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Long Way Home

November 11, 2008

In the paths less traveled of ultramarathoning, when the body maxes out, sometimes a friendly word can make all the difference.

By Dave Lomonico 

Their arms drop lower and lower, like a gorilla's. Their hands weigh them down like they're holding 20-pound dumbbells. Thighs throb with pain, ankles creak and swell, and blisters the size of silver dollars form on their heels. Thirty-five miles in, the mind no longer functions properly. Focus is difficult now. Eyes roll around incoherently as the reds and yellows of autumn littering the ground of the Appalachian Trail become as blurred and messy as an artist's easel. Sweat-drenched hair sprays droplets like a misting hose, and blood trickles from the elbow after an exasperating fall, another victim of the rocky terrain. It is a perpetual state of pain. 

Kimball Byron, who is from Frederick but now lives in Owings Mills, has been running the JFK 50 Mile Memorial since he was 12 years old.
(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Yet the legs keep moving, barely a jog, almost pathetic to watch. But yes, they are moving. Stop? The word has lost all meaning. Push forward, or succumb and collapse -- those are the only two options. 

Suddenly another pair of legs appears to the left. The head is too heavy to lift, the eyelids too tired to open completely, but the other set of legs is undeniable. It offers hope: you will not collapse, you will not stop, you will not fail.  An inner strength is summoned, and momentarily the runner is able to produce enough saliva on a desert-dry tongue to utter, "Let's go, man." Now the adrenaline has returned, now the head lifts. There's a quick nod to the man on the left, and it's off to finish the last few miles of the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Memorial ultramarathon. Together. 

The JFK 50 Mile Memorial

President John F. Kennedy, in order to encourage fitness, first proposed the idea of an "ultramarathon" back in 1963. With Teddy Roosevelt as his inspiration, JFK wanted all his military officers to be able to complete the 50-mile hike in at least 20 hours, according to the JFK 50 Mile's Web site. The idea caught on all over the country, but when Kennedy was assassinated later that year, the multiple marathons disbanded -- except the one in Western Maryland. Local resident Buzz Sawyer kept the spirit alive by organizing the JFK 50 Mile Challenge in 1964, which he later renamed the JFK 50 Mile Memorial, a poignant tribute to the 35th president. 

"Without Buzz Sawyer, we wouldn't have a race," said Mike Spinnler, who took over for Sawyer as the race's director in 1993. "Sawyer answered the call of JFK. He organized and participated in the events himself for over 30 years. And Buzz is 80 years old now, and he still comes out to start off the race." 

The JFK is the oldest and largest race of its kind in the United States. It started in 1963 with 11 runners, peaked in popularity 10 years later when 1,724 competed, and after a brief lull has become so popular that Spinnler has had to turn people away. This year, 1,000 runners from all over the world will participate Nov. 22.

The Legend of Kimball Byron

Kimball Byron, 53, a pilot for US Airways and a former lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, pulls out his Blackberry, scrolls through the list of names under the category listed "JFK" and comes to Don Meyer's name. Byron can't help but smile. Last November, Meyer and Byron met at the 22-mile mark during the JFK, right around Harper's Ferry, and they finished the race together. 

"Let's give ol' Don a call," he says. A few moments later, Meyer answers from his home in Arizona, where he spends his time building adobe brick houses for less fortunate Native Americans in the area. It's not even 7 a.m. yet, but he's been up for four hours doing a "freak run" in preparation for the 50 Mile in November. 

"Hey Kimball, my man," he says, full of pep.

"You training already, Don?"

"You know me -- I'm the man, baby. I'm going to be a real freak this year," Meyer says, followed by a big, hearty laugh. "You know, we had such a good time last year, and there are just so many people to know."

Byron is a veteran participant who has completed a record 39 JFK runs, and at dawn Nov. 22 he'll be at the foot of South Mountain in Boonsboro to start his 40th race. Byron's friends and family are in awe of his streak, which was interrupted just once, in 1984, when the Air Force refused to give him leave. 

