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Fond memories of the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon from its founder and original runners

November 10, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
(Page 2 of 2)

On the nightstand of Buzz Sawyer’s room in Somerford Place is a copy of “The Flying Scotsman,” a book about the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, and copies of Track & Field Magazine.

“Born to Run” and “The Perfect Mile” are in his bookcase, along with an All-America cross country award from 1954, and the walls are crowded with framed photos and newspaper clippings of a life spent on the run.

At 83, William Joseph “Buzz” Sawyer Jr., the founder of the JFK 50 Mile, has slowed a bit and a walker stands by his chair, but he hopes to be at the dinner Friday night before the 50th running of the race and, possibly, there to see the finish Saturday.

“I was the coach and actually a runner, as well,” said Sawyer, who founded the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club and trained the first group of 11 young men to attempt the challenge made by President John F. Kennedy that U.S. military personnel should be able to cover 50 miles in 20 hours.

In that first event, held in March 1963, some dropped out and some got lost, but four — Sawyer, Steve Costion, James Ebberts and Rick Miller — completed the event in 13 hours and 10 minutes.

“There was absolutely no race component to it,” said Miller, a retired teacher in Olney, Md. “It was just, ‘Can we do it?’”

Miller dressed for the challenge in khaki pants, a button-down shirt and running shoes. He carried a bag lunch.

“No backpacks, no cellphones, no water bottles,” he said.

Sometimes they would break into a run for a mile or two, getting ahead of Sawyer and then lying on the towpath waiting for him to catch up, Miller said.

“That towpath was very long,” Costion said, referring to the stretch of more than 26 miles along the C&O Canal towpath.

Costion, who retired from General Electric a few years ago, now lives in Burnt Hills, N.Y.

Kennedy’s remarks sparked a brief ultramarathon craze that dwindled sharply after his assassination, but those early runners persisted and established a tradition. Now, the JFK 50 Mile is known as “America’s Ultramarathon.”

“I felt it was OK that time, but I’ll never do it again,” Sawyer said of the 1963 event. “They came to me each year and they said, ‘Are we going to do the 50-mile again this year?’ The kids kept it going.” 

Donna Aycoth, the event’s first female participant in 1968, said there were no scholastic races longer than 1,500 meters for women at the time, so she began training with the all-male Cumberland Valley Athletic Club at the YMCA.

“You just had to run together and you finished where you finished,” she said last week during a visit with Sawyer. “Back then it was a run-hike sort of thing.”

Aycoth, a retired FBI agent, finished tied for second with Sawyer and Wayne Vaughn in 10 hours, 41 minutes and 15 seconds in her first 50-miler. She was the women’s champion from 1968-73 and shares the record of six victories with fellow Washington County resident Carolyn Showalter.

Aycoth’s fastest victory came in 1973, when she finished in 8 hours, 26 minutes and 7 seconds.

A photo on Sawyer’s wall shows the start of the 1973 race in Boonsboro, which began with 1,724 runners, the largest starting field for an ultramarathon in U.S. history. The participants are dressed in everything from polyester track suits and gym shorts to sweat shirts and slacks.

Sawyer and others would start the race in slacks and take them off along the way as they warmed up, Aycoth said.

Adidas and Puma were about the only running shoes available at time, Aycoth said. The revolution in running — in popularity, technology and nutrition — had yet to really take off, she said.

“They might have had Gatorade back then,” said Showalter, who also holds the record for finishes by a woman with 25. She was the women’s champion from 1985-89 and in 1994.

In the 1980s, there were no aid stations on the course, and Showalter said she would get water from pumps along the C&O Canal towpath during the race. Now runners consume energy gels during endurance events, she said.

The last time Showalter ran was in 2003, but she has been training and plans to compete Saturday. She recently did a 25-mile training run.

“Just because it’s the 50th year, I thought it would be neat to come back and try it again,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll see people I knew from when I used to run.”

Showalter said she stopped running the JFK 50 Mile after developing knee problems, but riding a bicycle over the years helped her keep in condition until she began training for the event.

Miller completed his only JFK 50 Mile while a sophomore at South Hagerstown High School. His track coach steered him away from the event to focus on the half-mile, he said.

Miller went into the military and on to a teaching career. For a number of years, he was unaware the race was still being held.

This year will be his first at the event since 1963, Miller said.

Costion has not been to the event since completing in it 1963 and 1964. He recalled training on a Sunday, probably before the 1964 race, where Sawyer had them run from South High to Martinsburg, W.Va.

Sawyer was not just the founder of the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club and the JFK 50 Mile, but the man who got people in this area interested in running, Costion said.

“Buzz was the whole thing behind it,” Costion said.

“He got me an athletic scholarship” to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Costion said. “He helped a lot of young men around there,” he said.

And at least one woman.

“It’s funny, something we did for fun turned into such a big thing,” Aycoth said.

The Washington County Hall of Fame at Hagerstown Community College lists Aycoth as the first woman in U.S. history to run an ultramarathon, she said.

“You’re a bit of history now,” Sawyer said.

“Thanks to you,” Aycoth replied.

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By the numbers

Fewest starters — 11 (1963)
Fewest finishers — Four (1963)
Most starters — 1,724 (1973)
Most finishers — 1,078 (2007)
Lowest percentage of finishers — 17 percent (1974)
Highest percentage of finishers —  94 percent (2001)
Most victories by a man — Five (James “Big E” Ebberts)
Most victories by a woman — Six (Donna Aycoth and Carolyn Showalter)
Most finishes by a man — 43 (Kimball Byron)
Most finishes by a woman — 25 (Carolyn Showalter)
Oldest male finisher — Carl Llewellyn (80 years, 5 months)
Oldest female finisher — Barbara MacKlow (76 years, 7 months)

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