"I knew something was missing in life," said French, 47, of Warfordsburg, Pa. "I got back into weights and had to run in the military."
In 1983, French entered his first JFK 50 Mile with very little training. He finished in 9 hours and 49 minutes, and he said he lost 25 pounds.
"I was just looking for a challenge," French said. "I felt like something was missing since high school."
While French was training for his first JFK 50 Mile race, he saw other Washington County runners training. Among them were Greg Shank and Mike and Maria (Pazarentzos) Spinnler.
"I thought if I trained with these guys, I'd get much better," French said. "They started getting me involved in training."
The second year, French's time improved by an hour to 8 hours and 48 minutes.
"Then, each year, I started getting a little better," French said.
French posted his best times in the JFK 50 Mile in the 1990s. In 1992, he placed fourth in 6 hours and 44 minutes. He placed in the top 10 five times and broke 7 hours four times.
French ran for the National Guard marathon team during the 1990s.
"I was the top Guard runner for the state of Maryland for 12 years," French said.
French suffered a back injury in 2001 in which the vertebrae in his back collapsed on his sciatic nerve, the main nerve traveling down the leg. French believes the injury occurred because he ran three races in three weeks and his job involved a lot of lifting.
"I thought my career was over," said French, who had to have four screws and two rods put in his back. "It took me three years to run longer distances."
After missing four years of the race due to the injury, French finished in 8 hours and 20 minutes in 2005.
"His comeback from back surgery a few years ago is nothing short of remarkable," said Mike Spinnler, the JFK 50 Mile director. "He is a great inspiration to athletes that have had major physical setbacks."
Last year, French's time was 7 hours and 38 minutes.
"Running is an addiction," French said. "When I wasn't running for three (or) four years, I felt miserable."
French said his hard training for the JFK 50 Mile begins three months before the race. He does long runs on the weekend, light runs during the week and rests one day a week.
"I try to run 26 miles before the race and then taper down," said French, adding that the week before the race, he will not be running at all.
French has never started a race that he has not finished, and he intends to continue that trend, he said.
The French file
Name: Paul French
Residence: Warfordsburg, Pa.
Occupation: Machine operator
Number of JFK finishes: 19
The JFK in one word: "Challenging"