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Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - One from the Heart

by Hal Higdon

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1985 issue of Ultrasport, a year after the 25th anniversary of the Heart of America Marathon, described within. At that time, the marathon had been moved to October seeking cooler weather. In recent years, the marathon has been returned to its original Labor Day date, hot weather be damned! Hal Higdon ran Heart of America this year as the third of seven marathons in his 7-7-70 Quest, raising funds for the American Heart Association.

On Labor Day, 1968, my wife and I, accompanied by our three children, stopped in Columbia, Missouri at the Daniel Boone Hotel. We were en route home to Indiana after a month-long trip west, during which I had competed in the Olympic marathon trials in Alamosa, Colorado. Up with the leaders at ten miles, I had quit at 20 from a combination of heat, altitude, and insufficient training.

But the trip had more pleasant aspects: we had hiked the Grand Canyon, explored Carlsbad Caverns, and gone floatboat fishing in Arkansas. Finally, we stopped in Columbia, more as an afterthought on the final leg of our journey, so I could run the Heart of America Marathon.

Heart of America, one of only five marathons held in the United States that year long before the running boom, was unusual because of its early starting time. Boston began at high noon. The National A.A.U. marathon in Yonkers, New York also went mid-day. But Heart of America started before dawn, 6:00 a.m., to compensate for its inevitably hot and humid weather.

Years later, I relished retelling the story of how I began slowly, permitting many of the 42 other entrants to rush ahead into darkness. Several miles into the race, I began a gradual acceleration and started to pass people. Soon, the pre-dawn sky turned gray, then gold. I looked ahead and counted six or eight runners strung out before me over the winding, roller-coaster road. Gradually, one by one, I began reeling them in until, just before halfway, I passed the last one, hesitating a moment because I didn't want to run the final 13 miles alone in first.

At that point I passed a race official, who told me, "You're in seventh place!"

In the dark, a half dozen runners had gotten so far ahead that by the time the sun rose they were out of my sight. Nevertheless, I caught them, passing the actual leader, Carl Owczarzak of Kansas City, at 24 miles. Otherwise I wouldn't have returned to Columbia this fall for the 25th running of the Heart of America Marathon.

For the race's silver anniversary, Columbia Track Club president Joe Duncan had invited all past champions back. These included Joe Schroeder, winner of the first race in 1960 in 3:57:00, and Dennis Hinkamp, holder of the course record, 2:29:15 in 1977. My winning time had been 2:41:45, 20 minutes slower than my best.

Down-home country race

If those times seem unimpressive, consider that Heart of America contains five brutal, major hills, not to mention numerous other inclines to nibble at leg strength. Add to that four miles of gravel which, depending upon weather conditions, causes runners either to choke with dust or sink in mud. "It's a race with character," says Joe Duncan.

The course also crosses a railroad track where, one year, after the first three runners passed, a slow freight train crossed, forcing the next ten runners to wait up to four minutes. The race seemed designed by the devil to discourage the undisciplined. Several years ago, local doctors convinced the Columbia Track Club to move its marathon into mid-October to ameliorate the dangers of heat and humidity. Joe Duncan agreed to the change hesitatingly: "I hate to turn this into a race for the faint-hearted."

Little wonder the running boom bypassed Columbia, Missouri. While 18,000 runners from all over the world flocked to the 1984 New York City Marathon, many having gained entry by lottery, only 134 chose Heart of America, most from the immediate environs. While Steve Jones, winner of the Chicago Marathon earned nearly $100,000, the winner in Columbia would take home only a plastic trophy and a smattering of applause. There would be no balloons, no helicopters, no bands, no TV cameras, no aluminum blankets at the finish line; it's just a down-home country race.

That's what attracted me back to Heart of America, since I was suffering what might be called either marathon malaise or runner's low. Having run Boston a dozen times, Honolulu a half dozen, New York, Grandma's, marathons in Europe, Africa, and Down Under, I had no burning ambition to run any more races of 26 miles 385 yards. In fact, I was tired of the whole racing scene and runners in general. My malaise peaked last summer when I attended Jim Fixx's funeral and noticed a dozen people I knew dressed in coat and tie-and running flats. Did I want to spend the rest of my life hanging around people who would wear purple nylon shoes to a funeral?

