JFK 50 … 50-Mile Race in Western Maryland


JFK 50 in 2011 – mile 44 – Author’s photo

Writing here on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, it seems especially appropriate – even in a sports blog such as this – to reflect upon the man and celebrate his contributions to America. Among those emphases for which JFK will always be known is a renewed call for fitness in America. Kennedy said,

We do not want our children to become a generation of spectators. Rather we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.

JFK challenged the military with a proposition that dated back to the early 1900s and the administration of Teddy Roosevelt – the challenge for all military officers to be able to cover 50 miles in 20 hours. 50-mile events sprouted in many locations.

One of those 50-milers was in Washington County of Western Maryland – in that little, skinny area of the state where Interstates 70 and 81 now bisect. A group of 11 men set out to cover 50 miles by using portions of the nearby Appalachian Trail, C&O Canal towpath, and local roads. Four of them finished; but the race grew.

Today it is the one remaining 50-mile event of that era. Though that first race was in the Spring, the JFK 50 is now run on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Tomorrow’s race will mark the 51st consecutive year.

The JFK race is to ultramarathoning what the Boston Marathon is to the memory of Phidippides in ancient Greece. Though there are some famous ultra races in the West that draw large crowds and attention – even in film, it is the JFK race that ultimately draws even the most famous long-distance runners to its very unique and historic challenge. The list of winners includes the names of the most successful ultra runners in America, and beyond.

At the heart of the event is still the challenge and respect for the military. Teams of military participants are an annual feature while competing for the “Kennedy Cup” – 10 to a team with the top five counting toward a combined low cumulative time. My good friend and race director Mike Spinnler has written, “Although open to the public, the JFK 50 Mile is in spirit a military race. It always has been and always will be.”

Yet the vast majority of participants are competing for personal reasons and the thrill of mastering a BHAG: a big, hairy, audacious goal – to quote the famous strategic business statement. Annually numbering well in excess of 1,000 participants, the race could draw many, many more if the course could assimilate those higher numbers.

The course is as infamous as the storied list of participants. Starting in Boonsboro, it soon takes the runners on the Old National Pike to the top of South Mountain and onto the Appalachian Trail. After 15.5 total miles, it makes the treacherous descent down the Weverton Cliffs near Harpers Ferry and begins what is essentially a full marathon on the C&O Canal Towpath. The final 8.4 miles are on local roads leading to the finish in Williamsport.

Williamport Cross Country and Track Teams at JFK 50 aid station – 2011. Author’s photo

In my opinion, the highlight of the race is certainly passing the aid station at mile 44 on Dam Number Four Road! Not only are runners cared for at this location by the volunteers representing the running programs at Williamsport High School where I coached, they are also passing my house!

In the mid 90s, one of my sons (then 10-years-old) was standing by the roadside and saw a man from our church run by – his Sunday morning class teacher. Aaron started running with him and chatting, and the next thing he knew, it was six miles later and they were in Williamsport. As a few hours passed, we began to miss him at home. This was before the era of cell phones, and after a while his teacher called us to say that they were out together for pizza and that Aaron was fine. A particularly verbal child, his punishment was (and continues to be) that he is not allowed to talk about this adventure until after he is married – still waiting on that one. Aaron went on to become a D-1 runner at Lafayette College, posting a 1:51 best in the 800.

The long-standing 1994course record of Eric Clifton of 5:46:22 was broken in 2011 by both David Riddle of Cincinnati (5:40:45) and Michael Wardian of Arlington, VA (5:43:24). Just last year the new record went down again with Max King of Bend, Oregon posting a 5:34:59 and 2:12 marathoner Trent Briney of Boulder not far behind in 5:37:56. Third was David Riddle in a pedestrian-like 5:45:13.

It is not shaping up weather-wise to look like record-breaking conditions for this year; but anything can, and does, happen at the JFK Memorial 50-Miler.

Here also is an article in our local paper – the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown – previewing the competition this year … written by a friend and untrarunner Andy Mason.