What’s a Kennedy March Anyway?

In case you haven’t heard, this event is based on the concept of a “Kennedy March.” What is a Kennedy March you ask? Well, that’s a bit of a long story but here is the short-ish version…

Theodore Roosevelt
Wait, that isn’t JFK… No it isn’t. Read on.

Back in the 19aughts (1901-1909), you may recall that Theodore Roosevelt was the President of the United States. President Teddy was a strong believer in “the strenuous life” and attempted to get in two hours of strenuous physical activity every single day. During some of these sessions of strenuous exercise, Teddy and his friends would discuss the “the condition of utter physical worthlessness” of their fellow soldiers. To address this shortcoming, Teddy used his authority as President and decided to issue a directive to his officers requiring all branches be able to complete “a march of 50 miles, to be made in three consecutive days and in a total of 20 hours, including rests, the march on any one day to be during consecutive hours.”

While some of his officers who had gotten soft working behind desks balked at the challenge, some others completed the trek in a single day and Roosevelt kept this standard in place for the rest of his presidency. After he left office, the requirement faded.

50 or so years pass…

John F. Kennedy was also a proponent of living a life of fitness. To promote this, JFK wrote a piece between his election and his inauguration for Sports Illustrated entitled “The Soft American.” In that piece, he compelled the American public to take fitness more seriously. He maintained an emphasis on improving health over the next few years and then at the start of 1963, Kennedy found Roosevelt’s 1908 order establishing the 50-mile march for officers. JFK sent it to Marine Commandant David M. Shoup and noted that the military men of the 00s had been able to complete the challenge within 20 hours of a single day. JFK asked if “the strength and stamina of the modern Marine is at least equivalent to that of his antecedents.” Kennedy promised that if Shoup would answer that question, he would find out if members of the White House staff were also up to the challenge.

Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and the U.S. Attorney General, didn’t wait for the officers to respond. He went out on February 9th and without any training set out at 5:00 a.m. to walk 50 miles. He took four of his staff members and his dog Brumis to stomp through snow and below-freezing temperatures. The last of his aides bailed on him at the 35-mile mark but RFK continued, completing the march in 17 hours and 50 minutes. Sounds rough, right?

I should point out that he did this wearing leather oxford dress shoes.

RFK Does Challenge
RFK gets a foot rub after completing the 50-mile hike.

The Marines were next to take up the 50-mile challenge on February 12 when Shoup surprised several dozen officers of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC who were told to line up at 8:00 a.m. for a march. The men wore helmets, pistols, and light packs of 25 pounds for the march. A second lieutenant that walked half and and ran half the distance, finished the 50 miles with a time of 9 hours and 53 minutes.

Brigadier General Marches
The Marines’ march was led by 51-year-old Brigadier General R. M. Tompkins, who finished 9th despite limping from an old shrapnel wound. The whole original caption from Life Magazine is an entertaining read.

With the media coverage of Robert Kennedy’s and the Marines’ marches, the civilians across the country felt JFK had challenged them as well and began spontaneously striking out in the near-record cold of the winter of 1963 to undertake the 50-miles-in-20-hours challenge. The challenge spread across the country and the press began referring to these events as Kennedy Marches. Ultimately, the Marches faded from popularity after JFK’s assassination that November.

50 or so years pass…

It’s been 54 years since JFK’s assassination and it’s time to relight the torch. Many of us have become “Soft Americans” and could use a difficult but attainable physical goal. With that in mind, Griffin and I have created 50 in 20 and will launch the first Palmetto Expedition on April 28, 2018. For those who aren’t ready for the full challenge, we’ve provided an intermediate option of 26.2 miles in under 10 hours. We think Teddy and JFK would be proud of all who participate.

Won’t you join us?

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