Running Through Life with George Banker

As told to Karen Mitchell

Editors Note:  I have known George for almost three decades, and Clay and Freddi have known him longer.  He’s a fellow photographer, journalist, and good friend.  During the last year, we’ve profiled various athletes and those actively involved in the running community.  We realized that George is one of the unsung heroes.  He’s a long-time runner, good at it, and he’s a rock in the running community, putting in many years of dedicated (all volunteer) work in so many capacities.  We hope you enjoy reading this interview, in George’s words.

Please tell us about your family background.  Where were you born/where did you grow up? 

The word “complex” describes my family background.  My grandfathers were the mixing bowl, one from Portugal (on my mother’s side) and on my father’s side French, Creole, and Afro-American.  My paternal great-grandfather was the son of the owner of Banker Plantation in St. Martinsville, LA.

My mother was the rock. She attended Saint Joseph (Philadelphia) to obtain her degree at age 64. Like most children, you appreciate your parents more after their death.

It’s hard to sell the fact that I was born in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. My mother was married twice to two Marine Corps enlisted personnel. Like most military families we moved around, but the longest residence was in Philadelphia.

The second-longest residence was in Kinston, NC where my mother was born, and during that time, she was a single parent working two jobs. My brother and I lived in the house she had built a block from her parents. Where she worked in town, we could not go in the front door; we had to use the side door.

George’s mom with George’s older brother Alvin
This is at the Banker plantation, where the owner’s son was the father of George’s great-grandfather.

Where did you go to school?  What did you study?

I was an early product of Catholic schools in North Carolina and South Philadelphia where I attended Saint Richards Catholic School.  I also attended public school at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia followed by a return trip to West Philadelphia High where I graduated.

I graduated with an AA in Accounting from Prince George’s Community College with honors, Largo, MD (’76) and a BBA in Accounting from George Washington University, Washington, DC (’84).

You have proudly served our country.  Tell us about your military service.

From the age of five, I was exposed to the military. All my male uncles served and an aunt. I had a line number for the draft by the time I graduated in 1968. I had planned on pursuing a two-year degree in electrical engineering. At the last minute, the financial assistance collapsed. I had classmates going to the military induction center in the morning and on the train the next day.

I made the choice to sign up for a 90-day enlistment deferment into the Air Force. The Army did contact me a few weeks after, but they were late. Anyone who went into the military knew that you were going to be assigned where they had the need. My code was Cryogenic Fluids Production Specialist. In layman terms, we worked on plants that made liquid oxygen (LOX). The downside, the need was Thailand or Vietnam. I won the coin toss, Thailand (1969-1970). The LOX was used in the F-4s flying sorties over Vietnam

Once back stateside most of my active time was ground aircraft refueling, supporting B-52s and KC-135 tankers. My active duty ended at Andrews Air Force Base after eight years. Two months later I joined the D.C. Air National Guard as a refueling supervisor (8 years active duty and 12 years Air National Guard).

My retirement was in 1989 after 20 years of service with 14 military decorations.

George Banker, US Air Force

How did you meet Bernadette?  And you have children.

I was busy working after school and my older brother was being social in the West Philadelphia neighborhood and had met a girl who had three sisters. The two started dating. It was two years before they knew he had a brother.

I started hanging around the house so much that her father would ask, “Does that boy have a home?” After high school, I had asked her to go to Brooklyn to visit my aunt. Contrary to what people were thinking it was platonic. At this time, my brother was engaged to her sister. They got married in 1969.

We made the trips every two weeks. After I had enlisted the 90 days, I was not focused on what was going to happen after I left. I knew that I loved her but never said anything. In early March 1969, I was taken to the airport, and Bernadette’s mother asked me, “What about Bernadette?”

I played that off and did not answer. All the time during basic training my thoughts were on her and what was I going to do. After basic training, I was stationed at Chanute AFB in Illinois. I got the nerve up to put all the emotions in a letter.

A few days after my letter I received a telegram with a reply that she felt the same way. I still have the telegram in the original envelope.  I went on a weekend leave and it was then that we had our first kiss.

We eventually set our date to be married on May 8, 1971. During my tour, I was writing twice a day and one letter was fifty pages. Since there was no Internet the U.S. Postal Service was the primary means of communication. I lost count on the money on collect phone calls.

Our children are George Jr., Yvette, and Andre’.

George and Bernadette at 2019 Credit Union Cherry Blossom VIP Dinner

What can you tell us about you as a young man?

From kindergarten on, I cannot recall a time that I wasn’t doing some type of work:  picking vegetables in the fields, paper routes, dishwasher, domestic cleaning, auto supply store (Penn Jersey), grocery store stockroom. Getting off work at midnight and carrying a full academic load in high school did not leave time for sports.

I am a product of my environment. I left home at 18 and had the choice to make the wrong decisions. The major factor is who you surround yourself with. Parents instill basic morals and friends reinforce along the way. The glue is your faith.

A drive to achieve a goal first comes from within. My experiences come from the 20 years with the military, 25 years of IBM and management, and 38 years in this sport. My strongest take away is being fair and honest in all that you do. You break this rule, I will engage to root out the situation.

