Commemoration, Controversy and Competition at JFK 50
In 1963, John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to his military personnel: Run 50 miles in under 20 hours ...
In 1963, John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to his military personnel: Run 50 miles in under 20 hours, a standard Teddy Roosevelt had set for his own military in the early 20th century. Non-commissioned military personnel, even civilians, took part in the 1963 “JFK 50-Mile Challenge” in Washington D.C., along with numerous similar locations across the country. On November 17th, that tradition continued with record-setting vigor.
Renamed the “JFK 50-Mile Memorial” in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, the race has weathered the fluctuating popularity of ultrarunning. Of the many events spurred into existence by Kennedy’s original challenge, the “JFK 50 Mile Memorial” is the only one to have been held every year since. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the race is now the oldest and largest trail ultra in existence. Fittingly, the recent running of the event saw both impressive first-timers' debuts and tremendous improvements in course records across the board.
Max King leading the 2012 JFK 50 at mile 22.
Photo Courtesy of the Riddle family/iRunfar.com
This year's race
Oregon’s Max King lowered the previous men's record set by David Riddle in 2011, from 5:40:45 to 5:34:58. King completed the towpath marathon section in approximately 2:44. Admittedly exhausted by the third and final section of the race, he said he “clicked off the miles rather painfully, but still managed a decent clip"—he never went above a seven-minute-per-mile pace.
King cinched the win with an over three-minute margin over second-place finisher and first-time 50-miler, Trent Briney. Briney, whose marathon personal record is an impressive 2:12 (a minute faster than King’s), also bettered the old record by three minutes. David Riddle came in third, one of five men to finish the race in less than six hours. The runners credit the competitive showing with pushing them to record-setting times.
Though last year’s women’s champ, Cassie Scallon, did not return to the race, the women’s field was rife with talent. Ellie Greenwood, 33, a seasoned ultrarunner, fought for the lead against 26-year-old newcomer Emily Harrison, a 2:32 marathoner from Front Royal, Virginia, who used this year’s race as her ultrarunning debut.
Greenwood, who lives and trains in North Vancouver, excelled on the trail. She was the first woman off the AT, emerging ahead of many men, but soon lost her lead to Harrison—a lead she didn’t recover until the 50K mark. “[Trailing] Emily from miles 21 to 31 was a little disconcerting,” Greenwood says, “but I knew I needed to wait it out and not go too fast too soon.”
Overcoming some mid-race stomach issues, Greenwood picked off the 10th-place man with only the final stretch of the race to go. She held her position and came away with a victory, a top-10 finish and a new course record of 6:11:59, easily overthrowing the 2009 record of 6:29:21, set by Devon Yanko. Harrison came in under the previous course record as well, clocking 6:17:16.
Of her accomplishment, Greenwood says, “I went into the race knowing Devon Yanko's course record was a good one and hoped I might be able to crack it, but didn’t expect the margin that I had!”