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Cooler heads should prevail in JFK-Trail dispute

December 10, 2011

The JFK 50-Mile Ultramarathon is on the brink of its 50th year of existence. Celebrating President Kennedy's commitment to fitness, the event has brought thousands of runners to the hills and hollows of Washington County, including a 13-mile stretch on the Appalachian Trail, itself a venerable icon of outdoor activity.

The race is historic in its own right, and has become part of the county's identity, much like the annual Salute to Independence at Antietam. 

On a national scale, the same can be said for the Appalachian Trail. Those who work on behalf of the trail want what's best for it, just as those who work on the JFK want the best possible experience for the runners.

What happens then, when the interests of two established and beneficial hallmarks of the outdoors clash?

The controlling agency of the Appalachian Trail allows, grudgingly it seems, the thousand or so runners to use the trail every fall for a competitive event solely because the race predates rules that now ban such endeavors. Race promoters want to double the size of the field, but the appeal has been rejected.

Now, organizers say it's time "for the gloves to come off," in an apparent attempt to browbeat trail officials into changing their tune.

While we certainly appreciate those who have shepherded the JFK into modern times and increased its popularity, such saber-rattling is imprudent at best, and at worst, a real danger to the JFK tradition.

The JFK, in our view, is fine the way it is, and it would be unwise to tinker with success. Just because promoters could attract another thousand people doesn't mean it should. And what sporting event does not have a limited field? Just as it would be a poor idea to allow anyone who could afford a stock car to race at Daytona, it makes no sense to flood the JFK with every possible pair of running shoes.

As for the Appalachian Trail, its defenders are there for a reason, and we believe they are doing their jobs by protecting the trail for the use of everyone. Excess traffic, even for a single day, can cause hillside trail erosion that endangers hikers and makes the hike less enjoyable.

Further, by picking a fight with the hiking community, JFK promoters might be getting more than they bargained for. The number of hikers in this nation compared to the number of ultramarathoners is obviously no contest. Do race promoters really want to risk the ire of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Sierra Club or any other powerful outdoor group whose mission is conservation, not competition?

The Appalachian Trail section of the run is a big part of what makes the JFK both unique and desirable. When JFK boosters start acting as if the trail has been put there solely for their own personal use, they risk being kicked off the trail altogether. That would be a shame and a blow to an event that has done so much good for nearly five decades.

If the JFK leaders have indeed already shed their gloves, cooler heads might suggest that they quietly put them back on.

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