April 20, 1963
In the Netherlands, a group of teenagers on spring break from the secondary school of Bisschoppelijk College in Sittard launched what has become a popular annual walking event and the nation’s biggest long-distance hike. The genesis of that inaugural 50-mile (80.5-kilometer) march could be traced to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the White House.
John F. Kennedy, from the time he became president in January 1961, had been promoting the critical need for increased physical fitness among Americans. A couple of years into his presidency, Kennedy’s call for more exercise nationwide gained further momentum thanks to a historic discovery that somebody made at the White House.
This discovery was a 1908 executive order from then-President Theodore Roosevelt in which he directed that all U.S. Marines should cover 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) by foot in three days. Additional historic research indicated that a large number of those Marines in 1908 were able to complete 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) in one day only.
As a result of this historic find, Kennedy announced the establishment of an endurance test of 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) in 20 hours or less for military servicemen. What started out as a physical requirement for military personnel, and then a challenge for members of the Kennedy Administration, was soon taken up by a sizeable segment of the American public.
These 50-mile (80.5-kilometer) hikes became hugely popular across the United States and ultimately attracted worldwide media attention. Dutch television coverage of the “Kennedy marches” inspired the vacationing students from Sittard’s Bisschoppelijk College to initiate their own walking event. The majority of these students, walking not only through the Netherlands but also sections of West Germany (generally known as only Germany in the time since East Germany dissolved itself and reunified with West Germany in 1990) and Belgium, were able to complete the march in 19 hours.
The Kennedy March of Sittard has since been held during the spring of just about every year. The only years to date that it has been cancelled were in 2001 due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and in both 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Additional information on the origins of the Kennedy March of Sittard is available at https://www.irishmassachusetts.com/images/press_media/JFKFitness.pdf