Finishing 50-mile race is true test

November 04, 2000

Finishing 50-mile race is true test

By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT - The runners who finish the race in the dark are the true winners.

The John F. Kennedy 50-mile race has its superstars who complete the grueling trek up the Appalachian Trail and across the Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath in under six hours.

But for many, just walking across the finish line in Williamsport is the true test of their physical and mental abilities.

"The heroes are the folks in the back of the pack," said Robert Sollenberger, 55, of Burke, Va., who finished his 18th JFK run this year in 11 hours and 50 minutes.


More than 800 runners started at 7 a.m. Saturday. About 90 percent were expected to finish by the cutoff time of 9 p.m.

The race, dubbed "America's Ultramarathon," is the oldest of its kind in the country.

"This is a special breed of people here. It's a day that makes you feel like there's hope for the human race," said race director Mike Spinnler of Hagerstown.

Local legend Buzz Sawyer, who won the first race in 1963 and organized it for many years, was back this year as a participant.

The youngest finisher was Steven Graybill, 13, of Taneytown, Md.

"At one point I wanted to stop, but I kept going," Graybill said. "Everyone in my family has done it."

His mother, Connie Staub of Taneytown, Md., holds the record for the youngest finisher. She ran at age 10.

Shortly after Brad Distad, 24, crossed the finish line he left for a Boonsboro High School soccer game. As the assistant coach, he promised the team he would be there, at least for moral support. If he could run 50 miles, they could surely give their best performance, he said.

Ken Scott, 54, and his daughter, Lisa Scott, 23, of Dayton, Ohio, crossed the finish line together. It was his 21st JFK race and her second.

"I couldn't do this alone," said Lisa Scott, an environmental education teacher.

Three men who were total strangers until they met at the 40-mile mark finished hand-in-hand.

"We just decided to stick together," said Glenn Lambert, 31, of Plano, Texas.

Many runners told stories or sang songs to keep their minds off the pain, said Sollenberger, recognizable to many repeat runners by the fluorescent orange knit cap he wears every year.

Celeste Fondaco, 60, of Chatham, N.J., said she amazes herself when she thinks about her accomplishment.

"I think, how can I run 50 miles when some days I can barely run three," she said.

As the evening wore on, the gap between finishers got wider.

But race volunteers stayed at the finish line to congratulate every finisher and drape a medal around their neck.

Some could barely walk.

Ken Knobloch, 46, of Exton, Pa., kept dancing to the disco music that was playing at the finish line and clapping for everyone who finished.

"As long as I keep moving I won't stiffen up," he said.

Rescue crews set up an infirmary at Springfield Middle School to treat people who were dehydrated or suffering from blisters and scrapes. About eight people went to the hospital, said Brian Lowman, deputy chief of the Williamsport Ambulance Company.

About 30 volunteers from Williamsport, Boonsboro and Smithsburg ambulance crews manned first-aid stations along the race route and at the finish line.

The JFK 50-miler began in 1963, one of many similar ultramarathons started at the request of President Kennedy to get the country's military troops into shape.

The rest died off due to a lack of organization. But Washington County's has survived, thanks in large part to the help of about 350 volunteers, Spinnler said.

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