"Kimball is an amazing guy, and he's going to do something that a lot of people didn't think was possible," Spinnler said.

"It's extraordinary what he's done," said Randy "Ranger" Ward, who has completed 15 JFKs. "Kimball stands alone."

But the record is hardly the only reason Byron continues to run. There's something much deeper, much more selfless.

"I have lifelong memories from this run," said Byron as he reminisces about his father, his family and all the people he has met on the trail. "It's about the people who run. They have given me great satisfaction." 
Running the 50 Mile

Although an ultramarathon (any run over 35.2 miles) is altogether different from a regular marathon (just over 26 miles) with its slower pace, multiple rest stops and more sociable atmosphere, the ultra is not a walk in the park.

Camaraderie is important during the JFK, but the competitive spirit does take hold, even for average runners who spend more than 10 hours on the course. (Sabina Moran/PressBox)

"It's a grueling event, very taxing. It's like climbing Mount Granier in France," said Byron, stopping short of comparing an ultramarathon to climbing Mt. Everest. "You've got to do the marathon in stages. You can't just show up and run this thing. You've got to prepare yourself to run, just like you have to prepare yourself to climb a mountain when you've got to get used to the altitude."

Byron, who is from Frederick but now lives in Owings Mills, has been running the JFK since he was 12 years old. This ultramarathon has become a ritual, an annual rite of passage passed down from father to son. When Byron was 11, he watched his father, Goodloe, trudge through the front door late one night drenched in sweat, barely able to walk on blister-plagued feet. Byron then listened to his father tell him a story about how men and women gathered at Boonsboro, hiking and jogging for 50 miles.

He explained how he hiked up a mountain, went across the Appalachian Trail, hurried down a rocky cliff, hopped over the railroad tracks -- where if you don't time it right, you may have to waste precious minutes waiting for the train to pass -- spent 26 miles alongside the C&O Canal towpath, sped through Harper's Ferry, trudged over the aqueduct and Antietam Creek, hurried past Sheperdstown and Dam No. 4, before finally calling up the last bit of energy for the home stretch through the rolling countryside of Downsville and Williamsport.

Byron was in awe. 

"I'd like to go next year," he said.

One year later, in 1968, Byron followed his father on the JFK, and hasn't slowed down since.

"I really admired my father," Byron said. "But he left the house a lot, and I figured if I wanted to spend time with him, I should do this hike.

"Then it became a family thing. I remember my mom making 50 peanut butter sandwiches and drinking Tang and Coke. My brother ran with us a few years later. We would bring our friends in. Now, both my sons, Garrett and Philip, have run the last miles with me, and even my wife, Hannah, has run a few miles."

Goodloe Byron and his son ran the race together for 10 years, but in 1978 Goodloe died of a heart attack while jogging along the C&O towpath. Byron says he still thinks about his father when he runs the JFK, but the death certainly hasn't dimmed his passion or his memories.

"It's become a very spiritual journey for him," Hannah said. "It's a part of his genetic code now, like a fish going back to spawn. It's also a tribute to his Dad."

He fondly remembers that first race, which his father had to leave 35 miles in so he could attend a political convention, leaving the younger Byron to trek the final 15 miles without a guide.

It took Byron 14 hours to complete that first race, but he did considerably better in later years. His best time is 8 hours, 28 minutes in 1988, although he's a couple hours slower now. He doesn't have as much time to train -- he still runs an hour a day five days a week -- and certainly his body isn't as spry as it used to be.

"I've slowed up to about 12.5 minutes a mile, but I used to fly," Byron said. 

Now, just to be able to finish the race by the 7 p.m. deadline, he has to get up for the less popular 5 a.m. start time, as opposed to the regular 7 a.m. start.

So before the sun peeks over the mountains in Western Maryland, Byron and his over-50 buddies, A.C. George and Clinton Daly, will strap on their headlamps and start the long journey to Williamsport. A few miles in, Byron will meet Meyer and "Ranger" Ward, and they'll watch the sun rise over the hill, bask in the Civil War history at Antietam and relish the changing colors and the cool autumn breeze at rest stops. For the last 15 miles, Byron's wife and sons will join him, guiding him down the home stretch. 

