A story of a heart, and kind souls

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.

He moved back to Hagerstown and into a spartan $300-per-month efficiency apartment that he has occupied for more than 20 years. The walls are nearly bare, save for some running mementos.

"I basically have chosen to live a simple life," he says. He has his books and has spent his time studying a wide variety of subjects. "All the skills I've gained, I use them," he says. "I just use them informally. I'm not being reimbursed for them."

He lost his health insurance when he was laid off from his job at an office supply company several years ago and now earns about $19,000 annually cleaning the building where his sister works for a pediatrician. A brief second marriage failed.

In the summer of 2008, Horst felt a flutter in his heart. Running became difficult. Doctors told him he had mitral valve prolapse, a defect in a valve that allows blood to flow backward into his heart. It's not fatal, but for someone who could still run six-minute miles, slowing down was difficult. There was one trip to the emergency room and a hospital stay.

With $8,000 in bills and no health insurance, Horst worked out payment plans with hospitals and physicians and brought the total down to $5,000. And he told no one of his predicament. "You have to accept the consequences," he says he told himself. "You didn't have any health insurance. That was a choice you made."

This past summer, a reporter for the local newspaper, the Herald-Mail, visited Horst's sister's office in search of people without health insurance. She mentioned her brother. When the story came out, Spinnler, who had become friends with Horst in the mid-1980s, first learned of Horst's problem.

He posted word of the situation on the JFK Web site, and scores of people responded with donations large and small. One ultramarathoner gave $1,300. Another person, who has never met Horst, contributed $2,500. The debt was soon repaid.

"We each have to do our part without any expectations," the anonymous contributor told me in an e-mail. "We can't just say 'let the government or someone else provide.' We have to help each other."

But because Horst may need an $80,000 surgery, the JFK family is trying to raise more. It may go toward that operation, or toward buying Horst a health insurance policy that will give him security until he turns 65 next year and becomes eligible for Medicare.

"I just hope I can be as generous for someone else when the time comes," Horst says.

Horst was at the JFK 50 this year, as he has been every year since he moved back East. At 5 a.m. he held back traffic and checked race numbers as a band of tough runners trudged through the cold and dark on the Appalachian Trail. Except for the old-timers, few recognized him or knew what had been done for him.

"We care about him too much," Spinnler says. "I couldn't live with myself if we didn't even try."

Donations for Horst can be made to: The Cumberland Valley Athletic Club, 1012 Valleybrook Dr., Hagerstown, Md. 21742.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

New Year's resolutions It's not too early to think about next year's fitness goals! Send your New Year's resolutions, including how and why you intend to stick to your routine in 2010, to misfits@washpost.com, and we'll print some of the best in early January.

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