Spectators and volunteers at the first viewing area of the 2013 JFK 50 Mile race
Spectators and volunteers at the first viewing area of the 2013 JFK 50 Mile race Credit: Courtesy Josh Bard

Josh Bard isn’t a marathon or ultramarathon runner. He prefers shorter distances, like half marathons and ten mile races. But when it comes to ultramarathons 50 miles or longer, it’s fair to call Bard a seasoned spectator with years of experience.

This Saturday, Nov. 17, the 34-year-old D.C. resident will be watching the 56th annual JFK 50 Mile starting in Boonsboro, Maryland to cheer on his wife, Kelaine Conochan,for the fifth time. Conochan, 36, has also competed in the C&O Canal 100 mile race, the Thomas Jefferson 100K trail race in Charlottesville, and the Endless Summer 6-Hour Run in Annapolis.

(Full disclosure: This reporter is friends with Conochan and has run, i.e. tried to keep up, with her in the past.)

An ultramarathon is any race longer than a marathon distance of 26.2 miles. While big city marathons like the Marine Corps Marathon in D.C. draw tens of thousands of runners, and a festive and equally large spectating crowd all along the course, ultramarathons like the JFK 50 Mile are more laid back. The atmosphere may require some getting used to for supporters of more mainstream races.

“Something people wouldn’t generally know if they’ve only seen marathons is that they really specify viewing points for spectators,” says Bard. “Which is shocking at first, but when I think about it, it’s a little more logical at all the races I’ve been to.”

“It kinda sucks to drive out of D.C. for the person you care about, or if you like watching runners, only to see them a few times,” he adds. “You want to help them as often as you can. There’s definitely been a compromise, a mental compromise to accept that I can only see the runners so many times while trying to respect these organizers and volunteers.”

The race, which bills itself as “America’s oldest ultramarathon,” started in 1963 as part of President John F. Kennedy‘s physical fitness initiative. Due to the course, which winds through the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal Towpath near Washington County, Maryland, race organizers limit the race to 1,200 entrants. All runners start at 6:30 in the morning and have a 13-hour time limit.

There are three official viewing areas aside from the start near the Historic Boonsboro Inn and the finish line at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport, Maryland: Weverton Cliffs exit (15 miles), Antietam Aqueduct (27.3 miles), and Taylor’s Landing (38.7 miles). It may not be much, but the few face-to-face moments can make a difference to the runner.

“You feel like you’ve been alone in the woods, looking down at your feet, and then you start to hear people cheering in a distance,” says Conochan. “It changes your entire mindset. You regroup and refocus to the next checkpoint.”

Mike Spinnler, the race director since 1993 and a former course record holder, recommends that spectators dress warm and bring layers. Because some of the parking areas and roads are not paved, a four-wheel drive vehicle is preferable, he adds. Once you’re at a viewing area, expect to see hundreds of other spectators. According to Spinnler, there are generally two spectators for every runner on the course. This year, 494 of the 1,152 registered runners are from D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. (Twenty eight runners are from the District.)

“It’s like a rolling Woodstock celebration, an athletic Woodstock,” he says.

The time between watching at the viewing areas is a great opportunity to explore local shops, Bard says. Among the places he recommends are Ed’s Country Bakery in Frederick, Maryland, (“They make amazing doughnuts,” he says), Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson, Maryland, and Spriggs Delight Farm Artisan Goat Cheese for its goat cheese fudge. It’s also a good time to stop and appreciate the history of places like the Antietam battle ground, and look at the picturesque views of the rural countryside.

“It’s very Instagram-able,” says Bard. “People who want to do it for the ‘gram will find a lot out there.”

But most importantly, patience is key to spectating an ultramarathon, according to Bard and Spinnler. These races are often a full-day event. Conochan finished in 129th place overall last year in a time of 8 hours, 51 minutes, and 37.9 seconds. Once you’re there, find a way to relax and hang out, bring some books to read, go meet other spectators, and in the end, know that your presence is invaluable to the runners, even if you’ll only get to see them for a few minutes (or even seconds) throughout the day.

“It’s a really fun day. It sounds like a terrible time, but it really is fun if you plan it out right,” Bard says. “You just have to be patient with stuff … The race is really organized, but they don’t give you a lot of information. You have to figure it out for yourself, and find stuff to do, find stuff to keep yourself from getting bored or frustratedthe same way runners have to pace themselves.”