Reasons to run JFK complex and varied

Why they run the JFK race

Ultramarathon: The 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination adds to the mystique of this year's race.

November 21, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO - The formula for finishing the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile race is simple: Run 4.2 mph for 12 hours.

The route is simple, too. Make a left out of Boonsboro High School, a right onto the Appalachian Trail and a right onto the C&O Canal towpath. Rejoin civilization in Williamsport. Stop after logging about 200,000 steps.

But the reasons for running the nation's oldest ultramarathon, to be held tomorrow, are as complex as the terrain and as varied as the 1,000 participants.

Kristen Adelman, a Howard County schoolteacher one year removed from punishing cancer treatments, says it's a chance to feel the wind through a full head of hair and celebrate life.

I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University in Washington, expects to catch up with friends he sees only on race day.

For Mike Malinin, drummer of the band the Goo Goo Dolls, the race puts an exclamation point on the end of a grueling national concert tour.

Not lost on any of the participants is that this race will be on the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination.

Jordan, who has completed more than a dozen JFKs, will wear a shirt from an earlier race that carries a picture of the late president and his most famous quote: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

Says Jordan, "He was an agent for change. He was young and charismatic. I know it will be a big topic of conversation."

Kennedy was the spark for the first race, in April 1963. He challenged the Marines to finish a 50-mile hike in 14 hours, a test established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

William "Buzz" Sawyer, the head of the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club, rounded up 10 other civilians to see if they could do what the military was being asked to do. Four, including Sawyer, finished in 13 hours, 10 minutes.

Before they could hold a second race, Kennedy was dead. Sawyer changed the name for that year from the "John F. Kennedy Challenge" to the "John F. Kennedy Memorial 50 Mile."

While other JFK races have faded like a weary runner, this event has gotten its second and third wind.

"The JFK is a great race," says Jordan, 60, whose personal best is 7 hours, 40 minutes. "It's neat people. It's like family. We visit on the trail while we're running."

Credit goes to Sawyer, a two-time All American cross-country runner at North Carolina State, who competed in the JFK through 1970, when he decided to concentrate on logistics. He retired as race director in 1992 and laced up his running shoes again. Last year, at age 74, he finished in 13 hours, 35 minutes. This year, he wears bib No. 1001.

"Buzz is one in a billion," says Mike Spinnler, a two-time winner who took over as race director in 1993. "Seventy-five years old and still on the starting line, answering Kennedy's call."

Others also answer the call: 350 local volunteers who staff the aid stations for 14 hours, direct traffic and make more than 1,000 peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches for the runners.

"They'll take special requests," says Spinnler, whose 88-year-old mother leads the sandwich brigade. "As long as it's strawberry."

No one has finished all of the previous races. Mike Adams, 54, of Forest Hills, Pa., will be honored at a pre-race dinner today for completing 34 events, 32 of them consecutively.

Last year, 862 athletes completed the course. By agreement with the Appalachian Trail Conference, which maintains the north-south hiking trail, the field is capped at 1,000. The cutoff time is 12 hours, with each runner receiving a medal at the finish line from Spinnler. (About 300 slower competitors will begin at 5 a.m., two hours before the official start, to cross the finish line before 7 p.m.)

This will be Adelman's first JFK, although not her first long-distance race. The 33-year-old teacher at St. Augustine School in Elkridge received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the summer of 2000. Radiation, chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant followed. The tumors returned twice, most recently in August last year.

Through it all, she kept running and bicycle riding when she could. In January, she completed a marathon; in March, a 50K race. "I've been in some pretty painful physical circumstances, so I feel pretty comfortable with the mental portion," she says. "Unless I lose a limb, I should be able to get through it. I'm proud going into this as a cancer survivor. But if my time stinks, I'm fair game. I'm not going to use it as a crutch."

Seeded runners include U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, 61, a Montana Democrat and veteran marathoner who walked across his state while campaigning for re-election in 1996.

Malinin, 36, trains while on the road with the band. He ran his first 100-miler last year in just less than 30 hours. In 2001, he finished the JFK in 8 hours, 43 minutes, good for 105th place.

Traditionally, the race is a showcase for military teams that compete for the Kennedy Cup for best combined time. But the war in Iraq has cut those entries significantly.

"We used to have 50 guys from Fort Benning, [Ga.], alone," says Spinnler. "We have zero this year. Our thoughts will be with them Saturday."

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