The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, An Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance

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Taylor had also designed the smallest atomic bomb ever exploded — the so-called suitcase bomb, which could fit in the trunk of a car. By the time I met him, he had renounced that legacy and was laboring to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear leaks, thefts, accidents, and terrorism. He had surmised, several years ago, that the World Trade Center might be a prime target for terrorists armed with a suitcase bomb like the one he had designed. Taylor's journal, which I was hired to edit, was distributed to all the national and international nuclear agencies — none of which seemed much interested in his warnings.

There was a lot of money to be made in the new industry of nuclear power, and there were well-lubricated revolving doors between the nuclear agencies and utilities. The editing work was both intense and frustrating, and after work each evening I'd go out for long runs along the DC bank of the Potomac. Running gave me a needed escape, but at the same time I found myself meditating on those remarkable parallels I saw between our fast-growing global industries and our overstressed selves. Now, a quarter of a century later, I was in a position to draw on what I'd learned about the nature of human capability, whether to power missiles or propel our own bodies, and to use that knowledge to run faster than I once would have thought possible for a man my age.

Did that mean what I could do as a runner was now more important to me than what I could do for my embattled planet? Not really. I could at least have some control over what I did with my own body and soul. And in the long run, I thought, that might be what really counts. We were tightly crowded together, the top-seeded guys in the front row using whatever subtle hip-bumping or leaning was needed to hold their places behind the white line, while the rest of us jammed as close as possible behind them on the narrow street.

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We were a sea of bare arms and legs and, despite the cold, even a few bare shoulders of road-racer types wearing singlets instead of high-tech T-shirts. There were men and women of all ages here, but the great majority were twenty to forty years younger than I. The sight of the younger ones bouncing up and down on their forefeet to keep warm threw my memory back to when I was their age. I felt too old now to be bouncing; I might need that bounce in the last mile. I had started running with high school cross-country and track in the s, followed by college cross-country and my first road races in the s, when new chapters of the Road Runners Club of America were springing up all over the country, and eventually I'd gotten hooked on marathons.

The first time I'd ever heard of an ultra marathon was in the early s, when there were only a handful of ultras in the whole country.

Now, at the outset of the twenty-first century, there were about five hundred ultras each year in the US — mostly on rugged rural or wilderness trails, far from public view. The JFK 50 Mile was — and is — the country's oldest and largest. The JFK 50 began in the spring of as an unpublicized personal venture for a group of eleven men who initially called it the "JFK 50 Mile Challenge" — one of many so-named events that took place that year and the winter before in response to President Kennedy's challenge to the Marines.

After the assassination in , all the others discontinued, but this one quietly expanded — perhaps in part because of where it took place. The course the original group chose was both rich in natural wonders and redolent of American military history. It started right here where we were standing, in Boonsboro, Maryland, a town that had been founded by two cousins of the pioneer Daniel Boone a few years after the Revolutionary War.

It followed the historic National Road up a long hill to a forested ridge where the civil war Battle of South Mountain left 5, men dead, wounded, or missing in action over at least six miles of the mountain's spine in ; eventually dropped down a precipitous escarpment to the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, where John Brown attacked the US Arsenal in and was defeated by the Marines under the command of General Robert E.


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The JFK 50 quickly became an iconic event among endurance runners, even as it remained virtually unknown to the sports media or public. By the s, when ultras usually had at most a few hundred entrants, the JFK had to limit its field to a thousand. For the original race director, Buzz Sawyer, and his successor, Mike Spinnler, the JFK was a logistical challenge that the Civil War generals McClellan, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, among others who knew this terrain, might have quite respected — helping a thousand men and women who were determined to run fifty miles in less than a day to achieve their goals without anyone dropping dead.

By , Spinnler had established a well-orchestrated routine: As his army of volunteers dispersed to their assigned positions at aid stations, medical tents, radio communications, and course monitoring posts, the runners and support crews would arrive at the Boonsboro High School in the predawn chill, gather in the gym to keep warm, then at AM — still a little dark — take off their warm-ups, leave the gym, and walk three-fourths of a mile to the middle of the town, where a white line was painted across the street.

The start would be at sharp — right at sunrise.

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For many, the goal would be to reach Williamsport before dark returned, which in late November would be around PM — a finishing time of 9 hours, 30 minutes. About half of the runners wouldn't make it until later, well after dark. You had 14 hours to finish before being disqualified.

