This past Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon, a footrace inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to his armed forces to meet a challenge first conceived by Teddy Roosevelt: cover 50 miles by foot in less than a day. Three of us from The Experiment made the trip to see 71-year-old Ed Ayres, whose book The Longest Race uses this historic race as a framework for remembering a lifelong dedication to long-distance running, as he competed against a field of 1,500 runners. We stood in a group of about a hundred supporters, watching as Ed and others careened down the rocky Appalachian Trail at Weverton Cliff, a treacherous stage of the race that Ed vividly recounts in his book. We witnessed the danger firsthand in the form of not-infrequent scraped and bloodied faces, legs, and knees of the runners going by. As Ed reached the foot of the cliff, he high-fived us and looked OK, but he let us know after the race that by the time he saw us he’d already fallen twice. And Weverton is only mile 15!But the JFK is the rare race that celebrates longevity even more than it does speed, and so, despite Ed’s going on to finish first in his 70+ age group, it will be his dedication year after year (Saturday marked his 17th JFK) that carries the most weight among the JFK crowd. In fact, at the pre-race Legends Dinner, no mention of a course record was ever made; instead, Ed and others were commemorated for the incredible number of JFK miles they’ve run. Three more JFKs before Ed gains membership into the exclusive and highly revered 1000-mile club.
The respect for Ed’s hard-earned wisdom permeated the book signing he held at the race expo Friday evening. Jittery first-timers sought the comfort of Ed’s expertise, treating him like an Old Master as they grabbed a book and picked his brain about the course. One person called Ed “my hero;” many asked to have a photo taken with him. Those who had a significant amount of JFKs under their belts themselves—three, four, five finishes—looked on Ed with even greater reverence, understanding more intimately the amount of struggle involved in every race and knowing well that it never gets any easier.
But Ed was most thrilled to meet those whose experience rivals his own. The man in the green jacket, pictured here buying Ed’s book, completed his 35th JFK on Saturday. It is this class of runner that embodies the kind of commitment to the long view that Ed advocates in The Longest Race. Ed and his peers took up running when they were much younger men, and, with an enduring mentality—always preparing for the next day, the next race—they really have never stopped.