NOTE: This is a followup to my last blog, about President John F. Kennedy's worries that Americans were becoming too physically and mentally soft.
In the winter of 1962-63, during his ruminations about whether Americans were fit enough to meet the challenges of an increasingly dangerous age, President Kennedy came across an Executive Order that had been written half a century earlier by another president who valued physical vigor and had been similarly concerned. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt had declared that all U.S. Marines should be able to prove their fitness by walking 50 miles in three days, doing the last half-mile by alternating 200 yards of double-time marching and 30 seconds of rest, then sprinting the final 200 yards. The records showed that some of TR's officers had done the distance in one day, and Kennedy wondered whether the Marines of 1963 were as fit as those of 1908. He sent a memo to the Marine commandant, General David Shoup, suggesting "Why don't you send this [Roosevelt's order] back to me as your own discovery? You might want to add a comment that today's Marine Corps officers are just as fit as those of 1980, and are willing to prove it. I, in turn, will ask Mr. Salinger [Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary] for a report on the fitness of the White House staff."
That began the great "50-mile walk" phenomenon of 1963--a phenomenon that was regarded both then and later largely as a "craze". On February 5, the White House put out a press release about Roosevelt's order, noting that the president had suggested to General Shoup that he find out how well his Marines could do, compared with Teddy Roosevelt's Marines. A group of officers was called up to do the test. However, JFK's brother, Bobby Kennedy, decided he was going to do it too, and wasn't going to wait for the Marines. That Sunday, Bobby set out on a 50-mile hike with four of his aides, on the C&O Canal Towpath from the Washington, DC suburbs to Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The weather was freezing, the towpath was covered with slush, and one by one the aides all dropped out. As the last one quit at mile 35, Bobby Kennedy said to him, "You're lucky your brother isn't president of the United States." Kennedy reached 50 miles in 17 hours, 50 minutes.
Within days, thousands of civilians, likewise, had responded to the challenge intended for Marine officers. A 15-year-old, Paul Kiczek, did the distance and decades later revisited the experience in an Internet search of 1963 newspaper stories about the hikes. A New Jersey newspaper, The Daily Record, reported on February 15, 1963 that a 24-year-old policeman and ex-Marine, Francis wulff, had done the feat on the spur of the moment. "I read about some army officers shooting off their mouths about the Marines and I decided to give it a try," Wulff told the reporter. On February 16, the same paper reported that a group of eight teenagers from Boonton, New Jersey had set out in sub-freezing weather and three had gone the distance. One of them, 17-year-old Ken Middleton, remarkably finished the 50 miles in under 12 hours--which meant he had to have run a good part of the distance. On February 22, the paper reported that The Mansion House Tavern, in Boonton, had announced a competition, a "Fifty-Mile Endurance Walk," to take place on March 10, with a $25 Savings Bond for the winner and free draft beer for everyone who finished. Meanwhile, in Marin County, California, 400 high-school students set out to do the 50 miles, presumably even without the incentive of free beer, and 97 of them finished.
Across the country, the "fad" was met with quick scorn and skepticism from medical and health experts.
From the American Medical Association: "People can endanger themselves. We get distressed when people go out and strain themselves."
From the National Recreation Association: "The 50-mile hike verges on insanity."
From the Soviet Union's Olympic track coach: "So a man walks 50 miles in one day--what of it? Tomorrow he catches a taxicab again to go four blocks."
So, what was Kennedy thinking? Had he had second thoughts about his comment [in his Sports Illustrated article] that his goal was not to train our youth to be warriors like the ancient Spartans? One clue may be that unlike some of the more cocksure politicians who would succeed him, Kennedy had an abiding interest in military history and in the rises and falls of empires. He may have been more conscious than some of his generals that in the history of civilization, the capacity to conquer or destroy often turns out to be only the beginning of the story. Often, a decisive part of the story is a people's capacity to wait and endure. JFK was doubtless familiar with the history of the Arab revolt led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in 1917, which dramatically demonstrated how consequential that capacity can be. The British, who were encouraging the revolt against the Ottoman Empire, wanted the Arabs to attack the Turks at their stronghold in Medina. But whereas the Turks had thousands of men, Lawrence had only a few hundred. The Turks had unassailable power, but the Arabs had something else--an ability to hit and run, striking repeatedly at the railroad that supplied the Turkish garrison. With all their heavy armor, the Turks couldn't effectively chase down their attackers, who travelled light and could fade into the desert, In his well-researched article in the May 11, 2009 New Yorker, "How David Beats Goliath," Malcolm Gladwell notes that Lawrence led his Bedouins over 600 miles in summer heat while the Turks stayed fixed in their garrison. He quotes Lawrence: "Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets are movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of country...." In the end, the tribesmen killed or captured 1,200 Turks while losing only two men of their own. In this context, Gladwell quotes the 15th-century French general Maurice de Saxe, who famously said that the art of war is about legs, not arms. And, noted Gladwell, "Lawrence's troops were all legs."
However, I suspect Kennedy wasn't just thinking about the physical endurance of the Marines, but a broader set of concerns: the role of persistence as well as power, of patience as a reality check to impulsive urgency, and the long view as an essential factor in planning, especially in response to emergencies. I wonder if he may have sensed, even before its outlines were clear, that the world was headed toward a global emergency even more all-encompassing--and fateful--than that of the global war that had ended a few years earlier. Scientists had not yet foreseen the specter of catastrophic climate change. And the threats of ecological failure, resource wars, peak oil, and Malthusian outcomes were then only faint shadows on the horizon. Whatever JFK had in mind, he never got to fully explain in a thoughtful memoir,or even in policy discussions, as his life was suddenly cut off. But his call was taken to heart by more than just the Marines.
A few months after the 50-mile phenomenon began, President Kennedy was assassinated and the hiking party was over. The accepted view was that it all had been basically a fad, and that with the charismatic president gone, whatever real inspireation there had been in it had died with him. The decade would quickly turn to graver, and more turbulent, concerns. If anyone had sensed that personal fitness might be a precondition for societal wellbeing, that sense was numbed by the violence of the following years--from the assassination of Martin Luther King and Kennedy's brother Bobby, to the Vietnam War, the protests and riots, and the fast-spreading drug culture--a much quicker route to gratification in a country where ever-quicker routes were becoming the rule of the rising sprint culture-- than taking long hikes on winter days. Even as seemingly well-researched a history as Paul Kiczek's posting on the JFK hikes concluded that by the mid-1960s, the 50-mile fad had ended. "Interestingly, only one 50-mile event appears to remain active in the U.S.," Kiczek quite mistakenly wrote in 2009. Maybe he can be excused for not knowing, because such events are almost never seen or mentioned by sports shows or reporters, and rarely seen by the general public, as they usually take place on remote mountain or desert trails. But in fact, more than 500 ultramarathons were held in the United States that year. And the number has continued to grow since then.
The "one remaining" event Kiczek referred to was the appropriately named "JFK 50-mile," which was first held in 1963 and has been held every year since. The JFK 50 started as a hike, was soon changed to a "hike/run" and then to just the "JFK 50-mile run." It is the largest ultra in the U.S., and probably second only to Western States as the most competitive. This fall will be its 49th year, and I plan to be running.