Battle brewing over JFK 50 race use of Appalachian Trail
Runners in the 46th Annual JFK 50 Mile race make their way down the Appalachian Trail near Weverton Road in this 2008 file photo. (File Photo)
After years of quiet battle, "it's time for the gloves to come off," JFK 50 Co-Director Tom Shantz said, referring to plans to pressure Appalachian National Scenic Trail Superintendent Pamela Underhill, who stands in the way.
For this year's race, Shantz asked for permission to have 1,500 runners in the popular race through Washington County and was denied. A request to allow 2,000 runners in 2012, for the 50th running of the race, also was rejected.
Underhill said she'd rather the field remain at 1,000, but offered to consider allowing a bigger field — possibly what Shantz and JFK 50 Co-Director Mike Spinnler want — if organizers stop using the trail after 2012.
Shantz, who is in charge of JFK 50 logistics, and Spinnler refused Underhill's offer and are continuing to press to have a larger 2012 field.
Spinnler, a two-time JFK 50 winner and race director since 1993, said he doesn't understand Underhill's resistance. The race is carefully managed and there's never been any documentation it damages the trail, he said.
He said the 1973 field had a record 1,724 runners in the rain and the trail held up well.
"We don't permit any other competitive races on the Appalachian Trail," which runs about 2,160 miles from Maine to Georgia, Underhill said in an interview last week. The JFK 50, however, has used the trail before the ban began and has been allowed to continue.
"I'm not going to throw it off the trail," Underhill said. However, she's considering asking for an environmental assessment of the trail and its use in the race for a clearer picture of what's fair.
The JFK 50 is a 50-mile race John F. Kennedy established as a fitness challenge for the military. The JFK 50 website says there were other similar races in the United States, but they faded away after Kennedy was assassinated.
As the nation's oldest ultramarathon, the local race has grown and prospered. Organizers said they have turned away thousands of applicants.
The majority of the race has three parts — about 13 miles on the rocky Appalachian Trail, about 26 miles on the flat C&O Canal towpath, which also is a national park, and about eight miles on local roads.
Each year, JFK 50 organizers must get a variety of local, state and federal permits.
Spinnler said other entities will allow the field size to increase, but Underhill won't.
He, Shantz and others are ratcheting up their lobbying effort by encouraging supporters, including past runners, to call and email Underhill and her boss, as well as certain members of Congress.
U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., sponsored a nonbinding resolution in January calling for race organizers and the National Park Service to work together on "controlled and managed growth" of the race as it approaches its 50th year.
"[A]ny growth over 2,000 participants should be at the mutual consent of the Director of the National Parks and the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club," which organizes the race, the resolution says.
It also says "the United States Government should recognize the desire to protect and promote the heritage and historical significance of the JFK 50 Mile held every year rain or shine, sleet or snow."
Lisa Wright, Bartlett's press secretary, said the congressman "has always worked to act as a facilitator for developing consensus agreements on every issue where there's federal policy."