He was attacked by birds, dodged a cattle stampede and jumped over a rattlesnake while running a marathon in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko, Nev.
In Anchorage, Alaska he ran up on a herd of elk that got stymied by a fence when the runners came their way.
He was left awed — “a heartfelt moment” he called it — the morning he ran a race through the fog-shrouded Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia, passing the rows of graves that remain after Confederate and Union troops clashed there from Sept. 18-20, 1863, resulting in 34,624 casualties, second only to Gettysburg in the Civil War.
And during one of his two Boston Marathons, he listened to the smooch cries of the Wellesley College girls as he ran past their campus and came over for a couple of the traditional kisses they plant on suddenly beaming runners.
Butch Bolton has discovered much about the people and places of this nation — and a lot about himself, too — as he’s run across America over the past 21 years.
Teamed with his wife, Sandy, whom he described as “my travel agent, my masseuse, my baggage handler, my inspiration,” the longtime Xenia High teacher and area wrestling coach has run marathons in 49 of this country’s 50 states.
The Kona Marathon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii next Sunday should complete his project, which, he said, began as a lark in 1997 after beers, cigars and a dare.
The 58-year-old Bolton actually has run 64 marathons now, although there have been some repeats, including three U.S. Air Force Marathons and eight Columbus Marathons. He has twice made the famed circuit through Boston.
Hawaii, though, will be special. Along with Sandy, an eighth grade history teacher at Bellbrook Middle School who regularly handles the planning of his races, he’ll be joined by their four children, their spouses and five grandkids.
They will salute both his retirement last month from 33 years of teaching and the end of his remarkable running challenge. While he looks forward to the celebration, it’s not something he’s talked about to many people beyond his family.
“I’ve always kind of kept it low profile,” he said softly and sometimes with hesitation when I pressed him about his feat over breakfast at a Bellbrook eatery the other morning. “One, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen and, two, I was just doing it for myself, not the notoriety.
“I’m not trying to put myself out there. I know there are a lot of great runners around here. I’m just some little guy doing this.”
Later, Sandy drew a little truer bead with her summation: “No, he’s not the fastest runner out there, but to follow through on it, to actually do it, that is quite an accomplishment.”
It’s even more so when you consider the two of them did this while they both were teaching school. At times that meant getting done with classes on a Friday, driving as many as 12 hours to a race, running the 26.2 miles and then getting back in the car and driving home so they could be in their classrooms Monday morning.
A few times they flew to races, some they did over the summer and three times Butch ran back-to-back marathons, completing one in one state and the next day doing another in another state.
Those tandem ventures included Cheyenne, Wyo., followed by Vail, Colo., as well as Dover, Del. and Atlantic City, N.J. and Hartford, Conn. with Newport, R.I.
And while there have been plenty of races through cities – including Boston, Chicago, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, St. Louis, Portland, Louisville and especially through the five boroughs of the New York City Marathon — there was also the Fat Ass Marathon in Eastport, Idaho.
“It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, up in the panhandle of Idaho, right on the Canadian border,” Sandy said. “There were only four people in the race. Really about the only thing in town is the border patrol and the other runners were border officers.
“Some guy had advertised it, but when Butch showed up they couldn’t believe somebody from another state had actually shown up.”
Then there was the marathon — called “Timmy Challenge” — in tiny Cairo, W.Va. The event, which raises funds for kids fighting cancer, is run in honor of Timmy Quigley, an area boy who died of the disease at 2 and a half years old.
Sandy said the hardest marathon her husband ever ran was the Bataan Death March Marathon on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
“It was out in the desert, and was it incredibly hot, and a lot of people struggled,” she said. “I wasn’t there for support because of an injury I had. He suffered from heat exhaustion, and it was the only time he’s been taken to the medical tent at a race.
“They hooked him up to an IV and told him they weren’t going to let him run anymore. He pulled the IV out and finished the race.”
And Butch was glad he did. It was another race that moved him.
“It was really patriotic,” he said. “There were a lot of wounded warriors involved and a lot of guys running with 30 and 40 pounds of gear on. It was pretty memorable.“
He also ran the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. and was surprised that day because everywhere he looked he seemed to see Sandy.
“Every time I turned around, there she was,” he said. “I couldn’t figure it out.”
Sandy laughed, and explained: “Every year I take the eighth graders in Bellbrook to Washington and I’ve gotten pretty proficient on the Metro system. I just kept hopping on and off it, so I saw him seven or eight times that race.”
How it all began
“This all started on a bet back in ’97,” Butch admitted. “I was playing poker with some guys, drinking beer and smoking cigars, and Kurt Robinson, who worked out at the base, said, ‘Hey Butch you kinda run off and on. Why don’t we try doing the Air Force Marathon they’re starting this year?’
“I said ‘You’re crazier than hell! There’s no way I could do that.’
