” Most of us learn to live comfortably within our limits but occasionally we like to test where our boundaries lie. When presented with a difficult physical challenge, we might assume that only someone with extraordinary motivation and self-confidence could pull it off. However, there are situations where, conditions being right, a small spark can ignite a huge fire. Given the right set of circumstances, even average people can reach well beyond their limits and achieve something they never thought possible.
Such was a moment 50 years ago, when John F. Kennedy (JFK) announced that an endurance test of walking 50 miles be performed by U.S. servicemen to prove they were in ready military condition. To everyone’s amazement, a willing public took up the challenge and extreme walking quickly became a national obsession. This is the tale of what happened as a challenge-hungry country, for a time, took physical fitness somewhat seriously.
Fun, Fads and Followers
It was the age of fads and good clean fun when companies such as Wham-o created overnight sensations like Frisbees, Hula Hoops and Silly Putty. The public fell in love with clever new inventions that provided hours of pure innocent fun for the young and young at heart. College fads represented another side of silly. There were eating contests, “spring fever” on campuses and even a sweater knitted for two were new expressions of fun. The growing youth population took to new music and dances, like thetwist, that matched the pent up energy of the times. Still at the dawning stage of TV, people relied on entertaining themselves with improvised play. Organized sports, such as baseball, were revered, but makeshift neighborhood games with Spaldings and whiffle balls were just as important as whether the Yankees or Dodgers won last night.
In the 1950s, society prized conformity and shared beliefs; sometimes to an extreme. It was an age of black and white that eventually would turn dark gray through increasingly unsolvable military and social conflicts. The 60s provided the counterpoint to this conformist behavior. It was a time where social institutions began to crumble. Individuals questioned their own beliefs and loyalties.
Society looked for new leaders and a re-definition of what their roles were going to be in a changing society. Being sworn in as President in 1961, JFK became the new cultural icon, an anti-establishment and instinctive president who enjoyed an active lifestyle and sensed that the country needed to improve itself. As he faced many of his own personal challenges with courage and grace, he expected no less from us. He asked us to think differently and for each of us to reach for higher goals than we had thought possible.
A National Fitness Challenge
Kennedy was a sports enthusiast, who despite having physical handicaps all his life, loved to follow and participate in sports. He swam and played golf and football while at Harvard. In later years, he became an accomplished golfer and enjoyed sailing, playing touch football, tennis, and softball with family and friends. His battle with hardships seemed to make him love and respect physical challenges even more.
Having won the 1960 election, but by a close margin, President-elect Kennedy, a skilled writer and communicator, had an article published in
Sports Illustrated, December 26, 1960, titled The Soft American. At the start of his presidency, he laid out an argument for the importance of physical fitness forallAmericans and a plan to use his influence to achieve a healthier society. He summed it up best with these words from the article:
“The physical vigor of our citizens is one of America’s most precious resources.”
Physical fitness was just one of his many ambitious goals and part of his vision of the New Frontier. Kennedy foresaw that new frontiers in automation and increased leisure time would paradoxically create new lifestyle challenges. As Kennedy explained, “The New Frontier…is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them…” America took notice of his unique message and even the way he said it. The word “vigor” became”vigah” in his unmistakable Bostonian accent. He was already leading by relating to common people directly through a popular magazine. He was demanding more of them, employing a charisma equal to any Hollywood movie star.
The Birth of Physical Fitness
Physical fitness as a national concern began in 1956 with President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower establishing the President’s Council on Youth Fitness  largely due to a 1953 article  called Muscular Fitness and Health by Hans Kraus  and Bonnie Prudden (published under aka Ruth Hirschland)  comparing the fitness of American youths with their European counterparts. Their study, using the Kraus-Weber test  of simple exercises, such as leg lifts, sit-ups, and toe touches (using major muscles), showed American children ages 6 to 16 failed the minimum exercise requirement 56% of the time where only 8% failed of the European group. While the methods of the test and motives were questioned, the outcome in a short period of time was to sound a national alarm about the negative side of our modern life. The study showed American children were the unintended victims of progress, losing muscle tone because of the many modern conveniences that made simple exercises, such as walking, often unnecessary and an active life a bit too easy.
