Perhaps more than any other long-distance event, the JFK 50-mile hike-run is a race of people, of stories, of will, of testing and of fellowship.
For the 31st time Saturday, at 7 in the morning on the Boonsboro High Athletic Field, a gang of 368 took off in weather reserved for the winter months in the North Atlantic to answer a challenge put forth by the president whose assassination 30 years ago today in Dallas we recall with deepest remorse.
The original charge of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was directed at members of the Marine Corps, asking them to test themselves by covering 50 miles in less than 20 hours spread over three days.
The mileage and the time involved have long since been made to look like a stroll in the park by those who hold physical fitness in the same high regard as JFK did. The real trial on this occasion was the conditions.
New race director Mike Spinnler called it "a beast. Two hours before the race started, it was 58 degrees and balmy. Then the front rolled in with the temperature dropping at least 15 degrees . . . and 40-mph winds."
The Brother/Sisterhood of Masochism was called to order, and while individual records were certainly safe for another year, this edition long will be remembered for its competitiveness, its elation and its heartbreak.
Carolyn Showalter of Hagerstown, bidding to become a six-time champion of the event, led virtually every step of the way until she was passed with about a mile to go by the winner, Jennifer Girouard of Connecticut.
Showalter, who was runner-up last year, too, went hyperglycemic in the late going and, forced to walk, slipped into hyperthermia. A quick trip to the hospital on the way home soon had her mapping strategy for next year's race, however.
Girouard, who lived in nearby Martinsburg, W. Va., for a while, was well versed in the JFK and knew one day she would compete. She prepped by completing four 50-milers and a 100-miler within the past year. Her 8-hour, 17-minute, 9-second clocking bettered Showalter's time by 13 minutes. Third was Janet Stein (8:35:11), followed by Nina Wendling (8:38:13) and Sue Briers (8:42:59).
Usually, the men's race has one leader or maybe two and that's it. Saturday, no fewer than four set the pace, the first 22 miles being covered at a cyclonic rate by Eric Clifton, the victor in 1991. Clifton hit the C&O; Towpath in two hours flat, a full six minutes ahead of Spinnler's course-record pace (5:53:05) established in 1982. For the second year in a row, Clifton self-destructed.
Up stepped race newcomer David Lieb, who carried the baton to the 30-mile mark, where race co-favorites Dave Horton and Chris Gibson began their expected duel. Horton cruised out to a solid six-minute lead over the next 10 miles, then was being dogged by first-time starter Gary Grilliot. Where was Gibson?
With five miles to go, Horton was cramping badly. While he was taking nine minutes to complete a mile coming off the canal, Gibson had passed Grilliot and his mile time was under seven minutes. He caught his rival with less than four miles remaining and made it to the Springfield Middle School finish and his fourth triumph in 6:35:51.
Horton, finishing in the top three for an exasperating eighth time, checked in at 6:40:59 with Tom Smith (6:44:58) third, Tom Taylor (6:44:48) fourth and Grilliot (6:46:07) fifth.
"This is the toughest I've ever had it," said Horton, who, among other things, holds the record for completing the 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.
In passing the torch to Mike Spinnler to conduct the JFK after handling it (without a sponsor) over its first 30 years, former director Buzz Sawyer had said what a pleasure it would be compete for the first time since 1970. A foot injury prevented the 65-year-old from running as much as he wanted, but leg problems over the years have made him a dynamite walker.
Conservative on the trail, Buzz hit the towpath loaded for bear and fellow competitors cheered as he passed them in the stretch on the way to a 254th-place finish (among 330) in 11:36:05. His time was an hour and a half better than he had accomplished as a 35-year-old.
On the eve of the race, there was a carbo-load in Sawyer's honor and, taken by surprise, there were tears in his eyes as he arose to say thanks. He turned it around on the audience by explaining that although he had never married and had no heirs, "I do have a family with you [competitors] and we have a reunion every year."
His closing, "Thank you for being my family," made time stand still for a moment.