HAGERSTOWN, Md. — A dispute over whether the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon will be allowed to continue using the Appalachian Trail and double the number of runners from 1,000 to 2,000 is escalating.
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. 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.”
Shantz, who also has run the JFK 50, said he recently submitted his application for a 2012 permit to use the Appalachian Trail, again asking for a field of 2,000 runners.
Underhill’s response last year to the request for 1,500 runners in 2011 and 2,000 in 2012 was a clear no.
“Your growing aspirations for the race render it no longer even remotely compatible with the AT,” she wrote in a June email that Shantz shared with The Herald-Mail.
“Given your unwillingness to commit to looking for a more appropriate race course location other than the AT for 2013 and beyond,” Underhill wrote, “I see no reason to give further consideration to increasing the number of participants who will be allowed under our permit this year and next. Please be advised that we also will be looking carefully at whether any permits will be issued beyond 2012.”
Shantz said Underhill initially denied a permit for the race in 2007, then relented.
The JFK 50 permit for the trail is never a sure thing and, one year, was secured 10 hours before the race began, he said.
It’s not clear how long the limit of 1,000 runners has been in place. Underhill said there was no “sound science” behind that number. JFK 50 organizers consider it an arbitrary limit that’s preventing the race from growing and meeting public interest.
It wasn’t a problem when the fields were in the hundreds, but in 2005, for the first time, race organizers had to reject applicants, according to Shantz.
Even though their permit allows no more than 1,000 runners, JFK 50 organizers regularly allow more than that to register.
According to an email Shantz sent to Terry Lierman, the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip, the starting field was never less than 1,030 from 2005 to 2010.
Four of those six years, more than 1,000 runners finished.
In an email to Shantz, Underhill wrote: “Unfortunately, the terms of past issued permits have been repeatedly breached by the JFK race coordinators during recent races. This non-compliance puts the park resources, park visitors and the race participants at risk.”
Spinnler accused Underhill of “nitpicking.” He said more than 1,000 people are allowed to register because under a formula of attrition, a certain percentage is bound not to show up and the field usually is right around the 1,000 mark.
However, Shantz and Spinnler said they’ll never turn away a member of the military who registers to run.
“Our philosophy is ‘without them we don’t even have a race’ or anything else for that matter,” Shantz wrote to Lierman.