My friend Randy said he wanted to walk 50 miles in one day, that it was something he had wanted to do since he was nine years old, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to get fit. Kennedy had heard that during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency army officers had been challenged to walk 50 miles in three days, but some of them had done it in one. The idea fascinated him. He challenged his own officers to try it and said he would see to the fitness of the White House staff.
And so it was that his brother Bobby, the Attorney General of the United States, hauled himself out of bed early the next Saturday morning and walked 50 miles on the C&O Canal towpath in a pair of sturdy oxfords. The date was February 9, 1963. The towpath was crusted with snow and ice. He started with four aides and when the last one dropped out after 35 miles Kennedy said, “You’re lucky your brother is not the President of the United States!”
And then he kept walking.
The story spread across the country and within weeks everybody was trying to walk 50 miles in a day. My friend, Randy, begged his father to let him try but his father said no, it wouldn’t be safe. Randy said, “You could follow me in the truck.” But somehow the thought of driving slowly behind his son for twenty hours in a pickup truck didn’t appeal to Randy’s dad. He still said no. But when Randy told me about his childhood dream I said, “Let’s do it.”
On Easter Sunday afternoon Randy and I drove up to Arlington to spend the night with friends, and then got up at three o’clock the next morning to begin our walk. The condo where we were staying was exactly one mile from the C&O Canal towpath, and from there we simply walked north, along the sand and crushed-gravel surface of the towpath, from one mile marker to the next, until we reached mile marker 25 and turned around.
There was more to it than that, of course. Randy nearly stepped on a copperhead in the path at about five o’clock in the morning, while it was still dark. We looked back and saw the thing in the beam of our headlamps, coiled and ready to strike. Not far from Great Falls we came upon scenery that made us think we were somewhere in the Lake District of England—beautiful, silent, and serene. At 22 miles we stopped to inspect our feet and treat blisters; and found to our dismay that Randy had developed some doozies. He limped on to 25, turned around and struggled heroically to finish the walk, but at 31 miles I told him, “Randy, if you were playing football, and got injured, they would carry you off the field. You’re not playing football, you’re walking, but you’re injured and you’ve got to let somebody carry you off the field.”
At 36 miles he did.
And here’s a funny part of the story. The friends we were staying with came to pick Randy up at Great Falls. Betty said she would drive him home but Wayne offered to walk with me the rest of the way—14 miles. Betty wasn’t sure he could do it. Wayne is 80 years old. But Wayne had his running shoes laced up, he was wearing his reflective vest, and he had his iPod clipped to the front with the ear buds in. We walked about a half mile together when I became concerned about our progress. I was trying to finish the walk by midnight but Wayne was strolling along as if we had all week. Finally I asked him what he was listening to on his iPod and he smiled and said, “Gershwin!”
Well, that was the problem right there: we needed something with a little more tempo.
But after about five miles of strolling I asked Wayne if he would like for Betty to come pick him up and he thought that would be a splendid idea. We spent the next two miles trying to find a place where she could meet us, and when we finally made the connection it was after nine o’clock. I had seven miles to go, alone, in the dark. I picked up the pace considerably, gravel and sand crunching under my feet as I hurried along in the tunnel of light shining from my headlamp. At 10:45 I turned off the towpath and headed uphill through the empty streets of Arlington, bone-weary and footsore, arriving at Wayne and Betty’s condo at 11:15.
They welcomed me with congratulations and an enormous hamburger from a nearby restaurant. Randy was sitting there, soaking his feet in warm saltwater, a little chagrined that I had finished and he hadn’t. But when I saw the bottoms of his feet I wondered how he had made it so far. Sheer determination, that’s how, and even then he was beginning to talk about a second attempt.
I don’t know if I’ll go with him next time. I’ve done my fifty miles. And if there had been video of me trying to get out of bed the next morning it would have surely gone viral on YouTube. I couldn’t find enough pieces of furniture to lean on as I tried to make my way to the kitchen for breakfast. But if you’re interested let me know, and I’ll let Randy know, and then…who knows?
This fad could catch on again.