hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

December 13, 2012

50 marathons in 50 states

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — A small college like Northern Essex is certainly turning out some mighty gigantic athletes.

So what if it’s a community college, located in a remote section of our fair city? Many citizens have never been there, let alone know its whereabouts. Could the same be true of Whittier’s Birthplace, Winnekenni Castle, and Rocks Village? You be the judge.

Some years back when I was writing sports at the Gazette, they spoke of a pitching sensation on the baseball team who had a major league fastball. Wait a minute! How good could this guy really be? And if he were so phenomenal, what was he doing at a school like Northern Essex Community College and not Miami, Rollins, Stanford or some other baseball institution? And why wasn’t he already in the Red Sox farm system?

I dropped by one afternoon and saw this guy throwing 95 mph bullets. He seemed like the real deal, except for one thing. He had trouble finding the plate.

It didn’t take him long. Steve Bedrosian graduated from NECC, proceeded to a calibrated baseball college, got drafted, and won a coveted Cy Young Award precisely 25 years ago while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies after a star-studded for the Atlanta Braves. Enough said!

Now, along comes another athlete worthy of accolades. His name happens to be Michael Goolkasian who lives in nearby Ipswich, has Northern Essex roots and is quite familiar to the running community around these parts. Ironically, he, too, is of Armenian-American extraction.

If there were a Hall of Fame, Goolkasian would be a worthy candidate. Not because he has run a marathon in each of the 50 states or is looking to conquer all seven continents. Not because he has completed 164 marathons in all or 350 races throughout a storied career dating back three-plus decades.

And most certainly not because he has finished nine Iron Man Triathlons — the ultimate endurance challenge, each consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and finally a 26.2-mile marathon run, raced in that order without a break.

Most Iron Man events are superhuman feats. They have a strict time limit of 17 hours, starting at 7 a.m., and finishing at midnight. His final marathon state happened to be Idaho and it was an Iron Man event.

All that is pretty cozy with the guy who approaches 50. And it’s all relevant to a runner’s life. But the bigger picture is one bent on the vicissitudes of life.

Here was a fellow who dropped out of high school as a junior because his father died and he wanted to help support the family.

He was already a decent hockey player at Central Catholic High School, where he now serves as an assistant coach. His future was suddenly in limbo.

So, he enrolls at Northern Essex, looking to rediscover himself, does well, and gets accepted to Bentley College, one of the better schools around.

There, he tries running. Goolkasian joins the cross country team as a walk-on and suddenly discovers talent he never knew existed.

The more he ran, the better he enjoyed it — a localite’s answer to Forrest Gump.

Goolkasian completed the Disney Marathon this past January, then followed that up three months later by running the Boston Marathon for the 22nd time. This feat might pale in comparison to another he accomplished.

He was among an elite class of 370 athletes who ran separate marathons back-to-back on two different on coasts 3,000 miles apart. He completed the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day. Eight days later, he was in California running the Big Sur Marathon in Carmel.

As for marathons in all seven continents, on target are runs in South Africa, Asia and another in logistically the toughest and coldest continent — Antarctica. He also plans to do one in Iceland and another along the Great Wall of China.

For this, he holds the unenviable honor of being a “Marathon Maniac.” To qualify does not require specific times — just finish your races. Although Goolkasian’s times are impressive (best marathon time is 2:55), the real “victory” is enjoying the lifestyle.

His weekly training regimen includes 11 miles swimming, 190 miles on the bike and 33 miles of road running.

A year ago, he was in Haiti with a church youth group on yet another mission, building homes and working inside a clinic. Goolkasian is also a guidance coach for the Big Brother Association, a role equal in stature as his endurance runs.

While in Haiti, he ran every day in the heat and, by week’s end, was joined by nine Haitian boys.

His favorite quote is but three words: “Livin’ the dream.”

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.