For those who did not know all of the history surrounding the event, as they say, here is the rest of the story.
The JFK 50 Mile was first held in the spring of 1963. It was one of numerous such 50 mile events held around the country as part of President John F. Kennedy’s push to bring the country back to physical fitness.
When Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, most of these events were never held again. The one here in Washington County, MD changed it’s name from the JFK 50 Mile Challenge to the JFK 50 Mile Memorial in 1964. The JFK 50 Mile in Washington County, MD is the only original JFK 50 Mile Challenge event to be held every year.
Although open to the public, the JFK 50 Mile is in spirit a military race. It always has been and always will be. In 1963, the initial inspiration behind the event came from then President John F. Kennedy challenging his military officers to meet the requirements that Teddy Roosevelt had set for his own military officers at the dawn of the 20th Century. That Roosevelt requirement was for all military officers to be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to maintain their commissions. When word got out about the “Kennedy Challenge”, non-commissioned military personnel also wanted to take the test themselves as did certain robust members of the civilian population.
Of the many awards presented at the JFK 50 Mile each year, the most prestigious is the Kennedy Cup, which is awarded to the top-finishing military team. Each military team can have a maximum of 10 participants with the finishing times from the top-five finishers combined for the team time. Like golf and cross country, the low (time) score wins.
The military personnel that take part in the JFK 50 Mile are extremely well-prepared, disciplined and (even when greatly fatigued) always courteous to everyone involved with organizing and/or supporting the event. It is always a true honor –and pleasure– to host U.S. Military personnel at the JFK 50 Mile.
– Mike Spinnler
JFK 50 Mile Participant 1971-90
JFK 50 Mile Winner 1982 & 1983
JFK 50 Mile Director 1993-present
The first 5.5 miles (starting on road surface and joining the Appalachian Trail at 2.5 miles) gains 1,172 feet in elevation. The course from 2.5 to 15.5 miles is on the Appalachian Trail (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles). This section of the AT is very rocky in sections as it rolls across the mountain ridge. At approximately 14.5 miles the course drops over 1,000 feet in a series of steep “switchbacks” that then crosses under Rt. 340 and connects with the C&O Canal towpath. The “Canal” section of the JFK 50 Mile is 26.3 miles (from 15.5-41.8 miles) of almost totally flat unpaved dirt/gravel surface that is free of all automotive vehicle traffic. The JFK 50 Mile route leaves the C&O Canal towpath at Dam #4 and proceeds to follow gently rolling paved country roads the last 8.4 miles to the finish. The Boonsboro start is at an elevation of 570 feet. The Williamsport finish is at 452 feet above sea level.
Pacers and/or companions are no longer allowed at the JFK 50 Mile. Any participant accompanied by a pacer/companion (not officially entered in the event and starting from the beginning of the event) will be disqualified.
Well supported 50 miler.
Very well supported, plenty of aid stations, well marked. First off, DO Not underestimate the AT section in the beginning. Train for rocks (boulders and such). Then enjoy the flat … MORE
Very well supported, plenty of aid stations, well marked. First off, DO Not underestimate the AT section in the beginning. Train for rocks (boulders and such). Then enjoy the flat and mostly smooth canal path and roads. I was a back of the packer on this one and chased cut offs. Overall, it was an awesome adventure and would do it again with a friend or two. The only complaint I have is that in finishing so close to the cutoff meant there was no food left at the finish(they were packing up as we got there) and the free massages were also packing up..double bust for me.
Ask not what Mother Nature can do 4 you
BOTTOM LINE: First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of … MORE
BOTTOM LINE: First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of the country’s most elite runners, as well as folks like me. The event remains a military race at heart with its most prestigious award, the Kennedy Cup, being awarded to its top military team. Buoyed by 56 years of history, this is a must-run race for serious ultrarunners, one that inspires fierce loyalty among its finishers — case in point Kimball Byron, who sadly fell short this year in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. With limited elevation change after the first 16 miles, this is also a great option for anyone looking to tackle their first 50-miler.
The JFK 50 course is part road (paved), part trail (unpaved). About 80% of the course runs on the unpaved Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal Towpath, with the paved 20% coming at the beginning and end. The course is divided into three main sections, starting with the Appalachian Trail (~11 of the first 16 miles) and moving on to the unpaved/crushed gravel C&O Canal Towpath (26 miles) before finishing on paved, rolling country roads (8 miles). The good news is you’ll get through the toughest section of the course (i.e. the Appalachian Trail) at the beginning; the bad news is that the hills and highly technical terrain will sap a lot of the energy and bounce from your legs. This was especially true in 2018, when record annual rainfall and eight inches of snow less than 36 hours earlier created trail conditions that were, according to one 31-time finisher, “the worst ever.” So my recommendation would be to prepare for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised if/when you luck into dry (or at least not marshy) trail conditions.
