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JFK 50-mile marathon

Volunteers keep race running smoothly

Volunteers keep race running smoothly

November 21, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Under cover of darkness, at 5 a.m. on what promises to be a chilling Saturday morning, the athletes will begin their not-mad-so-much-as-methodical dash from Boonsboro to Williamsport.

And many of those who will make sure they finish will still be asleep.

When Frank Smith, steward of mile 22.3, eases out of bed at 6 a.m. the runners will have their blood pumping after an early start.

As 47-year-old recreational runner Tim Bussard noses his vehicle - packed tight with supplies tagged for mile 38 - out of his Hagerstown driveway at 9 a.m., elite competitors will have been hot on the trail for two hours, miles sloughing away like sweat from a brow.

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There would be no John F. Kennedy 50-Mile Ultramarathon without the men and women dedicated (non-runners might say crazed) enough to run it. But just as surely they would be hard-pressed to complete the grueling course without assistance from volunteers, like Smith and Bussard, who man the start, finish and 15 aid stations sprinkled in between.

"The smaller events, the number one reason those events disappear is they can't attract enough volunteers. We don't have that problem; we're blessed," says race director Mike Spinnler. "I could do all the paperwork, we could have all the insurance, all the paperwork in place but if we don't have the volunteers, we don't have the event."

They are a dedicated crew, fiercely loyal to the event and individual locations.

In the days leading up to Saturday's marathon, aid station volunteers busily ready rations, a mixed bag of food, drink and supplies so diverse Bussard likens it to a pharmacy.

Friday he will fill 70 gallon jugs of water, cooling them in the garage overnight. His spread is impressive: 20 gallons of sports drink alongside an a la carte menu of sliced oranges, bagels, bananas, cookies, soda and hot soup to warm tired bodies.

There are shoelaces, flashlights, aspirin, pain relieving cream. Bussard's crew even includes a registered nurse, Beth Thomas, which comes in handy when runners appear with blisters the size of small countries on their feet.

Stationed a few miles before Bussard, Smith and his wife, Mary Anne, tend to runners with help from local Girl Scout Troop 247

Roped into volunteering by friends at Mack Trucks Inc. in Hagerstown, where he worked for 37 years before retiring in 1998, Smith returns each year for the fun and fellowship inbred at the event.

"We know 'em when they come through but we don't know their names, and a lot of times they don't stop, just a hi and (they) keep on going," he says. "If the people can muster up that much to go there and do it, they deserve someone to be out there to help them do it, even if it's just hand 'em a cup of water, a cup of Gatorade while they buzz through."

But these are more than service stations where runners can grab a quick lube job and tire rotation.

When endless miles yield cramps and fatigue, when cold and thirst and hunger conspire to set the heart and mind at odds, the aid station volunteer provides a verbal pick-me-up.

"It really is a great camaraderie involved with the event, and the runners really do appreciate it. I can tell you from past experience, just as I was ready to step off the road and take off my number in the Boston Marathon one year and a couple of guys came up and said 'You can do it,' ..." Spinnler says. "It makes a big difference. It really does."

In his 10th year as race director, Spinnler manages 350 volunteers to shepherd 1,000 competitors from around the world. A mix of military and civilians, core runners who return annually and neophytes eager for a challenge, runners tackle a course encompassing portions of the Appalachian Trail and towpath before concluding at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport.

In some ways, competition for the 15 on-course aid stations is tougher than the ultramarathon. Only three in the first 15.5 miles, they become more frequent as the race progresses.

And the devotion with which volunteers approach their spots is impressive. Spinnler likens it to squatters' rights.

Bussard has been at Taylors Landing since 1994, the year after he first volunteered; Smith, 65, has set up shop at Shinham Boat Landing for more than 25 years.

Michael Tedeschi, 41, lives outside Sharpsburg in Potomac Valley Farms Estates, a 50-home community that conveniently bumps up against the C&O Canal, and, as a result, the ultramarathon route.

For years, Tom Dwyer and his late wife ferried supplies through a pasture behind their home, across the canal and onto the towpath to serve runners.

An unofficial aid station at first, the Dwyers' effort - located in a particularly desolate portion of the race prior to Taylors Landing - became known as The Oasis for runners. Dwyer was a past participant, knew what the stretch was like and wanted to help runners navigate it.

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