50-mile competition is still going strong

In its 37th year, JFK ultramarathon to draw 1,000 runners

November 19, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO -- They do it for the challenge, for the "Kodak moments," and because it feels so good when they stop.

One thousand runners will thunder across the starting line here tomorrow morning for the 37th annual JFK 50-Mile ultramarathon. They will thump up 1,190-foot South Mountain, pick their way along the rocky Appalachian Trail and gut it out along 26 miles of the C&O Canal towpath before reaching the finish line in Williamsport.

"It's the closest I come to a self-induced death," says Jon Acton, a 13-time participant.

One year, it was 80 degrees. Another, in the low 30s and freezing rain.

"We couldn't postpone it because people had come from all over the country," recalls former race director Buzz Sawyer of that 1974 race. "Seventeen hundred entered, 1,300 showed up, 225 finished. Runners were breaking off branches and sucking the ice off for water."

That was the low point for Sawyer, who ran the race from 1963 to 1992, when he stepped aside and began running in the race.

The event started in 1963, after President John F. Kennedy challenged the Marines to prove their fitness by completing a 50-mile hike. Eleven civilians lined up in Boonsboro to test their mettle; four, including Sawyer, finished in 13 hours, 10 minutes.

Other communities around the country also held 50-milers that first year, but only the Maryland race remains.

"None of the other 50s had a Buzz Sawyer to nurture it," says Acton, whose personal best is eight hours, 56 minutes. "Buzz has the ability to convince people to do more than they ever thought they could."

People like Mike Spinnler, who twice won the JFK and succeeded Sawyer as race director in 1993.

Spinnler caught the JFK bug as a 12-year-old in 1971 when he entered with his older brother. He finished in a little more than 14 hours. In 1982, he set a course record of five hours, 53 minutes that stood for 12 years.

"I think Buzz picked me because I had been in the back of the pack and the front of the pack," says Spinnler, 41.

He spends the weeks before the race buzzing around Boonsboro and Hagerstown, finishing paperwork and picking up donations of food and drinks that will be distributed at the 15 aid stations along the course.

The race consumes his life and the storage space in his house.

"It's kind of like an ugly dog with two bad legs and a bad eye. It needs someone to love it," he says.

More than 300 volunteers sign up each year to make the race a success. It shouldn't be an easy sell, but Spinnler says it is.

"If you run a 5K race, you're asking people to volunteer an hour or two. But we're asking them to participate from pre-dawn until well after dark. The third week of November is not a terrific time to be outside for 14 hours," he says. "But the people here have embraced this race as their own."

Runners also have embraced the event.

There's Cal Mahaney, a 70-year-old who will wear No. 30 -- not because of the order in which he signed up but because this marks his 30th consecutive JFK.

His female counterpart is Carolyn Showalter, who has competed in 17 consecutive races from 1982 to 1998, including wins in 1985 to 1989 and 1994.

Five runners have competed in at least one race in each of the four decades of its existence.

Kimball Byron has missed one race since 1970, and that was in 1984 when military obligations kept him away.

He first ran it as a 12-year-old at the side of his father, former U.S. Rep. Goodloe Byron. Now 44 and the father of two sons, he runs it to honor his father's memory.

Goodloe Byron died of a heart attack while running on the towpath in October 1978. He was 49.

"This was something my father and I did together. Now I do it for me," he says.

Others, such as Acton, savor the memories as well.

"I call mine a Kodak moment. The sun was setting behind the mountains in West Virginia and the light was hitting the Potomac River. A bicyclist rides by with a boom box playing a classical horn concerto," Acton recalls.

"Of course, it was pretty much downhill from there. It got dark. It got cold and I was hurting," he says, laughing.

But world-class athletes and self-described weekend warriors keep coming back for more.

"I like football, but I'll never play with Joe Montana. I like basketball, but I'll never play with Michael Jordan," says Bobby Mason, who has run the JFK three times. "All you have to have is a little bit of ability and a strong mind and you can compete."

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