Despite having four 50+ milers under my belt, this was the first race where I can recall feeling bored for long stretches, particularly on the flat 26-mile C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River where the scenery never changed. As one RaceRaves reviewer put it, it was like the running version of Groundhog’s Day. With no hills, no change of scenery and no headphones allowed on the course, I spent much of the middle 26 miles in my own head trying to focus on something other than my heavy quads and mounting fatigue, while slowly ticking off the miles one… at… a… time. If not for having to negotiate frequent mud puddles, I could have run this entire stretch on autopilot.
So although I’d be curious to take another crack at this course under drier conditions, given that we live 2,500 miles away and I still have 26 states remaining, I won’t be returning for a rematch anytime soon. Someday, maybe…
PRODUCTION: Race day was a smooth production for the most part. Aid stations were well stocked (which for me means peanut butter & jelly along with bananas), though I could feel my insulin levels spike just surveying the amount of cookies and sugary foods available. And the outstanding volunteers were ready to assist with pretty much anything you’d want or need, from food to Vaseline to good old-fashioned encouragement. As is the case with most events and especially the best ones, the JFK 50 doesn’t happen without the tireless support of its volunteers who sacrifice their day so the rest of us can chase our goals and play in the mud.
Conveniently held at the host hotel (the Homewood Suites by Hilton Hagerstown), the race expo was your typical low-key ultramarathon packet pickup with tables from Altra Running (the presenting sponsor), a local running store and the JFK 50 folks themselves selling race merch past and present. The organizers even created a cool booklet featuring statistics from past JFK 50 finishers and course record holders plus a detailed rundown of historical sites along the course, very few of which you’ll be able to appreciate on race day.
The post-race spread in the Springfield Middle School cafeteria was low-key but fairly generous including pizza, chili (Sloppy Joe or chili cheese dog, anyone?) and assorted aid station snacks such as pretzels, M&Ms and red velvet cake. Massages were also available for those who were willing to freshen up first. Most importantly for me, the indoor cafeteria offered a warm place to sit and recover while reveling in the accomplishment of another 50-mile run.
I’d recommend to the organizers that the pre-race briefing begin (or end) five minutes earlier, to allow for last-minute porta-potty stops before the race start. By the time I exited the crowded gym after the briefing, took care of business and then walked briskly to the start line, the starter’s pistol had already fired and I was among the last runners to start. Not a terrible thing except the JFK 50 has no chip timing at the start, so the clock started while I was still ¼ mile behind the line in my wind pants and jacket. Oops.
SWAG: From what I can tell, the JFK 50 finisher medal never changes aside from the year because similar to Comrades, why fix what ain’t broke? The iconic award is a silver- (or gold)-colored medal depicting JFK in profile, reminiscent of (but larger than) the half dollar coin that bears his likeness. The medal hangs from a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon. Like many trail races, the shirt is a simple cotton short-sleeve tee featuring the race’s patriotic logo on front with sponsors listed on back. And though I have no shortage of race tees, I’ll happily wear this one if for no other reason than its promise as a conversation starter.
For more details including the history of the JFK 50, check out my blog recap at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/03/18/jfk-50-mile-race-report/
Tough day, historic race
Rain and snow gave the 2018 race some of the worst conditions in the history of the race. The AT portion of the race was snow and mud, while the … MORE
Rain and snow gave the 2018 race some of the worst conditions in the history of the race. The AT portion of the race was snow and mud, while the towpath portion of the race was just mud. Many runners who run the race every year did not finish. Aid stations were awesome, but the course beat me up and took a huge mental toll. Swag is old school with pretty much the same style medal they’ve had for 50+ years and a cotton t-shirt. Post race food and massages were great! There are showers available but unless you’re an early finisher you’ll only get cold water. The worst part was being crammed in the shuttle bus back to the start with super sore legs.
First 50 but not my last
I heard JFK50 was a great first-timer's race, and it didn't disappoint. From central Virginia, it was a fairly easy three hour drive up to Hagerstown, MD the day before … MORE
I heard JFK50 was a great first-timer’s race, and it didn’t disappoint. From central Virginia, it was a fairly easy three hour drive up to Hagerstown, MD the day before the race. Packet pickup was at a Homewood Suites across from where my husband I stayed. It’s about a 1200 person race I believe, so it was a little crowded but fast. There was some gear for sale and a few vendors. The vibe was pretty exuberant, like a family reunion since many runners seem to do this event year after year. The shirt, in my opinion, is pretty cool. The women’s are a v-neck navy blue and I’ll be proud to sport it!