“He said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s train every Saturday.’ And it turned into a bet, so we tried it. We had no idea what we were doing, but we increased our mileage through the summer so we could try it that September.
“My goal was to get under four hours, and I think I just did at 3:58. And then I got the bug. I said to myself, ‘I can do better than that.’ It was just my competitive nature.”
Butch grew up in Wilmington and was a college wrestler at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. When he transferred to Wilmington College, he met Sandy, who’s from Blanchester.
After college, Butch was the varsity wrestling coach at Goshen High for two years and then, for 20, was a middle school coach and varsity assistant in Xenia. He also helped start a youth program in Bellbrook.
He soon found similarities between wrestling and being a marathon runner.
“I like individual sports, and both are physical and demanding and very personal,” he said. “As bad or as good as it gets, it’s all on you. You learn a lot about yourself in these moments.”
It wasn’t until 2007 — after he’d run the Boston Marathon a second time — that he floated the idea to Sandy about running a race in every state. By then, he’d done 13 marathons in six states,
“She said, ‘You think you could do it?’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s give it a try, but not tell anyone.’”
Soon they had their roles and routines in the venture.
“He picked the races and I did the logistics, made sure he ate right and, as we’d joke, I’d pick up the pieces and bring them home afterward,” Sandy laughed.
Come race day, she also knew her husband’s quirks:
“Going out the door he has to eat chocolate chip cookies. It gives him a sugar rush, a little energy, and puts something in his stomach.
“At the end of a race he gets nauseous. But if you think about the physiology of the body, you’ve been running for 3 and a half hours and you’ve really depleted your resources. All you’ve got left in your stomach is bile. So something sweet like Gatorade afterward makes him sick.
“At the finish line he wants a Diet Pepsi, and three hours later, it’s the greasiest hamburger he can find.”
As a history teacher, Sandy tries to sate her own appetite as well and delves into the local story at many of their stops.
“He did a race in Yankton, South Dakota,” she said. “I bet I can count on one hand the number of people who have heard of Yankton, but it was interesting. You run along the river there and that’s part of the Lewis and Clark Trail.”
In fact, it’s where the explorers met with the Yankton Sioux for a couple of days of shared food, dance, gifts and peace pipe smoking.
In Potomac, Md., Butch ran along the towpath of the famed C & O Canal. When he competed in Tupelo, Miss., they stopped at the small shotgun house where Elvis Presley was born.
As an acknowledgment of his own birth, Butch decided to run a 50-mile race, the Tussey Mountainback 50 Miler in State College, Pa., which he counted as a marathon since it’s nearly twice as long as one.
“It was funny,” Sandy said. “All of his friends — and none of them are runners — they sat around for their 50ths and said, ‘Okay, we can do 50 shots or drink 50 beers or eat 50 Killer Brownies.
“’But no, you have to go run 50 miles! Only you would do that!’”
Finishing the journey
Butch and Sandy leave Tuesday for Hawaii.
“I was a little worried that it might be cancelled because of the volcano, but that’s not going be an issue,” Sandy said.
Over the years they have dealt with all kinds of things that have impacted races.
Running in northwestern Iowa, Butch watched a tornado form. In northeastern Arkansas, there were snakes all over the road. He ran a marathon in Clearwater, Florida the day after he had gone deep sea fishing and gotten deathly seasick.
A race in Wisconsin was cancelled because of sudden heat wave.
The first time he tried to run the Myrtle Beach Marathon in South Carolina, a freak snow hit and left a half inch of slush.
“It wasn’t anything to the runners from up north, but down there the organizers had no idea what to do,” Sandy said. “There was just one snow plow in town, and I heard it was stuck at the airport with flat tires.
“They cancelled the race and we came back the next year.”
Butch laughed when he thought about some of the obstacles they have faced along the way:
“I tell people, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ You’ve got to make sure it’s obtainable or it can come back and bite you in the butt.
“I’ve made it — and did it without any real injury — but there were times when I was at mile 20 of a race somewhere and I’m saying to myself, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’”
Now, though, he says there are no questions as he ends the 50 states/50 marathons venture:
“I’m ready. It’s just like when I knew it was time to retire from teaching. With this, I’ve been chasing the dream a good while and it’s time.”
Although he no longer will be going state to state running marathons, he is not shying away from a challenge.
He and his wife have hiked the southern part of the Appalachian Trail and now, although Sandy is retired from the pursuit after a pair of knee replacements, he plans on trekking the entire trail, which runs some 2,200 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine.
He’ll spend the month of September completing part of it and then do more later.
And after that?
“There are marathoners out there who have a goal to run the 50 states twice,” Sandy said. “I don’t see that happening, but I see him staying active and we do like to travel.
“You hear of people who have run a marathon on all seven continents. Right now it’s not a goal, but who knows down the road? I could see him trying that.”
Especially if there are some beers, some cigars and a bet.
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