Marathon Memories

John Atkinson
Posted May 11th, 2009

This May, for just the second time in 21 years, I won’t be in Burlington on Memorial Day weekend to run the Vermont City Marathon. Both absences are due to unavoidable conflicts with weddings. I have run all the other Vermont City Marathons, but there were a few tight squeezes during those two decades.
In ’93, I slipped out early from the Saturday night festivities of my 25th college reunion so that I could leave campus before dawn and make the 8 a.m. start. A few years later, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend the month of May helping the owners of Camp Denali, in Alaska’s magnificent national park, prepare their wilderness lodge for the summer season. With two feet of snow on the ground and plenty of work, there was little time for running. I returned to Vermont just in time for the marathon, but my lack of training turned it into the proverbial “death march.”
Then, in 1999, my daughter graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, ME. Although the commencement ceremonies were on Monday, Julie wanted me to attend a reception Sunday evening. So I finished the Vermont City Marathon, limped to the car and drove five hours to Lewiston. I made it to the reception on time, but generated a lot of unnecessary concern because I was so stiff I could barely walk.
It occurred to me recently that I may have run my last marathon. I love to compete, but for the past several years I’ve had a hard time being consistent about training. It might be possible to sign up for a 5K, or even a 10K race, with minimal training, and still have an enjoyable experience, but nobody enjoys a marathon without investing considerable time preparing for it. Of course, one of the tremendous innovations of modern events like the Vermont City Marathon is the inclusion of relay teams, allowing everyone to be part of the celebration, regardless of athletic ability or available training time.
Although I never kept accurate count, I suspect I’ve run 50 or 60 marathons, which have provided some vivid and entertaining memories. Among my first was the celebrated Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, AK, rated the second toughest in the U.S. That race became part of the annual training schedule for the athletes assigned to the Army’s Biathlon Training Center at Fort Richardson, just outside of Anchorage. Because of its very hilly route, the early Equinox events were dominated by members of the biathlon team.
In 1969, I found myself leading the pack with a persistent college kid hanging on my shoulder. On the many tough climbs I pulled away, but he inevitably reeled me in on the descents. When the finish appeared a few hundred meters ahead, the kid casually turned to me and said, “Thanks, it’s been great,” before shifting gears and easily out-sprinting me to the line. It was some consolation to learn later that he was Spencer Lyman of McGrath, AK, and was on a full running scholarship to Oregon State University, which was, in those days, not far from the epicenter of running in the world.
A few years later, I survived the inaugural Resurrection Trail Marathon, which began in the isolated village of Hope, AK, followed a wilderness trail 13 miles to East Creek, then returned to Hope. East Creek was where Anchorage high school student Scott McGinnis was seriously mauled by a grizzly bear and his hiking buddy, Tim Moerlein, scared the bear away, then ran 13 miles to Hope for help. That marathon never really caught on.
I’ve run Boston, the granddaddy of all marathons, six times, including the centennial in 1996. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of being swept along with more than 30,000 other runners, cheered every step of the way by millions of enthusiastic spectators.
Having spent four years in the Army, I was able to maintain the obligatory disdain for the Marines, until I participated in the 1990 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. Everything about the event was carefully organized and flawlessly executed. Twelve years later, I returned to that race, which had taken on profound significance. Soon after the start we ran past the scorched scar on the side of the Pentagon, and among the thousands of young Marines supporting the event, most would soon be headed for combat in Afghanistan.
Maybe I have a couple more 26 milers left in me, but if not, I have no complaints. Besides, I can always pull together a few old buddies for a relay team at the VCM.
John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, VT, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website,