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A Timeless Passion: Age Means Nothing to These Hanover Marathoners

Sunday, April 20, 2014
Hanover — Mike Gonnerman blames The Washington Post. His wife, Betsy, blames herself.

Living and working in the nation’s capital at the time, Mike Gonnerman read an author’s account in the Post of running in the Marine Corps Marathon in 1976. The writer seemed pleased with himself, even though he didn’t complete the 26.2-mile race.

“That sounded kind of stupid; I said, ‘I can finish it,’ so I ran in it (the next year),” Mike Gonnerman recalled last week in the kitchen of his Hanover home. “That was my first race.

“It was a stupid thing to do. It was terrible. I hit the wall about mile 22 and walked the rest of the way. The only reason I finished was I was parked near the finish line.”

Similarly, watching her husband’s running exploits enticed Betsy to try running as well around the time of his marathon misadventure: “I thought, ‘How hard can this be?’ I put on tennis sneakers for a mile, made it around the block and collapsed. It’s harder than I thought.”

Through such humble beginnings have a lifelong passion grown.

The Upper Valley usually sends a handful of competitors each spring to the Boston Marathon. The Gonnermans return Monday, she for the fifth time, he for the 11th. After being stopped short of the finish line by last year’s bombings, both would be pleased to cross the tape with times in the low four-hour range.

This time, they’re out to finish what they’re about to start.

Yet the numbers that stand out the most with the Gonnermans don’t possess colons. They’re simple two-digit figures — he’s 71 years old, she’s 69. The clock at the finish line might say they’re slowing down, but that’s only an opinion.

They aren’t planning on stopping.

“I certainly admire someone running in a slightly older group, although — now that I’m 58 myself — the definition of older seems to be more of a moving target,” confessed Dartmouth College head track and field coach Barry Harwick, an acquaintance of the couple. “But the key thing is they enjoy it. It’s something they do together. I think they enjoy the challenge of running a race, the camaraderie of hanging out with others.”

Said Betsy Gonnerman, succinctly. “I’m hooked.”

Returning to Hanover in semi-retirement a couple of years ago simply brought the Gonnermans back to a familiar place. Betsy graduated from Hanover High School in 1963. Mike earned his Dartmouth degree in 1965. (They met at a fraternity mixer in town when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, which was women-only at the time.)

They married in 1968, spent most of the ’70s living in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs (save for two years in Italy), then made the Boston suburb of Sudbury their home for more than three decades.

Running has been the constant through it all.

The Marine Corps Marathon may have inspired his burst, but Mike Gonnerman had been “an infrequent jogger,” as he puts it, around that time. His first experience ignited a five-year stretch that included high mileage and near everyday running. By 1982, having run seven marathons, Gonnerman dialed back to lighter activity.

“I kept running, but not as intensely,” he recalled. “I didn’t pick up again until 2002 when I read the qualifying standards for the Marathon. I’d always wanted to run it. I realized I could qualify, so I got myself a coach. … I ran Hartford, qualified (for Boston) by 17 minutes, ran Boston and I’ve run 10 since.”

When the bug bit her, Betsy preferred the medium to intermediate distances: five kilometers, five miles, 10 kilometers. But the Marathon defines Boston running; it pulls the curious into its grasp and the avid into an unavoidable hold.

She finally took the marathon plunge at age 58, just a few years removed from beating breast cancer. Her 2010 time (4 hours, 18 minutes, 23 seconds) was sixth-best in her age group.

“When in Boston, they talk about Boston; if you haven’t done it, you haven’t qualified as a runner,” Betsy recalled. “I thought maybe it was time to try. I did my first marathon in Connecticut; I’ve since done four Bostons and a couple of others. … Neither of us was particularly athletic. The fact that both of us (ran) made it stick.”

Both are now fixtures on the area running scene.

Having the Lebanon-based Upper Valley Running Club to call their own — the Gonnermans kept pace with the Heartbreak Hill Striders during their Boston-living days — has allowed them to continue enjoying the social benefits of their chosen sport. Betsy sits on the UVRC board of directors, Mike uses his business expertise to help out in committees and both serve as inspiration for their younger peers.

“Mike is an incredibly durable runner; he really runs well for his age,” said fellow UVRC member Jim Burnett, of Canaan, who is also running Boston tomorrow. “He’s old-school. He doesn’t wear tights or things like that. He wears bulky, baggy stuff. He runs long miles, trains hard, but he’s not been injured since I’ve known him.

“Betsy, in her age group, is nationally ranked. She runs times that compare her to others nationally. She’s way up there. … She is amazing. She very rarely loses her age group.”

The Gonnermans remember last year’s run to Boston vividly.

Betsy hadn’t participated since that 2010 effort, missing her husband’s effort the following year because of an injury. They deferred running two years ago when temperatures soared into the mid- and upper-80s, odd for April, miserable for marathoners.

