T.R., J.F.K., and 50-mile hikes.
"The Strenuous Life" was a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in Chicago in 1899. He argued that strenuous effort and overcoming personal hardships were ideals to be embraced by Americans. As a youngster, Roosevelt was sickly and asthmatic and was compelled by his father to take up boxing, a practice he continued for years along with tennis, hiking, rowing, polo, and horseback riding.
Much later, in I960, President-Elect John F. Kennedy published an article entitled "The Soft American" in Sports Illustrated. He was alarmed at the decline of physical fitness among American youth, who lagged far behind Europeans at the time. (Before this, President Eisenhower had created a Council on Youth Fitness in 1956.)
As president, Kennedy had a particular interest in the fitness of the military, and in February 1963, the White House discovered a 1908 executive order from Theodore Roosevelt that all Marines should be able to cover 50 miles in 3 days. The records showed that some officers in 1908 had covered the distance in 1 day. A challenge was made to the commandant of the Marines, General David Shoup, to see if the 1963 Marine Corps officers were as fit as those of 1908. General Shoup ordered the Marine officers at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to prepare for a 50mile march with a standard of completion of 20 hours. On February 12, 1963, 34 officers marched all day wearing helmets, pistols, and a 25-pound pack. The fastest time was 9 hours and 53 minutes by a Marine who was a long-distance runner and completed the march half running and half walking.
The 50-mile hike became a national craze as the public took to the streets in record numbers. But after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, the movement disappeared quickly. However, one individual, Buzz Sawyer of Hagerstown, Maryland, kept the spirit alive by organizing the JFK 50-Mile Memorial in 1964.
The JFK 50-mile race is the oldest ultramarathon run in the United States and is always held in Washington County, Maryland, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Around 1000 runners return every year for this grueling event, which starts in Boonsboro, Maryland, goes up South Mountain to the Appalachian Trail for 13 miles, moves down to Harpers Ferry, and then proceeds 26 miles along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath before finishing in Williamsport, Maryland, with a time limit of 14 hours.
Years ago, I became fascinated by this race, especially since my Confederate grandfather had been wounded in the Battle of South Mountain, near the race course. I was fortunate to have finished four separate JFK 50 ultramarathons years ago. The event was my favorite and brings back great memories.
Why would anyone attempt to run 50 miles? Aside from the personal satisfaction of achievement, the usually cited possible benefits of long-distance running include improved cardiovascular fitness, weight loss, social camaraderie, and mental effects. The ultramarathon is different than regular marathons, with frequent walking and rest breaks and use of new muscles, with a goal of simply finishing rather than setting a record time. It is a unique challenge and adventure.
--S. Robert Lathan, MD