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Newton Baker’s Love Affair with Running

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by Nat Frothingham

Ultrarunner Newton Baker
Ultrarunner Newton Baker

MONTPELIER — On January 16, retired Montpelier schoolteacher, Newton Baker, was one of 12 men and women who set forth — stride-by-stride — to run a super-marathon from Huntington Beach, California to Fredericksburg Park, in Washington D.C. — a distance of 3,100 miles.

Of the 12 runners who started out — seven runners including Baker — and Baker was the oldest runner at 73 — completed the 140-day journey on June 2.

The cross-country strength-fitness-and-endurance official USATF race was sponsored by the California not-for-profit organization “Run-Walk Events, Inc.” to raise public awareness of childhood obesity and the need to encourage young people to be and stay physically active.

The super-marathon followed a generally southern route across the United States. After leaving Huntington Beach, a seaside city of about 200,000 people not far from Los Angeles, the runners traversed all — or parts of — these states: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Then the route turned north through South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia and ended at Fredericksburg Park, across the street from the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.

For Newton Baker, running has been a major pursuit — and so also has been school teaching. For 35 years, from 1970 to 2005, Baker taught grades three through six at Union Elementary and Main Street Middle schools in Montpelier. And for 34 of those years, Baker was a runner and still is a runner.

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He started out running in 5- and 10-K events. The “K” stands for kilometers or 1,000 meters — thus there are 5,000 meters in a 5-K race and 10,000 meters in a 10-K race.But slow down. A meter is much longer than a foot — almost 40 inches long. That makes a 5,000 meter race about equivalent to a 3.1 mile race. Many people who follow sporting events will remember the celebrity status of British runner Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954.

Imagine then a 5-K race which is about 3.1 miles long with the best current times in the men’s division at 12.57, a shade under 13 minutes. Imagine also at 10-K race (10,000 meters) with the best current times in the men’s division at 27.19, a shade over 27 minutes.

Having run the 5-K and the 10-K, Baker was ready for longer distances. In 1984, he ran the width of Vermont starting from the Connecticut River town of Bradford, then west through Orange, East Barre and Montpelier. Then he ran along Route 2 all the way to Lake Champlain.

Baker’s next challenge was to run the length of Vermont from Route 5 at the Canadian border, then to Newport, then along Route 100 all the way to the Windham County town of Whitingham that borders northern Massachusetts.

Baker’s success with these longer running challenges gave him confidence about this year’s cross-country super-marathon.

Baker — who comes across as physically fit — is candid about his health. “I have several medical conditions,” he told The Bridge. Then he added humorously, “I’m the sickest healthy man.”

Baker has an inherited voice condition called spasmodic dysphonia which causes halting speech. He’s had successful prostate surgery. He broke an ankle ice skating in 2008. And for the past 12 years he’s been a stage zero chronic lymphocytic leukemia patient. “I have regular check-ups and I’m hoping for the best,” he said.

But back to running. It was during his run down the length of Vermont that he discovered the joy of running — as he put it — “People along the road, farmers, people waking up, people going to work, talking to people along the road. It was really an unfolding mystery — what’s going to pop up next?”

Baker reckons he is one of about 300 people who have run across the country. And like other distance runners, he’s often asked, “Why do you do this?”

Baker’s answer was short and sweet, “I love to run. It makes me feel good.”