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37th JFK still tests the best

November 19, 1999|By DAN KAUFFMAN

When ultramarathons sprung up across the United States during the 1960s, most of them gradually faded away in the passing of a few years.

The John F. Kennedy 50-mile race is one that has only grown.

Saturday morning, nearly 1,000 people will stand at the starting line for the 37th running of the JFK 50-mile ultramarathon, the longest such surviving event.

"This is the only one that's survived for four decades," race director Mike Spinnler said. "There's a mystique about it. They come from (all over) to see what the magic is all about."

A lot of that magic stems from the event itself. More than winning such a race - completing it in the 14-hour time limit is an accomplishment.

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"Less that one-tenth of one percent of the population in the U.S. will ever complete a 50-mile race. You get in your car and drive fifty miles from Hagerstown," Spinnler says, "and you're in Rockville."

Runners negotiate both the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal towpath on their way to the finish at Springfield Middle School. The physical demands of such an event are considerable; they pale in comparison to the mental ones.

"It's much more a mental event than a physical event," Spinnler said. "A runner without the capabilities of winning a marathon may be able to sneak in and win America's most prestigious ultramarathon."

There are several contenders for the men's overall title. Courtney Campbell, from Berryville, Va., is one of only 10 runners to ever break six hours in the event.

"He's one of the best ultramarathoners in the country ... but he has never won this race," Spinnler said. "This is the one feather in his cap that he hasn't won."

Californian Tom Greene won the American 50-mile race in his home state. Ryan Melcher, from Ontario, Canada, ran the fastest time ever by a teenager last year, clocking 6 hours, 18 minutes. Now 20, he aims to be the first international athlete to win the event.

The women's side is wide open. Pittsburgh's Maryann Foster has posted a sub-three hour marathon and is the favorite. She will likely be challanged by Debbie Berner.

There are several local stories this year, including one that may steal the show. Cal Mahaney, 71, who resides in Fairplay, could become the first person in history to complete 30 consecutive 50-mile races. He has finished the JFK race all of the past 29 years.

"He won't be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but I think this is one of the most incredible athletic feats in U.S. history," Spinnler said. "It's utterly mindboggling for me to perceive it.

"He's the Cal Ripken of our sport."

If Mahaney succeeds, an impromptu ceremony will be held. He is expected to finish in 12-13 hours, and will be wearing No. 30. Buzz Sawyer, who directed the race for its first 30 years, will also run at age 71. He will fire the gun to start the race, then will join in. He'll be wearing No. 1.

Paul French and Frank Lum will once again battle for the unofficial Washington County crown. French, 38, from Williamsport, and Lum, 34, from Boonsboro, have held a friendly, yet intense rivalry through this decade.

Carolyn Showalter, a six-time JFK women's champion and a 20-time finisher of the event, returns at age 44.

"I call her the queen of the JFK," Spinnler said. "She's as consistent as the sun, she's there every year."

With the advent of good weather, this year's JFK field has a chance to break the world ultramarathon record of 774 finishers, set last year.

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