Still Running After All These Years

Few will ever run Columbia’s Heart of America marathon; it ranks among the country’s oldest and toughest nonmountainous marathons, and no more than 178 people had ever run the race together until this year, when 319 people took to the course. In 2009, the Labor Day race convened for the 50th time – a large feat for a small marathon.

Andrea Fischer, the women’s record holder for the marathon, says of the Heart of America: “[There’s] no hype, no pressure, no media blitz, and there’s not even a lot of people that know you’re out there because most of the race you’re out running on a country road by yourself.” Even though she hasn’t raced in several years, Fischer ran the Heart of America one more time this year, to be part of Columbia history.

It is no accident that this low-key race turned 50 this year. Behind the scenes, despite the lack of fanfare surrounding big city marathons or races in exotic locations, many people have worked to ensure that the Heart of America is run every year and that the running community in Columbia is open to all. Sponsored and organized by the Columbia Track Club, an organization that is more than 40 years old, the event is made possible through the hard work of a core group of volunteers. In addition to the marathon, the Columbia Track Club coordinates races throughout the year, provides scholarships to young members and is the organization where distance runners turn to take part in a running community.

The Backbone Of The Heart Of America

Joe Duncan, a retired CenturyTel lawyer who incorporated the club in 1968, has run the Heart of America nine times, and has been race director since 1970. From 1968 to 1987, Duncan was also the president of the Columbia Track Club. As race director at the young age of 75, he still organizes the marathon, coordinates volunteers at aid stations and throughout the course, and led two committees to plan the promotion of the race, the marathon and this year, in honor of 50 continuous runs, a pre-race banquet on Sunday night. He runs at least one 5K or 10K race each month and works as a volunteer with about 12 other volunteers at the summer youth program. For the low price of $1, a registration fee that has remained the same since 1974 when the program began, between 200 and 300 children run in six Wednesday night meets. Each child wins a ribbon, no matter the outcomes.

Although Duncan dedicates time and effort to the marathon, the club and to his own running, he insists that they aren’t doing anything that anyone else can’t do.

“These races are for normal people like you and me,” he says. Duncan, who still runs 15 miles each week, is quick to point out that the median times for marathons have gotten increasingly longer in the last few decades as more “ordinary people” try to run them. The Heart of America is no different. “It’s a peoples’ marathon,” Duncan says and he uses this belief to try to expand the circle of people in Columbia who are taking on distance running as a pastime.

Duncan is, as any Columbia Track Club runner will tell you, a generous contributor to the group who has been around for the club’s entire existence, but he’s not alone.

Keeping Up With The Colts

On Sunday afternoons in Stephens Lake Park the Columbia Track Club Colts – a track and cross-country team for Columbia’s youth who are not yet in high school but who are interested in racing – meet for practice. They are coached, as they have been for 33 years, by Dick Hessler, another well-respected volunteer, a club member since 1971 and an accomplished distance runner himself. Hessler has run the Heart of America 11 times, placing third once, and although he’s no longer running marathons, he still runs 10 miles every day. He volunteers at the event each year and was president of the track club from 1997 to 2004.

Hessler was one of the original club members who suggested starting a summer youth program in 1974. He also helped coordinate a league of runners for small private schools that can’t field an entire team on their own. This brings competitive opportunities to children who otherwise would be shut out from school meets.

A strong work ethic and dedication to running are just a few of the traits that rub off on the children Dick coaches.

Anna Wright, a 13-year-old Colt, says, “All the kids are really nice. The coaches never pressure us. We just try to have a good time.” Wright says she doesn’t even mind when her legs are sore the day after practice, because “it reminds me I’ve worked hard.”

Nathan Keown, a 14-year-old who has been running for 10 years and has now retired from the Colts to run at his own school, has returned to help already. “I enjoy helping out and getting to run with teammates from last year,” he says.

Hessler and Duncan have few worries about who will carry on the work of the club. “The tradition is carried on by the young people who come through the club. We have large numbers of kids who came through the club, ran in college and came back to help,” Hessler says.

“These young people, they come back, they remember, they write you letters about what it meant to them. It’s a community within a community. We see it. I mean look at this marathon – 50 years running!” He adds, as if to make sure it’s clear, “This marathon means a lot to people. It sure as heck means a lot to me.”

He says this as he looks down at a photograph taken after he ran the Heart of America marathon for the first time with his cousin Johnny. Hessler is wearing a khaki trench coat over his running clothes and has his arm around Johnny. They are both smiling.

Eating And Running

The pre-race banquet to celebrate the 50th run of the Heart of America took place at the Hampton Inn in a large party room the night before the marathon.

The air was redolent with the thick smell of marinara sauce. A fiddler, Tim Langen, played music while everyone grabbed food. Langen also ran in the marathon the next day.

Hessler stood in the food line wearing a 1962 Heart of America T-shirt before the speakers began. In line next to him was his wife, and two of his grandchildren. He pointed out the first winner of the marathon, Joe Schroeder, among other notable marathon folks. “They’re the history of this marathon,” Hessler says.

Once the festivities began, Bill Clark, the person responsible for organizing the very first race in 1960, told the crowd that in 1968 when he could no longer direct the marathon, “We found a sucker that we could reel in.” He was talking about Joe Duncan. On a more serious note Clark added, “Joe has been the heart and soul of the Heart of American marathon for 41 years.”

The room, full of Columbia Track Club members and guests, broke into applause.

The Marathoners

The Heart of America marathon course is beyond challenging with hills that make even some of the best athletes walk, not to mention the brutality of a typical Labor Day’s humidity and temperatures. The grueling course didn’t get any easier this year, but Mother Nature gave the marathoners a break with some unseasonably mild temperatures.

Columbia Track Club member and retired psychologist Summer Allen insisted that she would finish the race even if she had to alternate running and walking, even if it took her the full seven hours allowed this year to complete. Allen had asked for the increase from six to seven hours for people like her who wanted to get across the finish line. Like many of the runners who are also track club members, Allen helped with promotion of the 50th annual run. In the end, the course bested Allen and she was unable to finish within the time limit.

Simon Rose, co-host of a KFRU-AM morning talk show, also ran. The last time he ran Heart of America was 1991, but leading up to the 50th annual race he worked on behalf of the Columbia Track Club doing media promotion for the event.

“The only reason I want to get out there on Labor Day is because it’s the 50th anniversary,” Rose says. He was proud that Heart of America was not a “rock and roll marathon.” Rose finished the race with a time of 5:56:13.

Even 24-year-old Patrick Hanson, who won the marathon at the age of 20, ran Heart of America again. He also volunteers with the Columbia Track Club youth program and is a member of the board of directors. Of the 50th annual run, Hanson said, “A lot of people, because the Heart of America meant so much to them, are going to come back. I don’t think you can say that about that many marathons with a hundred finishers.”

2009 Heart Of America Marathon

Top 25 Finishers

1 J. Ryan Hauser Columbia, Mo. 2:53:05

2 Dann Fisher Manhattan, Kan. 2:53:14

3 Pete Doll Columbia, Mo. 2:56:27

4 Tim Langen Columbia, Mo. 2:58:21

5 Andy Emerson Columbia, Mo. 3:00:23

6 Tom Whalen St. Louis, Mo. 3:02:06

7 Andy Pele Columbia, Mo. 3:04:59

8 Stephen Taylor Nashville, Tenn., 3:05:30

9 Chris Cook Columbia, Mo. 3:07:56

10 Brian Evans Columbia, Mo 3:07:57

11 Mark Volkmann St. Charles, Mo 3:10:04

12 Lance Bollinger Columbia, Mo. 3:10:52

13 William Stolz Columbia, Mo. 3:11:05

14 Tom May Columbia, Mo. 3:11:30

15 Casey Prosise Nashville, Ill. 3:12:48

16 Cesar Mello Columbia, Mo. 3:14:50

17 Joe Johnston Columbia, Mo., 3:18:03

18 Andrea Fischer Columbia, Mo., 3:18:12

19 Destiny Thomas Columbia, Mo., 3:18:38

20 Brian Longfellow Overland Park, Kan., 3:21:01

21 Karla Berendzen Columbia, Mo., 3:21:46

22 Paul Schoenlaub Saint Joseph, Mo., 3:22:23

23 Stephen Bourgeois Rocheport, Mo., 3:22:31

24 Philip Schaefer Columbia, Mo., 3:22:38

25 Whitney Spivey Columbia, Mo., 3:23:07

A Running Start

The Body Combat Chicks Take The First Steps Toward Their Marathon Goals

The first woman to return from her Saturday morning run is Jennifer Griffith who sheepishly says, “I’m only training for a 10K.”

Griffith is one of about 25 women who have been meeting twice a week at the MKT Forum trailhead since June 1. Most of them are training for the Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Half Marathon on Sept. 26, and soon the others return to the parking lot.

Group organizer and cheerleader Nita Brooks says that she began running when Maigan Shifley, her friend and fellow group organizer, mentioned that she had never run more than two miles before. They went out together and easily ran four. Then they set a goal of training for a half marathon and invited other friends to join them.

“There’s this chatter, even when we run,” Brooks says as she gestures to the other ladies standing around after a 9.5-mile run. The women share stories about newly attained blood blisters, discussed as marks of pride, and which laundry detergents get sweaty clothes clean. Then they move on to what their group T-shirts will look like – dark pink with black lettering, made to order for the half marathon. They will all wear black shorts.

Among them is Shayne Alexander, a mother who says she’s doing this for her kids but she wasn’t always so thrilled about the commitment. Brooks approached her at the pool with an invitation to join the group run. “I must have been sun stroked when I said yes,” Alexander says. “After, I asked my husband, ‘how much is a half marathon?’ ”

Many of the Body Combat Chicks – a name they’ve derived from the name of a cardio class Brooks instructs and almost all of them take at F.I.T. (Females in Training) – echo the sentiments of group member Andrea Schade: “If everybody stopped running tomorrow, I’d probably stop running.”

Brooks hopes the group will continue to run together after their autumn race and train for another half marathon in St. Louis in April.

“It’s so hard to do this when you’re by yourself,” Brooks says, but among these women the energy is electric, the chatter continues and, for now, so will the early morning runs.