50-milers set out again over Appalachian Trail Kennedy marathon just keeps going, drawing hundreds

November 18, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO -- It's mid-November, that time of the year when runners Kim Byron of Baltimore and Mike Adams of Pittsburgh, Pa., cross paths at a legendary, grueling 50-mile foot race in Western Maryland.

For nearly three decades, the two men have devoted a November Saturday -- this is it for 1995 -- to running the annual John F. Kennedy 50-Mile hike-run, the nation's oldest continuous ultramarathon.

Each man has logged 1,300 miles -- more than any other runners -- along a course that includes a rugged stretch of the often rocky Appalachian Trail.

Today, Air Force Major Byron, son of the late Congressman Goodloe E. Byron, who also ran the race a few times, and Mr. Adams, a gym teacher, are vying for their 27th finish. They are among 650 runners from 34 states, Canada and Washington competing in the 33rd race.

"Neither one of us wants to miss a race, that's for sure," said Mr. Adams, 46. "It's a friendly competition between us. We usually see each other somewhere along the way, usually at the beginning. We're always checking to see if the other one is there."

That contest between Mr. Byron, 40, and Mr. Adams to log the most finishes is just part of the rich history of this well-known race, begun by a Washington County athletic club in 1963 in response to a physical fitness challenge from President Kennedy. The president noted at a press conference that Marine officers during Theodore Roosevelt's administration were required to run a 50-mile race.

"Everybody started doing 50-mile races that year. It was a real fad," recalled William J. "Buzz" Sawyer, who was race director for years and now runs the ultramarathon. "What Kennedy didn't mention was that the Marines did the 50 miles over three days."

Eleven young men hiked the first event. Only four finished. But, as the race continued, its popularity grew, and it attracted a record 1,724 runners in 1973. Fewer than 50 percent finished. Today, the finish rate is about 90 percent, said Mike Spinnler, the race director.

The course hasn't changed much. It includes portions of the same 50-mile hike-run the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, ran in the early 1960s. Today, Robert's daughter, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, will award cash prizes to the top three finishers.

The race begins at Boonsboro High School with a three-mile run along Alternate U.S. 40 to the Appalachian Trail. There, runners begin a 1,190-foot climb to the top of South Mountain and follow the trail for 12.7 miles before winding down a steep switchback at Weverton Cliffs, across the Potomac River from Harper's Ferry, W.Va.

From there, the race continues for 26 miles and 385 yards along the flat towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which parallels the Potomac. The last eight miles are along paved county roads, ending at a middle school in Williamsport.

The oldest runner competing this year is Carl Llewellyn of Hagerstown, who, with the help of other runners, finished last year's race just four minutes under the 14-hour time limit. Mr. Llewellyn was 79 then. He's 80 now.

"Last year was a pretty close finish," said Mr. Llewellyn, a retired DTC draftsman who has finished the race twice in four attempts since 1991. "I'm not sure how I'm going to do this year. It hasn't been a good training year. I'm going to give it a try, though. It's a wonderful feeling to finish the race."

Mr. Spinnler, a track coach at Hagerstown Junior College, notes that "everyone who runs this race has their own personal goals. Only one man and one woman are going to win, but more than 600 runners are striving to accomplish a goal. Everyone who finishes is a winner."

Not everyone runs the course. Some walk stretches and take breaks at water stops.

About 4 to 6 inches of snow and some fallen trees have covered the race's section along the Appalachian Trail, a rocky, leaf-strewn stretch that is treacherous enough without snow, he said.

"It's not going to be a fast race on the mountain, but we're still going to have it," Mr. Spinnler said.

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