I support those who support me, and the support has no end. If I cannot make a meaningful contribution to a situation then I will not get involved. I am quick to jump and say: How can I help?

When/why did you start running?

In 1982 while at IBM there was an annual office outing with a one-mile run. The Branch Manager won it every year. I would see Dave Nichols walking around the office and believed that he could not win. I started running and after doing a mile in 12 minutes I was disappointed, being 32 years old.

On September 19, 1982, I entered my first race, Philadelphia Distance Run. My time was 1:59:00. I thought that was fast. My longest run had been 17 miles with no formal program.

On April 17, 1983, I entered my first marathon, Penn Relay Marathon (Franklin Field University of Pennsylvania). I had a goal of 3:30 and did a 4:24. I did all the wrong things right.

By the end of the year, I had joined the D.C. Road Runners Club and met some runners at IBM who were members of the Rock Creek Runners Club (RC2).

I am about competing against myself. By 1984 I got the Philly Distance run down to 1:22.40.

How was your early running career

In the early years, I was racing four days a week. I signed up for the Road Runners Clubs of America (RRCA) and started collecting patches for running 500 miles in six months. I was hooked and collected several 1500-mile patches for six months.

Before running, my vice of choice had been alcohol. I had managed to develop a fondness that ran through the family. In 1982 I stopped the hard alcohol and smoking my pipe. I developed the taste for beer but not to excess.  By 1999 I had stopped ALL alcohol cold turkey.

I was picking up a new addiction. My life was arranged around running events. I selected events which would agree with Bernadette as she would travel with me.

To test myself I pulled three 100-mile weeks. I was going seven days a week with doubles and triples. Throughout all of the running, I have worked a minimum of 40 hours a week.

Along the journey Coach Joe Lugiano (IBM) began to give points for improvement, but I was the student who did not follow plans well. I would go beyond. He gave me room to make mistakes.  Once you figure out that you are off course, you will turn around.

Early on I realized that my body was better at shorter distances, but that did not give me the enjoyment of longer distances.  When I evaluate performance, I like to think about effort, not time.  Running is like education; the learning process never stops.

What are your important accomplishments in your running career?

At the top of the scale was making three trips to the Boston Marathon (1988-1990) when the only entry was by time.  My fastest time to get to Boston was 3:04:32 and I gave my best at the Houston Marathon (January 17, 1988) trying to get under three hours. This is an unfulfilled goal.

I have completed seven JFK 50 Milers and had three DNFs.

The 2014 Marine Corps Marathon was marathon number 100.  Note I have finished 35 MCMs and I’m #17 on the list of most finishers.

Metro Sports Athlete of the Month December 2006
DCRRC Hall of Fame 2006
Marine Corps Marathon Hall of Fame 2011
Cover and feature story Run Washington Magazine Nov/Dec 2014 (100th Marathon at MCM)

Team George family celebrates George’s 100th marathon at the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon. L-R Yvette, Bernadette, George and Andre’. George Jr. (not pictured).

And running is only one small part of your relationship to the running community.  What else?

My introduction to the role of historian dates to the National Data Running Center (NRDC) when they were being phased out and replaced by The Athletic Congress Stats/USA and I volunteered for the DC area State Record Keeper.  The NRDC (Ken & Jennifer Young) shipped records of all prior results from the Metro area which included the Marine Corps. I started in 1984 collecting data and doing research.

Former president and meet director for the Mid-Atlantic Corporate Athletics Association relays 1986-1993.
Chair, Issues and Trend Committee for RRCA (Road Runners Club of America) (1993-2000).
Steering Committee, Marathon Safety for NCS4 2012 to present.
Running community hats include race announcer, consultant, media relations, invited athlete coordinator, photographer, and historian.

Major Metro events:  Lawyers Have Heart, Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run, Marine Corps Marathon, George Washington Parkway Classic, Washington’s Birthday Marathon, and Tim Kennard River Run, and earlier events Sallie Mae 10K, Navy Half and 5-Miler, Freddie Mac Race for Every Child.

George with Ashton Eaton and Dan O’Brien in FL 2012. Eaton and O’Brien are USA Olympic decathlete champions.
Pre-race panel discussion for the 2017 Credit Union Cherry Blossom race. Jeff Darman, George Banker, and Henley Gabeau. Henley was RRCA President and the first Executive Director 1990-2001.

How did you get into journalism and photography? 

I’m not a journalist or photographer by trade but by hobby with no formal training. Five photographers who inspired are Victor Sailer, Clay Shaw, Karen Mitchell, Bob Burgess, and Bob Mallet. I want to be like them when I grow up. 

I started with a 35mm film camera (Yashica Electro 35 – yes, I still have it) and I dare not estimate the amount of money spent over the years. It was a hobby and I sent pictures along with stories to each of the publications. I love writing, and in 1984 I was writing for DCRRC Club newsletters and Rock Creek Club. I would run across the finish line and then start taking pictures.

Starting in the early 1990s my focus changed to conducting interviews to include athlete comments. The influence was from local newspaper writers Steve Nearman and Jim age. At the recommendation of Nearman, I was given an opportunity for the column “On the Run” and the only guidance was to write about running.

