, 1981, there had not been a local winner at the JFK50 since the 1960’s. So that year, workouts included tempo runs over the rocky, rooted Appalachian Trail (AT), peaking at 140 miles a week. He swam each lunch period, lifted weights twice a week, and went to a yoga class two other times a week, a strong believer in keeping one’s body loose and flexible.

“I trusted [Shank] and I wanted to run to win, so he put together a plan. He was a speed-based guy so I did things fast.”

One workout a few days days before the race, one that most people don’t and won’t believe, was an all-day effort.

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Mike, age 19, and Bob Stack in the 1977 JFK50 Mile. Photo courtesy of Mike Spinnler.

“I did three 10-mile runs. One was at 8:00 a.m. and I did 57 minutes. Then went again at noon and went under 57 minutes and then one at 4:00 p.m. and finished just over 56 minutes. So I did three marathon-pace 10-mile runs… he designed this stuff and it was hard.”

Another training run sent him up in the mountains on the AT. Coming back down, painful and bloody, he began to rethink that goal.

“I’m doing this tempo run across the AT and I fall four or five times and I cut up my knee and I bang up my elbow and I get done and I say, ‘Greg I’m not doing this. I’m not doing the JFK. I’m in too great a shape, I’m going to do the Chicago Marathon and run fast there.’ He said, ‘Just relax. On race day it won’t be as difficult because you’ll have people around you.’”

Sure enough, come 1982, just one and a half years after joining with Shank, Mike not only won the race, but broke the then-nine-year course record, set by Max White, by two minutes.

Like Shank told him, on race day, the AT section flew by as Mike and other competitors stuck to each other for the first 20 miles. Once Mike hit the flat dirt path that followed, he flew into the finish line in 5 hours and 53 minutes, becoming the first local kid to win in years.

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Greg Shank, Terry Baker, Mike Spinnler, and Jeff Scuffins in 1981, all runners for the Washington Running Club. Photo courtesy of Mike Spinnler.

The Washington County boy, the up-and-coming Mike Spinnler, was the one JFK50 founder William “Buzz” Sawyer had heard about around town, mostly from Shank, as they worked together at the town vehicle plant.

Sawyer was legendary. Everyone knew who he was–this world-class runner, world-class coach, and well-known race director. He didn’t know who Mike was at first, but the two became good friends after that win.

“When I ran the 20th annual JFK50 that year, [Buzz] was thrilled that a local Washington County boy won the race and broke the record.”

The next year, 1983, Mike returned to the JFK50 and defended his title after a tough, tough race, he said.

“I was interviewed by the newspaper and was basically announcing my retirement. I wanted to go back to steeplechase; I was only 25 years old and wanted to do some other stuff. Sawyer was also getting interviewed and I said, ‘Hey Buzz, when you get tired and done with the race, let me know and I’ll take it from you.’ He looked over at me and smiled and said, ‘You got it young man.’”

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Mike giving finisher Austin Abraham a medal after the 2015 JFK50. Photo courtesy of Mike Spinnler.

Well, obviously Mike did not retire from ultrarunning. Instead he ran through the 25th anniversary and by 1993, Buzz was ready to pass the now 30-year-old race on. Mike worked under and directed other smaller races in his area for two years before taking the literal keys to the race’s storage facility from Buzz after the 1992 race.

“’Now you’re the director,’ he said, and that’s how it all worked out. No one had approached him about taking it over, so he was thankful I offered to do that.”

The ’93 race was rough, he admits, after making some changes and dealing with permits to run through the AT.

But what exactly was this race that Buzz Sawyer left to the young Spinnler? The JFK50 Mile was more than an ultra race through the trails. It is the oldest ultra and one of the largest ultramarathons in the country. Sawyer, who was only answering the call of President John F. Kennedy, founded the JFK50 Mile Challenge in 1963. The inspiration for the race came when President Kennedy challenged his military officers to meet the requirements set forth by President Teddy Roosevelt for his military officers at the beginning of the 20th century. He called on them to cover 50 miles on foot in under 20 hours. So, Sawyer’s military race was one of the hundreds of Kennedy Challenges established throughout the country. Yet, by 1964, it was the only one left.

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Mike leading Michael Lilley, winner of the 2013 Gary Brown Memorial C&O Canal Five-Mile Run. Photo courtesy of Michael Lilley.

It was a group of 11 starters who asked Buzz, ‘Hey, are you going to hold that race again,” and it was Buzz who kept it going year after year.

In 1964, the race’s name changed to the JFK50 Mile Memorial Run and by 1968 it had morphed into a running race, becoming one of the first ultramarathons in a world where the word “ultramarathon” was just coming to term.

“There weren’t ultras or other events. It was just an event that was more of a foot race and it wasn’t just for runners, it was former military guys going to see if they were still fit and people who wanted to challenge themselves. Then, in the ’80s, more ultras were popping up and the term ultramarathon was being used,” Mike explained. “The JFK was the granddaddy of ultras and like the Boston Marathon was the first marathon in the U.S., we were the first ultra.”

