The oldest ultra run in the country, the JFK 50 miler, took place last Saturday.
Its start dates back to 1963, eleven years before Gordy Ansleigh first ran alongside the horses at the 1974 Tevis Cup, which later evolved into the Western States 100, a race which many people incorrectly believe to be the country’s first ultra. For comparisons sake, that same year that Ansleigh ran by himself with the horses, a staggering 1,355 people lined up for the JFK 50, which is a record number even by today’s standards.
And the 1963 race isn’t really where the story began, it’s merely the year the JFK 50 miler became an official event. Its origins actually go back much farther.
As the story goes, sometime back in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt issued an executive order from the White House that “all Marines should be able to cover 50 miles in three days,” requiring the last half mile to be done in military double time– an early twentieth century sprint finish.
Records showed that some officers were able to do it in a single day, and when Roosevelt’s military fitness standard was stumbled upon by John F. Kennedy’s administration 55 years later, Kennedy thought it should be something to measure the current military against,”…that today’s Marine Corps officers are just as fit as those of 1908, and are willing to prove it.”
When Kennedy publicly presented his idea in 1963, in the influential style that defined him, the military as well as inspired civilians everywhere rose to JFK’s challenge. People from all walks of life– students, boy scouts, secretaries, military officers– gave it a try at one the many 50 mile events that sprouted up across the country. Even Robert Kennedy himself walked 50 miles of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 17+ hours (and in a pair of leather oxford shoes).
Unfortunately, the rapid rise in popularity of the 50 mile challenge all but disappeared ten months later with Kennedy’s assassination, after which all but one 50 mile event ceased to take place.
And that one, now the official JFK 50 miler, was held last weekend, for the 48th year.
So in an attempt to check out this historic race, much as a marathoner has Boston on his or her list, Christy and I– with the encouragement of a couple of friends from the area who were familiar with the race and were running it as well– headed to the hills of Boonsboro, Maryland for the historic challenge.
Challenging it was, because in addition to being long on history, the JFK 50 is also long on flat miles, which for a couple of runners used to mountainous courses like Lake City, became less and less of a welcome feature after a while. With the exception of a few short hills through the first 14 mile stretch along the Appalachian Trail, the whole 50 mile course is runnable. That’s a big difference when compared to other familiar favorites of ours around here which typically have steep climbs that force a walking break and corresponding gravity-assisted downhills.
Not that we’d ever expect a 50 mile day to be easy, but on paper, it would seem that a flat race at sea level should require a little less effort than the mountainous courses we typically choose. But as proof to the point that flatter isn’t necessarily faster or easier, both Christy and I finished JFK in 9:45, a bit slower than our 50 mile PR’s at the Leadville Silver Rush 50 miler, which happens to be entirely at 10,000 feet or higher in elevation, and with 8,000 feet of vertical gain.
So it’s a matter of what suits your strengths, but either way, this race should be put on the list– for history’s sake.