Maybe a trip back to running's grass roots would revive my desire. Flying into Columbia late on a Saturday morning, my wife Rose and I were greeted by Joe Duncan. Rose squeezed into the back seat of Joe's car, already jammed with course markers and water containers. Joe had first run in the marathon in 1966 ("on two-and-a-half weeks training"), but after 1975 had confined himself to organizing the event for the sponsoring Columbia Track Club. "This year I told the club to get another race director," said Joe. "I'm running." He was aiming for a time under 3:20.

My plan, I told Joe, was to run only 13 miles, "just to see part of the course again," then drop out. Joe said I should have no trouble obtaining a ride back to the finish.

I had hoped to pace Alex Ratelle, a 60-year-old Minneapolis doctor who had competed in eight previous Heart of America marathons, winning masters titles in each. Alas, when I saw Alex later that afternoon, he confessed to having entered the 8-kilometer event to be held concurrently with the marathon. The 8K had attracted over 300 entrants, but held little appeal for me.

Boxer's rebellion

That evening we attended the pre-race banquet, spaghetti the main course, as it is at every race in America. I don't recall what I ate in 1968, probably steak. Runners in that era had not yet realized that complex carbohydrates offered a nutritional boost to endurance activities. After dinner, Heart of America founder Bill Clark, currently a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, described the race's beginning in 1960 as a challenge between the town's runners and a group of boxers who did regular road work. To see who was better, they decided to race from Columbia to Fulton, Missouri.

Race morning, however, no boxers showed. "I went around banging on doors," said Clark, "but couldn't get any boxers out of bed."

Only six runners appeared, one of them Joe Schroeder, a cross-country runner from the University of Missouri, who had never raced longer than four miles, and whose longest training run that summer had been six.

Schroeder didn't even own running flats, so he taped over the spikes of his track shoes for the paved start on Columbia's main street. Once outside the city, he removed the tape and shifted to the dirt shoulder. Schroeder ran with Morris "Red Dog" Patterson, a teammate from Missouri. They ran their first half dozen miles at faster than 6:00 pace, but soon were reduced to a slow, survival stride. If one stopped for water or had to walk, the other would wait. Eventually, Schroeder crossed the finish line 20 minutes ahead of Patterson. Nobody else finished the distance.

"I had alerted the Associated Press about our marathon," recalled Clark, "so I called and gave them the names of the first two finishers, adding, 'Everybody else is still out on the course.' "

Within a few years, Heart of America began attracting talented runners. There were so few places to compete in this pre-boom era. Among the list of early winners, Bill Silverberg, Barry Rose, and Tom Hoffman were all nationally prominent. Ron Daws, a 1968 Olympic marathoner, won twice. Recent victors included Tony Rodiez and Steve Fisher, both qualifiers for the 1984 Olympic trials. Although my winning time from 1968 of 2:41:45 seems puny by today's standards, it would have been good enough to win all but two of the first 15 races. All the times since 1975 have been faster, but that year the organizers modified the course to remove one hill and shifted the race date into cooler October.

Enough hills remained, however, to allow Clark and Duncan to boast that their race was tougher the toughest non-mountain marathon in America. One year ultramarathoner Aldo Scandurra from New York appeared, planning to run the course not once, but twice. "We had made plans to keep the water stations open." explained Duncan. "Aldo was going to complete the regular race, then turn around, and run the course in reverse."

As Scandurra crossed the finish line, Joe began to direct him back onto the course, but the ultramarathoner groaned and held up his hands: "Once is enough!" "

"I'm never coming back"

That's undoubtedly one reason Heart of America, despite its longevity, has never attracted many competitors. People run it once and give up. The race's biggest entry came in 1978 when 209 started, 178 finished. Bill Clark insists that after my 1968 victory, I had sat on the curb near the finish line, chugging one soft drink after another, and groaning, "This course is too tough. I'm never coming back."

"I never would have said that," I pleaded to Clark.

"You did!"

"But I am back."

Nagging at me was the realization, however, that I was back only to run half the distance and at a pace designed to cause minimal distress.

When I arrived at the starting line a half hour early on Sunday morning, the street seemed so deserted I worried that I had come to the wrong place. Soon, however, people began to emerge from doorways and parked cars, and when the gun fired we all started running. With Heart of America now in mid-October, the starting time had been moved up an hour to 7:00. The sky was gray, only beginning to turn light in the east.

