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Author - Julien Kos

America’s Oldest Ultra-Marathon

JFK 50 Mile honors its legacy as ‘America’s Oldest Ultra-Marathon’

By Larry Carroll

Billed as “America’s Oldest Ultra-Marathon,” the JFK 50 stands out from the pack. Inspired by one of the most beloved American Presidents, it dates all the way back to the spring of 1963 – long before ultra-marathoning broke through among mainstream sports. It is a “military race,” meaning that it was designed to challenge officers to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours or less, much as Teddy Roosevelt required of his troops in the early 20th century. As such, the race is open to the pubic – yet its tone, sense of honor and discipline are set by the military personnel among its ranks.

This year’s JFK 50 is scheduled to kick-off on November 23rd with a “Dual Start” format, meaning that the entire field begins racing at 6:30 a.m. and has 13 hours to complete the course. Everyone who finishes receives a unique medallion bearing the face of John F. Kennedy. An awards ceremony will recognize the top 10 men and women, as well as “Team Championship Awards” for the top teams (3-5 runners) of men and women; a “Military Team Competition” awards the top five finishers of the same military branch (Base or Academy), meanwhile, awarding the coveted “Kennedy Cup” and substantial bragging rights to the team with the lowest time-score.

America’s Oldest Ultra-Marathon

All of this began some 57 years ago, when then-president Kennedy challenged the country to embrace physical fitness, inspiring numerous 50-mile events around the country. When the president was assassinated later that year, many of the other races were never held again – but the JFK 50 Mile Challenge renamed itself the JFK 50 Mile Memorial and carried on. To this day, it is the only original JFK 50 Mile Challenge event that is still ongoing. 

As the years have gone by, civilians and military personnel have continued to run side-by-side, taking up the challenge. The official race website even has an amazing archive of race programs (https://www.jfk50mile.org/history/archived-race-programs/) dating all the way back to 1966 – a legacy most ultra-marathon races cannot begin to approach. As such, the JFK 50 offers runners a unique opportunity to not only get their workout in, but also measure themselves against history itself. 

The fastest men’s time is held by Jim Walmsley (5:21:29), set in 2016; the fastest women’s time belongs to Ellie Greenwood (6:12:00), set in 2012. Looking over the top 50 in each list of performers, however, it is hard to not notice that the vast majority of times are post-2000, even though the race was over 30 years old at the turn of the century. Sure, there are a handful of 1998’s and 1982’s here and there – but do such numbers indicate that today’s athletes are simply better trained, better conditioned and faster?

America’s Oldest Ultra-Marathon

It’s also fascinating how the long-established race is able to present other, more broad historical observations. Tony Cerminaro set the “Octogenarian Men (80-89)” record at 12:05:42 in 2016 (and is also the oldest person to ever finish the race), while Karsten Schultz set the 19-and-under men’s record (6:16:25) way back in 1977. Two different women (Carolyn Showalter and Elizabeth Wood) share the record for most consecutive women’s finishes (22), but the men’s streak is far ahead at 38 – held by Duane Rosenberg, who has finished every JFK 50 dating back to 1981. 

For many, the race has become an annual tradition on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Lining the main street of Boonsboro, Maryland, the course begins with 5.5 miles of road blending into the Appalachian Trail, gaining 1,172 feet in elevation. The next 13 miles or so is a rocky section of the trail rolling across a mountain ridge – followed quickly by steep switchbacks that drop the course over 1,000 feet. Next comes the “canal” section – 26.3 miles of flat, unpaved dirt and gravel. It all wraps up with about 8 miles of paved country roads to the finish line.

With the military angle, don’t be surprised if the JFK proceedings elicit tears in your eyes for more reasons than simple pain and exhaustion. Last year, veteran Adam Popp became the talk of the JFK when he finished the race in snowy, wet conditions despite having lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan. Popp was honored at the annual “Legends Dinner,”  an annual tradition tied to the JFK for race veterans with 10-or-more official finishes, former winners, age-group and geographic record holders. This year’s Legends Dinner is scheduled to take place on November 22.

