“Physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society,” Kennedy wrote. “And if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.”
Twenty-six months later, Kennedy, mimicking a 1908 directive issued by President Theodore Roosevelt, challenged U.S. Marines to demonstrate their fitness by marching 50 miles in 20 hours. The troops quickly responded.
Unexpectedly, so did people across the country. Boy Scouts, fraternity members and high school students soon were taking part in the Kennedy 50-mile fad. Just days after the president’s order, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy hiked the slushy Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in a little under 18 hours in his “scuffed Cordovan oxfords,” according to Time magazine.
In Boonsboro, Md., 11 hardy members of the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club took up the challenge, forging through the woods, over South Mountain and down onto the towpath, according to a new book, “The Longest Race.” Four of them finished the U-shaped course more than 13 hours later in Williamsport, some 50-plus miles away.
The craze died when the president was slain, except in one place. The Boonsboro challenge continued as the JFK 50-Mile run, a memorial to Kennedy.
Today it is one of the largest, oldest and most iconic ultramarathons in the United States and perhaps the world, a race that will attract runners from across the globe for its 50th running Nov. 17.
Nearly 10,000 people applied for a spot in this year’s field of 1,200, a limit set to keep hordes of runners off a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that is part of the route, according to the race director, Mike Spinnler. From an anonymous walk-hike-run in 1963, the event has become a 50-mile celebration of human endurance that draws 2,500 spectators, with a block party atmosphere at some of its 14 aid stations, where 400 volunteers serve red velvet cake and hot soup to weary runners.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s just a great event,” said Dave Riddle, a 31-year-old aerospace engineer and ultra-runner from Cincinnati who set the course record of 5:40:45 last year and will be back to defend his title. “I like lots of things about it. I guess, first and foremost, the history behind it.. . . It’s just cool to see if the troops [participating] can cover 50 miles and what it’s grown into now and what it represents.”
For Kimball Byron, who has run 43 of the 49 JFKs, beginning when he was 12 years old, the race is part reunion, part tribute. His wife and children have run sections of the race with him. His mother still meets him along the way with fresh clothes. His father died training on a section of the towpath that is part of the route. He stops there during each annual race. “I pay my respects. That’s what I do.”