Four Score and Two Years of Running

Octogenarian Bill Anderson continues to inspire, and beat, athletes a quarter his age on the roads and trails

By Micah Drew
Runner William Anderson of Columbia Falls, age 82, June 17, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Three days before William “Bill” Anderson was set to marry his high school sweetheart in the summer of 1960, he lined up at the starting line of a race in Missoula. 

This wasn’t just any race — Anderson, who had just wrapped up a college track career, was lined up next to a horse and planned on running from Missoula to Polson, ideally covering the distance faster on two legs than his equine competitors would on four. 

“Seventy-two miles actually isn’t a long distance for a man,” Anderson told a reporter for the University of Montana (then Montana State) sports news department. “But I seriously doubt if the horse can finish.”

Anderson estimated he would finish the 72 miles in 10-12 hours. 

“I figure it this way. I’ll probably be far behind the pack for the first 30 miles, but will gradually catch up and probably pass the horses between St. Ignatius and Ronan,” he told the reporter. “Then I’ll have to open up a lead of about four miles to offset the finishing kick — if they have one.” 

The race got underway at 6 a.m., June 16, Anderson versus two horses ridden by Polson residents. His support crew at the time consisted of his parents and his soon-to-be bride Karen, as well as his college coach and trainer, who were en route to a conference in Spokane when they remembered his crazy feat was underway and turned off the highway. 

“I made it up Emerald hill and over to just outside of Ravalli and I was really struggling with cramps in my legs and knots in my calves,” Anderson recalled just last week. 

Anderson took a break just past the 32-mile mark, lying in the back of a station wagon while the trainer tried to loosen up his legs, but alas, it was decided he should pull out of the race. 

“I got back in the car, didn’t change at all and had wrappings on my legs and we drove to the county courthouse and got our marriage license,” Anderson said. “At our wedding someone asked, ‘Why the heck would you run 30 miles days before your honeymoon?’… And yeah, that was a mistake. I got some notoriety for it for which I didn’t deserve because it wasn’t successful.”

Anderson, now 82, doesn’t like talking about himself or his accomplishments, of which there are many. As a high school athlete, he was twice runner-up at the state track meet, in college he held the school record in the 880-yard run (1:53.3), and he ran his first marathon at the age of 51, followed by 35 more (so far.)

What Anderson will readily spill forth about, however, is his time on the other side of the stopwatch. 

After college, after racing a horse, after his wedding and a stint with the U.S. Army, the Andersons moved back to Montana so he could teach history and coach at the school in Westby, about as far northeast as you can go without leaving the state.  

“If you sat on a bleacher and looked north, you were just looking at Canada,” Anderson joked. “The first thing the superintendent said to me when I arrived, on a Friday, was, ‘Practice for football starts Monday, and you’ll be driving the bus.’”

That launched a nearly 50-year career in education, which culminated in 2010, when Anderson retired as the assistant principal at Columbia Falls Junior High School. 

“I always tell kids, when I was asked to come and talk about education, that you shouldn’t plan on going to Kalispell or Missoula or Polson after college,” Anderson said. “You got to go somewhere small where you learn to drive a bus, you learn to make a basketball court or a track out of almost anything.”

In addition to teaching, driving the bus and coaching football, Anderson coached the basketball and track teams as well. 

“I built the first track they ever had,” Anderson said. “I had a guy with a tractor and an old grater the city had and we drug a fifth of a mile track behind the playground and it held the first track meets ever held up in that part of the country.”

When it was too cold to run outside, Anderson made an indoor track as well. He took a 100-foot hose and stretched it around the inside of the gym, and added diagonal straightaways and two hurdles to hold meets. 

His coaching and teaching career spanned five decades — Westby to Scobey to Libby to Flathead Valley Community College and eventually to Columbia Falls, where he worked as an administrator at both the high school and junior high. In Scobey, he started the track and cross country programs as well, and hosted the first unofficial state meet there. 

Anderson didn’t let up during his career — going from classroom to athletics fields to ROTC to home — something he learned back at the high school track meet where he took second, getting surprised right at the line.

“I don’t think I ever let up at the finish line again,” Anderson said. “Or anywhere else.”

William Anderson, 82, of Columbia Falls runs the Whitefish Half Marathon on May 22, 2021. Photo by Mountain Life Photography

In late May, Anderson ran the Whitefish half marathon, finishing in 2 hours and 12 minutes, just off the age-group record he set in 2019. Two weeks later he was racing again at the Herron 5K, finishing in the top 20. 

“I was told once that motion is lotion, and I see people my age and younger complain about their knees — mine just go on and on,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to be relatively injury free, and I don’t have anything to attribute that to.”

The most important thing, however, isn’t just being able to continue running, but having an impact on those Anderson encounters while out there. 

“Sometimes we see running as a means to an end … get the firsthand benefits of your exhaustive miles of training,” he said. “But whether it’s the neighbor who sees you go out for a run, a passing car with a honk, a cyclist on an outing, an elderly walker or maybe a person with limited mobility, you inspire. I think that is our true reward.”

Last weekend, Anderson celebrated his 61st wedding anniversary with Karen, as well as the 61st anniversary of his ill-fated attempt at running to Polson. Even after all this time, it still irks him that he never finished.  

“I keep thinking every year, this would be a good year to do an anniversary run, take three or four days and run from Missoula to Polson,” he said. “That’s still on my agenda.”