After 50 years, JFK 50-mile race keeps running

Wherever he has lived, whatever he was doing, Kimball Byron has always been drawn back to his running roots in Western Maryland and a 50-mile race that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Byron, now 57 and a commercial pilot, followed a family tradition started by his father, Goodloe, who represented Maryland's 6th congressional district in Congress before his death in 1978. The elder Byron began running the JFK 50-mile race in 1967.

"I watched my dad leave one day and he was gone all day long, and I wondered where he was," said the younger Byron, who grew up in Frederick and now lives in Owings Mills. "In the dark, he came home and he was all beaten up, and I thought this was amazing. He took his shoes off and he had these big blisters on his feet. He ran a lot and I thought I would go with him the next year."

The younger Byron was 11 when he became the youngest to ever run — and finish — the race that was started in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy a few months before he was assassinated. Byron's father dropped out after 35 miles that year, but his son kept going after a couple of local high school kids ran past him. When he reached the finish line, the youngster called home to get someone to pick him up.

"I went with them down the C&O Canal tow path in the dark, and 15 hours and 20 minutes [after he started] I finished," Byron recalled. "My grandfather sent me a check for 50 bucks, so I got some good positive feedback to be the youngest person ever to do it. He said, 'Hey, go buy a bicycle.' I was hooked. It was fun."

The fun hasn't stopped for Byron, who became an Air Force pilot and even did a tour of duty in the Gulf War shortly after starting to fly for US Airways in 1989. He recently ran in his 44th JFK 50-mile race and describes the event, which was held Nov. 17, "as the best-run ultra-[marathon] in the country."

At this year's event, "there were 2,000, maybe 3,000 people, cheering near Antietam," Byron said. "It's an awesome event."

Byron came in 17th among the 18 who finished that first year. His best time was in 1988, when he completed the race in a little under 8 1/2 hours. But Byron said his top finish was in 1973, when less than 40 percent of a field of around 1,725 runners who started were able to complete the race that was held with temperatures in the 30s and a freezing rain.

Byron was among the top 200 to complete the course.

"Someone gave me a fireman's raincoat," he said. "Everyone got hypothermia."

Byron has missed only one JFK 50-mile race, when his commander at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento wouldn't let the young pilot off for weekend leave. His father's death at age 49 while out for a 15-mile training run on the C&O tow path shortly after being reelected to Congress in 1978 has not deterred Byron.

If anything, it has inspired him to run in an event that President Kennedy started after being similarly inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt, who decades before had challenged the nation's military leaders to walk 50 miles in 24 hours. According to Byron, who has researched the event, it "started out as a hike, and it morphed into a race with the running boom."

The first JFK 50-mile race was started through the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club, whose founder, William "Buzz" Sawyer, was an all-American runner at North Carolina State.

"There were 11 runners the first year," Byron said.

This year's event drew more than 1,000 starters from the more than 10,000 who applied. If anything, Byron finds some peace in running the route that begins in Boonsboro and winds its way through the Appalachian Trail and along the C&O tow path. That part of the race — essentially a regular 26.2-mile marathon along the tow path — is where Byron said he can reconnect with his late father.

"I don't know the exact spot where he had a heart attack, I kind of know where it is, near Shepherdstown," Byron said. "He was essentially running toward Williamsport, where he grew up. It was supposedly a beautiful day and as some of his friends said, 'He ran from this life to the next.' I'm able to honor my father and pay respects when I'm in that little area of the run. For me, it's great stuff."

Byron has invited friends from Baltimore to compete with him over the years. One of them, Harry Good, ran in a few JFK 50-mile races without any incident until one year when he became badly dehydrated and fell into a coma for three days.

"I didn't even know until about a week later," Byron said of Good, who survived to run again.

Two of Byron's closest friends from his days at Gilman, Clinton Daly and Arthur George, have met Byron on South Mountain for the past few years to help him through the portion on the Appalachian Trail. "I'm getting older and I don't want to fall," he said. "The key is not to fall. You've got to be very serious about running on the Appalachian Trail."

Byron is in awe of the younger group of runners, including Max King, who set a record this year at a little over 5 1/2 hours.

"These guys fly over the trail," Byron said. "There is no money here, this is pure sports. When I see these guys go by, it's just amazing."

While Byron has yet to get either of his two adult sons to run the complete race with him, they have accompanied him for long stretches. Byron said his son, Phillip, ran a 10-mile stretch, while his son Garrett ran 14. His wife, Hannah, ran the last four. Even his mother, Beverly, who took her late husband's seat in Congress and served a total of seven terms, comes out to support her son.

Shortly after his father's death, Byron dedicated himself to training and ran in two Boston Marathons, including one, he said in under three hours. He has never run in any other ultra-marathons, and considers some events, like 100-mile races, "a little sick." But each November, Byron drives up to Boonsboro, to start all over again.

"There's nothing like it," he said."The friends I've made, the family support I get, there's nothing better."


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