I settled into an easy, middle-of-the-field pace. Near me was Joe Schroeder, Heart of America's first winner. At the pre-race banquet, Schroeder said that he had hoped to lose 100 pounds to get in shape to run the 25th anniversary marathon. Only losing 40, he decided to wait until next year. Schroeder began the race with us, stopping at two miles.

That far into the race, we passed the University of Missouri football stadium, where people waited to begin the 8K event scheduled for 7:30. They cheered as we passed. We turned on Providence Road, at this point a four-lane highway. Leaving town, we encountered our first hill, a long descent, followed by an equally long ascent just past three miles. It offered merely a taste of what would come.

The road soon narrowed to two lanes, becoming Route K, which we had to share with the few motorists who were up that early on a Sunday morning. In most major running events today, police block traffic from race routes, sometimes raising the ire of non-running motorists, who can become peeved at having to cool their wheels as runners pass. A freight train would clear an intersection quicker than runners do at the tail end of a marathon.

I had my own police escort, however. Striking up a conversation with another runner, I learned he was a Missouri state trooper. "If we come to any busy corners," I said, "you stop traffic."

"I'm out of uniform," he replied. "But where we're heading, you'll see more cows than cars."

The trooper asked how fast I expected to run. I admitted that, being undertrained, I planned to drop out around 14 miles.

"At the bottom of Easley Hill, eh?" he said, knowingly.

"Well, maybe I'll stop at the top."

A race, not a party

As often happens in a marathon, the state trooper and I drifted apart. Approaching nine miles, just before a turn from Route K onto Old Plank Road, I found myself catching a woman, her hair in a pigtail. A man ran with her. Suddenly, the pigtailed woman began swearing angrily. "Where's the (bleeping) water?" she screamed. We had passed our last water station back around six miles and wouldn't encounter another until around 12. Several volunteers stood ahead, ready to direct us through the turn. The pigtailed woman continued a stream of foul language as we passed.

Well, maybe there was insufficient water on the course, compared to the Big City marathons that, every mile or two, offer multi-choices of liquids, from water to ERG to de-fizzed Coke. In 1968, I solved the water problem by having my wife travel the route by car. She, or one of our three children, passed me water bottles every two miles. Even with Heart of America's small field, having a "second" is -probably impractical today, but it irritated me that the woman would use such language to abuse volunteers.

"Quit complaining," I grumbled at her in passing. "This is a race, not a party." I accelerated so as not to have to run in her company.

This proved to be a mistake, because it suddenly felt more comfortable running at a 7:00 pace than the 7:30 pace which I had maintained until then. Although theoretically you waste more energy running faster, sometimes you achieve a more natural rhythm than if you try to run at what for you is an artificially slow pace. Or so I rationalized, figuring I was only going halfway and could quit anywhere if I got tired.

With the pigtailed woman behind me, I began to enjoy the race more. I was now on one of the prettiest parts of the course, which moved from Old Plank to Smith Feed Mill Road. How can you not enjoy running on roads so named? I forgot I was in a race and swiveled my head constantly to gaze over a broad panorama of rolling woods and farmland. Some fields were green, others freshly plowed following the harvest. The trees had just begun to turn, mostly green but speckles of red and yellow. I passed chicken farms and pig farms, malodorous but somehow inoffensive. The paved road ended, becoming gravel. I found myself running in company with several other runners, each of us weaving back and forth, trying to pick narrow lanes in the road where passing cars had shoved the gravel aside for a smoother running surface.

It seemed to me that in 1968 we encountered more gravel, that it had begun as soon as we had turned off the main highway. I commented on this to another runner: "They must have paved some of this road."

"Sure, and they bulldozed the tops off all the hills," he countered.

"You noticed that too?" Things were always tougher in the old days.

Passing one farm house, I encountered four dogs, two of them Dobermans, the runner's public enemy number one. Years ago, when runners were scarce" we feared dogs more; they had us outnumbered. Today's dogs are more used to people running past their property. They also realize there's not enough meat on a runner's bones to make a good meal. They might as well take a bite out of a bicycle wheel. As a result, I haven't been bitten by a dog in more than a dozen years. Running past these dogs, I thought a good chomp on my gluteus maximus would give me a real feeling for running the way it used to be, but the dogs seemed more interested in frolicking with each other than menacing us.

