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Call JFK a run or take a hike

November 21, 2003|by ANDREW MASON

andrewm@herald-mail.com

Don't refer to the John F. Kennedy 50-Miler as a "hike" around Hagerstown's Mike Spinnler.

The JFK director, two-time champion and former record holder of the event probably won't knock anyone's teeth out for doing it, but he might want to.

Hikes are for family outings and scouting trips. The JFK is for ultramarathoners, who are only given 14 hours to complete the course, which begins in Boonsboro and ends in Williamsport with 50.2 miles of trails, paths, hills and roads in between.

And those 14 allotted hours are just for roughly a third of the field which chooses the optional 5 a.m. start. Everyone else in the 7 a.m. start has 12 hours, and the leaders, battling for the roughly $2,000 in prize money, hit the finish at Springfield Middle School in about half that time.

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"For a large portion of the participants, it's a test of perseverance," Spinnler said. "But it's a footrace. There's a starting line and a finish line, and it's timed and scored."

As of Tuesday night, 960 runners - representing 37 states and seven countries - had registered for Saturday's 41st annual edition of the JFK, North America's oldest ultramarathon. The JFK's number of finishers last year - 862 out of 965 starters - was also a North American record for an ultra, which is any race longer than 26.2 miles.

"It's a big race and a prestigious event, and it's right in our backyard," said two-time finisher Matt McDonald, 33, of Hagerstown. "You get roughly a thousand people, all different kinds - people who just want to finish and those who are very competitive.

"The organization that Spinnler and all the volunteers bring to it and the fans that come out to watch it, those are the things that make it so good. The race brings a lot to the area."

If the Tri-State area has any hope for its first champion since Spinnler, who won in 1982 and '83, McDonald, who finished fourth last year in 6 hours, 32 minutes, 6 seconds, brings it.

Jim Hage, who won last year in 6:13:10, is injured and unable to defend his title. However, last year's runner-up, Eric Clifton, 45, of Albuquerque, N.M., the course-record holder (5:46:22 set in '94) and a four-time champ, is returning.

"McDonald has a good shot. He's one of the top returning runners," Spinnler said. "Hage being hurt kind of opens the door a little bit and Clifton is a year older.

"But Clifton is the Michael Jordan of ultrarunning. He's a half-hour slower than a decade ago, but that's still pretty darn good."

Ian Torrence, 31, of Moab, Utah, who finished third last year and has six top-10 finishes under his belt, will surely be in the mix as well.

"I like Ian's chances," Spinnler said. "He really executes well and the JFK is a course where execution counts."

Other contenders include: first-time JFK entrant Dave Mackey, 34, of Boulder, Colo., who smashed the course record at the Mountain Masochist 50-Miler in Lynchburg, Va., five weeks ago; '99 runner-up Clark Zealand, 30, of Kitcherer, Ontario, who could become the JFK's first foreign winner; and '99 champ Courtney Campbell, 38, of Berryville, Va.

"I know a lot of guys are watching Mackey and are very concerned," Spinnler said. "If I had to put odds on it like a horse race, I'd make him a slight favorite over Torrence and Zealand.

"It's going to be pretty exciting, especially with McDonald in the mix as well."

It looks like a three-horse race on the women's side.

Last year's champ, Connie Gardner, 40, of Medina, Ohio, who ran away with the win in 7:11:47, is returning, as are last year's runner-up Bethany Hunter, 24, of Lynchburg, Va., and third-place finisher Laura Nelson, 38, of Waynesboro, Va., a four-time champ and '83 South Hagerstown High graduate.

"Same three as last year," Spinnler said. "But Bethany has to be the favorite because she's coming in fresh."

Gardner and Nelson both competed last weekend at the world 100-kilometer championships in Taiwan.

"I would think Bethany would have a huge advantage, but Connie is a special athlete," Spinnler said. "She writes her own set of rules. The distance isn't a daunting task for her. I at least expect her to smash our women's masters record (7:41:13)."

For the majority of participants, the JFK is all about personal goals and records.

Leon Bierbower, 68, of Chambersburg, Pa., is aiming for his third straight and 10th overall finish Saturday. Bierbower, who first completed the event in 1975, is one of 29 runners who finished the JFK in four different decades.

"I always like the challenge. I guess that's why I keep coming back," Bierbower said. "I just enjoy it, although afterwards you feel like you're dying."

Also among this year's entrants are U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Goo Goo Dolls drummer Mike Malinin.

"Luckily, they've finished their tour. That's why Malinin's here," Spinnler said. "When everyone else is partying after the concerts, he's in bed early. He has to train."

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