Dr. Hans P. Kraus(1906-1996) was to later play a significant role in  developing a unique and successful physical therapy program for JFK in the last days of his presidency. Co-author Bonnie Prudden (1914-2012) continued to promote physical fitness for the rest of her life, well into her 90s.
While the report received some publicity, it was John Kelly, father of the famous actress Grace Kelly and himself a national sculling champion and Roosevelt’s wartime director of physical training, who had read the Kraus and Prudden article and convinced Senator James Duff of Pennsylvania to bring it to Ike’s attention. This led to a media buzz and a promotional blitz by both Kraus and Prudden. Scientific research expanded in the late 1950s and 1960s to support the importance of exercise, not only for physical fitness, but as a means to improve general health and combat disease.
The initial President’s Council on Youth Fitness was formed in 1956 and directed by Vice President, Richard Nixon. The role of the board was advisory and led by suggesting goals to improve youth fitness. The recommendations of the Council were to supposed to be the “catalyst” to inspire others. Government departments, community educators, businesses and volunteers were to carry out their own programs designed to address broad Council objectives. While this approach led to a renewed awareness of the importance of physical fitness, with virtually no taxpayer dollars, it did little to create substantive action.
Fitness Becomes a National Priority
Having laid out his argument in his pre-inauguration Sports Illustrated article  , the newly sworn-in President Kennedy got right to work on the theme by using a speech at the annual Conference on Youth Fitness in February 1961. The Council would be expanded to provide fitness surveys, publish statistics, and offer advice to schools and communities. Due to its success under the Kennedy administration, in a few short years physical fitness was to expand and become a goal beyond youth and for Americans of all ages.
“We want a nation of participants in the vigorous life. This is not a matter which can be settled, of course, from Washington. It is really a matter which starts with each individual family….”
President John F. Kennedy, Conference on Physical Fitness of Youth, 1961
Using his new position as national leader, JFK challenged state and local leaders to pick up leadership on their own with guidance from the government. Kennedy reorganized the Council one month after his inauguration and picked Charles “Bud” Wilkinson, a prominent football coach for the University of Oklahoma, to be first executive and Physical Fitness Consultant to the President to insure he would stay connected to its progress.
The President’s Council hired a support staff that distributed publications to hundreds of thousands and developed a curriculum for educators. To assist the ground effort, the President’s Council had the support of the public service announcement ads(PSAs). Even Robert Preston, star of the Broadway hit, “The Music Man,” was enlisted to sing a song, written by Merideth Wilson, called the “Chicken Fat” song (aka “The Youth Fitness Song”).
The Council’s fitness programs, which quickly changed school gym and recess programs, allowed the nation’s youth to participate in the “New Frontier.” The newly energized Council was affecting public opinion and Kennedy decided to reach out again with another Sports Illustrated article ” The Vigor We Need” published in the July 16, 1962 issue. This article emphasized the success the Council was having with school children and the importance of physical fitness to the strength of the entire nation. The name of the Council was soon to be changed in early 1963 to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to reflect broader fitness objectives.
In July 1963, the Council released a report  to the President on the progress of its efforts. It stated that out of 26 million students in public schools, 20 million had participated in regular physical fitness programs, an increase of 12% in less than three years. Four of five students exceed the minimum test, a 20% improvement over 1961. Nearly all (94%) secondary schools were administering fitness tests and 10% had begun special remedial programs for physically underdeveloped students. Adults were being targeted with a 64-page exercise booklet, magazine articles, ads, and with at least seven corporate and government sponsored films reaching millions across the country. The states were encouraged to create their own councils and commissions to carry forth their own programs with the support of the President’s Council.
Walking the Talk
As the idea of the benefits of exercise grew, emphasis shifted from youth fitness to encouraging fit adults and even seniors. Articles on fitness became popular during the early 1960’s. Most praised the benefits of moderate exercise and the avoidance of overly strenuous routines. One example was an article by Kennedy’s White House Physician, Janet G. Travell  and David D. Lewis in Sports Illustrated called ” Fit to Be President “  which extolled the benefits of exercise and developing a healthy national “middle class” of athletes who don’t win championships but enjoy whatever sport they pursue. The article cautions about the false allure of highly competitive sports. It introduces a concept of developing “muscle memory” by exercising at a young age which makes it easier to perform that exercise in later years, even after many years of layoff, because your muscles would naturally remember it. And, the most natural exercise of all is walking.
“There is one form of excise with muscle memories for all of us — walking. Even if you never participated in carryover sports like tennis, cycling, golf and so on, you at least can take up hiking.”
Janet G. Travell and David D. Lewis “Fit To Be President”, Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1961
Kennedy Channels Teddy Roosevelt
Early 1963 represented a pause in events where he could direct attention to domestic matters that affected the country in a positive way. Kennedy had narrowly escaped disaster only months before during October 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. He had actually managed to turn around diplomacy with Russia and began disarmament talks between the countries. His popularity, which had declined during the crisis, could be improved for the upcoming 1964 re-election campaign.
As commander-in-chief, Kennedy had a particular interest in the fitness of the the military to protect the nation during this cold war period. The Selective Service had reported that 50% of men reporting to draft boards over World War II and the Korean War had been considered physically unfit. While Kennedy was a master speaker, he realized that there was a limit to his oratory powers to influence public opinion. He believed that experience was a better teacher than exhortation. And, to change mass behavior quickly required either a disastrous event that people could rally around or a timely example that people could understand and follow.
Kennedy (or someone else in the White House) had discovered a 1908 Executive Order from Theodore Roosevelt that all Marines should be able to cover 50 miles in three days and for the last half-mile double-time 200 yards, rest 30 seconds; double time 200 yards, rest 30 seconds and sprint the last 200 years to the finish line as proof of their fitness. Because the records showed that some officers in 1908 had covered the course in one day, the challenge was to see if the present military were as fit as those of 1908.
A press story was put out the first week in February 1963 by the White House that the commandant of the Marines, General David Shoup  , had discovered the memo and brought it to the White House’s attention. Kennedy’s memo to Shoup stated, “Why don’t you send this 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 1908, and are willing to prove it. I, in turn, will ask Mr. Salinger for a report on the fitness of the While House staff.”
On February 5th, the White House issued a short press release about Shoup’s discovery of the Roosevelt order and that JFK had proposed to the General that they find out how well the officers perform the test. Shoup went along with the ruse which Kennedy thought would have more effectiveness coming from a well-respected military leader. Captains and lieutenants were selected for the initial hike which was to take place within days. While Kennedy half-kidding remarked that if the military could pass, then the next group to test would be his staff. Apparently, Teddy Roosevelt often challenged his own family, members of his staff, and cabinet and even foreign diplomats as he would encourage them to hike with him.
Fitness was only one part of Kennedy’s health initiative for his New Frontier. On February 7, 1963, JFK asked congress to finance wide-ranging programs to control air pollution, expand the authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and help encourage the modernization of hospitals and nursing homes and the education of more doctors and nurses. The public was quickly becoming aware of health issues that could effect them directly and improve their quality of life.
Marching Orders for All
Are You Fit Enough for the White House?
The Marine challenge was actually taken up quickly by civilians, including the White House staff. As JFK had thrown down the gauntlet, his brother, Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy decided not to wait for the military test results and he and four aides immediately took up the challenge the very next Saturday, February 9th. RFK said to his last surviving aide before he dropped out at mile 35, “You’re lucky your brother isn’t president of the United State.” Bobby hiked 50 miles along the C&O Canal towpath from Great Falls, Virginia to Harpers Ferry, MD in 17 hours and 50 minutes in freezing weather, through snow and slush, without any preparation at all and in a pair of leather oxford dress shoes! In his oddly heroic feat, he had proved the “vigor” of the White House team and immediately elevated the publicity about the walking challenge.
It may have been the fact that health issues became lead stories, the already popular youth fitness programs, or the fact the being fit was a way for everyone to participate directly in JFK’s New Frontier, but groups of walkers began to spontaneously emerge that same weekend. An example was five East Dubuque, Illinois Boy Scouts, 13 and 14 years old who hiked 50 miles in 13 1/2 hours. Several military men from the Marines and Air Force took up the 50-mile challenge on their own just to prove their mettle. Even JFK, who spent the weekend in New York City, took several short, but newsworthy, strolls while attending a Broadway play and dining at a local restaurant.
Pierre Salinger, the well known, humorous and “well-padded” 5 foot nine, 185 pound press secretary, sometimes called “Plucky” by his boss, orchestrated the original press release. JFK asked him to report back on the fitness of his staff. He found himself in a quandary, and in the spotlight, as word got out that after his own six-mile trial hike, he clearly was not able to meet his boss’ test. “I may be plucky but I’m not stupid,” said Salinger. He said the personal consequences of such a hike might prove “disastrous.” “Moderation should be the rule of all things, including exercise,” said Salinger. Luckily, all agreed that Bobby’s heroics was proof enough of the vigor of the White House staff.
Oddly, the hiking idea began in the White House without consultation with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The Council was presumed to be involved by the public so it did not disavow the hikes which represented physical fitness. Yet, they were very concerned about endorsing the rabid extreme exercise program. As a response, they issued a press release  through Salinger’s office to caution everyone to use a moderate and gradual program of walking as exercise. As the movement grew, the American Medical Association stepped in by advising gradual training. Podiatrists suggested well broken-in leather shoes and two pair of socks as proper basic equipment. But there was little public information as to how to best handle and prepare for the 50-mile journey so most hikers just “winged it.”
JFK organized his own private 50-mile hike  at Palm Beach which included his brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaus Radziwill, Chuck Spaulding, a friend from Harvard, and Max Jacobson, a doctor who applied some first aid along the route. But JFK only rode alongside the route for a couple miles in a white Lincoln convertible, waving two small American flags and sipping daiquiris – apparently not even attempting to complete any part of the challenge (presumably, his physical handicap prevented it). At the end of the hike, he presented each of his weary walkers with a tea bag inscribed with the words, “Medal of Honor,” in recognition of their accomplishment.
Boots on the Ground
General Shoup’s order to the Marines at Camp Lejeune, NC was for 20 officers to prepare for the initial 50-mile military march. Originally, the request was to be able to perform the 50 mile hike within three days . However, the White House press release mentioned that some officers in 1908 had accomplished it in one day and Bobby Kennedy had already proved it could be done, even by a civilian. The standard to beat quickly became a a 50-mile hike performed in 20 hours. On February 12, 1963, 34 officers led by Brigadier General Rathvon McClure Tompkins, 50, limping from an old shrapnel wound, marched all day. The order called for the officers to wear helmets, pistols and a light pack, adding another 25 pounds to carry the distance. The fastest time was recorded by 2nd Lt. Marty Shimek, a long distance runner, who completed the march half running and half walking in 9 hours and 53 minutes.
Life, the weekly magazine and great chronicler of the time, published an article  about the military march profiling a few of the Marines. One memorable Marine was Captain C. D. Laaksonen, 29, an an infantry commander, who marched with a cigar between his teeth as a stalwart soldier with an odd philosophy of health (perhaps not too odd at the time.) He was quoted as saying, “I smoke about a pack a day, and a few cigars, and I drink an average of 15 10-ounce glasses of beer every evening, except on weekends, when it’s more. Also, I do a hell of a lot of marching.”