Rounding a turn, I saw the Missouri River ahead through the trees. The road began to descend into the river valley. Parallel to the river was a single set of railroad tracks. As I crossed them, I thought I heard a rumbling in the distance. Sure enough, a freight train approached, three diesel engines tugging a long string of cars. Checking my watch, I monitored its passage: two minutes forty seconds. Allowing for the fact that I was running with the train, I figured it delayed those behind me by two minutes, opening a gap between me and anyone who might dare to catch me, including the pigtailed woman. I cackled gleefully at the thought of her screaming obscenities at the passing train.

It reminded me of what happened years ago to Kurt Steiner, now an official with the New York Road Runner's Club. Competing in a road race, Kurt had come to a bridge just as it swung open to halt him. Kurt began to shout at the bridge tender, saying he should have delayed the bridge's opening.

The bridge tender looked down from his tower at Steiner and said, "You should have run faster."

The road in the low land near the river was wet. I dodged around most puddles, but ahead was one mammoth puddle entirely blocking the road. To avoid muddying my white racing shoes, I detoured into a farm field, but sank almost to my ankles. I emerged on the other side of the puddle, my shoes covered with mud. I laughed again. This was the way running was supposed to be.

Designed by the devil

The race seemed designed by the devil to discourage the undisciplined. Little wonder the running boom bypassed Columbia, Missouri. Several years ago I had included Easley in an article about the ten toughest hills in road racing. It gets its name from Easley General Store at the bottom, site of a last-chance aid station. Within seven-tenths of a mile, the course climbs 246 feet. "Most runners go into what we call the Easley Hill Shuffle," Joe Duncan had claimed, "somewhat, but not much, faster than a slow walk."

Nevertheless, Easley is not the most difficult hill in an American road race. That honor probably goes to Pike's Peak or Mount Washington, both of which have races ascending to their summits. Before the latter race one year, Jock Semple made the famous comment: "Easy race today, boys. Only one hill."

I started upward, passing two runners halfway whose shuffle more than resembled a walk. At the top I looked around for someone with a car who might take me to the finish. In the last few miles at Boston along Commonwealth Avenue, you can board a street car. In New York, you can take the subway. In the country outside Columbia, my only option would have been to steal a horse.

Passing 15 miles, I finally admitted to myself what I had probably known all along. Underconditioned or not, I would finish. I could have walked away from a flat course. But to abandon Heart of America was to defile my running roots. I even picked up my pace, pushing down into the low-6:00 range. Several miles later, I rounded a corner. I could see the road ahead of me bend, then head straight up as though in an attempt to launch the marathoners into space. "All right," I shouted. "Do it to us!"

Fortunately nobody heard me, although there was a scattering of spectators: people who had positioned chairs on the front lawns of their farm houses to witness our rites of passage. Not like the throngs along First Avenue in New York, just occasional farm folk sitting in a lawn chair, glancing up from reading the Sunday paper in time to wave or offer a word of encouragement.

Reality had begun to set in. It had felt comfortable when, a dozen miles earlier, I had shifted gears, picking up the pace, passing people, but nobody in front was near enough to offer a target. Nobody behind seemed capable of challenging for whatever place I held. I moved as though in a vacuum, muscles tightening, strength eroding. With five miles to go, I was back to the same slow pace at which I had started. Just like all marathons, I thought, the last miles are never easy.

Coming into the stadium, I crossed a rock-strewn parking lot, a final insult, and one that no longer provoked laughter. I ran the final lap around the track, through the chute, and headed for the refreshment table almost without breaking stride. I felt no sense of triumph, no feeling that I had accomplished anything great, not even much fatigue. I had simply spent several hours touring some of the countryside around Columbia, Missouri.

Later, after showering, I returned for the awards ceremony, where I accepted a plaque engraved, "31st place, 25th Annual Heart of America Marathon." Of the 108 finishers, 100 would get such plaques. I have no idea what happened to the trophy I must have won for placing first in 1968. 1 rarely keep awards, usually recycling them in local races sponsored by our club. I still display the trophy I earned with a fifth-place finish in Boston, another for winning a national championship, but not much more. Yet somehow as I walked away from the awards table to the proper smattering of applause, I knew that this plaque from Heart of America was going up on my wall to remind me of what it's like to run a down-home country race.

For information on how to beat heart disease, go to: American Heart Association.

For information on running the Heart of America Marathon, go to: Heart of America.

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