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Heavy mettle

Enthusiasts battle elements for 50 miles

Enthusiasts battle elements for 50 miles

November 25, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

WASHINGTON COUNTY - It was easy to spot the runners inside Williamsport Middle School's gymnasium. They were the ones hobbling across the crowded room, carrying paper plates heaped with food, medals swinging from their necks.

After crossing the finish line of the John F. Kennedy 50-Mile ultramarathon outside the school Saturday, runners followed handwritten signs that read "Showers + Restrooms" to the gym.

The gym was where one could find 44-year-old Jim Hage of Kensington, Md., the first person to cross the finish line.


The finish line eluded Hage in 1974, when he dropped out of the JFK because of ice and freezing rain. Since then, he has run in other marathons and covered the JFK race three years ago in his job as a Washington Post reporter.

Tackling the race for the first time since that frigid day 28 years ago, Hage had a bit more experience. He finished eighth at the 1992 U.S. Olympic marathon trials and is the JFK's oldest overall champion, race director Mike Spinnler said.

"He's amazing. The kind of stuff you see on made-for-TV movies," Spinnler said.

Because he trains on roads, Hage said running along the C&O Canal towpath and Appalachian Trail was difficult.

"The trail part was miserable," said Hage, who fell twice on the uneven terrain.

He was in eighth place coming off the trail, but took the lead around mile 30.

"You're thinking about strategy the whole time, trying to check your pace," he said. "I just wanted to get off the trail in one piece."

Hage finished in 6 hours, 13 minutes and 10 seconds. Eric Clifton, 44, of New Mexico, finished second with a time of 6:19:43, and Ian Torrence, 30, of Utah, finished third in 6:27:21.

On the women's side, first place went to Connie Gardner, 38, of Ohio, with a time of 7:11:47. Bethany Hunter, 23, of Lynchburg, Va., finished second with a time of 7:35:21, and Laura Nelson, 37, of Waynesboro, Va., finished third in 7:41:25.

More than 1,000 people signed up to run in the race, which started in Boonsboro.

Gardner has run in ultramarathons before, but never the JFK, she said.

For Gardner, the hardest part of the race was not breathtaking wind, the terrain or even an upset stomach, which for her is an uncommon ailment, she said.

"I like to run with people. It's hard to stay focused and motivated when there's nobody around," she said.

At times, she said nobody was in front of her and nobody was behind her, making the race a long, lonely one.

Last month, Gardner won the USA 100K Championships at the Edmund Fitzgerald 100K in Duluth, Minn., and was named USA Track & Field's Athlete of the Week.

In another section of the middle school, medical personnel tended to injuries, while podiatrist Brenna Steinberg donated her time and materials to care for runners' feet.

Between patients, Steinberg took a moment to run down some common ailments. Blisters, arthritis-related problems and sprained ankles were the most common, she said.

As she spoke, a woman approached and took off her dirty, wet socks. She had a large blister on one of her big toes. A couple of minutes and a small bandage later, Steinberg sent the woman on her way.

Sitting in one corner of a set of bleachers, Brad Wilson, 23, and Jay Stanford, 22, looked straight ahead, not smiling.

"I won't do it again. Probably," Wilson said.

Both men are in the U.S. Navy and heard of the race about three weeks ago, they said. With little time to train, they finished in about 91/2 hours.

They disagreed on which part of the course was the most difficult.

"Probably the rocky part," said Wilson.

"No, the end," Stanford said. "(And) doing the beginning in the dark was a little sketchy."

Both started at 5 a.m., and neither brought a headlamp, as others had. Runners could also start at 7 a.m.

Around the pair, runners limped to the showers, posed for photographs and swapped race stories. One man said he lost a contact along the course. Sue Johnston, 36, of Vermont, had to stop running for seven minutes to wait for a train to pass.

Johnston ran her first ultramarathon, the JFK, nine years ago, and has done several others since.

"I just sort of got hooked. I don't have any speed but I can go for a long time," she said.

She finished in 8 hours, 7 minutes.

Along a back wall of the gym, Helen Spinnler, 87, was volunteering at the food table, where runners could pick up fried chicken, pizza, cupcakes, fruit and other items. Spinnler's son, Mike, is the race's director, and another son and grandson ran Saturday.

Although Helen Spinnler has never run the race, she keeps coming back to the JFK year after year as a volunteer.

"It gets in your blood," she said. "It's the excitement of the whole thing."

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