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.
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?
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.