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Annual test of runners' endurance is Saturday

November 22, 2002|by ANDREW MASON

andrewm@herald-mail.com

Don't get Mike Spinnler talking about the John F. Kennedy 50-Mile Ultramarathon unless you've got some extra time on your hands.

Don't take that the wrong way, though. This grueling endurance test - which begins at Boonsboro High School and ends at Springfield Middle School, with 50 miles of roads, the Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal Towpath in between - is exciting stuff.

Just take a minute - or an hour - and ask Spinnler, who's completed 10 JFKs - including back-to-back wins in 1982 and '83 - and is now in his 10th year as race director.

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"We're one of the elite of the elite," said Spinnler. "If you win the JFK, it's like winning the Boston Marathon in the ultra world."

The fact that there are no clear-cut favorites for Saturday's 40th annual JFK - currently the longest standing ultramarathon in North America - has Spinnler even more charged up.

Last year's top-two finishers - Colorado's Chad Ricklefs and Massachusetts' Dave Dunham - aren't competing Saturday.

"The door's wide open this year. We're really excited about it," said Spinnler. "There's no clear super-stud. On paper, we don't look like we're going to have anyone break six hours.

"I don't think it's going to be a breakaway. I think we're going to have a duke-it-out."

The men's field has a handful of contenders, namely the members of the defending team champion Montrail Monsters. On that squad are: Clark Zealand, 29, of Lynchburg, Va., who finished third last year and second in 1999; Courtney Campbell, 37, of Berryville, Va., the '99 champ; four-time champ and course-record holder Eric Clifton, 44, of Albuquerque, N.M., who set the mark of 5 hours, 46 minutes, 22 seconds in 1994; Ian Torrence, 30, of Moab, Utah, who has eight top-10 finishes; and Hal Koerner, 26, of Parker, Colo.

Locally, Matt McDonald, 32, of Hagerstown, who placed eighth last year, and Doug Oates, 24, of Williamsport, who was 16th last year, could spend time at the front. A win by either would be Washington County's first since Spinnler's in '83.

Then, there's Jim Hage, 44, of Kensington, Md., who placed eighth at the '92 Olympic Trials Marathon and could become the JFK's first champion over 39.

On the women's side, a trio of contenders stands out, highlighted by '83 South Hagerstown High School grad and two-time defending champ Laura Nelson, 37, of Waynesboro, Va., who's won it four times overall.

Nelson's main challengers should be Sue Johnston, 36, of Waterford, Vt., the '99 champ and '01 runner-up, and Bethany Hunter, 23, of Lynchburg, Va., who took third last year.

Of course, the front-runners are only a fraction of Saturday's event, which is filled to its 1,000-participant capacity. As always, several of the runners - representing five countries, 37 states and Washington, D.C. - will be first-timers.

"Twenty-five to 30 percent are testing it for the first time," said Spinnler. "We get more first-time ultramarathoners than any other race in the country."

Former Hagerstown resident Bill Ramsey, 49, who now lives in Aliso Viejo, Calif., is back in town to redeem his ultramarathoning debut at the 1987 JFK.

"It's been a nemesis for me because after I did it in 1987, I didn't do another ultra for six years. It did a number on me. I felt like my legs had been worked over by a baseball bat, said Ramsey, who's since completed 48 more ultras, but perhaps none more prestigious.

"When it comes to ultramarathoning, I would rank the JFK in the top two in the country," he said. "But nothing has the history the JFK does.

"It's a good challenge and a great course. The JFK gives you a little bit of everything - the mountain, the roads, the towpath."

There will be two starting times Saturday. The first gun goes off at 5 a.m. for the approximately 300 runners in the projected 12-14 hour finish range. The rest of the field starts at 7.

"The numbers are good and strong," said Spinnler. "Now's the time to put them on the starting line and have a foot race."

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