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The North Face 50 San Francisco

The North Face 50 San Francisco makes its comeback

By Larry Carroll

When an ultra-marathoner is considering his or her next race, there are certain criteria they typically take into consideration. Questions like: How challenging will it be, and does that level of challenge align with my training trajectory? Is the race regarded well enough that it would benefit my racing resume?

But if you’re among those who put scenic views and drastic elevation change among your top criteria, there’s a good chance that you’ve considered the annual North Face 50 in San Francisco.

The North Face 50 San Francisco

Part of the company’s Endurance Challenge Series (founded in 2007), San Francisco is the culminating race following earlier events in Bear Mountain NY, Washington DC, Princeton MA and Madison WI. This year’s event is set for November 16-17 with the starting line in Sausalito.

On the men’s side, top contenders include Jared Hazen (winner of this year’s Western States 100 and Lake Sonoma 50 Mile), Matt Daniels (winner of the 2019 Black Canyon 100k), Sebastien Spehler (second place winner at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile), Thibaut Garrivier (a French runner known for winning the Transvulcania Ultra-marathon), Dylan Bowman (a top 10 runner at the North Face 50 multiple times, most recently finishing second in 2015) and Scotland’s Robbie Simpson. Other promising names include Tyler Wolfe, Bobby Peavey and Benjamin Stout.

For some of these racers, 2019 is a chance to recapture some momentum. Many have raced in the North Face 50 previously, but were left out in the cold in 2018 when the race was unfortunately canceled due to the California wildfires; this year, wildfires have also been an issue – so, here’s hoping that the air-quality remains well enough for the race to resume.

The North Face 50 San Francisco

Over on the women’s side, the narrative is every bit as compelling. From Clare Gallagher (Western States 100 and Way Too Cool 50k winner, as well as second place winner at the North Face 50 in 2017) to Keely Henninger (winner at Lake Sonoma and the Chuckanut 50k) to Brittany Peterson (fifth place winner at the North Face 50 in 2017, second at Western States this year), and YiOu Wang (such a toughie that she has been known to dress like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill at times) to Anna Mae Flynn (winner of the Speedgoat 50k in 2017 and 2019), there are lots of talented women who’ve signed up to run the race. 

Of course, both the men’s and women’s races have lots of other talented competitors as well – and names are subject to change as people join or drop out between now and race day. But what we do know is that the North Face 50 will go from Sausalito to San Francisco via the Marin Headlands – a hilly peninsula that is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The highlight, of course, is running across the Golden Gate Bridge. But another major attraction for the runners is the 10,600 feet of climbing from start to finish – a solid challenge for any athlete.

The last time the North Face 50 was run, it was nothing short of historic. Tim Freriks led the men’s field and Ida Nilsson led the women – and both set new course records. Will any of the above listed athletes be able to break Freriks’ 6:02:26 or Nilsson’s 7:07:56? With the level of talent soon to assemble in northern California, it wouldn’t seem smart to bet against it.

The North Face 50 San Francisco

As part of the North Face Endurance Challenge Series, the 50 Mile is a “Clean Sport” race. All participants in Endurance Challenge Series events must sign a Code of Conduct that bans any runner currently serving a penalty from the world’s leading anti-doping agencies – and disqualifies any athlete who has ever served a ban from receiving prize money and awards or being a part of the elite field. 

The Clean Sport initiative exemplifies not only the high visibility that the North Face 50 has achieved but also its high stakes. On the race’s official course guide, there’s a section called “What to Bring” that lists some of the usual suspects: sunscreen, headlamp, hydration pack and the like. It also lists one more tongue-in-cheek, but no less mandatory running accessory: Game Face.

Which isn’t to say that the North Face 50 is all serious business – the Finish Line Festival in Crissy Field is sure to be a popular event as runners celebrate with music, food, and refreshments. There’s also a 1k Kids Race, which will allow the family festivities to continue as children race alongside SpongeBob SquarePants, Buzz Lightyear, the minions and more.

