WASHINGTON COUNTY — This year’s 50th running of the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon will still include a 13-mile section of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, but organizers will look at ways to expand the field of entrants in future years while maintaining a limit of 1,000 runners on that portion of the course.
The Cumberland Valley Athletic Club, which organizes the race, and the National Park Service reached an agreement last month to allow continued use of the trail for this year’s race on Nov. 17 and in subsequent races, JFK co-Director Mike Spinnler said Monday.
“We’ve come to an agreement on procedures to be followed for this year’s JFK,” Spinnler said. “All parties are pleased with the outcome. The fears that were running around last year ... that the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) would no longer be available to us have gone away.”
“Compromise is what makes the world go round, and in this case I believe we have reached a good one,” Appalachian Trail Park Manager Pamela Underhill wrote in a March 9 letter.
The Cumberland Valley Athletic Club requested expanding the 2011 race to 1,500 runners with the number going up to 2,000 in 2012, Underhill said.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park — along which more than half of the race is run — authorized 1,500 starters, but the Appalachian Trail administrators did not, Spinnler wrote in an e-mail.
Expanding the number of competitors allowed on the trail could have required an environmental assessment, which might have threatened the race’s grandfathered status, Underhill said.
The race predates the Appalachian Trail being designated a national scenic trail, she said.
“We do not allow any other competitive, for-profit races on the trail,” Underhill said.
However, the park service recognizes the trail has an “iconic status” for JFK participants, she said.
The JFK 50-Mile was first held in the spring of 1963 in response to President John F. Kennedy’s fitness challenge to the military.
“For those of you who expressed support for continued use of the A.T., you can take comfort in knowing that NPS (National Park Service) will continue to allow this grandfathered non-conforming use to utilize a portion of the A.T.,” Underhill wrote.
“For those of you who expressed concern about allowing this continued use, you can take comfort in knowing that an expansion of the race will not be allowed.”
“In 2012, we’re going to keep all the traditions in place,” Spinnler said.
Race organizers will examine alternatives for expanding the field in the future, but not for the 2012 event, he said.
That could mean using a dual- or multiple-start system, similar to those used at the New York City and Boston marathons, which attract tens of thousands of runners each year, Spinnler said.
Under such a system, 1,000 runners would still be allowed on the trail section, while other entrants would begin at a different point, joining the course at some other point, he said.
“We’ll see if that’s something our participants would be interested in,” Spinnler said.
The limit of 1,000 runners was set by the National Park Service in the late 1990s, at a time when the number of entrants was usually in the hundreds, Spinnler said.
As the popularity of the race has grown, organizers have used an attrition formula, allowing more than 1,000 people to register on the assumption that not all of them would compete, he said.
“The compromise is to let them sign up 1,200 runners with the idea that about 1,000 will run,” Underhill said Monday in a telephone interview.
Registration begins May 1 and a lot of things can happen between then and the day of the ultramarathon — work schedule changes, injuries, family matters — that reduce the number of people who start the race, Spinnler said.
The park service has “agreed upon an attrition formula based on actual historic numbers that allows race organizers to register a higher percentage of runners with the goal of having 1,000 starters,” Underhill wrote.
“Attrition is not an exact science,” Spinnler said.
Based on past races, the attrition rate is between 18 percent and 22 percent, he said.
For the 2011 race, 1,200 people signed up, but the number who actually started the race was 941, Spinnler said. Of that number, 864 finished, he said.
In four of the six races from 2005 to 2010, more than 1,000 runners finished the race, according to Spinnler.