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History of the JFK 50 Mile Challenge

"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

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) was concerned about the fitness of the nation and got the idea for a 50 mile (80km) hike from an 1908 Executive Order of then President Theodore Roosevelt, that tested the fitness of U.S. Marine officers by marching 50 miles. In turn, President JFK coyly challenged his staff to hike 50 miles in a day.

As JFK had thrown down the gauntlet, his brother, Attorney General Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy (RFK) decided not to wait for the military test results and he and four aides immediately took up the challenge the very next Saturday, February 9th. RFK said to his last surviving aide before he dropped out at mile 35, "You're lucky your brother isn't president of the United States." RFK hiked the 50 miles in 17 hours and 50 minutes in freezing weather, through snow and slush, without any preparation at all and in a pair of leather oxford dress shoes! In his oddly heroic feat, he had proved the "vigour" of the White House team and immediately elevated the publicity about the walking challenge.

Much of a willing and eager public saw JFK's order as a personal request and a challenge, although it was not meant to be. Within weeks, thousands around the country laced up whatever they could and began to walk. They literally walked like they had never walked before. By February 16, the peak of the craze, hiking stories appeared everywhere.

The Kennedy march became a fad in the UK shortly after American people took up Kennedy's challenge. After Dutch television showed images of the Kennedy march, some Dutch people decided to make an attempt at finishing the 80 kilometres within 20 hours. In the city of Sittard, four young people decided to walk the march during their Easter holidays. So in April 1963 along with some friends they took up the challenge and finished it in 19 hours. They immediately decided to try to do the march again, one year after and thus a tradition was born that has been repeated every year, except one, since. In 2007 the number of participants was 3,326 in this the largest of "Kennedy marches".

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