In the first year that Mike directed the race, he made small changes, like providing aid stations and eventually providing prize money for the winners.

“We try to keep it all traditional, and try to keep it the same course because it’s fun to say, ‘Wow, I’m doing the same course that Max White did in 5:55 back in 1973. I know it’s corny, but we like to be old school that way and maintain that flavor of the event so that someone who does it in 2017 can get the same flavor as someone who did it in 1972.”

The race is always the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and starts and ends in the same place as Sawyer first set the markers down. When Mike first took it over in 1993, he met up with a local artist to design the medal, which has not changed over the years, except the date.

For the 23- to 25-year-olds who are training to win races and can bounce back up after a stumble, the AT–where the race begins–is pretty manageable and easy, Mike said. But for the many who use the JFK50 as their first ultra or have a hard time with a rocky surface, the AT is a monster inside a nightmare.

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Mike before the 2014 Run for the Toad 50k in Canada. Photo: Rune Melcher

Mike says if you can get through the first quarter of the race “without busting teeth out or breaking bones,” then you’re going to do all right.

The JFK50 is an interesting race since it starts downtown in Boonsboro and in 2.5 miles you’re on the AT heading up an 1,100-foot mountain. Within five miles you’re at the highest point of the race, so the last 45 miles is all downhill, Mike enjoys telling people. After a mile of switchbacks down the mountain between miles 14 and 15, you reach the pancake flat C&O Canal towpath, a 26-mile section of dirt and gravel trail. The last 8.4 miles, Mike’s favorite part of the race, is a curvy country road all the way to the finish.

Mike’s 1982 course record lasted for 12 years until Eric Clifton ran a 5:46 in 1994. As usual, times just kept dropping on the popular course. A perk of directing the race, Mike has been front and center each time those records get blasted away, yet he is always puzzled, trying to figure out how the hell it happened.

Jim Walmsley… I’m still trying to figure it out. He went 5:21 last year and the previous record was 5:34 set by Max King during the year he also ran 2:14 in the Olympic Marathon Trials and he was sixth in the steeplechase. The man was in four-minute-mile shape and he was being pushed the whole freaking way. He had no time to coast and he runs 5:34. We figured it was going to take a 2:14 guy to beat that, then Jim comes in and beats Max King by two full miles! I’m thinking that has to be a sub-2:11 marathon effort.”

The race is fit for fast-paced running and a great way to introduce new trail runners to the sport of ultrarunning. They have a 94% finish rate.

“We get a lot of first-timers. We have a gracious 13-hour limit and with 1,000 people, you really won’t get lonely out there. Yeah, we have a really, really good track record of first-timers and their success.”

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Mike with 2016 JFK50 finisher Jennifer Ford. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Ford.

Watching those successful finishes, from the winner to whomever is squeaking in under 13 hours, makes all the hoop-jumping and extra effort worth it, Mike said.

“As the director, I can make those dreams come true for others. It is cool to see a guy come through the finish line with tears. It feels really good to know that I kept the race alive to make their dream come true.”

Ian Torrence was one of those brand-new ultra guys when he signed up for the 1994 race. At the end, Mike congratulated Torrence, putting a medal around his neck. The two have become good friends over the years.

“I’ve run JFK 22 times. I’ve been second twice and in the top 10 a number of other times. I have a 6:09 PR on the course,” Torrence explained. “You can definitely feel the race’s tradition and it shines through on race day. There’s a large military presence, the aid stations are in the same places, and the competition is always fierce. With the pressures (political, financial, and interest) that face most races today, JFK has weathered all the storms and hasn’t had to change its course or its ethos.”

Though Torrence was never able to grab a first place, he and Mike were able to watch his wife Emily Torrence (née Harrison) run and then finally win the race of a lifetime.

“I remember Emily Harrison–she ran the race of races and came in second to Ellie Greenwood in 2012. How can you run JFK in 6:17 and not win?” he exclaimed! “Then the next year she won, and to see that joy in her face… Ian ran 20-plus times, came in second twice, was in the top 10 so many times… Then, he coached Emily and to see that joy in both of them, that dream come true for both of them, it makes you feel good as the director.”

Emily ran the race in 2012, also her first ultra, grateful for Mike’s support of first-timers before, during, and after the race.

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Mike and his wife Maria. Photo courtesy of Mike Spinnler.

“He was so enthusiastic about JFK and you can tell he has a true passion for the race,” she said. After crewing her mother with her dad on the JFK50 course, and running it several times herself, Emily enjoys seeing the tradition and historical culture flow from the volunteers and runners come every November.

“Mike makes JFK what is today. Every year Ian and I come back to JFK and you see the same core group of volunteers and race organizers. This speaks a lot for the event and the race director. It’s great that America’s oldest ultra has progressed with the times in some ways, but ultimately stays true to its roots.”

Clearly, his passion for this sport and race is incredible and beautiful to hear about, but when he was younger, living in the glory of his own accomplishments, it was difficult to imagine anything was better than personally winning and reaching a goal.

Mike’s father was a four-sport college athlete who went into coaching as a career.

“After his athletic career was done and he went into coaching, he told me, ‘Someday you will go into coaching and you will find it more rewarding than being an athlete.’ I’m thinking, You’re kidding me. I am winning the JFK, I have TV reporters and newspaper reporters writing down every word I say. And… he was right.”

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Mike and his cross-country team getting ready for the 2014 Footlocker Cross Country Regionals. Photo: Cassandra Smith Daigneault

He took the official title of coach at age 24, after college, coaching the local boys’ cross-country and track teams at Hagerstown Community College. He and his wife Marie, who has an impressive running history to her name as well, started a running club with the small Catholic school in town.

“My wife went through Catholic school and it broke her heart that the school did not have any running programs, so we started a program in 2010. Then, I started coaching the community-college program, and then we started coaching the citizen athletes of the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club.”

From college athletes, to youngsters just starting, to elite athletes, to those who just need a running buddy on Wednesday nights, the Spinnlers dabble in it all.

They host races for the college and the running club, but the JFK is the main cash cow for other fundraisers. The money from the 50 miler goes into a scholarship fund, and provides assistance to elites who may still need some help with entry fees and travel expenses.

“We try to sponsor athletes, the ones who are buried in student loans, the guys going for 2:20 and the girls for 2:45 who may not be the Jordan Hasays or Galen Rupps yet. The JFK makes that possible.”

Marie and Mike know how hard it is to be that athlete. Years ago, they were those athletes. Marie was an all-state champion in her home state of Ohio, ran for Eastern Kentucky on a full scholarship, and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 10,000 meters in 1988. She finished second at the Marine Corps Marathon in 2:52 and was on the U.S. national team and just last year, at the age of 54, she finished her first ultra at the JFK50, claiming she just “wanted to know what it was like.”

She met Mike in 1984, when he was coaching for the men’s side of the Eastern Kentucky running team and she on the women’s side.

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Mike, Maria, their sons Jimmy and William, and their nephew. Photo: Jennifer Morris Parmelee Fam

As a coach and director, Mike is in the same shoes as his coach years ago, helping his athletes reach their goals. Just two weeks ago, Mike was cheering on his college athletes during an end-of-season championship, watching a 4:15 miler blast through the race.

“It is just like my dad said, ‘I get more out of coaching than being an athlete.’ I’m constantly thinking about them. We are talking a lot about the [2020] Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, asking them how old they would be. They said, ’25, 26′ and I said, ‘Well, that’s the age of world-class distance runners’ and you can just see the light in their faces. They are chasing after their dreams the same we did. It’s a blast to watch, just a blast.”

Between the ages of 12 and 24, Mike admits he was obsessed with the JFK50, and now at age 59, that passion and pride has not died down.

With the 55th annual JFK50 race coming in just a few weeks, Mike, Marie, and the rest of the race team are thrilled to watch Camille Herron and Tony Migliozzi, both successful on flat-and-fast courses, tackle the 50-mile race, among all the other runners who’ll also run.

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Mike handing out awards at a turkey trot in 2014. Photo: Cassandra Smith Daigneault

“We are pinching ourselves that we have those amazing athletes coming!” Mike exclaimed.

Over the past few years, Mike’s log book has zero running miles and, instead, thousands of biking miles have been recorded. He keeps track of the “0” though, knowing that there might come a day when he is 65, 70, or older when he picks up running again.

But for now, Mike returns to running in his dreams.

“I haven’t been in a race since 2005, and I wake up in the middle of the night the other day and I was dreaming that I was running. I was young and in the elite pack and duking it out and then I wake up and just smile.”

Mike and his friends are thankful to be called has-beens, he said, because then everyone knows that a has-been had the chance to do something: to win, to race hard, to leave everything on the course and accomplish a dream.

People ask Mike nowadays, “Do you regret not doing any other races? Never trying other distances or other ultras?”

And the answer is always no.

“I wake up now and know it was a dream, and that’s okay to be a dream because I did have my day.”

Dream after dream, workout after workout, Mike visualized that reality of crossing the finish line of the JFK50 Mile in first place. From a 12-year-old kid to now, the JFK50 is “It.” The day Mike’s chest broke through the banner, the crowd cheering, his proud parents and coach watching, fulfilling not only his, but Sawyer’s goal, will be a special moment in his life forever.

“After I won, I woke the next morning around 4 a.m. and I said, ‘Oh man, why is my stomach so sore?’ I realized that this time it wasn’t a dream. This time, I had actually done it. I remember writing in my logbook, that it was the most satisfying moment in my life to wake up and know that it was not a dream, it had actually happened.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

It’s time to happily roast and toast Mike Spinnler! Did you race him back in the day at the JFK50? Have you run the race under his direction? Have you been coached by him? Leave a comment to share a story. Thanks!

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Mike in a criterium in 2012. Photo: Andy Mason

Jessica Campbell
Jessica Campbell began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.