"Kimball really gets motivated by the other participants in the race," Hannah said. "He really enjoys the camaraderie and that keeps him going."

Oh, the people you meet. So many. 
People Make the Marathon

Spinnler, who won the JFK 50 Mile back in 1982 and 1983, has seen this race change lives. Ultimately, the people make the course.

"What's unique about the 50 Mile is that people become teammates out there," Spinnler said. "Bonds form, and lifelong friendships develop."

Meyer knows all about lifelong friendships. Meyer, who owned a motorcycle dealership in Maryland during the 1970s and early '80s, first met Goodloe Byron at a YMCA during America's running boom in the early '70s. He didn't know it then, but that first meeting started a long relationship with the Byron family that came full circle last year, when he ran alongside Kimball for the first time.

Meyer moved west in the '80s and now lives in Arizona, where he runs his "freak races," including the daunting, 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon from the pits of Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the U.S. at 14,505 feet.

"People from around the world come, and it's a blast," Meyer said. "As hot as Death Valley is, it's a magical place."

It's hard to fathom any ultramarathon runner having a blast, especially during July in Death Valley, but for those who doubt, veterans like Meyer, Byron and Ward say to try it first.

"You get to talk and laugh with people," Meyer said. "It's a different social atmosphere. It's a great thing, and a total change from normal life."

That special camaraderie is what drives Meyer back to Maryland every year for the JFK. He's been running the race with Ward since 1991, and he also helps out with another 50K run in Frederick, where he and Ward run an aid station.

"There's just so many people I know in Maryland, and I loved living there," Meyer said. "I love helping other runners, too. I feel indirectly part of the community."

The ultramarathon runners are rarely professionals who devote their lives to races, although winners and record breakers do receive a small monetary reward. Most are ordinary men and women -- albeit in extraordinary condition -- who enjoy the scenery, the history and especially one another.

Ward is a 55-year-old veteran runner who has been driving a FedEx truck for 24 years. His passion for running is matched by Meyer, and perhaps that's why they travel the country together doing ultramarathons and hikes. The JFK, however, holds special significance. That's where he, Meyer and Byron gather for the only time all three will be together this year.

"The JFK is like a homecoming," said "Ranger" Ward, who acquired his nickname after an impressive hiking expedition in Canada. "You see a lot of people you only see once a year. It's like a reunion. And everyone is always so helpful. It's a competition, but you wouldn't always know it." 

Camaraderie is important during the JFK, but the competitive spirit does take hold, even for average runners who spend more than 10 hours on the course.

"I don't want some people to beat me," said Byron, who admits to getting "testy" if he has run a poor race. "There are some big, burly people who beat me. It makes me furious. The adrenaline really gets going sometimes, where you don't want to get beat."

Of course, Byron has no illusions about his skill. In fact, his goal is just to finish the race. Not even on his best days could he match the elite runners of today, who complete the JFK in less than six hours. Marathon running has evolved, from tennis shoes to New Balance, from burly, husky upper bodies to long, lean muscles, from running to finish to running for records.

To put things in perspective, back in 1963 Jim "Big E" Ebberts, Steve Cosition, Rick Miller and Sawyer won the race in a time of 13:10. In 1994, Eric Clifton ran the same course in a record 5:46:22, shaving more than seven hours off that 1963 time. 

Still, only one other runner has approached Byron's record of 39 finishes (Mike Adams had 34 consecutive finishes). He's run through sweltering heat, he's run through freezing snow -- a "great race," he says of that 32-degree day -- he's run with twisted ankles and busted-up elbows. Yet he's always finished. How does he do it?

"There's constant fatigue, and it's all about managing your body. How are you going to survive?" Byron said. "Mentally, I have a great advantage because I've been doing it all my life. I know the course and I have a passion. One day a year, I just love to do this. I wouldn't want anyone to take it from me.

"This is awesome."

Issue 131: November 2008