In its 51st year, JFK 50 Mile race keeps competitors coming back

Fred Schumacher knew the race was worse than he thought it would be when he watched a group of Marines climb into a pickup truck and quit after the first few checkpoints.

The first JFK 50 Mile race Schumacher ran, on March 30 1974, offered a particularly difficult challenge in the 34-degree weather and steady rain that turned to sleet for part of the event. Schumacher, a 66-year-old retired Army officer from Frederick, said he had decided to start the race out of complete ignorance.

After finishing that first race through the cold and rain, he had said he would "never again" run in the event. But once he found out that he had finished 135th out of 1,355 starters and determined that he could cut 30 minutes from his time with warmer weather, he decided to give the race another try.

Now, as the ultramarathon celebrates its 50th anniversary Nov. 23, Schumacher is preparing to complete it for the 37th time.

The 50-mile run, which must be finished in 14 hours, with several time benchmarks along the way, starts in Boonsboro and winds through a section of the Appalachian Trail and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal before finishing in Williamsport.

President John F. Kennedy created the original race as a challenge to military officers to meet a fitness requirement that President Theodore Roosevelt expected of his officers — being able to travel 50 miles on foot in 20 hours.

The "Kennedy challenge" led to the creation of 50-mile events nationwide, but the Western Maryland race, which is open to the public, was the only one that continued to be held every year after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

Despite the demands of the race, it regularly draws runners back. Paul Betker, 68, of Hagerstown was also motivated to run the competition a second time by a belief he could do better. But after his first race in 1981, he said, he never hesitated in deciding to learn more about running and train more in preparation for the next year's race.

"When I first started it, I didn't know what I was getting into. I was probably running maybe 20 miles a week and was totally unprepared for it," Betker said. "I guess by the time I had gotten 15 miles into the race, I was pretty well pooped."

During his first time running the race, he was sitting along the canal's tow path massaging his legs when a woman went by him, smiling silently. He thought she could either have been trying to encourage him or laughing at him; he decided on the latter and motivated himself to rub some Ben-Gay cream on his legs — this only made his legs smell bad, he said — and "trudge on" to finish the race.

After he finished, it took him three to four days to recover, he said. But even now, as he prepares for his 32nd consecutive JFK race, he never looked back after finishing that first one.

"I said, 'Well, OK, I learned something. But next year, I'm going to go ahead and do it and do better,'" he said. "So far, I haven't said that I'm never doing it again."

Betker and Schumacher said the best way to train for the race is to run as much as possible. But Betker also said the ability to finish the race goes beyond just physical preparation.

"It wasn't really as hard to do as some people think, but a lot of it is determination and stubbornness to go out and finish it," he said. "You set a goal for yourself and you go out and do what you started."

Fortunately, runners are not on their own during the race. There are 14 aid stations throughout the course that provide water and nourishment. Race director Mike Spinnler, who organized the aid stations in 1983 so all race participants could get support no matter how far from home they were, said the stations are staffed by running clubs, high school and college cross country teams, religious groups, and others.

Many of the groups compete to outdo each other in supporting the runners, Schumacher said; one standout he has seen had a "Miracle on 34th Street" theme, complete with Santa and bells.

For the inaugural race, Schumacher said he had to rely on his father to meet him at specific points in the race for support, including changes of clothes and shoes — a losing effort , when all his clothes were soaked throughout the day. This bonding opportunity with his father was one reason he decided to continue the race in following years, though.

"This is not a solo run by any means," said Schumacher, whose wife has continued to fill in for his father in supporting him during the race. "I am grateful for all those that support me in this endeavor."

Runners aren't alone among the competition, either. Betker said he has gotten to know people who run the race every year and are like family even though he sees them only once a year. He even met Schumacher this way more than 10 years ago.

"One year, I'll beat this fella but the next year he'll beat me, and the next year I'll beat him, that kind of thing. And you're still buddies — there's no die-hard competition," Betker said. "It's all in good friends and good spirit."

The "JFK challenge" is certainly not for everyone, as the small group of Marines found out during Schumacher's first race, but it's still able to appeal to runners of almost any age — the youngest person to finish the race, Kimball Byron, did so as an 11-year-old.

Fifty years after the inaugural event, this race and its loyal participants are still running.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad