With Great Vigah
In the first half of 1963, thousands of Americans of all ages and abilities attempted to walk 50 miles in 20 hours — and many of them succeeded. Of the eras many fads — the hula hoop, the twist, phone booth stuffing — long-distance walking was the most unlikely, the most demanding, and, in the end, the most poignant.
It all began when President John F. Kennedy came across an old executive order issued in 1908 by one of his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt. The order required all U.S. Marines to be fit enough to march 50 miles in less than 20 hours. Kennedy wondered if his own Marines were as fit as Roosevelt’s.
Although crippling back pain limited his own mobility, JFK believed fervently in the importance of physical fitness. As president-elect in December 1960, he published an article in Sports Illustrated entitled, “The Soft American.” In it he lamented the decline in physical fitness, especially among the young, in the prosperous years since the end of World War II.
In early 1963, Kennedy asked the Marine Corps commandant, General David M. Shoup, to find out if contemporary Marines could match the marching standard set by Roosevelt’s leathernecks.
“Should your report to me indicate that the strength and stamina of the modern Marine is at least equivalent to that of his antecedents,” Kennedy wrote, “I will then ask Mr. Salinger to look into the matter personally and give me a report on the fitness of the White House Staff.”
This was a joke: Pierre Salinger was the president’s portly press secretary. Salinger was hopelessly out of shape, certainly incapable of walking 50 miles in 20 hours. But another member of the White House staff took the president’s joke as a personal challenge.
Though slightly built, JFK’s younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was, according to one biographer, a “physical fitness maniac.” As the seventh of nine children, he was also preternaturally competitive, on a constant quest to prove himself. If Teddy Roosevelt’s Marines could march 50 miles in 20 hours, then so could he.
So, at five o’clock on the morning of Saturday, February 9, 1963, the 37-year-old attorney general of the United States set out from Potomac, Maryland, on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath. The temperature was 20 degrees. Slush and ice covered the path. Shod in an old pair of Oxfords, Kennedy hiked the 50 slippery miles to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in less than eighteen hours.
At Camp Lejeune the following week, 34 Marines wearing 24-pound packs marched 50 miles in less than 20 hours. Jack’s Marines were as fit as Teddy’s.
These remarkable feats of pedestrianism inspired ordinary Americans to take up the challenge as well, and suddenly everybody, it seemed, was attempting to walk 50 miles in 20 hours. Pauline Domico, a 26-year-old newspaper reporter from Lincoln, Nebraska, did it. So did 40 high school students from Larkspur, California, and three teenagers from Elmira, New York, who carried a handmade sign reading “50 miles for J.F.K.” A Marshall University fraternity dribbled a basketball for 50 miles. A 25-year-old Arizona State senior covered the distance in his wheelchair. In Hagerstown, Maryland, the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club organized a 50-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail.
Most who attempted to walk 50 miles failed. Of the more than 400 high school students from Roseburg, Oregon who tried it, just 47 succeeded. But even those who fell short were better for the effort.
Each day’s papers carried fresh accounts of “Kennedy walks.” Eight pages of the February 22 issue of Life were devoted to the phenomenon. Many Americans were perplexed. Why would anyone in their right mind walk 50 miles, for no apparent purpose, in the middle of winter? The answer, according to one fan of the hikes, was simple: To prove that “we Americans are not becoming soft and out-of-shape.” Another hiker said it was simply a “wonderful way to get out of town and see new faces.”
Contrarians rebelled against the fad. A Yale student staged a “sit-athon,” refusing to leave his easy chair for 30 hours. Cold War rivalries were inflamed. “So a man walks 50 miles in one day — what of it?” sneered Soviet track coach Gabriel Korobkov. “Tomorrow, he catches a taxicab again to go four blocks.” Republicans sensed something insidious.
“Kennedy just started this hike kick to get the people to forget we have Communist Cuba breathing down our neck,” read one letter to the editor.
Sporting goods stores couldn’t keep pedometers in stock. Podiatrists reported a sizable increase in business, as did shoe stores. The folk singer Phil Ochs wrote a song about the fad called “Fifty Mile Hike”:
Fifty miles, keep a-walkin’
Twenty-five miles and you’re almost there
Fifty miles, no use a-talkin’
Better get in step with the New Frontier
Doctors warned gravely of the perils of long-distance walking. “People can endanger themselves,” said the American Medical Association. “Walking 50 miles is like dancing the twist or jumping on a reverse tumbling apparatus without proper training.” Indeed, scores of hikers were hospitalized for minor injuries, and at least one — a 34-year-old father of four from Wyoming — was struck and killed by an automobile.
Even the President’s Council on Physical Fitness was compelled to issue a press release urging restraint: “The Council advises those who have not been exercising regularly to begin moderately and to gradually increase the amount and intensity of the activity. This caution applies to any exercise program including walking and hiking.”
Fitness experts were quick to point out that the benefits of a single, 50-mile hike were negligible. “The kind of 50 mile hike that will help most people is the one on which they walk a mile a day for 50 days,” said Dr. David A. Field, the head of the University of Bridgeport’s phys ed department. “Excessive walking — just like excessive shoveling of snow — is foolish and physically wasteful.”
Americans of all ages took part but, like most fads, the walking craze was primarily for the young. The vast majority of walkers were students: college, high school, junior high, even elementary school. Boy Scout troops were well represented. Children as young as eleven completed the hike.
The first baby boomers, born in 1945, were just coming of age in 1963. In a way, the 50-mile fad was their generation’s first expression of independence. It separated them from their parents, physically and symbolically. Many of the hikes were organized with no adult involvement whatsoever. The kids just did it on their own.
The phenomenon was also overwhelmingly white. When 100 black high school students from Meridian, Mississippi attempted to walk the 50 miles to Philadelphia, Mississippi, they were stopped by highway patrolmen, who claimed it was too dangerous for them to walk along the highway. The sight of young blacks marching — for whatever reason — was intolerable to many whites, especially in Mississippi.
Ironically, President Kennedy, whose letter to General Shoup had sparked the craze, was unable to take part in it; his chronic back pain made walking long distances impossible. But he found the fad gratifying — and amusing. While vacationing in Palm Beach in late February, Kennedy convinced two of his guests, his brother-in-law Stanislaw Radziwill and his friend Charles Spalding, to hike the 50 miles down the Sunshine State Parkway to Fort Lauderdale. The president accompanied them part of way, driving — very slowly — a big white convertible with the top down.
All fads, by their very definition, must end. Tastes change, and a teenager’s attention span is short. By August, the walking craze had run its course, so to speak. Few who’d managed to hike 50 miles in 20 hours were inclined to repeat the feat. Newspaper reports of Kennedy walks, once a torrent, became a trickle. In November, the president who had urged Americans to live with vigor was assassinated. He was 46.
The Cumberland Valley Athletic Club, which organized the 50-miler over the Appalachian Trail in Maryland in the spring of 1963, held another one the following year in honor of the assassinated president. One has been held every year since. Now a prestigious 50-mile race, the JFK 50 Mile Memorial is considered the nation’s oldest ultramarathon.
John F. Kennedy’s goal of a physically fit nation remains unrealized. During his presidency, it was estimated that 13.4 percent of adults age 18 to 79 were obese and 0.9 percent were extremely obese. Those figures have risen to 34.3 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
America could use another fad for 50-mile hikes.
© 2020 by Matthew Algeo
Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.com.