Mcdonald goes to war to find own peace in JFK

November 20, 2003|by ANDY MASON

Matt McDonald isn't the easiest guy to catch up with.

The answering machine on his telephone says that's because he's busy reading Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace."

The worn-down soles on his running shoes tell a somewhat different version of the story, one that begins and ends most days on the C&O Canal Towpath, where McDonald has found months of peaceful solitude while preparing for Saturday's battle - the 41st annual JFK 50-Mile ultramarathon.

McDonald, 33, of Hagerstown, has been nearly impossible to catch on this course, which begins in Boonsboro and ends in Williamsport, with 50.2 miles of trails, paths, hills and roads in between. He's been the top Tri-State area finisher in each of the past two years, placing eighth in 2001 in 6 hours, 36 minutes, 13 seconds and fourth last year in 6:32:06.

McDonald, who's logged more than 100 miles per week all fall, is looking for even more improvement this year.


"I think I have a 6:20 in me," he said.

"That could very well win it this year. He has a real good shot," said JFK director and two-time champion Mike Spinnler, who is the last Tri-State runner to win the event in 1983. "It's not my job to be a cheerleader, but how could I not be pulling for a local boy to do his best?"

McDonald is a runner first and an aspiring JFK champ second.

"I would love to win it. It's something I've always thought about," he said. "But to be honest with you: If I do, I do, and if I don't, I don't. I just like to be able to get out there and run and am thankful that I can, that I'm healthy enough to do it."

This will be McDonald's fourth stab at the JFK, which always attracts many of the United States' top ultramarathoners. He was in the top 10 before dropping out just shy of 30 miles in his first attempt, in 1994.

"That year, I did everything wrong as far as training goes, and I didn't mentally prepare myself," he said. "I was just exhausted, and I got to that point and thought, 'I'm only halfway through it.'

"After that year, my goal was just to finish it."

Now, McDonald can't stop.

"It's addicting. It really is," he said. "I love running on the Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal. To race on it is even better."

He just doesn't want to get too carried away early. Last year, McDonald led the JFK for 10 miles before fading around Mile 30. He finished 20 minutes behind winner Jim Hage.

"I'm just going to try to go out a bit more conservative," McDonald said, "and take it easy on the Appalachian Trail (during the first 16 miles) and then work into a good pace on the towpath (the next 26)."

McDonald graduated from Greencastle-Antrim High School in 1988 and Shippensburg University in 1992. In 1987, he was the PIAA Class AA state cross country champion for the Blue Devils. In 1990, he was a member of the Red Raiders' NCAA Division II national runner-up cross country squad.

That youthful speed has slowly aged into a fine endurance.

"The longer the race, the slower it gets and I can do better at it," McDonald said. "You just have to put the mileage in."

Between pages of 19th-century Russian literature, of course.

Andy Mason is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at

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