My work has appeared in Runner’s World, Running Times, The Runner, Running Journal, Capital Running Company, RRCA FootNotes, Washington Running Report, and National Master News.  Also, the homepage of the U.S. Olympic Committee website; Air Force Times; US Army; the Avon Series; Nike Women’s Race; Army Wife Network; and, of course, Runner’s Gazette.

Fellow photographer Karen Mitchell with George getting ready to shoot the 2017 Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in Washington, DC.

How did you begin to write for Runner’s Gazette?

Runner’s Gazette (RG) gave me my big break. When I saw my first story in 1984, it was a surprise and a feeling of pride to see my work in print.

To me, the RG was the community paper as it allowed me to bring attention to local runners in the RG readership. Their stories were more important than their times.  Being associated with RG is like dealing with relatives. Each runner has a story and I get to know them and their family.

A newspaper will beat the Internet any day, in my book. There was always a place for RG, and I was going to do my best to let others know it was about the running community. People would ask where is RG and I would reply: “Depends on where Freddi is.”

And you have written a book . . . 

I wrote “The Marine Corps Marathon A Running Tradition” (1976-2006). Cathlene Banker planted the seed (thank you) and I wrote it because I wanted the story to be told from the organizational level down to the runners. It is their stories that make the race the “People’s Marathon.”

It took two years to pull the book together. I built the history from the NRDC data and my own personal records from all of the years.  I interviewed 110 people.

BTW, for many years Bernadette was the only female on the MCM press vehicle while I was running. This was a good set up until one year it rained and she got wet. I was on my own after that.

And you have been a race director . . . and helped organize races . . . operations manager at Army Ten Miler . . .

When I met Roger Peet of DCRRC I started to learn the art of collecting race supplies. We would often meet on the Virginia side of the Woodrow Wilson to pass off supplies for upcoming events. I was directing smaller races and scoring the series on Tuesdays and having results by Thursdays for posting at the next race. The results were from finish line cards and chronomix tapes.

The smaller races provided the foundation for race operations. A valuable lesson learned was the “value of a t-shirt” to recruit volunteers and sponsors.

Before Running USA, the only formal education was the Road Race Management Conference which was attended by the “Who’s Who” that were in the sport and the size of the event did not matter.

Handling operations is a political position where you have to balance the expectations of the local residents and businesses. The other part is the local permitting jurisdictions and regulations. In the equation is the police and medical considerations. The requirements have to be translated back to event managers to relay to sponsors to inform them of what can and cannot be delivered.

In 1984 no one knew about COVID-19. Look at the industry now.

What do you still have to accomplish?  Any regrets?

A friend told me that the way to beat your competition is to outlive them. No one knew better than Hedy Marque. I will admit that I stopped running the Annapolis Ten-Miler run after she (age 77) beat me.

My mental battle is to forget what I used to do and focus on what I can do.  I am not ready to give up on the JFK 50-Mile Run. I need three more to get my sweatshirt. My obstacle is that I have to get under 13-hours.  Running Boston feels better when you know you qualified. Wearing the 500-Mile Club JFK sweatshirt would feel better knowing I completed ten. The thought is still on the table.

I want to continue to help others because I had the help and still receive it. One driver is, “If you want something bad enough you will do whatever it takes to reach your goal.”

I have completed 117 marathons as of February 2020 and the goal is  ????

George’s 117th marathon was the 59th Washington’s Birthday Marathon, February 2020
2019 NCR Marathon No 116
2018 NCR Marathon

What else would you like to share with our readers?

I have to learn how to adjust to my new body and accept the fact that an 8-minute mile may not be a possibility. I ran under that pace every mile for 26.2 miles. So, what am I saying?

In September 2015 I went to the hospital for a sore shoulder and left with an appointment for the cardiology department at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  My blood pressure was abnormal. I was placed on BP medication and was to be scheduled for a series of tests which I delayed. The timing was bad.  I had my 34th Marine Corps Marathon at the end of the week.  It was best not to ask permission. I did scratch another marathon and 50-miler.

The test revealed a leaking valve. I was informed that my future would either be a repair or replacement. By May of 2017, the pace per mile was slow and I was reduced to run/walk and the marathon times were in the six-hour range. As blood was being pumped out, 40% would return. I had to have surgery. I was in the recovery room for 20 minutes and was rushed back and re-opened a second time. God was not ready for me to leave.

I like to rely on faith, family, and friends and I made it through. I had some of my best races while dreaming in the hospital.

My time in the May 2017 race was 6:09:09 and my next marathon in September 2019 was 6:09:21. I felt like I was still in the hunt. I am holding in that range.

George earns this heart pillow after heart surgery.


Categories: Athlete Profiles

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3 replies

  1. I very much enjoyed your article and shared it with Toledo Roadrunners Club. Thank you.

    Like

  2. George ,
    Just read Running through life with George Banker . Although we have know each other for years there was so much I did not know about your life . It was lovely how you and Bernadette fell in love and loved seeing the pics when you were a young man and discovered running . Get out …3:04 is my best marathon time ( Marine Corp Marathon ) Hope to see you at Tim Kennard Run in 2021!

    Like

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