Catching up with a Southern Vermont running legend
MANCHESTER — Becky Kotler looked at the three medals and two trophies on the table in front of her and smiled. She had taken a break from a group sing-along at Equinox Terrace where she lives, to talk about her days as a runner. She sat near the end of a large rectangular table with rounded edges.
"It was a lot of work, running," Kotler said. "But I really think it kept me healthier as I got older."
One of the medals was for participating in a 10-kilometer race on Shelter Island in 2009. Kotler, who turned 81 in November, grew up on Shelter Island, between the north and south forks of land at the eastern end of Long Island.
She has a sister, Patty, a fraternal twin born with her Nov. 22, 1938.
"We're absolutely so different," Kotler said. "When we used to tell people we were twins, they'd say we were lying. Patty likes to sew. I like to run."
Kotler began running as a teenager and her friends remarked about her ability to set her legs to work on tracks and roadsides with seemingly little effort.
"I became a good runner and didn't even realize it," Kotler said. "I would run a mile and say, 'How'd I do that?'"
Kotler took first place in the 70-74 age category at the 2006 Fleet Feet Run for Your Heart 5-kilometer race. She looked at the trophy and remembered the race, held in Stuart, Florida.
"My husband, he really inspired me," Kotler said.
Len Kotler, Becky's longtime spouse and a fellow runner, died in 2013.
The couple were named by the Manchester Select Board as the town's unsung heroes in 2005. And Len Kotler helped revive the Maple Leaf Half Marathon in Manchester, which remains one of the region's best-known road races.
The Kotlers traveled as far as California and Florida for races, but Becky never ran in the marathons of Boston or New York City. She never ran in any marathons.
"I did a half-marathon and thought I was going to die," she said, laughing. "I did a lot of 10Ks. For some reason, that distance clicked for me. And 5Ks? I thought they were easy."
While competing, Kotler said, she was never obsessed with past performances or devising ways of shaving seconds off her past performances. Finishing an event brought the most satisfaction.
"I knew a lot of the people I was running against," Kotler said. "We just ran the best we could."
According to the Manchester Journal's files, Kotler, then 70, represented Vermont at the National Senior Games in 2009 in Palo Alto, California. She entered three distance races — the 1,500 meters, 5K and 10K — and was the only Vermont woman competing in each.
Kotler's running adventures included the time she and running partner Pat Zemianek got off course during the Moonlight in Vermont road race in Pownal in July of 2006. Despite the full moon overhead and luminary candles placed at intervals along the course, Kotler estimated that she and Zemianek ended up running about 8 miles, rather than the planned 4-mile course.
"At one point we started wondering if we were in Massachusetts yet," Kotler said at the time, according to the Bennington Banner.
Kotler is unsure of the date when she stopped running, but the trophies and medals evidence a career that lasted until she was in her 70s. She remains active in her retirement, and enjoys walking with groups on an asphalt path that encircles Equinox Terrace.
"I try to get out every day and do something," she said. "I used to say I should go out and run. Now, it's go out and walk."
In the sing-along, which was led by a staff member strumming a guitar, Kotler participated with more than a dozen other residents. They were sitting near a fireplace, and none of them looked at smartphones. Kotler believes many younger people prefer sedentary activities - such as streaming movies or updating their social media pages over the physical exertion of running.
"They're lazy!" she said. "They don't realize if they don't move it, they lose it."
Kotler said there were days, especially when the weather was gray and cold, when she had to push herself outside to go running. Her training was rarely a solo effort. She preferred to run with others, where the company and the conversation helped pass the time and distance.
"There was a lot of yakking," she said. "Oh, all the people I met. I just thought it was a very nice social thing for me, too."
Registration is underway for the 2020 edition of the Maple Leaf Half Marathon and Kotler 5K Run & Fun Walk, which will take place in Manchester on Sept. 12. The 5K event is named in honor of Len and Becky Kotler, and Becky participated in the 2013 version of the race. She keeps the medal in her room.
For this year's event, she plans to be a spectator.
"I really think I will go down and watch them," she said.
Seeing the trophies and medals, and reminiscing about her husband, Becky Kotler was in a mood to talk about how running had been a positive influence on her life. She has replaced running with walking, but she is glad to have traveled countless miles while at a run.
"Getting involved in something you really love keeps you going," she said. "And you have a better attitude and you're happy and you don't ever get down."
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