The fastest any man over sixty my age bracket had run this race, in its thirty-eight years so far, was 8 hours and 14 minutes. My goal — which I hoped wasn't just pie in the sky — was to finish under 8 hours. So here we were, about to go forth like that newborn infant feeling the first rush of air into its lungs, beginning its own magical journey.

Life is a mystery from the get-go, no less so for a runner at the start of a long race. Though I'd been experiencing this kind of moment for more years than anyone else here, I still marveled at the mental challenges — if nothing else, the challenges to just plain sanity and common sense. In the warm gym, we had huddled in our sweats and hoodies, yet now we stood in face-freezing cold wearing almost nothing. We were here to compete, yet there was no smack talk of the sort that seemed so common now in sports; with just a couple of minutes to go, runners were shaking hands, wishing each other well.

And for all of us, this would be a deadly serious undertaking, yet there was an undercurrent of joshing and joking: "Excuse me, is this the line for coffee? Once, in the s, I had met Muhammad Ali at the start of the Los Angeles Marathon, and he seemed to grasp, in a way that took me quite by surprise, the good-humored camaraderie of runners about to compete.

The Longest Race

I was there to report on the event for Running Times a magazine I had founded in and still did some writing for , and when I climbed onto the photographers' platform overlooking the starting area, who should I see but the world's most legendary athlete, who'd been brought in to fire the starting gun. I shook his hand and asked, awkwardly, "So, what do you think of all these thousands of people warming up to run twenty-six miles? I knew it was just a little jab, but it was a Muhammad Ali jab, and I was still on my feet!

Remembering that now at the start of the JFK, it occurred to me — in the spirit of the moment — that if marathoners are crazy, people who run fifty miles on trails must be twice as crazy. The guy with the bullhorn announced that we had thirty seconds, and then at he began a countdown: "Ten, nine, eight This was important.

Review of The Longest Race () — Foreword Reviews

Over the few days before the event, I'd done a lot of mental rehearsing and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the first three miles, which quickly confront you with a strategic conundrum. The first mile, like a scene from an old Western, is just get out of town. No problem with that. But the next two miles are a fairly steep climb to the South Mountain pass, where you leave the road and enter a thirteen-mile segment of the 2,mile-long Appalachian Trail AT.

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The conundrum is that on one hand you want to get to the trailhead before the horde does, because the AT is a rocky, single-track path — wide enough in most places for just one runner at a time, or two at most — and if you reach this bottleneck in the same minute as several hundred other determined people, you'll be slowed like bumper-to-bumper traffic squeezing past an accident, and you'll lose a lot of time.

Best to get to the trailhead ahead of the traffic, if you can do so without too much strain. On the other hand, going up the South Mountain road, it would be a big mistake to go too fast. It's a tricky thing to balance, but once the race started I wanted to be on autopilot, not burning energy trying to calculate. What Is It About Finishing? See All Customer Reviews.

Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD Buy Online, Pick up in Store is currently unavailable, but this item may be available for in-store purchase. Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Usually ships within 6 days. Overview Among endurance runners, there are thosewho have run very long distances, and thenthere are those who have run very long distancesfor a very long time.

Continues… Excerpted from "The Longest Race" by. Excerpted by permission of The Experiment Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. Show More. Average Review. Write a Review. Anonymous More than 1 year ago.

LaurieC3 More than 1 year ago This is an amazing book. It's about so much more than running long-distance. While portraying the experience of running an ultra-marathon at age 60 in great detail, the author uses each leg of the race to illustrate much larger concerns, like climate change, global politics, the effect of time-saving technology, and more.

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The Longest Race

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A Woman on the Edge of Time: A. However, later I began to appreciate the unique insight Ayes has into many contemporary issues--care of the environment, the role of government, the lack of long-range planning. Entertaining to read and enlightening. I admire the man. Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase. I'm a beginning runner and was looking for an inspirational running adventure story. This book comes across as bragging instead of helpful. I could not imagine myself in his place.

It is well written, though. Some of the history is interesting. Towards the end I started scanning through it instead of reading every page. As an ultra-runner myself, many ask me what drives me to run such distances and what goes on in my head during these adventures. Ed does an excellent job articulating what I've had such a hard time articulating myself.

I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure that is much more complex than any other book on running has ever touched.

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