America’s Oldest Continuously-Held Ultramarathon Is Only Looking Forward

After 60 years, the JFK 50 Mile Race is sticking to its community-centered approach, and people keep showing up

Mike Spinnler cries nearly every time he recounts memories as a runner and long-time race director of the JFK 50, the oldest continuously run ultra in the country.

Such memories include the time he first ran the iconic Maryland race when he was 12 years old, or the year he cheered on his 60-year-old wife as she crossed the finish, or memories of watching his two sons racing. For him, this race is a member of the family.

In 1993, five years after his tenth JFK finish, Spinnler became the race’s second race director, where he’s been ever since. By then, he’d set the course record (5:53:05) in 1982, and added another win in 1983, for a total of five top-five and six top-ten finishes.

Thirty years later, it’s still his pride and joy. He’ll immerse in the magic of the event again on Saturday, November 18, as more than 1,000 runners take the journey through the historic route that’s so dear to his heart.

“It just keeps growing in its prestige,” he says.

The JFK 50 started in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The president had instituted a public health program to improve the nation’s fitness, supporting the launch of a series of 50-mile races around the country. But as years went on, the only one that stuck around was the JFK 50.

“Kennedy’s mission was this: Improve your physical fitness, improve your lifestyle, improve your country,” says Spinnler. “We heeded his call and have been doing it for 60-plus years.”

The JFK 50 course is located about an hour northwest of Washington D.C., covering traditional lands of the Indigenous Massawomek and Shawandassee Tule (Shawanaki/Shawnee). One of the race’s primary appeals is that it’s a horseshoe-shaped, point-to-point course with three distinct sections: The Appalachian Trail (miles 0-15), the Canal/Tow Path (miles 15-42), and the rolling finish (miles 42-50).

The race starts in Boonsboro, Maryland, follows a few miles of paved roads before connecting with the Appalachian Trail (AT), where the course climbs more than 1,000 vertical feet in five miles, crests to the high point, and follows rocky singletrack before dropping 1,000 vertical feet halfway into the race (mile 14.5), to connect with a flat marathon distance along the C&O Canal Tow Path. The last several miles are rolling country roads, where it finishes at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport.

In 2019, Seth Ruhling, an unsponsored athlete, showed up to the JFK 50, slept in his car the night before, and won the race in a blistering 5:38:11, his debut 50-miler. Within hours of winning, he sealed a sponsorship with The North Face.

Ruhling, 29, now lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado, and he’ll be returning for his second JFK 50. Since Ruhling’s 2019 win, he has made a name for himself with a sixth place finish at the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2021, second place at Montana’s Rut 50K, first place at the Broken Arrow Skyrace 46K, and most recently, sixth at CCC 100K during the week of UTMB in Chamonix, France.

In 2020, JFK 50 was one of the only races in the country that didn’t shut down with the pandemic. Ruhling had planned on racing, but got injured. “I always wanted to go back,” he says.

Ruhling was particularly drawn into this year’s race because of its deep field of registered elites, which had at one point included 2023 Western States winner Tom Evans, Matt Daniels, Adam Merry, and Sean Van Horn—all of whom have since dropped.

His strategy for the mixed course, which requires technical trail chops as well as fast road turnover, is to attack every single section. He says that, while the JFK 50 is known more as a “track race,” it’s a mistake to discount the early trail miles. “The record is going to happen on the towpath, sure, but only if it’s set up with efficient running on the AT section,” he says.

posted Sunday November 19th
by Outside Online