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JFK die-hards take muddy run in stride

November 23, 1997

JFK die-hards take muddy run in stride


Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT - It was slow going in the 35th annual John F. Kennedy 50-mile ultramarathon Saturday as runners slid over a rain-soaked Appalachian Trail and a muddy C&O Canal in the daylong race.

But Paul French, the first Washington County man to cross the finish line, knew what to expect.

He slipped on his special "trail shoes" before the race so he could take on the South Mountain terrain. When he came out on level ground again, he stopped and put his regular shoes back on.

Then to French's surprise, he saw national running pro Dave Horton just ahead of him.

"I passed him on the towpath. I was really surprised. Even the good guys have bad days," said French, who works as a machine operator at the local Redland Brick Inc. Cushwa Plant.


Horton, of Richmond, Va., who holds the record for the fastest time of traversing the Appalachian Trail, finished 21st in the race with a time of 7 hours, 15 minutes and 59 seconds. French, 37, finished 13th with a time of 6:56:57.

There were 719 finishers, an American record for ultramarathons. The record had been 673, set at the JFK 50 Mile in 1973.

French's performance didn't surprise race director Mike Spinnler. French's stocky build is not like those of most runners, but Spinnler described him as a "tough as nails" athlete who puts in a lot of hours training for the annual race.

"I always thought he had a shot at winning it," Spinnler said of French.

The JFK 50 Mile attracts some of the best runners in the country, and French said it's an honor to be able to compete alongside the well-known athletes.

But that doesn't mean the local runners can't put the pressure on.

Several runners from Tri-State area finished in the top 30 Saturday out of the close to 900 runners expected to compete.

French has finished in the top 10 five times since he started running in the race 15 years ago.

Mike Adams grew up in Greencastle, Pa., and later took a job with the School for the Deaf in Pittsburgh. But he always returns to the race to build on his record of the most completed races - 29.

"I got to get that one more finish," said an exhausted Adams as volunteers wrapped a blanket around him.

Running was not always appealing to French. He played fullback for the football team at Williams-port High School, but long-distance running was never in the picture.

After school, French said he started gaining weight, and turned to running to shed pounds. Now he runs about 50 miles a week. "I finally got addicted to it," he said.

The race ended at Springfield Middle School, where spectators cheered runners to the finish line. Runners limped and walked off sore achy muscles while others traded stories about times and experiences of past contests.

Inside the school, volunteers handed out free peanut butter sandwiches to runners to help them regain their energy. Helen Spinnler said she and eight other women bought 70 loaves of bread, 20 pounds of peanut butter and 25 pounds of jelly to make the sandwiches.

There are hundreds of long-distance races across the country, but the JFK 50 Mile is unique in the large number of people who return each year to compete in the race, said Mike Spinnler, who referred to it as "the big reunion."

"It's just something magical about this event. I don't know why," he said.

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