Anyone who ran or attended a road race in Maine between 1972 and 2005 probably remembers Carlton Mendell. The Maine running legend and Maine Running Hall of Famer, class of 1992, died on Christmas Day, age 91, in a hospital in Virginia.
A native of New Bedford, Mass., and a Portland-then-Windham resident for five decades, he had seen his health decline and had moved south a few years ago to be closer to family. It’s been a few months since Mendell’s death, but his was a life of athletic accomplishment that must be noted and celebrated, and shortly after the Boston Marathon — which he ran with distinction a couple dozen times — presents a perfect time to do so.
My most vivid memory of Carlton (in Maine running there’s one Carlton, as there is one Joanie) is probably one shared by many runners. It’s of his receding back, clad in a Maine Track Club singlet. It was late on the sunny morning of Oct. 4, 1992. The occasion was the Maine Marathon; it was my first, and in mile 26 at Deering Oaks, nearing Fitzpatrick Stadium where the race used to finish, I was struggling forward when Carlton cruised alongside — head down a bit, running with his economical shuffle-stride. And then he forged ahead of me, indomitably.
One could only marvel, and I did, and still do. Carlton would turn 71 later that month, so he had me beat by 33 years as well as a couple minutes to that 3:37 marathon finish. It was his 64th race of 1992, a year in which his times included a pair of 1:40 half marathons (one of them Bar Harbor) and a 21:16 5K at Unity in the spring.
It seems odd to say that someone “peaked” in his early 60s, but that was Carlton, running 38-minute 10Ks at that tender age, plus his marathon PR of 3:03 (that’s a 7-minute pace) at Maine Coast 1983. He ran his 100th marathon at Maine in 1994, then added a few dozen more.
Decades before, he’d run track and played football on a scholarship at Western Maryland, and even a year of semipro after that. He was lead navigator of a B-17 when the Eighth Air Force bombed Berlin in 1945.
Mendell spent his career in insurance. His middle years were blighted by severe alcoholism and divorce. In the late 1960s he quit drinking and then smoking, and then didn’t like seeing his weight increase to 220 pounds. (His best running weight, which he maintained for a number of years, was 144, twice his height in inches, exactly as he wished it to be.)
It is now the stuff of Maine running legend how the overweight Mendell was inspired by Maine masters runner Dick Goodie, and was moved to take up what everybody then called jogging. So one day in 1971 he went down to Baxter Boulevard.
“I ran to one telephone pole — 65 yards — and I walked to the next,” he told Sunday Telegram columnist Sara Hobson in 1987. “It took me two or three months before I could do a half-mile.”
He turned 50 before entering his first race, the 1972 Patriots Day 5-miler, in which he finished next to last. But he was hooked. “I met a lot of nice people, and the camaraderie is what’s kept me in it to this day,” he told Hobson.
That affection was returned by countless Maine runners, whether they were touched by Carlton’s personal generosity and kindly manner; his sense of humor and anecdotes (I remember him describing how Dr. George Sheehan do-or-die dived to beat him at Marine Corps one year, “but they took him away on a stretcher”); or got their butts kicked by him in races; or shared his company for breakfast at McDonald’s or in expeditions to races such as the Westport (N.Y.) 24-hour relay/ultra, which he won in 1986 with a total 100.5 miles.
Two years before that, his 125.5 miles put him first in a 24-hour race in Brunswick. And almost 10 years later (his obituary mentions) in February 1993, at age 71, he set North American age-group records for 100 kilometers (11:27:10) and 50 miles (9:21:53).
In those days he was running six marathons a year — three in the spring and three in the fall. Racing aside, he made it his practice to run a 10K every morning, and told me that he estimated he was averaging 2,600 miles a year.
In 1991, his 3:30:15 in the Pine Tree Marathon was the second-fastest marathon in the nation in his age group. Carlton slowed, but he soldiered on, with a 6:05:38 in the final Boston he completed, in 2003.
A fuller discussion of his achievements can be found online at the Maine Running Hall site, www.mainerunning.org, where the headline on Carlton’s writeup reads “Iron Man Plus.” A fitting alternate version might be what I would invariably be told when I called his house:
“Carlton’s out running.”
John Rolfe of Portland is a road runner. He can be reached at 791-6429 or at: