A field of 524 individuals registered for the first KeyBank Vermont City Marathon in 1989 and 414 of them completed the 26.2-mile course. In the 23 subsequent races, the number of runners who have finished every marathon has shrunk to an elite group of five.
That number will drop to four when the 25th edition of the race goes off Sunday. Seventy-year old Rosemary Rusin of Florence, the last remaining woman to cross the finish line each year, has been sidelined by a bicep tendon and lower back injury.
That leaves a quartet of VCM Hall of Famers left to carry the banner: Russ Petelle of Derby Line, Victor Tirrito of South Hero, Jim Leary of Brandon, and Burlington native Bob O’Brien, who now lives in Ohio.
The four came to the marathon from different directions initially, but have developed a common bond, even though they are not close personally.
“There’s like 4,000 people in the race and you see a blue bib (which at one time signified Hall of Fame status) and you wave at each other but you don’t really have a chance to do much more than that,” said Petelle. “I think we’re alike in that it’s a heck of a lot harder to stop running than it is to start. And now we’re part of this streak.”
Russ Petelle, 65, retired three years ago from U.S. Customs. He initially began running marathons in a successful effort to stop smoking. He ran his first marathon in 1977 and has raced in all 50 states, completing his tour last year in the Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegone marathon in Minnesota.
Petelle, whose best VCM time was 3 hours and eight minutes in 1991, has a favorite memory from one of the early races.
“I’m not a particularly outgoing person, but there was a time when I was experiencing some real stomach problems as I ran through a residential neighborhood,” he said. “I had no choice but to ask some people who were sitting on their front porch if I could use their restroom. They told me to go right in, it was the second door on the right. I think that’s kind of indicative of Vermont behavior.”
Victor Tirrito, whose wife Debbie is also an avid marathoner, ran his best race of 3:09 in the initial VCM. He has since completed more than 100 marathons and several dozen ultra marathons. He and Debbie will be part of the VCM’s “pacer” group that will attempt to help runners finish in the neighborhood of 5:30.
“I’m extremely proud to be part of this small group,” said the 59-year old Tirrito, a senior technical director for AT&T. “But I feel fortunate and grateful more than anything else.”
Bob O’Brien, 58, heads the adaptive physical education department for a school district outside Columbus and completed his 100th marathon in last year’s VCM. He considered running in a more exotic marathon to mark that milestone, such as Honolulu or Big Sur, California.
“But Burlington was my first marathon and I thought that was where I belonged for the 100th,” said O’Brien, who has run in 23 states and two Canadian provinces. “And the race has gotten better every year. It has been easy to come back.”
O’Brien also takes pride in helping close down the VCM’s beer tent each year. He has a personal best of 3:02 set in 1998 and has always finished in under four hours. But Jim Leary may have the best odds of maintaining the streak because he is the youngest of the four at age 51.
Leary, a lawyer who grew up in Shelburne, began his marathon career while at Vermont Law School. He has only run the VCM and the New York City races and about five years ago began to wonder if he could keep going.
“I have been doing this for practically half of my life,” he said. “It’s a celebration for me, a way to keep myself honest physically over the winter and kick off the summer. I wonder if I can be the last man standing.”
Petelle, Tirrito and O’Brien have all run the Boston Marathon numerous times and know that the tragic bombings there in April will cast this VCM in a different light.
“It was such a bad circumstance but we saw so many acts of charity and bravery,” Petelle said. “It was a horrible situation but I think the positives outweighed the negatives.”