In 1971 the Spinnler family mantle was a gathering place for athletic awards. Five of the seven children in the family were boys, and the four oldest were great athletes. Their MVP and team championship trophies adorned the living room.
Mike, the youngest, could only admire the tribute.
Bill Spinnler, the oldest brother, graduated from high school in 1958, the year Mike was born. The two had spent little time together, but Mike idolized Bill. He’d heard about the accomplished college runner who went on to become a naval officer.
Bill, who was living in California in the early 70s, read about the JFK 50-miler in Sports Illustrated. The race had been held since in 1963, when Buzz Sawyer answered John F. Kennedy’s call for 50-mile events.
Bill traveled back to Maryland in an attempt to train for and win the 1971 race. Mike, fascinated, watched him train. When he saw the race registration form, Mike realized at twelve he was old enough to run. His father reluctantly agreed to let him.
To prepare Mike ran two miles each day after school, but he got a late start. His total training miles were less than half of the JFK’s distance.
On April 3, 1971, Mike’s father drove four sons to the starting line: Mike, Bill and their brothers, Jack (19) and Don (16).
After a long ten hours, Mike reached the thirty-five mark. Back then the race organizers awarded a medal to those who made it to that point, and a trophy to those who finished. Mike, proud to have earned his medal, began removing the pins from his race number. That’s when he saw his brother, Don, who had arrived at the spot just before him.
Don enjoyed beating Mike at every athletic game they played, so when Mike found out Don was done for the day, he realized he had a chance to outdo his sixteen-year-old brother. He re-pinned his number and started running again.
Mike’s father, who had been trying to support all four sons, finally found Mike three miles from the finish. Completely exhausted, Mike was glad his dad was there as he slowly hobbled forward in the darkness.
He crossed the finish line in 14:19:23, his first race of any distance.
Of the four brothers, only two finished. Bill, in his attempt to win, passed out in the forty-ninth mile. Jack finished two hours before his youngest brother.
Mike’s and Jack’s JFK trophies were placed in the front center of the Spinnler mantle.
Mike ran the JFK-50 five more times before graduating from high school, eventually setting a junior record in 1976 with his 7:45:54. He lowered his race PR again the following year, running 6:57:54.
His collegiate running kept him out of the JFK from 1978 through 1980, and then he was sidelined by an injury in 1981.
1982 was the year a lot came together for Mike. He finished the “Dual in the Sun” Boston Marathon in 2:28 and eventually peaked his training at 140 miles a week. At the JFK-50, which had been moved to November by that time, he ran away with a 5:53:05 victory, a time that would become the standing course record until 1994.
In every endeavor, there is a gap between an individual’s potential and the ultimate result. Mike is a master at closing that gap.
In the years between his slowest and his faster JFK-50 time, Mike improved by more than eight hours and twenty-six minutes. To those of us who follow the sport, that’s an unbelievable achievement.
Mike returned to win again in 1983, but the painful title defense caused him to proclaim,
“You’ve seen Mike Spinnler run his last 50 miles.” He later recanted.
He would run the JFK five times over the next seven years. In those same years he twice had surgery on an overworked Achilles tendon. His 1990 DNF would become his final JFK attempt.
Our paths crossed twice at races in the 1970s, though neither of us remembers seeing one another. We finally met in 1986 when Mike briefly lived in Westminster. For a time, we both worked at the local running store, Fleet Feet.
I was dealing with a year-long injury. Mike became a friend and a coach at a time when I most needed both. He knew how to achieve the nearly impossible and he helped me believe I could do the same, a favor I’ve yet to repay.
Buzz Sawyer finally retired from directing the JFK-50 in 1993. Mike has directed the race since then, and he’s led it to become one of the premier ultra-marathons in the world. He coaches too, sharing his wisdom with athletes that range from high school runners to national elites.
I sometimes wonder how much of life is scripted and how much we improvise along the way.
A young boy follows the example of an older brother he hardly knows and begins a running journey. I become a runner by chance. Our paths meet years later. He inspires me toward my best racing before returning home to shepherd the first race he ever ran. He becomes a coach and I become a writer, both of us sharing the wisdom we’ve gained through a mutual passion.
It doesn’t really matter whether it is fate or happenstance, life is most full when you discover the best of yourself and then share it.