JFK course record to be under attack

November 17, 2011|By ANDREW MASON |
  • Michael Wardian heads to the finish line to win the 2007 JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon. He will try to win the race for a second time Saturday.
Herald-Mail file photo

5 hours, 46 minutes, 22 seconds.

Few marks in the sport of ultramarathon running are as hallowed as Eric Clifton’s winning time from the 1994 JFK 50 Mile.

No one had run the course any faster before, and no one has run it any faster since.

The 49th annual JFK 50 Mile — America’s oldest ultramarathon — will be held Saturday in Washington County, and Clifton’s 5:46:22 remains the time to beat.

“It’s a storied race and the biggest 50 in the country, and I want the course record,” said Michael Wardian, the favorite in Saturday’s loaded men’s field. “A lot of guys have tried to break it, and no one’s been successful. I want to be successful.

“There are so many good guys running this year that I think someone’s going to get it, and I hope that it’s me.”

Wardian, 37, of Arlington, Va., plans to set a torrid pace in the race that starts in Boonsboro and finishes in Williamsport, covering sections of the Appalachian Trail, C&O Canal towpath and rural, paved roads.

“I plan to be going for the record from the gun and running aggressively,” said Wardian, who won the 2007 JFK in 5:50:34, which ranks No. 3 all-time. “I’d like to be around 5:30 or under that. I’m a much stronger runner than I was then (in 2007), and I have a lot more experience. It’s an aggressive goal, but I think it’s possible.

“I could crash and burn too, but I’m willing to take that risk.”

JFK 50 Mile director Mike Spinnler — a two-time champion of the race (1982-83) and former course-record holder — knows the ins and outs of the event seemingly better than anyone.

“I don’t know if 5:30 is possible. There’s a reason that record has stood for so long,” Spinnler said. “But if there’s anyone competing in the U.S. who can break that record, it’s Michael Wardian.

“I no longer doubt him. I’ve become a believer. If he tells me now that he can climb Mount Everest without any oxygen, I’d believe him.”

The sport of ultramarathoning is on the rise in the U.S., and Wardian is one of the country’s biggest stars. Two months ago, he won the silver medal at the 100K World Championships in the Netherlands, leading the U.S. men to team gold.

Andrew Henshaw, 25, of Tacoma, Wash., won the bronze medal, and Matt Woods, 32, of Falls Church, Va., completed the team scoring by placing sixth. Both are entered in Saturday’s JFK.

Other top contenders include: David Riddle, 30, of Cincinnati, the top returnee from last year’s JFK after his second-place finish in 5:53:09; Zach Bitter, 25, of Marinette, Wis., who owns the top 50-mile time in the country this year (5:26:52); Michael Arnstein, 34, of New York City, who placed second in the 2009 JFK in 5:50:58; and Kalib Wilkinson, 27, of Lynchburg, Va., who was the sixth American finisher in this year’s Boston Marathon in 2:19:53.

There also are countless other entrants with impressive résumés, as Saturday has all the makings for an epic battle.

“When you have that many good guys together, there are going to be casualties,” Spinnler said. “Some guys are going to crack, but the guys who don’t crack are going to be very, very fast.

“You’ve got the three scorers from the world-champion 100-kilometer team, and some of those guys might not make the top five. They might not place as well here as they did at the world championships.

“It’s going to be an exciting thing to watch. Even some nonrunning fans might want to come watch the finish. It could be historic.”

The women’s field for Saturday isn’t quite as stacked as the men’s, at least not on paper.

The favorite is Meghan Arbogast of Corvallis, Ore., who at 50 years old has showed no signs of slowing. She was the JFK runner-up in 2009 in 6:56:05 — one of only nine women to break 7 hours in race history — and she recently finished fifth at the 100K World Championships.

“She’s just a freak of nature,” Spinnler said. “She’s been at this for decades.”

The top returning woman from last year’s race is 23-year-old Jackie Palmer, who might have been last year’s biggest surprise. She finished fourth in 7:29:18 — nearly two hours faster than her first JFK finish in 2009.

“The first year I ran it, I’d only started running eight or nine months before it. I just didn’t have the experience,” she said. “But I really did surprise myself last year. I just went with how I was feeling, and that’s what I plan to do  this year — just run how I feel and hopefully I’ll be able to do well again.”

Palmer, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, grew up on South Mountain, just a few miles from the JFK start line. She graduated from Boonsboro High School in 2006.

While she wasn’t a runner back then, she said she feels at home on the JFK course.

“I used to always ride bikes on the canal,” she said. “It’s great out there, just a great atmosphere. I always see people I know on the sidelines.”

Palmer said her goal for Saturday is “to at least match my time from last year. It’s really up to how I’m feeling.”

Fifty miles is a long way to run, for anybody at any level. Seemingly anything can happen over such a distance.

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past,” Spinnler said. “It’s what you do on Nov. 19.”

“I’m looking forward to towing the line,” Wardian said, “and seeing what everyone else has brought to the table.”

Watch live video from the finish line Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. at

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