Ross Burbage of Westminster said he has to block out distractions and keep his focus on Friday to prepare to hike 40 miles on Saturday. He still gets nervous in the hours leading up to the big event, even though it’s the 50th time he’s taken on the long trek.
The 64-year-old did the hike for the first time back in 1970 with Baltimore Boy Scout Troop 35. The troop started the tradition in the 1960s in response to President John F. Kennedy’s warning that American boys were becoming physically unfit.
Burbage said he joined the hike at the age of 12 as a seventh-grader. He was the 87th person to finish the hike from Loch Raven Reservoir to Washington, D.C. The hike he’s taking Saturday will be on the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
“People learn to push boundaries and challenge themselves,” he said about the hike. “One learns they can do more than they thought they could.”
In 1972, Burbage said, he “got good.” The hike was open to people of all ages, but he was the first Boy Scout to finish that year. He set goals to be faster.
In 1975, he was close to being first, but became “sick to my stomach.” He had to stop at a gas station, run some water on his face, and keep pushing. The high school senior still finished second. And he learned a valuable lesson that day: “In adversity, you don’t quit,” he said. “I’m glad that I sucked it up and finished.”
He returned as a college student and eventually finished first in 1979.
Burbage said he wasn’t the best behaved kid growing up. He’d get in trouble for missing curfew and bringing home a bad report card. But the hikes were different. They gave him a chance to bond with his dad. As Burbage grew older, his dad and mom continued to support him on the hikes.
He pulled out a picture from 1994. It shows him standing next to his parents and his wife, Edith, who were wearing shirts that said, “Ross’ Roadies.” It was the year he was honored for being the first participant to reach 1,000 miles — a record he still holds.
In 2002, Burbage’s dad died. Edith stitched his father’s initials in a wrist band that Burbage wore on the hike that year. Tearing up, Burbage said that he buried the wristband with his dad.
Burbage met Edith in 1984. She was supposed to meet him at the 1985 hike that started in Baltimore and ended in Hanover, Pennsylvania to help. However, she was nowhere to be found.
“Turns out, she went out to breakfast with my mom and dad,” he said.
Shortly after, she joined the family. And she’s been helping him during his hikes ever since.
For the past 30 or so hikes, she’s followed him in the car while he’s walking or running.
“I bring clothes, I bring food, I make stops if he needs to get stuff, I fuss at him if he needs to take care of himself,” she said.
Edith recalled a time when Burbage was hiking in the cold rain “and he was not prepared for it.” She said she was about to yank him off the course. But she stopped at a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, bought him a suitable outfit and made him change.
Edith said she first thought Burbage was crazy for walking 40 miles every year.
“I’ve learned, to be honest, not to worry,” she said. “I know, short of a catastrophe, he’s going to keep going.”
Burbage said he’s always enjoyed running. When he’s not teaching special education students at Francis Scott Key High School, he’s running up and down a field refereeing a lacrosse or soccer game. And when he exercises for leisure, he runs about 4 miles. When he’s preparing for a hike, his more challenging workouts can reach 10 miles.
He’s refereed 490 games so far this year and despite having his 50th 40-mile hike on Saturday, he’s planning to referee a game on Sunday.
While on the hike, he tries to run for half the time and walk the other half. His fastest time was 7 hours and 15 minutes in 1988. But his goal nowadays is to stick between 9-and 11-minute miles. Last year, his time was 10 hours and 35 minutes.
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“You can’t worry about challenging the course,” he said. “You have to be interested in challenging yourself. Once you take your first step, there’s only one person that can stop you. And that’s you.”