He keeps in shape for the long run

Buzz Sawyer, 74, the man who laid out the course for the first John F. Kennedy 50-Mile event, has run eight of the past 10 JFKs.

Buzz Sawyer, 74, the man who laid out the course for the first John F. Kennedy 50-Mile event, has run eight of the past 10 JFKs.

December 10, 2002|by JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN - In 1963 when Buzz Sawyer laid out the course for the first John F. Kennedy 50-Mile Hike, he never dreamed the race would still be going strong 40 years later.

It is. And at age 74, Sawyer's still going strong himself, having recently completed the rugged 50.2-mile course in 13 hours and 35 minutes.

Sawyer was one of America's finest distance runners during the 1950s. He ranked seventh in the world in the two-mile run event during the 1959 indoor season. While he never set out to be a world-class runner, once running got in his blood, it was hard to shake.


As a student at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., he knew he wanted to be involved in athletics, Sawyer said. His first love was baseball and he tried out for the team, but the competition was too stiff - two members of the team went on to the major leagues. And he knew at 135 pounds he'd never make it on the football team, so he opted for the track team, Sawyer said.

Sawyer didn't win a single race at the high school level, but scored enough points in his senior year to earn a varsity letter.

"Not winning my first race was the best thing that could have happened. It made me realize that I was going to have to work very hard to succeed," he said.

Sawyer said he was inspired in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to improve their physical fitness.

When an aide to JFK came across a 1908 executive order of Teddy Roosevelt requiring all U.S. Marines to complete 50 miles on foot in 20 hours, JFK wondered whether his Marines were fit enough to do the same. He issued a similar challenge, failing to mention that Roosevelt's challenge was to complete the mileage over a three-day period.

As a result, 50-mile hikes were held across the country and at military bases that year.

Sawyer, a mechanical engineer at Fairchild and later Mack Trucks who founded the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club in 1960, established the John F. Kennedy Hike in Washington County.

He hiked the course with 10 other members of the CVAC, mostly high school students he coached during the off-season. He was one of four people to complete that first hike.

Most 50-mile hikes were held on paved roads, but Sawyer wanted a route that was away from traffic. He casually mapped out a route along the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal towpath, creating an extremely challenging course.

"Every year I run the race, I wonder why in the world I selected the Appalachian Trail for the route," he said.

JFK was killed shortly after, and many of the fitness events were never held again. What began as the JFK Hike here continued as a tribute to the late president and his ideal of physical fitness.

Initially intended as a one-time event, it is now the nation's oldest ultramarathon.

Sawyer said it was the jogging craze of the early 1970s that changed the event from a hike to a hike/run.

"In the beginning, there was a low percentage of finishers, because the participants weren't as fit. The jogging boom changed that," he said.

This year, 965 runners officially started the race and 862 finished, the most ever to complete an ultramarathon foot race. An ultramarathon is anything over 26.2 miles.

Runners are required to complete the race in 14 hours.

The first few years, the ultramarathon drew a small group of local runners, including Sawyer, who completed the race each year from 1963 to 1970. Each year, the event grew and Sawyer eventually excluded himself from participating to focus on the coordination of the race.

In 1983, after two successive first place finishes in the race, Mike Spinnler, of Hagerstown, took over as Sawyer's successor as race coordinator. Spinnler has just celebrated his 10th year in that role.

"People come from far and wide because of the uniqueness of the course. It was a very challenging route that Buzz laid out," said Spinnler, 44. "There were participants from 37 states, Washington, D.C., and five countries."

When Sawyer had passed the reins to Spinnler, he had no intention of sitting on the sidelines. He has run eight of the past 10 JFKs.

"Buzz is such an inspiration to me," said Spinnler. "He typifies the ideal and spirit John F. Kennedy had in mind when he issued the 50-mile challenge. Buzz not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk."

Sawyer has come face-to-face with the effects of aging on staying physically fit. His balance isn't as good as it used to be, he said.

Two years ago, he took a spill on the Appalachian Trail at the beginning of the JFK and banged up his knee. "It took me two years to completely recover from that fall," he said. He still managed to complete the race.

"I've also found with age that I need to get up and do something every day, whether it's walking or running," Sawyer said. He recently marked the anniversary of his "streak." For two years, he has either run or walked at least three miles every day.

He admits that some days, lacing up the running shoes is about the last thing he wants to do.

"Whether I'm in the mood or not, I push myself to get out there and I'm always glad I did. No matter how I'm feeling when I start out, I'm always feeling better by the end of my workout," Sawyer said.

Both Sawyer and Spinnler have their sights on the future, in particular the 50th running of the JFK Ultramarathon in 2012. Sawyer said he'd be ecstatic if the event reached that milestone and he hopes to be a participant. He was out training for next year's race the day after this year's JFK.

Sawyer's got a few years to go before he beats the record for oldest participant. Carl Lewellyn holds the record as the oldest finisher of the event. Lewellyn was 80 years and five months old when he completed the course in 1995.

Spinnler stays in shape for the day he passes the baton to a younger race coordinator and can start competing in the race again, as Sawyer did.

"Buzz is such a phenomenal individual. He inspires me to stay in shape," Spinnler said.

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