The Public Adopts the Walking Challenge
Much of a willing and eager public saw JFK’s order as a personal request and a challenge, although it was not meant to be. Within weeks, thousands around the country laced up whatever they could and began to walk. They literally walked like they had never walked before. By February 16, the peak of the craze, hiking stories appeared everywhere. Ninety-seven students from Marin County in California did it (97 out of 400 that initially started). A postman in Burlington, North Carolina, did it in 10 hours and 28 minutes. Boy scouts, office workers, students and reporters were among the many that took to walking in the first few weeks.
Here was a challenge that appeared daunting and yet surprisingly doable. Once the word got out that everyday people were performing this heroic task, it seemed like even the average active person, young and old, could confirm their fitness, and maybe even patriotism, by buckling down for a long hike. Just to prove that they too could do it.
To add to the heroics and the public’s amazement, these feats began in the winter of 1962-63 which may have been the coldest in a century, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the nation. So, there was not only the difficulty of the time and distance but for many, sub-zero record breaking temperatures were recorded in such places as Chattanooga, Birmingham, Cleveland, Atlanta, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
Newspapers Create the Buzz
A flood of local newspaper articles began to appear across the country chronicling the spunk of those local citizens who would try this crazy stunt. Local news added fuel to the fire for the walking craze. While radio and the relatively new media of TV presented national network news, local and regional news was almost exclusively the domain of regional papers. In fact, this may have been the golden age of newspapers, with an active advertiser base and an interested public. Newspapers carried both national and local community stories, especially if they spotlighted local citizens, politics and popular subjects. And, the 50-mike walk had it all. Here, ordinary citizens were doing extraordinary things that were amazing, humorous, and a proud symbol of their local community.
And, so began a barrage of thousands of stories in newspapers and magazines across the nation, especially from February through April, of 50-mile hikers. New challenges were made, records set, honor at stake, obstacles to be overcome.
Here are some typical news items taken from one local daily paper at the time:
“Hiking Fad Becoming Political” February 14, 1963, The Daily Record (Morristown, NJ)
“In Washington, D.C., William Kendall, Aide to Republican Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen, Jr. walked five miles to prove that Republicans walk “for a purpose” (to see the D.C. monuments on Lincoln’s Birthday). “We did not set some hopelessly unattainable goal such as Pierre Salinger did,” said Kendall. “We had an objective…whereas the Democrats strike out aimlessly with no objective. When they get worn out, somebody picks them up in a truck.”
“Cop Completes 50 Mile ‘Beat’ “ February 15, 1963, The Daily Record
“Francis Wulff, 24 years old and a policeman and ex-Marine, from Somerville, NJ said, “I did it 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.”
“Ken Middleton Does 50 In 11 Hrs., 49 Minutes” February 16, 1963, The Daily Record Ken Middleton, 17 years old, put in a remarkable under 12-hour time, with two other boys from the Aristocrats Athletic Club in Boonton, NJ following close behind. Five other members of their group dropped out facing temperatures as low as five below zero. Ken could only say to the press, “I’m too tired to think of anything.”
“Some Morris Countians Hike 50 Miles, Some Don’t” February 1963, The Daily Record
Dan Wulff, 17, of Morristown and Ed DeVore, 15, of New Vernon took 12 hours and 50 minutes to go 50 miles from Morristown to Somerville. “The last 10 miles were really tough.” Dan said. “It goes to prove we are in better shape than people think we are.” Meanwhile, Richard Gardner of Randolph and his friend Thomas Ciaraffo, walked 32 miles to Newark but decided not to make the return trip by foot after noticing that the water in their canteen had frozen. Local police finally became familiar with the sight of walkers at all hours. Two Butler, NJ high schoolers were stopped after just walking 3 miles. It seemed they had neglected to get their parent’s permission.
“Summit Group Hikes to Washington’s Hdqs.” February 23, 1963, The Daily Record
Edward Cushing Bessy, a former Navy officer, from Summit, NJ, not particularly fond of walking, cajoled six others to join him on a 25-mile hike on Washington’s Birthday to Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown, NJ. Bessy said, “I’d like to prove that Americans haven’t grown soft and that 20th century Americans can still match the early settlers in stamina. And what better tie-in could the march have than the birthday of an American who right in this area commanded an Army composed largely of civilian soldiers..”
