The Sneem 50 mile JFK Challenge, begins in the small village of Sneem, located on the Ring of Kerry, in far southwest of Ireland, but draws walkers from around the country. I was the lone American this year, and it was a true honor to be asked to be the starter. (The photo is just before the start at 5am.) Holding the flag and representing the US was a very stirring moment.
I was there because I had walked the original 50-mile challenge in 1963, and the 50th anniversary was too tempting…too symmetrical…to pass up. I was originally drawn to the Freewalkers’ reenactment of the Bobby Kennedy February 9th walk on the C&O Canal towpath, but I wimped out because of the weather.
I needed to atone for that, and what better place than Ireland? It was a beautiful walk through the Irish countryside with wonderful people and terrific support from many volunteers. It was not however, an easy stroll. There were a number of 3-5 mile up-hills, mostly in the first 35 miles. The long steep climb out of the Blackwater Valley, between miles 30 and 35 up along N71 to Mol’s Gap, was by far the toughest. That for me was the make or break point. The next 15 miles were mostly downhill, and comparatively easy. The weather was cool, with a bit of a drizzle. Perfect.
I walked across the finish line at 10pm, 17 hours after the start, to flags waving and horns blowing. It was an hour quicker than my first walk at age 20.
This is definitely a walk to consider. If the Irish countryside, wonderful people and great organization & support aren’t enough of a draw, there is the traditional barbeque at Danny O’Shea’s pub the next afternoon for all walkers and support people. It alone is worth the trip. Here is a piece I wrote about my adventure:
50 Years / 50 Miles
If I took one step I would have to take another…and another. For hours. I knew then that there would be no quitting—for any reason.
At 5:00 AM it was already getting light in that southwest chunk of Irish land that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. The air was wet and cool in the village of Sneem, on the Ring of Kerry. The event organizer asked me if I would mind being the starter for the JFK 50 Mile Challenge. Mind? No, of course not. But as I stood there with the 40 or so eager, laughing walkers, a flood of meaning rolled over me like an unexpected tide.
This was the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s 1963 challenge to US military officers to hike 50 miles. Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, and always gung ho younger brother, did it in one day. Wow! It became an international craze immediately.
I was a hotshot ROTC cadet, and after a late night of partying in a nearby canyon, I took to the highway with a goofy mob of Tucson folks who had never walked more than a few miles in their lives. Eighteen hours later I limped by myself into a Benson truck stop. Humbled, but I did it.
So in May, 2013, I was the only relic of the original walk—most of the crowd had not been born in 1963, nor their parents in some cases. And I was the only American. I began to get a feel for how much Kennedy had meant to the Irish. A man handed me an American flag that was always raised and lowered to start the walk. He looked at my 1st Division cap and told me the flag had draped the coffin of his brother-in-law who was killed in Vietnam.
As the morning brightened, the understanding became clearer. This was not just a stroll through the lovely Irish countryside; this was a walk that had taken 50 years—almost! It wouldn’t be finished until I walked every one of those miles—one for every year. So many people…Vietnam buddies, kids, parents, friends, people I loved and people I fought…were walking with me in my mind. They were giving me the strength and endurance to keep going through the cold drizzle when the mountain roads got steep and the day wore on. There was a memory with every step.
After seventeen hours I crossed the line, and a new 50 years was beginning. I knew I would have the strength to go on…to face whatever came next.