William Sawyer dies at 90, he put Washington County on ultramarathon map, finishing the JFK 50 mile ultramarathon at age 75

Buzz Sawyer enjoyed keeping score. In the game of life, it’s safe to say he finished a winner. Sawyer, a former world-ranked distance runner who founded the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon in Washington County, died Sunday. He was 90.

“He’s never going to be forgotten,” said Mike Spinnler, the JFK 50 race director since 1993, when he took over for Sawyer. “He’s like Red Auerbach with the Celtics or Paul Brown with the Browns. I don’t care how many centuries the JFK goes on, he’s always going to be synonymous with it. It doesn’t exist without him.”

On March 30, 1963, Sawyer answered President John F. Kennedy’s call for Americans to be more physically fit. He and 10 young men from his Cumberland Valley Athletic Club set out to cover 50 miles on foot. The route consisted of the rugged Appalachian Trail, the flat C&O Canal towpath and rolling country roads — almost identical to the course used every year since.

Of the 11 starters in 1963, four finished, including Sawyer. They completed the trek together in 13 hours and 10 minutes.

The next year, there were 16 starters and seven finishers, and the event continued to grow. Similar JFK challenge events across the country faded away.

“Buzz was not that different than guys all over the country who organized JFK 50 events in the spring of 1963,” Spinnler said. “What made him different was that after Kennedy was assassinated, he kept holding the event to memorialize Kennedy. While all the other events disappeared, his continued on his back for 30 years. … I know for a fact that he lost money out of his own pocket to keep that race alive for decades. He just had such passion for it.”

Sawyer was a regular participant in the JFK 50 in his event’s early years. In 1970, at age 41, he finished fifth overall in a personal-best time of 8 hours and 53 minutes in a field of 274 runners and hikers.

But that was his last finish as the event’s director. The JFK was becoming so big that he had to devote all of his energy to managing it on race day.

By 1972, there were more than 1,000 participants. In 1973, the JFK had a starting field of 1,724 — the largest of any foot race in the U.S. that year and nearly 200 more than the Boston Marathon.

posted Wednesday February 6th