Going the Distance: Turkey Trot honors the master

Thursday, November 15, 2012
Don Gammie, wearing his 2010 Turkey Trot T-shirt, poses with his wall of first-place awards he's received for finishing first in his age group in races and marathons.

Don Gammie remembers the first race he ever ran. He was in his first year of high school in Pretoria, South Africa, and was the youngest person to enter the race. And the older boys didn't want him to run.

"They said I'd get in their way," Don said.

Don beat them all, and since then, has racked up an impressive record of first-place finishes in Masters Track, including setting a world record in his age group that still stands. Now approaching his 82nd birthday, he will be at Lake Leatherwood Park on Thanksgiving to participate in the Don Gammie Turkey Trot, a fun run named his honor. But you wouldn't know it from him or spouse Jean Gammie.

"We don't talk much about his accomplishments," Jean said.

What does tell the story: first-place awards covering the den wall of their home overlooking Beaver Lake. At age 58, Don ran the 3,000 meter track in 10 minutes, 4.49 seconds, beating the previous world record for men ages 50 to 59, a record that still stands. At the same Masters meet in Knoxville, Tenn., he set a national record in the 1500-meter track race, 4:45:08. In all, Don has run 35 marathons and races in the past four decades, usually finishing first in his age group.

"I didn't like people to pass me," he explained.

But except for Field Day races in high school, Don didn't run competitively until he was in his mid-40s. That's when his oldest son, Peter, started running track in high school. Don started running with him, and entered his first marathon in 1978 -- the New York Marathon. The family moved to Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton, the next year, but Don returned to run the New York Marathon, and that year, was invited to run the Boston Marathon.

In Dayton, he joined the Dayton River Roadrunners Club. When the younger runners discovered Don could not just keep up with them, but almost beat them, they invited him join them and formed a training group called Athletes Anonymous.

"We'd do a 20-mile run every Sunday," Don said.

Don, a civil engineer by profession, was born and raised in South Africa, where his great-uncle fought in the Boer War. He met Jean on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England when he went there to build a dam. Don arrived at her mother's boarding house in Cowes on Jean's 21st birthday and was invited to the party. Three months later they were engaged, and in 1953, married and sailed to South Africa, where they started a family. Wanting a better environment for their children, they emigrated to the United States in 1959, also by boat. All the travel by water didn't bother Jean.

"I was a sailor's daughter," Jean said. "My grandfather was the captain of the ferry. He used to sail the royal family's yacht."

Don, whose parents and grandparents were from Aberdeen, Scotland, returned to England to run the London Marathon. When he lived in Ohio, he ran a half marathon or 5K almost every weekend, and was inducted into the Running Hall of Fame in Dayton. In 1989, the Ohio State House of Representatives issued a proclamation, recognizing his achievement for setting records at the Knoxville meet.

Don retired from engineering, but not running, at the age of 70. When he and Jean moved to Beaver Lake in 2000 and bought a lot, he ran back and forth from their rental home to the building site.

"It was three miles -- just a jog," Jean said.

Don, who will be 82 on Nov. 29, now walks a mile every day, down to the Roadrunner Inn and back. On Thanksgiving, he will walk the 1-mile option at the Turkey Trot with a friend, Bob Williams.

One race Don ran several times, but never won: Eureka's Victorian Classic. He came in second and received an award that is stored in a box with his other trophies. Only the first-place finishes make the wall.

"If I didn't come in first," he said, "it's not up there."

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