This profile originally appeared in our Jul/Aug 2015 issue.
Get to know Gary Allen through our 10 questions and his 10 answers.
- What was your introduction to running? How did you become a runner?
My introduction to running started when I was a kid growing up on a small Maine island. I really wanted to be a hockey player and skated religiously when the ponds froze over. My heroes were Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and company (any guesses which team!). At some point as I watched games, often televised in black and white, I realized that skating endless laps around a small pond with a stick in my hand and a puck on the ice would not land me in the Boston Garden anytime soon.
Of course, the ice melted as it always does and that summer I watched a skinny guy with USA across his chest run into a big stadium in Munich, Germany, and I was hooked on running. His name was Frank Shorter and I remember marveling at how he won the gold medal just for running and that it did not matter how good his slap shot was. At that very moment I went from needing to win a Stanley Cup to dreaming of winning a gold medal. Certainly with the innocence of youth I didn’t think I couldn’t if I just practiced. I remember running two miles to the end of the island that day and turning to run back. Over the years the length and pace of these runs increased and I learned that hard work pays dividends, a philosophy I still carry with me today. I, of course, never won or will win an Olympic gold, but I think what I did win was that if you dream big enough you can go much, much farther than you think.
- You’ve conquered some pretty unbelievable feats over the years. One of them being a 705 mile run from Maine to DC. What was that like?
I have always been fascinated with journey runs and runners. I recently spoke at both the Pittsburgh and Sugarloaf Marathons regarding this topic. I told
my audiences that to me there are several kinds of races: short, medium, and long. I said a marathon is just another long footrace and it’s important not to let it become the “bigger than life monster beneath the bed,” and to remember it’s just a longish road race. I went on to say that often the three types of races are more about us than about others, meaning that more times than not we are running for ourselves, to get a PR or BQ. As we all know running can be a rather selfish sport at times, so I took on these two journey runs to see what happened when I made it fully about others and not so much about me. I decided to run my first journey run from the summit of Maine’s Cadillac Mountain to the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington, DC. I didn’t even know the distance before I decided to do it and after the decision was made Google told me it was 705.2 miles. I thought, well let’s make it a challenge and see if I can cover that ground in 14 days. I would need to average over 50 miles per day and had no idea if I could but I was sure game to try! I started on January 7 and it was cold. I raised funds for the Wounded Warrior Project, The American Cancer Society, and for Sandy Hook Elementary School as I would be passing near Newtown, CT only weeks after that tragic day.
I think the most memorable moment of the adventure was laying on the ground with a partially torn hamstring in an industrial wasteland near Newark, NJ with tractor trailers ripping passed me at 70 mph. As I laid there and thought about the 500 miles I had covered and the 200 I still needed to complete I remember feeling this power come over me that said, “Get up and get moving.” This run was about helping others and once I got over myself and remembered why I was there I found an inner strength I didn’t know existed. I will never ever forget looking up and seeing the Capitol dome gleaming in the distance the evening I arrived in DC.
- One year after the run to The United States Capitol, you completed yet another journey, this time running to the site of Super Bowl XLVIII. Tell us how that experience was similar to and different from your venture to DC.
For the Super Bowl Run I decided to retrace my steps but to stop at Super Bowl XLVIII in the Meadowlands. This run would be for our wounded troops. The goal was once again to try to bang out 50 miles a day but only for ten days this time. During day 4 I felt about as bad as one could feel and still be living and told the officers who just happened to be running with me that I needed to go to the hospital. They rushed me there and after many tests, IV fluids, and the restoration of my very low core temperature I was told by the doctors that I should probably not complete the journey. When I was released from the ER the officer who rushed me there was waiting. I remember saying, “Thanks so much sir, but you didn’t need to wait.” He replied, “My son is serving in Afghanistan you have their backs and we have yours.” I ran 32 more miles that day.
- You’re coming up on marathon number 100 (tentatively scheduled for Boston 2016). When you take a look back to reflect, what do you see?
