The Meaning Behind the Miles: JFK-50 Mile Story Project
There are races that find their way deep inside of your heart. There are races that bring new meaning to your life. There are races that bring like-minded souls together to defy logic and beat all the odds. There are many races, but there is only one JFK-50 miler.
The JFK 50 Mile is the nation’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. It was first held in the spring of 1963. It is the only remaining 50-mile event of several held around the country as part of President John F. Kennedy’s push to bring the country back to physical fitness. The military personnel that take part in the JFK 50 Mile are extremely well-prepared, disciplined and (even when greatly fatigued) always courteous to everyone involved with organizing and supporting the event. It is always a true honor – and pleasure – to host U.S. Military personnel at the JFK 50 Mile.
The race as we know it today was built on the hopes and dreams of a 12-year-old boy named Mike Spinnler.
Below, Mike shares his thoughts on the early days, the hard fought miles he suffered through during the race, his inspiration and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
Q&A with Mike Spinnler, JFK-50 mile race director, participant, finisher, winner, course record holder (1982-1994):
Why do you do it?
I initially did it – at age 12 – because my older brother (by 17 years), who had been a standout runner in college, was doing it and was trying to win. I had no idea what I was doing.
What is special about this race?
This race is very special to me because it was the first time I ever pinned on a number. It was THE RACE in our region…in 1973 it was the largest foot race in North America. Bigger than Boston and Bay-To-Breakers.
How important is this race to you?
For the last 45 years (from age 12 to 57) it has been a daily part of my life. At first as an athlete striving to someday win it, to eventually assuming the director’s role in a race I hope lasts for centuries to come.
Tell me about your strongest finish.
The year 1977 was an extremely painful “learning experience” when I thought I could lead from the gun at a fast tempo. Nineteen-years-old and probably capable of something around 6:20 (which still would not have won on that day) I suffered to the finish line 10th in 6:57:54. I actually fell back from the lead to 14th place before rallying down the stretch to get back into the top-ten. When I finished in 14:19:23 as a 12-year-old it seemed like I was out on the course for years. A very difficult and painful day when I learned a lot about myself even though I’d only been on the planet for 150 months at that point.
My fastest was my course record win in 1982 (5:53:05….previous record was set in 1973 by the legendary Max White…5:55:30). I trained at my absolute physical edge topping out at 140-miles a week. Also supplemented those running miles with swimming, lifting weights and yoga. I purposely left no stone unturned. On race day I suffered but it was good well-executed suffering and I was able to achieve a dream that I had pursued for 11-plus years. I wrote in my log book that night that it was the most satisfying day of my life. I’ve had many other satisfying days over the following 33-years, but that one still ranks way up there.
Which section is your favorite and why?
My favorite section is the final 200 meters to the finish line. It passes the house of the man (Greg Shank) who coached me as a post-collegiate to my wins in ’82 and ’83. So many of my training runs started or went by his house and by the finish line. So on race day to go by such familiar territory in last moments of my most notable athletic achievement was special. I literally ran tens of thousands of training miles on the C&O Canal Towpath. So when ever racing that section during the JFK 50 Mile (and the Gary Brown Memorial C&O Canal Five Mile….which I won in ’85 and also currently direct) I felt very “at home.”
Tell me about the most interesting person you’ve met while running JFK-50.
I’ve met so many interesting (and inspiring) people associated with the JFK 50 Mile. Number one however has to be William “Buzz” Sawyer the founder and director of the first 30 editions of the race. He loved this race like no one else. He is the reason it is the only surviving Kennedy Challenge event still in existence. I’ve directed since 1993 but he’s the one who made it happen year-in-and-year out from 1963 to 1992.
Who is your inspiration?
My greatest inspiration as the event’s director is also William “Buzz” Sawyer. It is like he handed over to me his child and said I need you to take care of this baby since I’m getting too old to do it now. His trust in me is probably the greatest compliment ever bestowed on me. I hope I can find the right person to take over when the time comes. Buzz sensed I was the guy. I hope I have that same sense when I eventually hand over the reigns to my successor.
What would you say to someone who feels they wouldn’t be able to do this race?
To someone who thinks they’d never be able to do it, I’d personally leave them alone. But to some young kid who witnesses the event and then wants to “shock the world” I’d highly encourage them to lay it on the line and answer the questions most human beings never get answered.
What do you tell runners who are struggling during the race?
To people who are suffering/struggling during the event, I’d remind them that if this was easy a heck of a lot more people would be doing it. It is the difficult part of this challenge that makes it special and worthwhile.
What do you want your JFK-50 legacy to be?
My legacy? As a competitor….someone who dreamed of winning and then pursued that dream for over a decade – with every ounce of their existence – to make that dream a reality. As a director…..someone who loved the event as much as Buzz Sawyer and – like Buzz – whose passion kept the event alive regardless of the challenges that arose.
Imagine the race in 10 years, tell me about it.
I hope the race in ten years still maintains all of the traditional aspects that make it unique. At 67 I doubt if I’m the top-guy on the Race Management Team in 2025, but hopefully I’m still on the Team in some capacity. It is my dream that through efficient and effective race management that every person who warrants being on the starting line gets that opportunity.
JFK 50 Mile Participant 1971-75, 1977, 1982-85, 1987-88, 1990
JFK 50 Mile Finisher 1971-73, 1975, 1977, 1982-83, 1985, 1987-88
JFK 50 Mile Winner 1982 & 1983
JFK 50 Mile Course Record Holder (5:53:05) 1982-1994
JFK 50 Mile Director 1993-present