Take an insider's tour over the mountain and through the woods of the John F. Kennedy 50 mile marathon course.

In December 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy wrote an open letter to the public published, of all places, in Sports Illustrated magazine. The lengthy piece revealed a deep concern held by the incoming leader of the free world: not the Cold War or civil rights, but the declining fitness of the U.S. population.

In “The Soft American”, Kennedy worried that the loss of “physical vigor” would compromise the nation’s ability to defend itself in war and prosper during peacetime.

“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.

The photo from the "cliffs" (15th mile) as the participants take a brief break in the very first JFK 50 Mile in 1963. (Buzz Sawyer)

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.”

“I have one goal, and my goal, obviously, is to finish,” he said. “And with that goes friendships with people, people I have come to know, who I look forward to seeing every year.”

Paul Betker, 67, of Hagerstown has run 30 consecutive JFKs, beginning with a wager that he could complete the race in 1982. Betker was scanning the 1981 results, the first time he even realized the race existed, when he vowed to conquer it himself.

“I said, ‘I think I’ll do that,’ ” he recalled. “We were sitting there smoking cigarettes, and [my co-worker] was smoking a cigar. I was totally unprepared for it.” That first run took Betker more than 121 / 2 hours. At 46, he ran his best time, 8:39.

“I always wanted to do an Ironman triathlon, and for any number of reasons I didn’t,” he said. “This is my Ironman. It’s my hometown event.”

Going downhill

If Kennedy was concerned about Americans’ fitness a half century ago, he’d be appalled today.

About the time he sent the Marines on their trek, the 1960-62 National Health Examination Survey of adults ages 18 to 79 showed that 13.4 percent were obese and 0.9 percent were “extremely obese.” The 2007-2008 version of the survey revealed that those figures had risen to 34.3 percent and 6 percent, respectively. A 2010 report concluded that 27 percent of all young adults “are too fat to serve in the military.”

That is not true for the runners in the race that bears Kennedy’s name. About half the field on Nov. 17 will be active or retired military personnel. The four branches compete each year for the Kennedy Cup, the race’s highest honor.

Mike Erwin, founder of Team Red, White and Blue, will bring 50 veterans from among the thousands in his organization who use training for such events to help them reintegrate into civilian society.

“Running has physical, mental and social benefits; few other activities have all three,” Erwin, an Army major who did three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and now teaches at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said in an e-mail.

Most of the civilian participants are people Spinnler calls “very, very competitive, experienced long-distance runners,” the kind of person who trains 50 to 75 miles a week for this event.

In the midst of an ultramarathon running boom — 52,000 people completed an event longer than 26.2 miles in 2011, according to UltraRunning Magazine — Spinnler last year began admitting runners based on qualifying times, though slots are still reserved for various groups, including 100 participants running to raise money for nonprofit groups.

One of those slots is mine.

Accepting the challenge

When I began to plan this story, I quickly recognized that I couldn’t allow a large group of people to accept Kennedy’s proposition for the 50th consecutive time without being among them. The MisFits creed (“No challenge too humiliating”) would not allow it. I yield to no American when it comes to softness.

And so I began to train for a distance twice as long as I’ve ever run, quietly at first, unsure I could prepare myself to travel the equivalent of Washington to Frederick on my own two legs. Those few people I told, mostly family, openly discouraged me. A couple of friends who run ultras told me to hang in there and dispensed valuable advice.

Slowly, I began to cover longer distances, despite the third-hottest summer on record. I ran the 17 miles to work with a 10-pound pack on my back a couple of times. I did a hilly 50-kilometer (31-mile) run in Upstate New York last month. Once, I followed a 15-mile run with a 23-mile run the next day, to condition my body to stave off fatigue. But I never ran more than 40 miles in a single week.

Psychologically, I’ve convinced myself that this is really an extended day hike. Unlike marathoners, 50-mile runners — at least at my ability level — take walk breaks and stop to eat and drink. In my backpack, I will carry Band-Aids, salt tablets, Tylenol, energy gels, water, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, maybe a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and some nice candlesticks.

I’d like to finish in 12 or 13 hours, basically before nightfall. If you think this would be an accomplishment, consider that the course record in the male 80-and-over division is 12:55. I am 54.

Anyway, come Nov. 17 at 5 a.m., I’ll be on U.S. Alternate Route 40 in Boonsboro, like so many before me, peering, with the aid of a headlamp, down the darkened street of a sleeping small town and wondering whether I am up to JFK’s challenge.

I'll let you know in a future column.


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Follow the race live on TwitterBernstein will be live-tweeting the JFK 50 Mile race on Nov. 17. Follow him on @postmisfits. You can also read past columns by Bernstein and Vicky Hallett.