Marathon Flashbacks

John Morton
Posted May 1st, 2006

With the return of warmer weather and the Vermont City Marathon just a
few weeks away, I’ve been reminded of some images from previous races
I’ve completed.
With the return of warmer weather and the Vermont City Marathon just a few weeks away, I’ve been reminded of some images from previous races I’ve completed. Although I’ve run more than 60 marathons in the past 37 years, marathoning began as a way to stay in shape for skiing, so I haven’t kept accurate records.
My first marathon was the Equinox, in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a member of the U.S. Biathlon Training Center staff. In the early 1970s, the Parks Highway had just been completed, cutting the driving distance between Anchorage and Fairbanks to 378 miles and shaving 55 miles off the old road through Glennallen. Sven Johansen, our tough old Swedish ski coach, thought it would be great publicity for the team if we ran the new highway, camping along the way, and arriving in Fairbanks by mid-September for the marathon.
Rarely did an athlete risk challenging Sven’s training plan, but thankfully, on this occasion someone piped up, “Great idea Sven, then we could swim to Europe this winter for the biathlon races, and save all that airfare!” Sven was sullen and grumpy during the eight-hour bus ride to Fairbanks.
I believe it was my second Equinox Marathon, a couple of years later, that I battled for three hours with Spencer Lyman, a tough runner from McGrath, Alaska, who ran track at the University of Oregon. The Fairbanks course had plenty of hills where I could pull away from Lyman, but he’d reel me in on the flats. After 26 miles of running virtually shoulder-to-shoulder, the finish line finally appeared just several athletic fields away and Spencer said, “Well, it’s been great, but I gotta go.” He put on a sprint that left me a hundred yards behind in just a few seconds.
After four years in the Army, I taught high school English and coached skiing and running in Anchorage. The Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon was established in the mid 1970s, incorporating several miles of tank trails on Fort Richardson before traversing the city on beautiful new bike paths. Several of my high school students were in terrific shape and determined to run.
On workouts together prior to the race, I shared with them the wisdom of experienced marathoners, “Remember, the halfway point of a marathon is 20 miles.”
On race day, they bubbled with enthusiasm, and during the first few miles, chomped impatiently at the bit. By 10 miles, they had all succumbed to temptation and left me in the dust. By 20 miles, I had passed each of them, offering encouragement as I struggled along. All of my students finished, some with impressive times for a first marathon, but they all paid dearly for running too fast, too early in the race.
Soon after returning to Vermont in 1978, my former Army buddy, Terry Aldrich, suggested we run The Green Mountain Marathon on Grand Isle in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon. The course on Grand Isle was relatively flat and fast with much of the route on shaded dirt roads. In those days, we needed a 2:50 to qualify for Boston, which would take careful pacing.
We were right on schedule for most of the race, but began to fade in the final miles. Terry was stronger, so he ran ahead, while I frantically checked my watch as the minutes and seconds piled up. Crossing the finish line, my watch displayed 2:50:01. Could it be possible that I had run for almost 3 hours only to miss qualifying for Boston by one second?
Fortunately, before I had the opportunity to become too despondent, they posted the unofficial times, and mine was listed as 2:49:59. Judging by my own wrist watch, I’ve never known if I was slow or if some sympathetic race official shaved a couple of seconds for me.
The big events, like Boston, the Marine Corps, and New York City have a special type of excitement. During the mid 1980s, I ran the New York City Marathon twice. The second time, I was in shape and on pace to go in under 2:40. The race began in a cool mist across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, but more than an hour later, a bridge leading to Manhattan seemed like a mountain in the unseasonable heat. I struggled on for several more miles in survival mode before finally slowing to a walk. Almost immediately a strong, sweaty arm wrapped around my shoulders, and I looked into the smiling face of a muscular black man. “Come on, now,” he said, “You doan’ wanna be walkin’ here, white boy, you in Harlem.”
A glance around confirmed the location, and I did find the energy to keep running. In retrospect, I’m sure he was joking, but I owe that friendly runner my best finish in New York.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website,