Mile race keeps athletes running back

JFK 50

Challenge: Many return to the 40-year-old event with hopes of doing better than before.

November 23, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSPORT -- Nobody finishes the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile race, Mike Spinnler likes to say. They complete it.

It's hard to argue with the race director's logic when you look at a field of nearly 1,000 runners. The roster is filled with athletes who have competed multiple times, some with consecutive streaks that would make Cal Ripken envious. For them, the JFK is always unfinished business.

Yesterday, with rays from the rising sun lighting the way, 770 men and 185 women pounded up the hill out of Boonsboro at the start of the 41st annual event -- the oldest ultramarathon in the country. In that total were 253 rookies, many harboring hopes of starting streaks of their own.

Dave Mackey of Boulder, Colo., completed his day's work in less than the traditional eight-hour shift. The winner arrived at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport with an unofficial time of 5 hours, 55 minutes.

"It got hot out there," said Mackey, who celebrated his 34th birthday yesterday. "These hills are tough when you're trying to push the pace, but they're not mind-blowing. ... Those little rises add up."

Mackey arrived in Maryland just five hours before the starting gun and had never seen the course. He led early and widened his advantage as the race progressed.

The next two runners went for an intentional tie, crossing the line with hands clasped together in solidarity. Friends Eric Grossman, 35, of Louisville, Ky., and Zachariah Miller, 27, of Ann Arbor, Mich., clocked in at 6 hours, 10 minutes.

Bethany Hunter, 24, of Lynchburg, Va., who had come in second and third in the race in other years, was the first woman finisher, with a time of 7 hours, 20 minutes.

"Halfway through, I had a 15-minute lead. I thought `If I don't die, I should be OK.' Fifteen minutes is a lot to make up," she said. "I was hoping this would be my year."

Runner-up was last year's women's winner, Connie Gardner, 40, of Medina, Ohio, with a time of 7 hours, 54 minutes.

The Kennedy Cup for the best military team went to the six-member "All-Marine Ultra Team."

But the rave wasn't as much about time as it was about completing: limping, shuffling, waddling to have Spinnler drape a medal with a likeness of President Kennedy around your neck.

All along the course, more than 350 volunteers and medical staff, including EMT trainees from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, kept things running smoothly. Their efforts were supplemented by a support network of runners' friends and colleagues.

"Our jobs?" said Marty Lindemann, who was sporting a Crew Support shirt. "We look good and we try not to eat and drink their stuff."

Williamsport EMT Chief Brian Lowman said one of the biggest challenges his staff faces is convincing runners that they need treatment.

"We had a man one year with a hairline fracture of his leg and insisted on finishing," he said as he supervised the finish-line medical team. "The biggest surprise is seeing people who show up at this aid station, and you wonder how they ever finished."

Like most contests, the genesis of the JFK race was a challenge -- from President Kennedy to the Marines -- to complete a 50-mile hike in 14 hours, a benchmark set in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

William "Buzz" Sawyer, a civilian, and 10 of his friends set out on the course in April 1963. Four, including Sawyer, finished in 13 hours, 10 minutes.

The popularity of the race grew each year, peaking in 1973, when 1,724 entered. Since then, the field has been capped at 1,000 out of respect for other users of the trail and towpath. Except for changing the date from spring to fall to ensure better weather, the race has remained virtually unchanged.

Sawyer ran the race and ran in the race from 1963 through 1982. He stopped participating when the growing number of entries demanded more of his attention.

Spinnler, a two-time JFK winner, took over race director duties in 1983, and Sawyer returned to competition 10 years later.

In yesterday's predawn hours, Sawyer, now 75, laced up his running shoes and pinned No. 1001 on his chest, hoping to finish his 15th JFK in less than 14 hours. He made it, with an unofficial time of 13 hours, 35 minutes, just a little behind his first time 40 years ago.

It takes endurance to run 50 miles, but for a number of runners getting through it once is not enough. Of the 12,000 or so participants over the life of the event, 177 have finished 10 or more times.

At a prerace banquet Friday night, Spinnler and Sawyer honored the latest inductees in the 500-mile and 1,000-mile clubs. No one new joined the exclusive 1,500-mile club, which has three members.

"It's the only race I run every year," said Chris Whitesell, who has run the JFK 11 times and whose family has completed 55 or so more. "It's a great family atmosphere."

Gallaudet University President I. King Jordan, 60, an inductee in the 500-mile club, finished with a time of 10 hours, 29 minutes. The long-distance veteran lives near Annapolis.

Kristen Adelman, Howard County schoolteacher and cancer survivor, "totally crushed" her goal of 12 hours, coming in at 10 hours, 34 minutes.

"I was stronger than I could have imagined," she said. "We were hauling butt at the end."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.