I got a lot of advice about this particular course from friends who had completed it multiple times, and I studied all the info on the website beforehand, so I felt fairly prepared, up until a couple of days before the race when western Maryland got 8 inches of snow, on top of all of the rain they received the previous weeks. That threw a small wrench into the works but some things are just out of your control. Other than the trail conditions promising to be bad, the weather itself was perfect, mid 30s to low 40s, no rain.
On race morning you start in a high school gym which is very pleasant since there are indoor bathrooms and it’s a warm building! The RD spoke to all the runners in the gym around 5:50am and gave us some great information about the trails, answered questions, and had multi-year finishers stand up in case anyone wanted to tag along with them based on their anticipated finish time. After that we all filed out of the gym and walked the 8-10 minutes or so to the start line in Boonsboro. It was timed perfectly – we stood for about 1 minute before the gun went off right at 6:30am.
The first two or three miles or so are on paved roads and have some serious hills. After that you get on the Appalachian Trail for the next 13 or so miles. There are parts of the AT that are steep up or down, some flat, all rocky, and with the snow and ridiculous amount of mud, all tricky! It was tough going for me, a road-marathoner, and hard to pass people as you end up in single file for a lot of it. Passing means risking your ankles to go through the snow and the unknown rocks dwelling underneath. I decided to listen to my friends’ advice and take it very easy on the trail. End goal: get off the trial in one piece so I can run the rest of the race. Mission accomplished – I made it down the final trail switchbacks without one fall but my time reflected my cautious strategy.
The first crew spot is at Weverton Cliffs right after the AT portion ends and my husband met me there so I could change my wet socks and muddy trail shoes for dry socks and road shoes. They felt divine for about five minutes and then I found the mud on the towpath. I had heard from many JFK runners that they all hated the C&O towpath but at the time it sounded liked it would be a nice change from the trail: flat, good surface, no single track trails. It was nice for a few minutes, then I found the mud. It was all mud. So much mud. By that point it wasn’t me caring about my feet that slowed me down, it was me trying not to fall in the slick slop that made up much of the path. But I put on a good amount of speed to make up for the slow AT portion.
There are cutoffs to be aware of along the way and I was well ahead of those, though take care to make sure your GPS is able to handle a long event. I had to go strictly by my timer and the aid station mile markers, as there are no other mile markers until the last 8 miles, and my watch mileage was messed up and useless.
Speaking of aid stations, the locations varied but roughly they were every 4 or so miles. There were lots of goodies: gatorade, water, bottle/backpack refills, cookies, cake at one aid station, pretzels, candy, PB&J sandwiches, Coke, broth…the best part of ultras is the food! Volunteers were fantastic the entire way.
At long last I left the towpath and made it to the paved road. These 8 miles are rolling hills through farm country but it was my fastest speed of the day even at the end. Here there are mile markers counting down from 8 – invigorating!
The finish line is at another school and was the happiest finish line of my 62 races. I got the coveted JFK medal around my neck and then retreated into the warm school cafeteria with my husband to relish my finish and have a hot cup of coffee before getting back to my hotel to warm up and wash the extensive amount of mud off of my feet, shins, and calves. There were several food and drink options in the cafeteria but I didn’t partake except for the hot coffee.
Overall, it was a great event. A note to potential runners that you cannot use personal listening devices so it’s a lot of time in your head out there on the trail and path. I talked to several people throughout the day which was a lot of fun, but also spent a lot of time by myself. I carried a lightweight hydration pack with my electrolytes and a little bit of nutrition and s!caps, since aid stations were a little far (compared to a marathon) but had no problem with that aspect at all. The weather was great as I said before. The toughest part this year was simply the trail and towpath condition, but I’d take the mud and snow over actively falling rain or abnormally high temperatures! I’d definitely recommend the race for its history, its fantastic RD and organization, support and volunteers, and camaraderie. I have nothing but fond memories of my first 50 miler..mud and all!
Showcasing Western Maryland's Beauty
I grew up in the area so I was used to running on the canal (most people say running a marathon distance on the canal is like Groundhog Day) but … MORE
I grew up in the area so I was used to running on the canal (most people say running a marathon distance on the canal is like Groundhog Day) but I’d never actually run on the Appalachian trail. It was definitely rocky and treacherous on most sections, but good to get it done in the first 16 miles. The sunrise coming up over the South Mountain climb from Boonsboro was amazing. The aid stations were great with fantastic volunteers, and the ending was at my old Middle School with good food and warmth after 9 and a half hours in the cold and rain. The locals were great, either waiting along the canal to cheer or driving along Dam #4 road towards the finish, blasting radios out of their cars. I may be biased but best 50 miler ever.