Friday, November 10, 2006

The Kennedy March

"The need for increased attention to physical fitness is clearly established. The Government cannot compel us to act, but freedom demands it. A nation is merely a sum of all its citizens, and its strength, energy and resourcefulness can be no greater than theirs."
- John F. Kennedy

(President Kennedy and Charles "Bud" Wilkinson, March 1961. Courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum.)

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy got the idea for a 50 mile hike from an old executive order of then President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) that challenged U.S. Marine officers to finish 50 miles in twenty hours. In turn, President JFK coyly challenged his staff to hike 50 miles. The first JFK 50 Mile Hike took place in 1963 and rest has been history.

JFK's words are the inspiration for at least two separate 50 mile events. One, is Kennedy's namesake race, the JFK 50 Mile. The other, is half a world away in the Netherlands. Both events celebrate their 44th anniversary in the coming year.

I found the story on how JFK got the idea for a 50 mile hike in this link from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

I wonder about the date of the first JFK 50 Mile Hike in 1963. Over the years, the traditional date of the race has been the Saturday before Thanksgiving. In 1963, the first 50 mile hike consisted of 11 starters and 4 finishers, one of which was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. I wonder about this first JFK 50 because the President was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I do, however, believe the hike was held earlier in this year and that the President was there to witness the very first edition. I hope to find out for sure.

I'll be sure to ask a JFK veteran down there in Maryland. This year marks the 44th running of the JFK 50 Mile. I'm curious if I can find someone who was there at some of the early JFK hikes.

Its interesting to read on how the government took on the project of addressing fitness. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the "President's Council on Youth Fitness" to encourage American children to be healthy and active children. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy changed the title to the "President's Council on Physical Fitness" to reflect its role to serve all Americans.

Its also interesting to note that the President's commission, after the 50 mile hike became popular, had to consider a spin to temper the the budding craze. Apparently, the goverment thought it was crazy for everyone to hike 50 miles. Go figure.

Not lost in the spirit, however, was JFKs inspiration for citizens to become healthy and strong. The month before JFK took office in 1961, he wrote a Sports Illustrated article titled, "The Soft American," that outlined his policy for national fitness.

Simultaneously in Europe, the Kennedy March found its own humble beginnings. In 1963, four Danish high school students hiked what has now become the oldest Kennedy March outside the U.S. The Kennedy-Mars Sittard is a 50 mile event even larger than our own JFK 50. Over 3000 hikers entered the 2006 Sittard Hike, held each April in the Netherlands. Unlike the JFK 50 Mile, the European verision is strictly walking and hiking. No running allowed in this event.


Blogger E-Speed said...

very cool background info on the event! I am getting excited!

7:41 PM  
Blogger Heather said...


7:58 PM  
Blogger andersimp said...

This is a nice little history lesson.

8:25 PM  
Blogger paul said...

Thank you for this detailed and interesting information. One small correction though.
The four high school students who walked the 50 miles outside the US in 1963 were Dutch, not Danish.
The Sittard Kennedy March is still very popular in The Netherlands. Approx. 3000 people join the walk over 50 miles. Besides the recreational walk, there is alse a racewalk. The winner needs less than 8 hours to finish his 50 miles walk.

This year (2008) only no less than 22 (!) Kennedy Marches are organised in the Netherlands. As a side note, in the Netherlands a Kennedy March is always a walking event, never a running event.
Please visit the internet site of the Sittard Kennedy March at for more information.
Remke Rutgers
Paul Altena

6:08 PM  
Blogger jason said...

My father did this Kennedy inspired hike From Nottingham UK in 1963 walking out towards Grantham and back Via Ab Kettleby hill Melton Mowbray. I did not realise it was fitness inspired because Dad claims to have had 5 pints of guiness in 40 minutes at the Round Oak pub Ratcliffe on Trent and still come 5th in @ 14 hrs but getting a Cab home for the 400m home from the finish!

5:45 AM  

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