Marathon Marine: Col. James L. Fowler

​By John Bandler

Originally published in ​Leatherneck - Magazine of The Marines, October 2016, Vol 99, Issue 10.

On Oct. 30, 2016, tens of thousands of runners will descend upon Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia for the 41st annual Marine Corps Marathon. Created in 1976, with 1,175 runners at the starting line, the marathon has grown exponentially to include registering the maximum capacity of 30,000 runners and being administrated by a full-time organization dedicated solely to sponsoring racing events. The race is a steady symbol of the Marine Corps ethos and continues to foster military-civilian relationships. It took the leadership of one man—Col James L. Fowler—to see his dream become a reality.

Col Fowler lived his entire life as if it were a marathon. As a Marine, businessman, mentor, and lifelong learner, he took on physical and mental challenges and left a legacy not only for the Marine Corps, but for those around him as well. This fall marks the one-year anniversary of his burial in Arlington National Cemetery, and the rededication of Fowler Hall, the Marine Corps Marathon Headquarters building aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Distinguished Marine

Fowler enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1947 at the age of 16 and served in a reserve infantry battalion in New Rochelle, N.Y., for a year until he went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Upon graduation from college in 1952, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and completed The Basic School at Quantico. During the Korean War he was an infantry platoon leader, serving in combat on the western Korean front from 1953-54.

Upon completion of his service in Korea, Fowler returned to civilian life while remaining in the Marine Corps Reserve. Fowler made a decision that would have a long-lasting impact on his personal and professional life shortly after returning home—he joined the CIA. While working for the CIA, every two weeks he would collect his paycheck from a fellow employee, Betsy Blackwell. Fowler left the CIA three years later and married Betsy in 1961.

Marriage, however, was not the only exciting thing Fowler pursued in 1961. Longing for comradery of the Corps, then-Captain Fowler and then-Major Jacques Istel established the Corps’ Reserve Volunteer Training Unit 1-11. Fowler was the executive officer, and Istel was the commander.

Istel was famous for leading the U.S. parachuting team, and is credited with being the father of American skydiving and military HALO jumping. VTU 1-11 was the first authorized Marine Corps free fall parachuting unit, a notable distinction for a reserve unit, but skydiving was but one facet of this “intelligence unit with a panoramic mission, including airborne, scuba, and mountain training ... ” as described in the September 1965 issue of Leatherneck. As executive officer, Fowler attended Airborne, Ranger, HALO (High Altitude Low Opening), scuba, and mountain schools, as well as language training.

In 1966, Fowler volunteered for active duty service in the Vietnam War and served in country for nearly two years, first as an infantry battalion executive officer, then as regimental intelligence officer, then as executive officer of a reconnaissance battalion and finally as commander of an infantry battalion. His Vietnam service earned him two Bronze Stars, a Joint Service Commendation Medal and two Purple Hearts. The first combat wound occurred during an enemy assault on Fire Base Winchester when his bunker took a direct hit and he received a shrapnel wound on his head. He later received an AK47 gunshot wound during a firefight near the Ben Hai River. The wound was significant and required nearly a year of recovery at the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va.

The Purple Heart he earned for this wound would be the basis for the United States Postal Service’s Purple Heart stamp, which was issued in May 2003 to great fanfare. The Purple Heart stamp was enormously popular and was even reissued several times when the postage rates increased.

While recovering, Fowler attended the Armed Forces Staff College, where he later was a faculty member. When his wounds had healed in 1970, he left active duty to return to civilian life. For the next dozen years, civilian life and reserve duty were interspersed with periods of active duty. Promoted to colonel in 1974, he returned to active duty as head of the Marine Corps Reserve Personnel Branch, working directly under Major General Michael P. Ryan, the Director of the Marine Corps Reserve.

Creator of the Marine Corps Marathon

By this time, Fowler was a highly decorated Marine who had served in combat in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The latter conflict had proven to be highly unpopular, and civilians often misdirected their anger at the government to those serving in the military. Simultaneously, Americans were falling in love with long-distance running, inspired in part by Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon.

Fowler had the initial idea for a Marine Corps marathon and formally proposed its establishment in October 1975 in a memorandum to MajGen Ryan. He noted that the proposed marathon would accomplish three main things: it would bridge the divide between the military and civilians, it would be a public relations achievement for the Corps, and it would assist Marines attemting to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

The marathon concept was rooted in the legend of the Battle of Marathon in Greece in 490 B.C., and the military messenger who died after running the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the battle. As Fowler noted, it is especially fitting for the Marine Corps to organize such a race.