“Reward Offered For 50-Mile Hike” February 22, 1963, The Daily Record
The Mansion House Tavern, in Boonton, NJ, is offering a $25 Savings Bond to the winner of a contest called the “Fifty-Mile Endurance Walk” scheduled for March 10. Free draught beer for anyone who finishes the whole 50 miles. Already 25 participants have signed up.
“Snowstorm Fails to Halt Walkers” February 20, 1963, the Daily Record Tom Dwyer, 15 years old, got caught in a snowstorm but completed a 42-mile walk in 9 hours and 30 minutes. Jack Botti, 12 and Bud Ferber 13, made it home in the same weather accomplishing 50 miles in 12 hours and 30 minutes, to break the local record set by Dan Wulff recently. Motorists stopped about 10 times to offer rides, but the boys just said, “We’re on a walking trip to break a record.”
Anecdotes and Antidotes
The general public was entertained by words of wisdom, stories and even a song by the controversial folk singer Phil Ochs to honor the effort.
- “So a man walks 50 miles in one day – what of it? Tomorrow he catches a taxicab again to go four blocks.”
Gabriel Korobkov, Soviet Olympic Track Coach
- “People can endanger themselves. Walking 50 miles is like dancing the twist or jumping on a reverse tumbling apparatus without proper training. We get distressed when people go out and strain themselves.”
American Medical Association
- “The 50-mile hike verges on insanity. Walking is a pleasure, but not when you are checking off the miles like an automaton.”
National Recreation Association
- Evan (Doc) Corns, a Los Angeles physical training specialist suggested the walker take long deep breaths, inhaling for six steps and exhaling for six steps.
- “They should train gradually….But there’s really no great harm in it. Fortunately, their leg muscles will give out before their hearts will.”
Paul Dudley White, M.D. (famous heart doctor and ardent walker)
- “We know and love Plucky and we think he’s funny, But I wonder what the rest of the country thinks of him. I wonder if they don’t think he’s making an ass of himself?”
President John F. Kennedy
- “He carried a flask of water, drank four bottles of soda, and ate nothing.”
The Daily Record, 2/15/63, on ex-Marine, Francis Wulff’s 50 miles, (14 hours and 10 minutes)
At the 50-mile Finishing Line
After a spontaneous and blazing start, the 50-mile hike fad that was sweeping the nation gradually cooled in the spring of 1963 but remained alive into the summer of 1963. Other serious concerns grabbed the nation’s attention as racial tensions led to the largest march this country had ever seen. Over 250,000 blacks and and whites, some walking great distances, formed the “March on Washington” that summer culminating with Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. But, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 that quickly changed the country’s temperament, as the 50-mile hike movement disappeared as quickly as it had appeared 10 months earlier.
At the center of the 50-mile hike story is a simple but broad example of JFK’s masterful ability to influence people. The historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. , felt that among JFK’s greatest skills was his timing. He seemed to set out a dizzying array of broad goals, but waited for just the right moment to leverage his power to educate and change behavior. He had a unique understanding of “public psychology.” Whereas, Presidents like the Roosevelts and Wilson had relied on their own proclamations, speeches and headlines to carry forth their programs, Kennedy, who had much thinner congressional support, waited for the right event or object example to win popular support and move forward his initiatives.
Thousands had marched 50 miles with little or no preparation, many through bitter cold and with blisters, corns and aching feet. Their motivation? Perhaps it was to believe that by hiking 50 miles in one day, they could reassure themselves that they and the country were physically fit. Or, maybe, as with so many young people willing to take the challenge, they were just out for an innocent adventure or to test their limits. What remains certain is that one man found a unique way to get us to appreciate the importance of our physical health. For those that participated, and even those that observed, the 50-mile hike provided an object lesson that we have the potential to do so much more than we think we can, if we can see beyond our limits.