100 anything is a rather significant number. I wonder how many M&Ms are in a pack? Could I eat 100?! Looking back to my first sub 3:00 run in 1978 and the 67 others that followed over a span of 35 years 280 days, I see the name Clarence Demar on that list. [Editor’s Note: The list is from The Association of Road Running Statisticians.] To be included even remotely close to a man that won 7 Bostons is beyond humbling. I have completed 98 marathons. The plan is to run NYC then Boston to make 100. It will be my 24th unicorn hunt and I can’t think of a better race to go for triple digits.
- What’s tougher: running a marathon or directing one?
Race directing is a different kind of hard. As you know I founded and direct the Mount Desert Island Marathon and it’s kinda my baby! Races by and for runners are noticeably different. I guess because we won’t put on an event that we wouldn’t want to compete in ourselves and in this sport small things matter. My attention to detail and rampant creativity is a fun but challenging part of being a RD. I love putting on races almost as I much as I love running them.
- Mental toughness is such an important aspect of this sport. What do you do to keep the pace honest or on some days just get out the door when your body is telling you otherwise? Or better yet, stay in the race when your body wants to tap out?
I think running for over three-quarters of my life and logging 100,000+ miles on an island that is only two miles long speaks either of complete insanity or of a steel cage like mental toughness. I did not know it then but I do now: Great Cranberry Island made my mental toughness ascend to great levels. When you pass your couch every two miles, the temptation to stop is a constant. I would challenge runners to mark a spot two miles from their house and only run that route in training for a week or a month or a year and they’ll see what I mean. Over the years I often felt more like a caged animal than a runner pacing back and forth and preparing for when I could run free.
I have a saying that two miles is better than none on days when I don’t feel like running. As far as keeping the pace honest, to me the farther I go in competition the more I have invested and the more stubborn I become. My body almost goes into autopilot mode, and I just move a lot of air to feed my screaming muscles. I do not train by a schedule; I run by feel. When I feel good I run farther and faster and when I feel less than good I run less and slower. I am not a machine, and my body doesn’t know Wednesday from Friday regardless of what a training schedule might say. I look at running as a collection of very basic ingredients and as long as I combine them all about every 10 days and keep doing this over time, I get and stay race fit.
- Describe your best performance and proudest accomplishment.
Wow, I am really proud that I am a fearless adventurer and that I drove all night to Boston last summer, boarded a plane to Reno, NV and hitchhiked far out into the desert dressed in a maroon wig and jeggings to attend a crazy place called Black Rock City and run The Burning Man 50K. I had no water, food, or clue where I was going and knew only that if I got there I would find 65,000 really cool people and that I would feel really out of place if I wore a singlet and shorts. Trust me: it was beyond epic.
I am most proud of my longevity and passion for running. The list of runners I somehow share statistical space with is truly mind numbing for me. Keizo Yamada of Japan won Boston in 1953, Barry Magee of New Zealand won a bronze medal in the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon, which was won by a barefoot Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila, Don Richie of Scotland held the world record for 100 miles for years, Hideki Kita also of Japan won the Fukuoka Marathon, and Vladimir Kotov won the Russian Olympic Trials in 1980 and placed 4th in the Moscow Olympic Games (Note: This race was minus Bill Rodgers and others due to the US boycott because Russia was in Afghanistan). There is only one woman on earth on this list, a fellow Maine runner: Joan Benoit Samuelson. [Editor’s Note: Legion Member Reno Stirrat is also on this list as well as Jim Garcia.]
I loved getting to run a race that I also direct, the last Great Cranberry Island Ultra Marathon in 2013 was honored as the RRCA Ultra Championships and getting to run my road wearing a bib number was a huge thrill and yes, I did feel like a caged animal protecting his confined environment and ran myself pretty ragged that day. See here for proof from Runner’s World.
- What non-running activities do you do to support your running?
I just run. I eat what I want and I sleep when I’m tired. Sorry I haven’t got a more glamorous answer or a training secret to share.
- If you weren’t a runner or race director, what would you do with all of your free time?
That’s like asking the tide not to come in. I have no idea what I would do because I am doing exactly what I love and living the life I want to live.
- What’s next?
Ahhhh the next! I used to race all distances and now mostly run marathons. I see myself starting to focus more on ultras after I milk every ounce of speed (relatively speaking) out of my body. As we chat no person has logged a sub 3:00 in a sixth consecutive decade so in 2020 at the Houston Marathon held in January I will give it a go! Ω
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