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Benji Durden of Boulder, once known worldwide as one of the greatest marathoners of his generation, has experienced plenty of highs and lows through his sport and his battle against cancer.

The rug was yanked out from under Durden and several hundred other U.S. Olympians when then-President Jimmy Carter declared a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, to be held in Moscow, because Russia had invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979.

Jim Martin For the Camera

Missing the 1980 Summer Olympics and dealing with the return of cancer have defined Durden’s life. He had surgery for lung cancer this past week.

He most regrets not walking into the opening ceremonies, celebrating with all the international athletes, and “to be able to put my arms out and embrace the other competitors, and be able to say, ‘Guys and girls, we made it,’” Durden said.

“You begin to value the present, the moment to moment,” he said of missing the Olympics and having cancer.

The Summer Olympics start July 23 in Tokyo, after a one-year pause caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Some athletes who had trained for a 2020 Olympics lost their edge and failed to qualify for this year’s games.

Still, that’s better than losing out on an Olympics because of questionable politics after many years of preparation. Carter hoped the boycott would force Russia to withdraw from Afghanistan, but the invaders stayed for nine years. (The United States learned little from Russia, invading Afghanistan itself and staying for 20 years).

It’s ironic that the purposes of the Olympics — the modern version that started in 1896 in Athens, Greece — are to inspire peace, prevent war and promote world unity.

Anita DeFrantz, a U.S bronze medal winner in 1976 in rowing, led a legal fight against the boycott, which the athletes lost. She said, “The team was invisible; we’re still invisible. We were a team with no results.”

Durden moved to Boulder from Atlanta in 1985 and transitioned from being an elite marathoner to a recreational runner. He was well-known in Atlanta, his home city, and wanted to move a little into the background. Here, he started three months of training for the 1985 Bolder Boulder. He fell in love with the city and never left.

Durden still runs 14 miles a day — then usually takes an afternoon walk.

He was a member of the U.S. marathon team in 1980, having finished second in 2:10.40 (an average of 4:57 minutes per mile for the marathon, which is 26 miles and 385 yards) in the U.S. Olympics trials held in Buffalo, N.Y. Tony Sandoval (2:10.18) won the race; Durden had the lead until he hit the 18-mile mark.

In those days, Durden ranked among the nation’s top 10 marathoners for six consecutive years.

In 1980, the U.S team had 466 members; 200 of them, including Durden, failed to qualify for the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. He had a bad foot injury, plantar fasciitis, which flared up in the 1983 Boston Marathon. Months later, its severity ended his Olympics dream.

The experience made him dig down deeper to achieve new running goals.

Durden is proud of once running a sub-2:10 (2:09.57) marathon. Still, that’s only the ninth-fastest time among all the marathoners currently living in Boulder; such is the pedigree of the running community.

Durden has given much back to the sport, starting with helping  to transform it from amateur status to professional, enabling runners to make money.

He also believes he has the record for the longest stretch between a first marathon win and the last one: 42 years.

His fastest mile was 4:14 during a track meet at the University of Georgia, where he attended college.

He’s run 130 marathons, each under four hours.

Since his first bout with cancer, his wife of 32 years, Amie, has not missed a daily run since Oct. 30, 2003. She often runs with Benji. Amie has finished 150 marathons. Together, they have run a marathon in every state.

Durden’s contributions include conducting official course measurements nationwide, including for the Bolder Boulder. He and Amie also operated a successful race-timing business for many years.

He has encouraged many runners to reach their potential and do their best.

Durden is a positive, humble, deeply passionate person — and also an encyclopedic master of running trivia.

He knew at age 12 that he was “born to run. I only raced because I enjoyed it,” Durden said.

Most of all, he’s been a good friend and supporter to all runners. We wish him good health and that we’ll see him on the roads soon.

Jim Martin, jimmartinesq@gmail.com