In 1961, then President John F. Kennedy used his newly-elected post as a platform for transforming our country’s physical fitness. He proclaimed to a country of citizens in swiftly declining physical health:
“We want a nation of participants in the vigorous life. This is not a matter which can be settled, of course, from Washington. It is really a matter which starts with each individual family….”
As history documents, JFK challenged social leaders and the public-at-large to pick up the ball, and in the process, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (established in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) took on a new and stronger direction.
Among his pronouncements was what President Kennedy called the 50-mile hike, a revival of an old Marine fitness standard of being able to complete 50 miles on foot in a 24-hour period.
For a period of time, a craze for 50-mile hikes swept the U.S., and people of all abilities took on the challenge. The president’s brother Robert F. Kennedy ultimately lived out this standard by traversing the distance in snow and slush while wearing leather oxfords, and in doing so, rallied the public to step up to the challenge.
Unfortunately, the national passion for the 50-mile hike was extinguished with Kennedy’s untimely death. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and its activities still live on to this day, but fitness in the U.S. has continued to wane as our society has become increasingly sedentary.
Outside the U.S., the 50-mile challenge has proven an enduring format, and events are held annually in Australia, Canada, and many parts of Europe and Asia. One of the most famous of these is the original Trailwalker, a 100 kilometer route through the hills outside Hong Kong. Originally a military exercise conducted by British Gurkha, Trailwalker was opened to civilian participation in 1986, and now boasts in excess of 10,000 participants (walkers, support teams, staff, and volunteers) who raise money to fight poverty. Another popular 50-mile challenge is the Caledonian Challenge, which takes place on the West Highland Way in central Scotland.
Rock The Ridge picks up the ball from those days of the early 1960s when U.S. citizens first heeded the president’s call to action. Americans are beginning to understand that the true path to good health and longevity is not via a magic pill, but rather by getting off of our chairs and pursuing physical fitness with vigor. An active lifestyle makes us more appreciative of our own bodies, which in turn leads to better choices about diet, and when coupled with regular exercise, results in reduced weight, better health, and improved cognitive abilities.