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Meet the man behind the Deseret News Marathon

FILE - Deseret News marathon runners begin the race in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
FILE - Deseret News marathon runners begin the race in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jim Santomier is used to it by now. When the race he conceived hit the 20-year mark he got a call. Same at 30. Ditto at 40. And now that the venerable Deseret News Marathon is set to be run for the 50th consecutive year, the congratulatory phone call was inevitable.

No good deed goes unrecognized.

Fifty-thousand people, give or take, have run the Deseret News Marathon since the first race in 1970, when 73 distance runners — a curious new breed of athlete — toed the starting line in Farmington and set off for the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City. Farmington still exists, of course, but it stopped being the starting line after just one year, but the Hotel Utah no longer exists; it became the Joseph Smith Memorial Building years ago, about the same time it stopped being the marathon finish line.

The marathon’s course quickly evolved into a reenactment of the original 1847 Mormon pioneer trek into the Salt Lake Valley, from Big Mountain to Little Mountain to Emigration Canyon to the valley floor, finishing at the aptly named Liberty Park.

Santomier envisioned the race when he approached Deseret News promotions director Keith West in the winter of 1969-70 about the newspaper sponsoring a 26-miler, just not the course. And for good reason. Santomier wasn’t from around here. He came from New Jersey to the University of Utah as a graduate student, lured by a teaching assistantship stipend in the physical education department. He knew next to nothing about Utah’s pioneer roots and how it was settled. As he became clued in to the local culture, he liked to joke that he was on a mission from New Jersey.

Part of that mission was to bring a long distance race to Utah. Jim had competed in cross-country and track at Montclair State University in New Jersey and as part of his U. of U. post he was assigned as an assistant coach to head track coach and longtime local institution Pete Carlson. There he got to know the university running community, such as it was. On runs with a variety of companions around the U. of U. golf course — something else that no longer exists — he tossed around the notion of Salt Lake City joining Boston and New York City in hosting a big-time marathon.

The Deseret News, it turned out, was all for it, and with very little turnaround time the course was set and the race scheduled for the upcoming July 24th holiday.

A track coach from Price, Ray Barrus, won the inaugural event in 2 hours and 49 minutes. Santomier finished second, a few minutes behind. Forty-three of the 73 entrants made it the entire way.

Santomier never ran another Deseret News Marathon. He graduated the following year with his doctorate and was off to a real job at University of the Pacific in California. He has been steadily employed ever since, mostly by universities. Currently he’s professor of sport management at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Santomier ran consistently, and competitively, all his adult life until hip surgery in 2010 got him off the streets and onto the elliptical. He has never stopped exercising.

Two years ago, at age 72, Jim was diagnosed with lymphoma. The cancer was at stage 4 when it was detected. He was treated at Sloan Kettering, the top cancer research center in New York. First he had traditional chemotherapy, which got much, but not enough, of the cancer. To get the rest he underwent an aggressive treatment called Car T cell therapy, rendering him unconscious for 11 days.

“They said I probably wouldn’t have gotten through it without being in the condition I was in,” he says. “I am an absolute believer in the positive benefits of exercise.”

As for the Deseret News Marathon, he says he’s proud he started a race that’s still being run in Salt Lake City 50 years later. But more to the point he’s proud of starting something that gives people a reason to want to get out and move their bodies and be active. Whether it’s a marathon or a hike or a brisk walk or whatever, anything that does that is a very good thing to have your name attached to.