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Take a hike: JFK's 'soft' warning fueled local Boy Scouts' tradition

Henry Knott entered his first 40-mile hike with Boy Scouts of America Troop 35 with low expectations and a high degree of enthusiasm.

What the Dumbarton Middle School sixth-grader discovered during his 14-hour trek in April from the NCR Trail in Sparks to the PeoplesBank Park in York, Pa., was that giving up — or giving in to sore feet — was not an option.

“I didn’t expect to finish the 40 miles when I started, but after the first few miles, I knew I wanted to finish,” said Henry, who walked the bulk of his miles with fellow Scout and first-time 40-miler James Taylor. “The hardest part was mile 39. My feet really, really hurt.”

Even if the 11-year-old Anneslie resident had wanted to quit, Henry said that the support he received in the final mile from his friend and fellow Scout, Towson resident Sebastian Gordillo, “kept me going,” to complete an event that has been held every year except two since 1963.

“He (Sebastian) finished earlier in the day, but came back to walk us in,” Henry said. “I was so happy to see him and I was really proud that I finished.”

This year was a banner one for the 40-miler, considering that 109 of the 144 starters (76 percent) completed the excursion to the home of the minor-league baseball team, the York Revolution of the Atlantic League, setting a new standard for the highest percentage of finishers in the hike’s 54-year history.

And no one is happier about the results than Charles Edwards, Troop 35 hike director and self-described “perennial hike enthusiast.”

Edwards said there is much more to completing a 40-mile hike than just putting one foot in front of the other.

More than anything else, the Ruxton resident said that the experience of completing such a daunting task can be a “transformative” occasion in a youth’s life.

It could also be a life-saver, considering that physical exercise is one of the major antidotes to childhood obesity, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation website.

From 2015 to 2016, 31 percent of children ages 10 to 17 were categorized as overweight or obese, the website notes, adding: “While physical activity plays a key role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle — and a healthy weight — nearly half of children in the United States do not exercise regularly. By promoting physical activity and healthy eating and by limiting sedentary behaviors, such as screen time, adults and caregivers can help reduce this statistic and improve the long-term well-being of America’s kids.”

Edwards, 47, knows all too well about the benefits of physical activity, given that he completed 20 of the 40-milers that have been hosted by Boy Scout Troop 35 for more than a half century.

He also owns the record for the fastest time — five hours, 23 minutes — in the 1988 event, which comes out to just over eight minutes per mile, a wicked pace befitting an elite endurance athlete who has completed 19 marathons and posted a 2:54 in the New York City Marathon last November.

Edwards, who completed his first 40-miler in 1981, is a major advocate for the endurance test that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.

The Mercy Hospital orthopedic surgeon said that the goal of the hike is “to do more than what you ever thought is possible.”

Moreover, the 40-miler has become such a part of of the Edwards family that the record book is dotted with their achievements, including this year’s top finisher, Edwards’ nephew, James Edwards (7:12), and the youngest-ever finisher, Elise Borg, his niece.

In addition, his son, Charlie, 16, set the record for all-time most finishes under 18 by completing his 10th 40-miler.

The idea for the hike began as Troop 35’s response to President John F. Kennedy’s comment that young people in America had become “soft,” Edwards said.

Under the direction of then-Scoutmaster Carl Zapffe, Troop 35, which is based at the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street a few blocks south of the Baltimore City-Baltimore County line, decided to double the length of the 20-mile stipulation for the Boy Scouts’ Hiking Merit Badge and go for a 40-mile ramble that is open to Scouts, family members and friends.

Out of the 130 entrants for the hike’s first two years, only one Scout, James Spamer Jr., finished.

Since then, with few exceptions, the numbers have improved significantly as participants became better prepared to take on the challenge.

There have been other obstacles to overcome, Edwards said, noting that there was a waning of interest in the hike a decade ago when the number of finishers dwindled to seven in 2006.

To make matters worse, the 2011 and 2013 editions of the hike did not occur due to a combination of poor weather and apathy, he added.

“As the potential 50th year anniversary approached, it was not clear whether the hike would continue,” Edwards said. “This was a very weighty matter for me. My three older children had finished several hikes before the age of 10, and they might not be able to continue their 40-miler adventures into their teenage years.”

Edwards then joined Pat and Jim Conklin as co-directors of the hike and implemented several strategies that breathed new life into the event, going from 48 hikers in 2014 to 78 in 2017 and up to a whopping 144 in 2018.

After attempting without success to have the hike staged on the campus of the Naval Academy, Edwards did the next best thing by enlisting Midshipmen to join the hike, and 14 of them did in 2017, with more than triple that number participating this spring.

“Our kids received from them invaluable mentoring and unforgettable great memories,” Edwards said. “They have pledged to return to join us at next year's hike on April 27 from the D.C. Mall, up the C&O Canal and back to Georgetown.”

Another innovation Edwards championed for the 50th anniversary was when he purchased 1964 Kennedy half-dollars and made them into medals as a special award for each Scout finisher of that historic hike.

He also purchased 12-inch JFK busts from the Presidential Library and had them converted into a trophy for the first-time finishers, a tradition that has continued.

“We just call it the Kennedy Award,” Edwards said. “It is provided to the first finisher under the age of 18 who has not won it in the past.”

The history about JFK’s challenge is included in the first pages of commemorative books distributed to Troop 35 members.

One of the hike’s most impassioned proponents, Ross Burbage, has at least 47 reasons why he’s happy that the hike has had such a successful revival.

That’s because the 1975 Towson High graduate has completed the trek 47 consecutive times, beginning with his first successful stint in 1970 after falling short in the 1969 hike.

Burbage, who grew up in Gaywood and now lives in Westminster, said that he remembers local sports personality Charlie Eckman firing the starter’s gun as the hikers left Loch Raven Reservoir and headed to Washington, D.C., in the 1970 jaunt.

He finished in just over 12 hours, a far cry from posting a personal-best time of seven hours and 15 minutes in 1985.

At age 60, Burbage said he can “cruise” through the hike because his training regimen of running 20-25 miles per week along with being a lacrosse and soccer referee keeps him in tip-top shape.

Still, being exposed to the elements in volatile spring weather can make for an arduous journey, like the time a violent thunderstorm dumped heavy rain on the hikers while temperatures plummeted 25 degrees.

“My wife, Edith, had to go buy me some clothes at Hunt Valley Mall so I could finish the race,” he said.

On that occasion, Burbage and other hearty hikers prevailed over Mother Nature.

“I guess I’m a little tougher than I thought I was,” Burbage said. “Now what I tell people is that (Jim) Spamer was first, Charles is the fastest, and I’m the most frequent.”

The special education teacher at Francis Scott Key High School said that he hopes to reach 50 straight hikes by 2021.

“After that, all bets are off,” Burbage said with a laugh.

Even so, Burbage said that he feels a great sense of accomplishment with each completed hike.

“It’s like, holy cow, every time I finish the hike I feel really proud to be part of such a great organization like Troop 35,” he said.

While clear and mostly sunny weather blessed the 2018 hike, Troop 35 Scoutmaster Bob Carroll said that he appreciated the community spirit of the event that is demonstrated by the loud applause that greeted even the youngest and slowest finishers who arrived while the awards ceremony was underway.

“I observed that beleaguered and exhausted kids light up with pride and accomplishment as they finish as heroes,” the Towson resident said. “After 54 years, the spirit of the hike remains a strong and powerful vehicle for building up young men and women of courage an accomplishment.”

The photo caption has been corrected. Brian Heil was misidentified in a previous version.
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