The mounty shot his gun into the air, half-wolf sled dogs howled on cue and one hundred crazy people launched themselves into the icy mist on top of the world.  The gunshot thrilled even as it woke the demons that would chase us for twenty-six miles.  There was no turning back.

The thrill transformed into a numbing combination of fear and relief.  I was afraid that I would fail yet relieved that the test had finally come.  The rocky ground beneath my feet started to slope upwards as Arctic Bay receded behind me. The runners were thinning out. Most of them were already far ahead of me and with each step I was more alone with my frozen thoughts.  

How did I get into this?  Stan Connelly. 

Seventy year old, Stan Connelly was a retired general when I met him in the early eighties.  He was tall, bald and handsome with an erect military posture, a booming voice, and boundless energy.  He showed up one day at Focus: HOPE, a Detroit civil and human rights organization, and wouldn’t leave.  Not that any of us who worked there wanted him to go .  His enthusiasm for peace and justice issues was a splash in the face.  It was impossible not to like him and be inspired by him.  Yet even as he worked on events such as the Focus: HOPE Walk for Justice he seemed restless.  He had more energy than projects to work on.  

There was also something else in play. A need like an insatiable thirst drove him. Whatever this was I didn’t understand it.  I just accepted it as Stan being Stan.  

So what did he do with his extra energy?  Stan ran. Marathons.  He ran the Detroit Free Press Marathon every year, he ran a marathon in Hawaii and most importantly he ran the Midnight Sun Marathon from Inuit, Arctic Bay to the zinc mining village of Nanisivik on northernmost Baffin Island, two hundred miles above the arctic circle.  The Midnight Sun Marathon was billed as the world’s toughest marathon because of the rocky terrain and extremely steep hills. Nanisivik is Inuit for: “the place where people find things”.

Stan recruited me to help him put together commemorative booklets on both the Free Press and Midnight Sun Marathons.  I would layout and illustrate what Stan wrote and organized. The Free Press booklet was titled: “We’re All Winners”. Every person who participated was honored for his or her effort. It was the Midnight Sun booklet, however, that Stan really poured his heart into.  There were features on the climate, the ecology, geography, the Inuit, and the polar bear as well as all the human interest stories and stats.

On the back of one of the Midnight Sun booklets he had me draw a picture of him and a woman runner running hand in hand, crossing the finish line together with a polar bear chasing them. What I would learn was that every race Stan would find a straggler at the back of the pack and latch on to him or her.  He would be that person’s support through to the end.  I remember thinking as I was drawing that as admirable as this was it was spoiled just a bit by calling attention to it.  I had other conflicts as well.  I secretly envied Stan.  I was once a cross country runner and until I tore cartilage in my knee I ran regularly.  I still jogged a little bit but had no faith in my ability to endure a long distance. This guy twice my age was putting me to shame. 

By 1986 I was no longer employed by Focus: HOPE.  I was instead a courtroom artist and freelance illustrator for a variety of publications.  I pitched the idea to Metropolitan Detroit Magazine that they do a feature on the Midnight Sun Marathon and they bit. I was to be the illustrator. I flew from Toronto to Nanisivik with writer Carolyn Kraus, Stan and about 100 marathoners and ultra marathoners. The ultra marathoners were going to run fifty-two miles!

What I discovered was a community of good people from around the world bound together by a love for adventure and an obsession with running long distances.  The physical place was stunning in the starkest possible way.  Rocks and patches of ice spread to the horizon without interruption. Nothing grew here that I could see. But Stan saw something. He stared off into this silent moonscape with a calmness I had never seen in him before.

I watched Stan laughing with his fellow fanatics.  I was there when he crossed the finish line holding hands with that year’s straggler.  After six hours on the grueling course, they were the last to finish but from the looks on their faces you would have sworn they were first.  And then Stan moved to his position along the bumpy road where ultra marathoners were still running.  He didn’t stop cheering until the last one staggered home. I could only shake my head. 

Years went by and I didn’t see much more of Stan.  I was in touch with his movements through the post cards he sent from various far off places.  It might be Hawaii it might be Norway.  He was either running races or he was checking out the other side of the hill.

Then in 1992 I got the call.  Stan had died. When he was visited at his deathbed by organizers of the Midnight Sun Marathon he asked them to take his 1993 race deposit and give it to someone to run in his stead. They tearfully saluted him then turned to Focus: HOPE in search of someone to fill in for Stan. Eleanor Josaitis, cofounder of Focus: HOPE, passed the baton to me.

I procrastinated. I was scared out of my mind and didn’t know if my knee or my heart would hold out. But how could I say no to the general?  

I decided I couldn’t do it alone.  I asked my friend Gary Faria to train with me, I asked other friends to pray for me.  

Then there I was, running the race on Independence Day 1993, running as if my life depended on it.  I was representing Stan Connelly  the year the organizers had decided to dedicate the event to his memory. If I failed at this I would never get over it.

I plodded on through the cold totally separated from the pack. It felt like I was living in Stan’s dream. Remarkably I started to feel stronger. 

Around the fifteen mile mark at he top of the hill lovingly called Marathoner’s Madness I was elated. For the past ten miles I had been thinking of my friends back home thinking of me.  Piercing through the silence I could hear their voices whispering encouragement. Stan’s voice joined in reminding me that I wasn’t alone at all.  Here on top of the world at a place totally devoid of man made monuments to self importance I was free of everything that didn’t matter and full of all that did. I was my most primitive self, stripped bare like the landscape and it felt damned good.

This, I thought, is what Stan found so holy. I would never know all the sources of the old war veteran’s private pain but I had found the place where he could let it go. 

At the twenty mile mark the last leg began. It was three miles steeply downhill to the Nanisivik loading dock then three miles straight uphill to the finish line.  Going downhill my knee hurt like hell and as I slowed to a walk a young woman raced by me.  My demon emerged and I felt a flash of resentment!  When I made the turn at the loading dock and started back up I felt a hidden reserve of energy and swore I would finish this race in style.  Ancient competitive juices were flowing when I rushed past the same woman who had passed me with such apparent distain. She wasn’t an individual she was the embodiment of all the women who had done me wrong and now she was stumbling, barely able to move.  She was dead meat.  

Then it hit me.  She was the straggler.  Stan tried to prepare me for this moment all those years before when he had me draw him running across the finish line hand in hand with that other hurting soul.

I walked back and asked her, “would you like some company?”  She said yes. 

We crossed the finish line with our fingers locked. Her name was Rose Marie.

Later, as I was standing by the side of the road cheering on the last of the runners, Graham, one of the organizers, came up to me and congratulated me for accomplishing my mission. 

I was just following orders.