People gladly pay for their chance at the JFK

November 18, 2005|by ANDREW MASON

People might think JFK 50 Mile race director Mike Spinnler could sell snow to an Eskimo.

"People ask me all the time, 'How do you get a thousand people to pay you to run 50 miles?'" Spinnler said. "The best way I answer it is that there's just a certain attitude amongst real overachievers who see something just too enticing about running 50 miles to turn their backs on. They feel like they have to give it a try, and we're here to put it on for them."

The 43rd annual edition of the JFK - America's oldest and arguably most prestigious ultramarathon - will be Saturday. For the first time, the event is sold out. More than 1,000 runners - representing nearly every state in the U.S. and more than a half-dozen countries - have signed up for the 50.2-mile journey from Boonsboro to Williamsport. The course is made up of rolling paved roads, the mountainous terrain of the Appalachian Trail and the flat C&O Canal towpath.


"We can't make it any easier for them," Spinnler said. "The mountain is still the mountain, and 50 miles is still 50 miles. No matter how good the weather is or how well-stocked the aid stations are, there's going to be a lot of suffering involved. And we don't draft anybody to do this. People are paying to come and take on this challenge."

The event, which had an $80 early-entry fee, begins at 5 a.m. for roughly a third of the participants, who anticipate taking 12 or more hours to complete the course, and 7 a.m. for everyone else. The race closes at 7 p.m.

"It's a footrace," Spinnler said. "We like to make it what it is for everybody. It's an event and it's a challenge, but we can't fudge that clock. Fourteen hours and one second is a great accomplishment, but it doesn't count as an official finish in the JFK records."

The frontrunners, and there are many of them this year, will need less than half of the allotted time.

"I'm as excited as excited can be," Spinnler said, "because there have been years where we've had great elite fields but modest numbers and other years where we've had great numbers but modest elite fields. This year we have both.

"There are probably 15 different guys who can win this race, and we have a first-class women's field. We have the No. 1 ranked man and woman at 100 kilometers in the U.S. I'm pumped about that."

Those top-ranked athletes are Howard Nippert, 40, of Fork Union, Va., and Anne Lundblad, 39, of Asheville, N.C. Both led Team USA at the 100K World Cup - considered the world championships of ultrarunning - in Japan in June. Lundblad was the silver medalist in the women's race, while Nippert, the 1998 JFK champ, took eighth in the men's field.

Nippert, who coaches Lundblad, said both of them will be shooting for the course records Saturday. The men's mark is 5:46:22, set in 1994 by Eric Clifton, and the women's record is 6:50:56, set in 1984 by Teri Gerber.

Other women's contenders include: Julie Udchachon, 35, of Eagle River, Alaska; Ann Heaslett, 41, of Madison, Wis.; and defending champ Connie Gardner, 42, of Medina, Ohio.

Udchachon won the 2005 USA 50K Trail Championships in California in August, and Heaslett was a teammate of Lundblad's at June's 100K World Cup, placing 13th.

"Even though it's stood for 21 years, I expect the women's record to be broken," Spinnler said.

Other men's contenders include: Michael Wardian, 31, of Arlington, Va.; Ian Torrence, 33, of Boulder City, Nev.; Clark Zealand, 32, of Lindsay, Ontario; Paul DeWitt, 37, of Monument, Colo.; and Leigh Schmitt, 33, of Conway, Mass.

Wardian is the marathon man. He's run nine 26.2-mile races this year, eight in less than 2 hours, 30 minutes. He might need that speed to keep pace with Nippert, who's won all 10 of the ultramarathons he's raced on U.S. soil.

"I see it as a two-horse race," Spinnler said. "Howard Nippert has the race to lose, and everybody else is almost in fear of him. And Wardian, if he does what's he capable on paper of doing, should be able to run under 6 hours.

"Unless I've missed someone, I don't think we have anybody else capable of breaking 6 hours besides those two guys, but I see a lot of guys in that sub-6:15 range fighting for those places 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. But you never know. Guys blow up."

Torrence, the top returner, will be running the JFK for the 12th straight year and is still looking for his first victory. He was second last year.

"These last couple months, I've been thinking JFK the whole time, every time I go out for a run," Torrence said. "Someday, maybe in a blue moon, I'll win the thing.

"If Nippert does what he wants to do, he'll take a lot of guys with him. You'll either see a lot of fast times or a lot of carnage."

Other frontrunners to watch are former Hagerstown resident Matt McDonald, 35, of Culpepper, Va., a three-time top-10 finisher, and Tim Skoczen, 26, of Carroll Valley, Pa., who will be competing for Hagerstown's Cumberland Valley Athletic Club.

Scott Draper, 34, of Williamsport, is Washington County's top returner. He led the county last year with his 52nd-place finish (7:55:43).

Visit the JFK's official Web site at for more information, including a course map and a complete list of entrants and their bib numbers.

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