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Javelina Jundred: R-rated fun, serious run

By Larry Carroll

With each passing year, it seems there are more must-watch races for the ultra-marathoning community. Not many, however, have to remind participants on their racing page that “frontal nudity/exposure is NOT permitted” while including a cheeky (quite literally) asterisk and the following amendment: “We have the best ass award…so expect some bare butts. You’ve been warned.”

Javelina Jundred

Yes, it is time once again for the Javelina Jundred, a race that is out there in both terms of being physically demanding and in terms of being…well…out there. The 17th installment will take place on October 26-27 in Fountain Hills, Arizona, and this party is proudly sold out. Taking place just a few days before Halloween, Javelina is just like your neighborhood Halloween bash – that is, if your party didn’t focus so much on the punch, pizza, and party dip but instead on pushing your body to its physical limitations in the middle of the Arizona desert. 

Beginning at the Four Peaks Staging Area at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, participants have a choice of running either 100 miles or 100 kilometers. Those doing the former will begin with a 22.3-mile loop on the Escondido Trail, followed by four 19.45 mile loops on other trails; the latter option will be essentially the same, with only the first three loops. 

Javelina Jundred

Camping is encouraged, and in many ways, the Javelina Jundred will be as much a show as it will be a competition. One unique feature of the race is that since the runners reverse directions with each lap of the race “washing machine” style, they will pass by “Javelina Jeadquarters” every 20 miles – so, crews are only permitted in that area, are well covered by shade, and can turn Jeadquarters into a vibrant social scene complete with wood-fired pizza, a coffee cart, a bonfire for roasting marshmallows and much more.

Javelina Jundred

Of course, each runner finishing the 100 Mile (in under 30 hours) and 100 Kilometer (in under 29 hours) receive the customary belt-buckle, bragging rights and eligibility for unique handmade Dia de Los Muertos-themed awards going to the top 3 male and female finishers. But this is a race that proudly awards flair, so participants can also take home awards for “Best Costume,” “Most Memorable Performance,” “1st Virgin” (being the best placing rookie) and more.

Javelina Jundred

Past Javelina Jundreds have given us participants in Jackie Onassis dresses and pillbox hats, wearing fake beards and wigs, dressed as hot dogs and Disney princesses and more. While the 2019 edition would seem to be limited only by the imaginations of the racers (and of course, the ban on full-frontal nudity), this is a serious business. The 100 Miler is, in fact, a 2020 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Qualifier, and the 100 Miler and 100 Kilometer are both 2020 UTMB Qualifiers. In short: The athletes out there will be serious, even if their costumes are not.

For those looking to embrace the Javelina vibe but not the aching muscles and pulled hamstrings, Javelina offers the “Jackass Night Trail.” Featuring one 20 mile loop, the event is hyped up “Jackass Night Trail” as “Fun! Running during the Javelina Jundred is a unique, vibrant, and fun-filled experience for all runners. It’s unlike any other trail running event and we want to encourage more people to join in the fun! The Jackass Night Trails is the best way to experience the course, the aid stations, and the mayhem of Jackass Junction! Plus, it comes with its own perks & swag!”

Javelina Jundred

The Night Trails race promises a disco party, a DJ and that you’ll someday be able to start your stories with “So, I was running between a hotdog and a unicorn…”. Another requirement reads: “Please note that a sense of rhythm is not required, but a sense of humor is.” And who knows? If you’re lucky, you might just win a disco ball trophy and be crowned as the Jackass King.

If you can’t make it out to Arizona, be sure to keep an eye on the Instagram hashtag #OnlyAtJavelina, where people have already begun uploading eccentric pictures of races past. If the previous 17 editions are any indication, the Javelina Jundred will once again be an event like none other. Just be careful if you have any children around your computer/smart device – because, with that Best Ass Award in contention, those Instagram pics might just get very R-rated.

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