Epilogue: Walking After the Fad
Today, there are still lasting monuments, of a sort, to the accidental walking craze. Some are events that have continued in the fun and spirit of the original walks. Interestingly, only one 50-mile event appears to remain active in the US. But, according to one source, at least 22 “Kennedy Marches” were organized in the Netherlands in 2008 where the event still is uniquely popular. Finally, there is the March for Millions event to consider – a uniquely Canadian walking event that may have been based on the 50-mile hike.
The Kennedy-Mars Sittard (Kennedy March, Sittard, Netherlands)
During the initial walking craze in America, television broadcast some images of the walking phenomenon to Europe. Dutch TV showed images that caught the attention of three girls and seven boys who decided on April 20, 1963 to walk from Sittard, Netherlands, through parts of Germany and Belgium, returning to Sittard. They accomplished the feat in 19 hours. They decided immediately afterward to try to do the march one year later. At that point a tradition was born that has been repeated every year, except one, since. In 2007 the number of participants was 3,326 in this largest of “Kennedy marches”. The walk requirement is to finish in 20 hours. Participants can only walk. Running is not allowed.
JFK 50 Mile Memorial
The JFK 50 Mile was first held in the spring of 1963. It was one of numerous such 50 mile events held around the country as part of President John F. Kennedy’s push to bring the country back to physical fitness. When Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, most of these events were never held again. The JFK 50 Mile in Washington County, MD is the only original 50 Mile event to be held every year for the last 45 years. The 45th AnnualJFK 50 Mile will be held on November 22, 2008. Although open to the public, the JFK 50 Mile isin spirit amilitary race and has become an ultra-marathon. Last year’s winner was Michael Wardian, 33, of Arlington VA, who finished the 50 miles in 5 hours and 50 minutes , the third fastest in hike history.
Miles for Millions 
While not directly connected to the Kennedy 50-mile hikes, Canada had its own unique walking craze which began in 1966 as an informal walkathon. A walk was organized in 1967 as a major massive charity event in 50 Canadian communities and became a local rivalry between two cities; as Winnepeg challenged the city of Hamilton. In response, Hamilton’s march on November 3, 1967 attracted a staggering 17,000 walkers with more than 10,000 finishing a course of 35 miles within one day and raising $192,000 for six African charities. After skipping 1968, the event was again rescheduled for May 3, 1969. This time, Hamilton, by far the most active of the communities, attracted 30,000 marchers with 21,000 finishing to raise $250,000 for charity. These events attracted mostly average local citizens who were not only able to participate but to raise money by enlisting sponsors who would pay based on the number of miles walked. Before ending in 1972, the Miles for Millions marches had raised millions of dollars and attracted over 100,000 participants with 65% finishing the 35 miles.
Footnotes and References
- “The New Frontier” (JFK speech)
Excerpts from the Speech at Valley Forge, PA – The American Presidency Project
- The First Fifty Years: The PCPF Revisits its Roots and Charts Its Future. Published by The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
- Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General By United States Department of Health and Human Services. Published by DIANE Publishing, 1996 ISBN 1428927948, 978142892940 (see pages 16-19)
- Dr. Hans P. Kraus (1906-1996) was to play a significant role in developing a unique and successful physical therapy program for JFK in the last period of his presidency. The therapy centered around the theory of strengthening JFK’s weak abdominal muscles and administering trigger-point injections to relieve pain. Kraus led a fascinating life challenging the medical and sports norms of the time. It has been said that he was both the father of both sports medicine and rock climbing in the United States, both of which he practiced into his 70’s.
Hans Kraus, Personal Paper, JFK Library
- Co-author Bonnie Prudden (1914-2012) (Published under aka Ruth Hirschland) was also a pioneering advocate of physical fitness and later developed a form of trigger-point therapy and pain management called Myotherapy. She continued to promote physical fitness until she died at the age of 97.
- A simple explanation of the Kraus-Weber test for fitness can be found at this website.
