This odd endurance feat of walking extremely long distances began over 50 years ago. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy asked his military to prove they were in fine physical condition by marching 50 miles. These were the cold war years and JFK saw a need to demonstrate our capabilities. That military order quickly turned into a public fad. Many ordinary individuals took the challenge upon themselves to prove that they too were fit and could walk 50 miles in one day. This was all either a mistake or a fortunate event that helped boost the public’s attention to physical fitness.
I was 15 years old at the time, and with three other friends we decided on a whim to walk that year from Roselle to Netcong, New Jersey. We made 38 miles before giving up 12 hours later. Still, pretty impressive for teenagers with no real walking experience. More than just an endurance feat, it was an adventure of seeing and experiencing things in a different way. It was a unique and different experience that I think slightly changed the way I thought about life at the time. It begged the question, “Can we do more than we think we can?” What exactly is our limits?
Forty-six years later in 2009, I researched the fad and wrote about it in an online blog The 50-mile Hike Phenomenon. That convinced me to have another go at 50 miles, tracing a route that Robert F. Kennedy walked along the C&O Canal towpath in early February of that year. You can read about my experience at my blog article Log for 38-mile Walk - Maryland - 2/7/09. Once again, I fell short, but many people asked what it was like and if I would try it again. Time passed and the feeling of exhaustion and blisters soon faded.
In 2010, I set my sights at another try at the 50 mile challenge. Doing more research on long distance walking, which has a long, interesting history. Soon, I began to seek the interest of pro-pedestrian organizations on an idea of a long public walk involving a large group. The East Coast Greenway Alliance, enthusiastically supported an idea of walking the 50 miles in one day on the greenway trail, mapped out a strategy, and helped get the word out.
The event The NJ2NY50 - The Big Walk of 2010 was a big success with over 70 participants and a general interest in the event by the public and even the media. Best of all, everyone who participated, including myself, absolutely loved it! It seemed to be the right blend of a tough yet accessible physical and mental challenge.
On October 11, 2010, we took on a new walking challenge with the LENAPE34, a one-day 34-mile walking event covering the well-established Lenape Trail crossing most of the major reservations, parks, towns and cities in Essex County, NJ. In this venture we were able to help focus attention on the Lenape Trail, which is segment of the Liberty Water Gap Trail a multi-purpose trail across the entire State from Jersey City to the Delaware Water Gap. With two successful events, fast growing membership as well as creating goodwill for trails the FreeWalkers seemed like a concept that could continue and grow.
In, 2011 our second year, we repeated our previous two walks AND added several others. Boldly, we set a new goal of walking across the entire state (in one year's time) through a new joint program with the East Coast Greenway called the Cross-Jersey Walking Challenge. With that in mind, we added the Great Canal Walk - Trenton to New Brunswick, and the Tween Walk - New Brunswick to Metropark (in addition to the Big Walk from Metropark to NYC). a total of 100 miles and clear across New Jersey.
But there was more to come as we added a 30-mile walk along the famed New Jersey Shore called The Endless Summer Walk which proved to be one of the most enjoyable and popular walks yet. And, due to popular demand, we repeated the LENAPE34 in October 2011.
The next year we repeated our five major events plus we added another called the Hudson River Loop Walk - a 30-mile walk up and down the Hudson River. Starting in Jersey City, we went coastal and north to the George Washington Bridge then down the New York City Greenway to downtown and back to our starting point. It was a hugh success with almost 100 people participating and raving about the walk and its scenery - always near the water.
In February, 2013 Ray Smith a fellow FreeWalker from Washington DC area and I put together a special event in honor of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, both connected to the original 50-mile hike fad in 1963.
RFK had set out with his staff on the C&O Canal and was one of the original participants drawing national attention to his stamina and the possiblity of others walking this 50-mile fitness feat. The reports of the day pinpointed where he started and approximately where he ended his journey. So, a we created a new walk (now called the Kennedy50 on the C&O Canal in Maryland on February 9, 2013, exactly 50 years to the day of the original RFK accomplishment. It was so popular that the event recieved some attention in a national NPR piece and was picked up by a local TV station.
We have set up a regional FreeWalkers DC group hosting local events throughout the year. We finished 2013 with a new 22-mile JFK Memorial Walk ending in Arlington National Cemetery on November 22nd, the 50th Anniversary of his death.
In our brief four year history we now have over 1000 FreeWalker members, with over 500 having participated in our events. As a group we have walked over 23,000 miles since 2009. That's the equivalent of walking around the world!
I'd like to invite you to participate by walking, contributing your ideas, and creating new exciting walking events. We've got even more planned for 2014 and beyond, including Connecticut, Boston, Philadelphia, and international walks. Join us in an active role to help grow FreeWalkers and make long distance walking a great experience for everyone.
Founder & Director