Gerry Burney ran the first Las Vegas Marathon in 1967 with one hand clutching a map the entire 26.2 miles. The map wasn’t needed to identify the course route.
“There were no aid stations, no bathrooms,” recalled Burney, now 70 years old. “I wanted to know where the gas stations were along the way in case I needed water or to use the bathroom.”
Burney will have no such problems Sunday evening when he runs the Geico Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon. There will be 700 porta-potties at the start and enough water to flood the Vegas desert.
The race marks the 50th straight year a marathon has been held in Sin City.
Burney lives in Ukiah, Calif., about an hour north of Santa Rosa. He’s retired after a 33-year career with Pacific Bell (now AT&T). Back in February 1967 he was enlisted in the Air Force and worked at a radar site about an hour outside of Vegas before later serving time in the Vietnam War.
He grew up enamored with Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, the only two-time Olympic marathon champion. Bikila won the 1960 Rome marathon running barefoot. Figuring if Bikila could win a marathon running sans shoes, Burney showed up at the Las Vegas Marathon in 1967 wearing a pair of Hush Puppies.
By Mile 20, both feet were bleeding. He walked it in, finishing, by his recollection, in about 3 hours, 45 minutes.
If there was any doubt Burney had some grit, he proved it again eight years later. On Christmas Eve 1975, he was helping a friend fix his car. Burney was pushing the guy’s car from behind when a drunk driver drove into Burney.
Crushed between both cars, an exhaust pipe pierced his left knee. A highway patrolman declared him dead. So did an EMT. So did a doctor. Burney’s wife gave the OK to have his leg amputated.
Miraculously, he recovered.
“The morale,” he said, “is God must have had other plans.”
He spent two years in wheelchairs, casts and crutches.
‘The doctors told me I’d never run again and would walk with a limp because of the damage to my left knee,” he said.
Frustrated that he was still in pain, Burney had all the hardware removed from his body, the plates and screws.
Within six years after the horrific accident, Burney ran another marathon.
Asked the source of his resolve, Burney said, “I’ve always been competitive. It’s just the way I am, my nature, I guess.”
Running, though, is taxing on the body, so Burney shifted to cycling years ago. But about six, eight, 10 years ago, Burney doesn’t know exactly when, somebody called him and mentioned that a 50th Las Vegas Marathon would be approaching.
“I thought, ‘That might be kind of fun,’” he said.
He ran a 48-minute 10K at 68, then a 1:55 half marathon last year.
Traveling by foot, obviously, is in his blood.
Asked what it is that he likes about running, Burney paused for a moment, then said, “It’s all about a feeling, I guess. It’s fun for me to see how far I can push myself.”