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Founder of Ultramarathon to Run at 75

November 20, 2003

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) _ William ``Buzz″ Sawyer, founder of the nation’s biggest and oldest ultramarathon, took an idea and ran and ran and ran with it. He’s 75 now and still running. On Saturday, Sawyer will join nearly 1,000 others in the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile, a race along the Appalachian Trail and the Potomac River that he and 10 members of his running club started in 1963.

``The idea initially was to finish it. But then everybody said, ’Well, let me see if I can improve my time a little the next year,‴ Sawyer said.

Shaving seconds is no longer a major motivation for Sawyer, who finished the grueling course last year in about 13 hours, 35 minutes, compared with his best time of 8:53:15 in 1970. He said he runs now mainly for pleasure and health, and perhaps to break the age record set in 1995 by the event’s oldest finisher, 80-year-old Carl Llewellyn.

Longevity is a common denominator in the story of Sawyer and the JFK, which begins in Boonsboro and ends in Williamsport. An ultramarathon is any running event longer than the standard marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. They have existed for centuries, in one form or another, and some have distances of more than 100 miles.

This year’s JFK happens to fall on the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination but it was established before he died, in the spring of 1963, in response to his call to physical fitness. Kennedy had challenged the Marines to meet President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 order requiring them to finish a 50-mile hike in 14 hours. In response, a number of 50-mile hikes were held around the country.

Sawyer, then a 34-year-old mechanical engineer, had been a world-class college distance runner and had served in the Air Force. He organized the JFK 50 and invited the teenage members of his Cumberland Valley Athletic Club to run along with him. Ten did and four people, including Sawyer, finished.

Many other 50-mile events ended after Kennedy’s death but the JFK expanded under Sawyer’s direction. He stopped participating after the 1970 race to devote himself solely to coordinating it. By 1973, it attracted a record 1,724 participants, prompting an agreement with Appalachian Trail managers to cap future fields at 1,000.

The number of starters dwindled to a low of 247 by 1986 but participation rebounded sharply in the late 1990s. Michael Spinnler, a two-time JFK winner who took over management of the race in 1983, said ultra long-distance running caught on in the 1990s with marathoners in their 30s and 40s who were looking for a new challenge.

Sawyer returned as a runner in 1993 and has missed just one race since, in 1995. ``I was having hip problems at that time and I didn’t want to take a chance,″ he said.

Sawyer said he stays in shape by running or walking at least three miles a day, and is often in training; he ran marathons in San Francisco and Baltimore earlier this year.

``For some reason I can’t figure out, my times have slowly deteriorated,″ he said, laughing.


On the Net:

John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Ultramarathon: http://lib.allconet.org/jfk

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