- “An Exercise Guru Helped Ease JFK’s Back Pain.” Boston Globe, April 21, 2006
- “The Soft American”, Sports Illustrated, December 26, 1960
- Progress Report by the President on Physical Fitness., August 1963
- Janet G. Travell, M.D., (1901-1997) was appointed to the post of Personal Physician to the President by JFK. She was a famous pain specialist and advocated the use of the famous rocking chair to alleviate back pain.
Janet G. Travell, M.D.: A Daughter’s Recollection
- “Fit to be President”, Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1961
- While playing a bit part in triggering the craze, General David M. Shoup was a distinguished World War II hero and Commandant of the Marines appointed by Ike in 1959. He became uneasy with the administration’s military efforts. After his retirement, he became an outspoken critic of the Viet Nam War. He once said, “I believe if we had, and would, keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a colution of their own. That they design and want. That they fight and work for…and not the American style, which they don’t want. Not one crammed down their throats by the Americans.”
- The President’s Council on Physical Fitness – Press Release – February 12, 1963
Council recommends hiking, already a rage created by the White House, but with a cautious concern for moderation.
- Profile of Power, Richard Reeves, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, pg 472
- “The Big Walk”, Life Magazine, February 22, 1963, pgs. 72-82
- The Kennedy-Mars Sittard website: http://www.kennedymars.org
- The JFK 50 Mile Memorial is held each year in November in Washington County, MD. It has evolved into an ultra marathon event.
- “History: North America’s greatest ultramarathon fields. Tens of thousands walked in 1960’s and 1970’s. Miles for Millions Marches”, Ed Alexander, Ultramarathon World, Nov 2001. http://www.ouser.org/other/c19no01a.htm
NOTE: This is a slightly revised version of my original publication of November 2008 which was published on Google’s now defunct Knol service – meant to provide a platform for the the “long form” online piece.
I started this project with a gnawing memory of having done a 50-mile hike in the summer of 1963. I had a spotty recollection of the event and began to ask others if they remembered it. Even most people of my age had no recollection. To me, it seemed like a very noteworthy period, even being 15 years old at the time. The hike gave me a feeling of a worthy accomplishment and I think had some effect on how I looked at other challenges later in my life. I began to research the topic on the Internet and in several books on JFK’s life. I found the daily newspapers of the time, Life magazine and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library were excellent sources. As new details emerged I learned many surprises and twists to the story that led me to more research and a better remembrance of that momentous year. The story became an obsession and a labor of love. The story originally appeared in the Google Knol format in 2008 but the knol “long form” format was dropped by Google in 2012 and was relocated to this WordPress site that you are viewing.
If you have memories, stories told or documents relating to the 1963 50-Mile Hike consider viewing my extended network called ” The 50-Mile Hikers ” website on the topic where you can join in an ongoing dialog on this and related topics. Our objective is to share stories from the time whether your own or someone you knew.
The Big Walk, the 50-Mile Kennedy Walk & the FreeWalkers
Two years after doing this research, in 2008, I was personally motivated to create a 50-mile walking event from New Jersey to New York City called “The Big Walk: NJ2NY50” ( nj2ny50.org ). By getting others to walk the 50 miles with me (over 70 walked the first year), I not only conquered the 50 miles in one day but have gotten more and more people to walk the same 50 miles in May each year. The surprising public interest in walking long distances led me to create a long distance walking social network called the “Freewalkers” ( freewalkers.org ). We are now about 900 members and host about 10 major walking events in the New York/New Jersey and Washington DC areas.
One of our latest events was the “50-Mile Kennedy Walk” which was held February 9, 2013, as the 50th anniversary reprise of the same walk Bobby Kennedy did in 1963 that helped fuel the 50-Mile Hike Phenomenon. If you are interested in experiencing the unique challenge and benefits of this type of event, sign up at the freewalkers.org website and we’ll keep you up to date on all of our future events. In the spirit of the original drive and John and Robert Kennedy, our events are free and open to the public. You are welcome to join us for the joy and challenge of walking long distances.