“We’d put in adequate training; we thought it would be one of our better races,” Betsy said of last April. “I was gearing up for a good race. He insisted on staying with me, but I wasn’t going well. I told him, if I had trouble, to run without me, but he stayed with me. In the long run, that was a really good thing.”

They got their first sign of the bizarre around mile 23, with Betsy struggling to finish.

“A woman on the sidelines said if she’s having distress, she should seek medical aid sooner rather than later,” Mike recalled. “She said they’d closed the medical tent at the finish, then off she ran. What does that mean? We didn’t know what had happened.”

Other odd signs: runners who had completed the course running back, past the growing throng; normal behavior for a short race, unusual for a marathon. Anticipating the final turns off Commonwealth Avenue toward the finish line, the Gonnermans instead hit a dead stop by Massachusetts Avenue, with less than a mile to go.

“They all said the finish line was closed and there had been an explosion,” Betsy said. “Nobody used the word ‘bomb.’ ”

Over the next few hours, they slowly made their way around the area closed off for investigation, showered, got massages, rode back to suburban Wellesley and went out to dinner with friends. “We went in, and they had a big flat-panel TV and … oh my God, seeing the video,” Mike said. “That was our first indication.”

The couple’s three children — daughter Jennifer and twin sons Peter and Tobey — and other running acquaintances ultimately learned more about the attack than their parents through media coverage and ended up imparting much of the information to them. The Gonnermans could manage little, between the confusion at the finish and the difficulties with cellular telephone service at the time.

“We didn’t know how to put it together,” Betsy said. “You’re not thinking clearly after you’ve been running for four hours.”

A year has since gone by, and the Gonnermans are no less enthusiastic about Boston than on any past attempt.

“Initially, we were shocked and disappointed that we couldn’t finish and angry at what happened,” Betsy remembered. “As more information on the Tsarnaevs came out, we got angry that these people couldn’t have had that motive.

“I don’t understand why: Why pick the finish? Why pick that time? Why that event at all? It makes us mad. It makes me feel like I want to prove them wrong.”

The Gonnerman domicile — a neat house bearing the name Serendipity, on a Hanover side street — doesn’t first strike a visitor as the home of runners. The closet where husband and wife keep their running attire isn’t overflowing with garish garments. There are only one or two pairs of running shoes for each of them.

That’s by design. They’ll still happily provide proof of their ardor.

When she and Mike decided to return to Hanover, Betsy made a decision: Her running mementos, three boxes of them, had to go. She donated her trophies to USA Track and Field, which can repurpose them — by changing any identifying plaques — into rewards for young athletes.

She has since begun a new collection of trophies and medals, all from events since the move. The trophies sit atop a downstairs bookcase; the medals, a fairly substantial supply, make a flat metallic noise when she runs her hand across the ribbons. She also maintains a logbook of her workouts since returning to town.

“I really enjoy it, although people think I’m crazy: ‘How can you enjoy pain?’ ” she joked. “I was never an athlete. I never had the opportunities because I was pre-Title IX. This is an opportunity for me to do something competitive. I’m mostly competitive against my own self or against other people in my age group. That kind of drives me.”

As for Mike, just step into the garage. Behind the door, a dozen pairs of experienced running shoes sit piled on the floor, to give what’s left of their lives to the cause of mowing lawns.

The Boston Marathon holds special importance for him but, truth be told, he prefers running the mountains to the flats. The Mount Washington Road Race is his favorite (he broke 2 hours last year and was second in his age group, wearing bib No. 71), and he’s excited about participating in July’s U.S. Mountain Running Championship on the slopes of Loon Mountain.

“It’s so different: uphill or up and down, some on pavement, some on trails,” he said. “I like the people. If you’re running a marathon, the normal marathoner is concerned about time splits. In a mountain race, it doesn’t matter. Different people.”

There’s no great secret to running long distances on either side of 70. Be dedicated, both say. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Betsy relies on “a chiropractor, massage, lots of stretching.”

Mike? “Zero,” he grins. “It’s genetic.”

This weekend, they’ll do what the rest of the Boston Marathon crowd will do: They’ll go pick up their bib numbers today, carbo-load for dinner, get a “fitful” night of sleep (Mike’s words) and probably engage in some pre-marathon pancakes before making the trip to Hopkinton for the start of the race.

Their wave will take off Monday around 11 a.m. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 p.m., they should be done.

“It makes you feel good about yourself and your self-esteem if you have these opportunities to measure yourself against your peers,” UVRC compatriot Burnett said. “If you work hard, you get results. It’s very satisfying if you do the work. They both don’t run every day, but they’re doing something every day to increase their fitness.”

They’re setting an example, and a good one at that.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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