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Family and faith propel retired teacher to finish Richmond Marathon 19 times

Eddie Gordon on the porch of her home in Richmond's Northside.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Eddie Gordon on the porch of her home in Richmond's Northside.

It’s a lot easier to get Eddie Gordon to talk about her family than herself. The shelves, bookcases and walls of her home in Richmond’s Northside are sprinkled with photos of her children, grandchildren, and late-husband – whom she calls her Prince Charming.

But stacked neatly in one corner, almost an afterthought, are newspaper clippings, plaques and a glass vase stuffed with medals.

They’re souvenirs from years of running races. Eddie Gordon has finished the Richmond Marathon 19 times. We pour the medals out on her table, as she jokingly says the races all kind of blur together.

Despite having just turned 80, Mrs. Gordon’s hair is only slightly gray at the temples, pulled up in a neat bun. Her fingernails a polished red. Weather permitting, and barring Sundays, she still begins each day with a five to ten mile walk.

“I just love being out there with the birds and the little squirrels and to see nature,” she says. “Oh my and just walk, walk, walk, walk.”

When she walks early she still sports the neon sportswear she knows gives her children comfort. But she’s stopped listening to the music they set up for her. Saying that, of late, it’s quiet she craves.

“It’s that meditation, the quiet. I want to hear the sounds of nature,” she says of her walks in the neighborhood and nearby Byrd Park. “I want to hear the sounds of nature.”

She was in her early 60’s when she finished her first marathon. It was a tough physical challenge, but still a small hurdle relative to a lifetime of accomplishments.

Photos of Eddie Gordon running, alongside plaques and awards she's won from the Richmond Marathon.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Photos of Eddie Gordon running, alongside plaques and awards she's won from the Richmond Marathon.

Eddie Gordon was born one of four girls. And though the masculine name has caused a headache at times, she says she’s proud to be named for her father.

“He was really, really driven,” she says as we talk at her dining table. “I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, we grew cotton, corn, and wheat. He had that work ethic that's unbelievable.”

It was that ethic and encouragement that she says got all four sisters through university. During her time at Fayetteville State College, Gordon joined the nascent Civil Rights Movement. They marched for equality, she says, despite the danger. She remembers being trained for the marches, and warned of possible harm. Other young activists in the south had been attacked by police with water hoses and dogs.

“And you stop really being concerned about your own safety, but I said, if I can make a difference for the future generation, I'm willing,” she recalls.

After she graduated, she set out to make a difference through teaching. Despite having never been to the city, she came alone to work in Richmond, Virginia. The train she rode to the city was segregated, as were the elementary schools she taught in.

But that would change over the course of her 36 years in the city’s classrooms. Throughout it all she took time to talk to students, reassure them, and find the positives.

“Because for some their lives were a little bit stressful,” she says. “And to come to school, to know this is a safe place. And we're going to do things we're going to learn. It made a difference.”

Gordon took pride in doing things differently. Making sure the children got outside every day, and that inside they felt relaxed and safe. She taught them the same values her father taught her: that you can’t realize what you’re capable of until you put forth the effort. And your best is enough.

“And I have to set the example. So it's not as if I'm just talking to them,” Gordon explains. “It's what you do, not so much what you say. Because with children, they look at your actions.”

Almost two decades of Richmond Marathon history, kept in a glass vase in Eddie Gordon's living room.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Almost two decades of Richmond Marathon history, kept in a glass vase in Eddie Gordon's living room.

That was in her mind when she signed up for her first marathon. She was in her 60’s and had run shorter races before. But when she went to register for the Richmond 8k, another thought struck her.

“Why not sign up for the marathon, the full marathon? And I'm questioning, why?” she doubted herself a bit, as did the woman who laughed when she signed up. But using her own mantra of effort, she reminded herself: I can do this.

It took six hours and Gordon completed the race. She hadn’t told a soul until she came home afterwards and saw her husband. He was shocked, she remembers.

“He said ‘Eddie what? What did you say?’ she smiles, “I said I ran the marathon. He could not believe (it).”

Gordon has run the Richmond Marathon every year since, with the exception of 2020 which was virtual because of COVID-19. She mostly runs alone, since she doesn’t know anyone else who does marathons. But she thinks about the people she loves, and dedicates each step in the 26.2 miles to others.

“And I would say for those who have the desire, but it is not possible for them. I say, I’ll do this for you. I would find a reason to run it,” she says – adding that the last bit is always dedicated to her husband John, who died the year following her first marathon. “I found a reason and it kept me going, kept me focused.”

November 2021 was her 19th marathon. And, she says, her final one. She describes looking around as she walked, and just knowing she didn’t need to do it anymore.

“I did it, but with the help of my heavenly Father, who does the races with me,” she says. “He's right there.”

Mrs. Eddie Gordon says she’s reached the mountaintop and is now looking around her with joy. She hasn’t decided what her next goal will be. But whatever it is, she’ll do her very best. Which is enough.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.