Steve Coffman was in the right place at the right time.
The place was Hawaii, where Coffman was stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps. The year was 1972, and American Frank Shorter had just won the Olympic gold medal in marathon running in Munich. The long-distance running craze spread throughout the nation, and Coffman found training in Hawaii especially appealing.
“I owe a lot of it to the perfect place to run,” he said. “I could get out and just enjoy the beautiful outdoors of Hawaii – the ocean, the mountains. It was just enjoyable.”
Coffman, now a west Alexandria resident and physical education teacher for special-needs children at Fairfax County Public Schools, including at Hollin Meadows Elementary School, dove right in to the sport. Today, at age 64, he’s run 73 marathons and is preparing to run his 35th consecutive Boston Marathon in April.
Coffman didn’t start out as a long-distance runner. He ran track in high school, and his service in the Marine Corps, from 1971 to 1975, included three-mile runs. When the marathon boom hit, a physician in Honolulu decided to start a marathon there, and Coffman’s interest was piqued.
“They started advertising it, and it’s like, ‘This sounds like something, I can do this,’ type of thing,” he said with a smile. “What did I know? I’m just running three miles.”
Honolulu’s first marathon took place in 1973 and was Coffman’s first. He found he enjoyed the challenge. After leaving the Marine Corps, he returned to his home state of Michigan to earn his master’s degree from in adapted physical education from Michigan State University.
He joined a Detroit-area runner’s group and, in 1978, ran the Boston Marathon for the first time. He’s returned to run the 26.2-mile course every year since.
Coffman has also run marathons in Michigan, New York City, Miami, Charlotte and Bermuda. He’s also run 20 Marine Corps marathons. His most memorable was Athens in October 1988.
At the time, Coffman was teaching at a U.S. Department of Defense school in England and made the trip to Greece to participate in the “original” marathon, running from the plains of Marathon to the Athens stadium. “That was really significant,” he said.
Coffman’s running regimen includes running anywhere from three to 20 miles a day, at least six days a week, depending on how soon the next marathon is. His fastest time came in 1981 at the Boston Marathon, when he clocked in at 2 hours, 34 minutes, and 22 seconds.
During the day, Coffman splits his week between Hollin Meadows and Saratoga Elementary in Springfield. He’s been with the school district for 23 years, teaching special-needs children, an interest he developed while volunteering with the Special Olympics in Hawaii during his Marine Corps days.
“It was more rewarding for me, helping special-education students, as a person, and that’s what I’ve done ever since,” he said. “I’m totally satisfied with that.”
Most of his students are classified as having emotional problems. Coffman’s co-workers have nothing but praise for their colleague.
“His patience and his understanding of their needs is just remarkable, to say the least,” said Sarah King, a Saratoga physical education teacher. “He’s phenomenal – always willing to go way out of his way to help anybody, from our colleagues all the way down to the kids.”
Todd Paxton, a Hollin Meadows physical education teacher, called Coffman “inspirtational.”
“He’s a real gentleman,” Paxton said. “He’s a good friend. He’s a good mentor to younger PE teachers. … He’s real receptive to helping people out and training people, and helping them learn the ropes. He’s real easy to get along with.”
Meanwhile, Coffman plans to keep running as long as his health allows. He credits his success to his wife, Jackie, and his three children, who have “put up with him” all these years, he said, laughing.
“My body’s talking to me, after all the miles and all these years now and my age,” he said. “I just have to adjust to it.”
Still, he has no plans to skip the Boston Marathon anytime soon.