Maj Gen Ryan approved the idea, and all that remained to be done was to plan and organize a marathon in less than a year. Not surprisingly, Fowler was appointed race director, and preparation for the first Marine Corps Reserve Marathon began.

Among the many Marines and civilians involved in planning and organizing this endeavor, Fowler drew upon friend and former VTU 1-11 unit member Tom Redden. Organizing this first race in the days before Google maps and hand-held global positioning systems was a logistics feat. Fowler and Redden plotted the course with bicycles, paper maps, and notepads. In the sweltering July heat, they biked the course and measured it with a bicycle wheel counter, an odometer-type device which requires calibration through painstaking mathematical calculations.

The first marathon was held on Nov. 7, 1976, and was the largest first-time marathon ever, with more than 1,000 finishers. By contrast, the first running of the New York City Marathon in 1970 had slightly more than 100 runners. Unlike the New York marathon, which offered purses for elite runners, none of the Marine Corps Marathon runners were paid to run it, a principle that continues to this day. Because of this, and because of its openness to all, regardless of fitness level, disability, or military affiliation, it is known as “The People’s Marathon.” There were numerous volunteers for the inaugural marathon, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, high school bands and hundreds of Marines.

The race technology of the day did not include laptop computers, spreadsheets, race software, or radio frequency emitting chips. As each runner finished the race, they were given a tongue depressor with a number on it which they soon handed back to race personnel to be cross referenced with bib number and finish time. In another location, each runner’s age, gender, military affiliation (if any), and other information was stored. The Marine Corps Reserve Automated Data Processing branch was tasked with assembling and sorting all of this data to provide race results for each category; it did so using punch card computers. This task fell to Capt Alfred “Al” Richmond, who not only served on the organizing team, but also participated in the inaugural race. He received his own tongue depressor when he crossed the finish line and went on to work many late nights to compile and print the race results. (Richmond has since run every Marine Corps Marathon, a feat he shares with just one other runner, fellow Marine Col Will Brown.)

Fowler directed the second marathon in 1977 as well, and race participation more than doubled. By 1978, the marathon had grown so much that it was transferred from the Marine Corps Reserve and renamed the Marine Corps Marathon in order to reflect its representation from the entire Corps.

Fowler took an assignment at the Landing Force Training Command in Little Creek, Va. and as the third marathon approached, Fowler contacted Redden and said, “Tom, we organized and ran the first two Marathons, now we have to come full circle and run the third one.” And so they both did. At the age of 47 and despite the effects of his Vietnam bullet wound, Fowler ran and finished the Marathon.


Fowler was a lifelong teacher and mentor who influenced many individuals, including Bob Hugin, who served with Fowler in the late 1970s as a young Marine officer at the Landing Force Training Command. Emphasizing the importance of self-improvement and education, Fowler encouraged Hugin to attend the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Hugin did so and went on to great success, and now is Executive Chairman of a global biotechnology company. In 2009, in appreciation for Fowler’s mentorship, Hugin donated a million dollars to create the Col James L. Fowler, USMC Scholarship at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. The scholarship provides full tuition and a stipend for a student with military experience, with preference for those applicants with Marine military service. Fowler’s legacy of service and selflessness lives on through this new path for Marines to both better themselves and to further serve the country through responsible actions in the business sector.

While he may not have run the marathon after the 1978 race, Col Fowler was a presence at each marathon. He cheered for the runners and remained on the marathon’s ad hoc publicity committee until his death.

He was an inaugural inductee to the Marine Corps Marathon Hall of Fame in 2000.

Today, the Marine Corps Marathon is one of the largest and most influential marathon organizations in the world. The organization has grown to include other races such as the Historic Half Marathon, the Semper 5ive Mile Run, a the MCM10K, the MCM Kids Run, the Quantico Tri & 12K, and more.

Col Fowler died on Jan. 20, 2015, at the age of 84. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in a beautiful location overlooking the Marine Corps Marathon course.

Whether we run, volunteer or cheer during the Marine Corps Marathon, remember this marathon Marine and all he contributed to the marathon, the Marine Corps, our country and his friends.

Note: This article was about a friend and mentor who did many amazing things in his life.  It was originally published in ​Leatherneck - Magazine of The Marines, October 2016, Vol 99, Issue 10.

Download the full issue of ​Leatherneck from