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Cumberland Valley Athletic Club raises money for a running legend's health woes

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fundraising events are a part of the fitness landscape. Runners, walkers and cyclists routinely raise millions of dollars every year to fight cancer, diabetes and countless other diseases. The recipients of that charity work are usually anonymous people and programs, far from the event where the money is raised.

Except in local efforts like a recent one to pay the $5,000 medical bill accumulated by 64-year-old Elton Horst, a legend in the Washington County, Md., running community, whose heart suddenly faltered after more than four decades of powering him over mind-blowing distances at remarkable speeds.

"This was different. This was family," says Mike Spinnler, president of the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club.

There are no tips in this week's column, no new programs to try or adventures to seek. This is about another side of the fitness boom, a small but consequential story about the power recreational athletes can, and do, exercise when they band together. It is also a cautionary tale as Congress steps to the plate on health-care reform.

The "family" Spinnler referred to is the tiny but growing group of people who compete in ultra-marathons, footraces of more than 26.2 miles. In 1971, at age 25, Horst shattered the record for the JFK 50 Mile race, the oldest of those events, by more than an hour.

He clocked 6 hours 15 minutes 42 seconds on a course that begins in Boonsboro (about 11 miles south of Hagerstown), winds steeply up and down the Appalachian Trail for about 13 miles, then drops onto the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath and county roads for more than 34 miles before finishing in Williamsport.

Sixteen days later, Horst ran the Boston Marathon in 2:36.

Spinnler also completed the 1971 JFK 50 -- at age 12. He did not know Horst, but he knew of him. "He was our hero. He was our idol. We wanted to be the next Elton Horst," says Spinnler, who would win the event in 1982 and 1983, setting the record at the time in 5:53:05.

Spinnler now directs a race that was born in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the Marine Corps to prove its members were fit enough to cover 50 miles in 20 hours, matching an order issued in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Unexpectedly, the public also took up the challenge, and soon Boy Scout troops, college fraternities and even Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who hiked the muddy C&O towpath in a pair of worn shoes, were trekking 50 miles to prove they were in shape.

The craze faded after JFK was assassinated that November, but organizers of the first JFK 50 decided that the best way to honor the president was to keep the race going. It has been held annually ever since. More than 1,000 people completed the race on Nov. 21, and Spinnler says he had to turn away 5,000 more.

Raised as a strict Mennonite, Horst was not allowed to take gym classes as a child because his parents considered the uniform shorts immodest. But by high school, running had become his "addiction." He went on to star in distance events at Morgan State and Virginia's Eastern Mennonite University, where he subsequently taught and coached.

Later life was not as kind. Horst says he nearly completed a doctorate in theology before deciding his heart was not in it. He moved out West before divorcing. His four children and two grandchildren still live 3,000 miles away.

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