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Few people had ever heard of Clarence Hartley until he completed the Boston Marathon this week – his first, and the answer to a year-long dream.
Now he’s something of a celebrity, because few runners can make the 26.2, up-and-down, killer miles of the Boston Marathon. And almost none can do it, or even tries, at 81 years old.
Hartley’s time of 4 hours, 26 minutes and 5 seconds, was faster than a lot of other runners that day, and all of them were younger than 81. Hartley was, in fact, the oldest competitor in the race, and plenty of more youthful competitors didn’t finish at all.
Hartley’s marathon accomplishment is far from the first time the man has confronted adversity to get somewhere he wants to be. But just getting to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 30 miles west and south of Boston, Clarence Hartley had to come a very long way. The final 26.2 miles into downtown Boston might, by comparison, be considered a much shorter distance.
The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon, and one of the five World Marathon Majors in the cities of Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, and New York. First run in 1897, and inspired by the first modern-day marathon in the 1896 Summer Olympics, The Boston Marathon is run on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday of April.
Of course, any discussion of American patriotism must include Boston. The famous Boston Tea Party protest was a pivotal moment in American history, and may be the most iconic act of American patriotism before or since.
No race could be more fitting for Hartley than a race on Patriots’ Day. That’s because Air Force Distinguished Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Hartley, who joined the US Air Force in 1951 and flew 104 combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, received the Distinguished Flying Cross and five air medals during his exemplary military career.
Lt. Col. Hartley served his country for over 24 years, all over the world, in countries such as England, Germany, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Running a marathon on Patriots’ Day seems to be a perfect fit for a guy who risked his life to keep America safe and free.
Hartley enjoyed sports as a teenager, and was a successful competitor. At age 15 he came second at the state AAU cross country meet in Portland, OR, and he was his school’s top half-miler through his senior year. But after high school, and some running in college, he didn’t run another race until five decades had passed. He was 68 years old before he decided it might be fun to give it a try. A local 5K race caught his interest, and in 1998, at age 68, he won the 65-69 age group.
“That first 5K kind of gave me a spark to keep going,” he told Running Times magazine. “And it seemed that I won my age group the first 30 or 40 races I ran.”
But the 26.2 miles of a full-bore marathon seemed out of reach for a man of his age. “It does seem unbelievable, running that far at my age,” he said. “I remember when I first started running 5Ks, I thought ‘Wow, to run a 10K I’ll have to double the distance!’ And then I eventually decided on the goal of setting state records at every distance up to the marathon, but I really had no idea if I could even finish a marathon.”
But the ever-competitive Hartley decided to try a full marathon anyway. And in early 2005, at 75, he surprised himself with an inspiring 4:09.36 – a very decent time for many runners. He set his sights on Boston, considered the big test because of its hills. “I guess I really didn’t know I was good enough to do it before that,” he says modestly. “And when I got such a good time – 35 minutes under the Boston qualifying standard – that’s when I realized I could actually go if I applied.”
And then the bomb fell. First came a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in March of 2006. Hartley submitted to chemotherapy for six months, a debilitating experience during which he couldn’t run a step. But the chemotherapy proved effective, and he was declared cancer-free. Hartley began running again, building his strength and once again thinking about “the big one” in Boston.
But then a second medical problem crashed into his life, and his doctor told him he had prostate cancer. Not the kind of person to just lie down and give up, Hartley chose cutting-edge proton radiation therapy, and after a couple of months of treatments he was ready to start running again.
The rest, as they say, is history. In spite of service in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Hartley’s biggest battles turned out to be two bouts with cancer. He lost a couple of years of living while he underwent treatment, but he saved his own life.
“I remember lying on an exam table thinking about Lance Armstrong and what he accomplished,” he said. “I thought if I survived, I’d come back like he did and run Boston.”
(Armstrong didn’t run the Boston Marathon, but he did come back from a deadly bout with metastasized cancer, and won the Tour de France bike race seven consecutive times. And in 2006, mostly just for fun, he also ran the New York City marathon – ran, not bicycled. And he finished in just under three hours, in 856th place.)
Lt. Col. Clarence Hartley, USAF Ret., achieved his ultimate goal, to run in the Boston Marathon. And equally satisfying, his time of 4:26:25 fulfilled another goal – to beat “several thousand younger runners.”
“The last time I felt so good was on my final combat mission in the Air Force in 1969,” he said after the race. You don’t need a photograph of that moment to picture his beaming smile.
Here at Novus, our patients get their lives back every day by overcoming substance abuse and dependence. And they always express similar feelings of incredible satisfaction at accomplishing their goals.
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