Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - 3. Heart of America Marathon
The Far Side of Marathoning
THE LOBBY OF THE CAMPUS INN IN COLUMBIA, MISSOURI was jammed to capacity on Sunday of Labor Day weekend: maybe a dozen runners picking up packets for Monday's Heart of America Marathon. Race director Joe Duncan suggested that with 175 pre-registered, there might be a record entry. Duncan wouldn't know for sure until the gun sounded at 6:00 a.m. the next day. Walk up at that time with $20 and you still could start.
A runner appeared wearing a propeller cap and a smile-face racing uniform. He had run the Tupelo (Mississippi) Marathon earlier that day, then had driven to Columbia en route to running 100 marathons in his first two years of running. This was definitely the Far Side of marathoning.
Earlier in the weekend, I had visited Virginia Beach for the Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon, which attracted 15,000 in its first year. In October, I would run The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon with 37,500 expected. Heart of America is America's fourth oldest marathon (behind Boston, Yonkers and Western Hemisphere), yet attracts only a handful of crazies. I wasn't wearing a propeller, but since I was running 7 marathons in 7 months to celebrate my 70th birthday and help raise $700,000 for 7 separate charities, I was definitely Far Side.
Roll 'n' Roll Course
Heart of America remains small in the midst of a running boom partly because of a Roll 'n' Roll course with six significant hills, but also because of guaranteed hot weather. The race began in 1960 as a challenge between local runners and boxers, but only the runners appeared. Joe Schroeder, a Missouri University track athlete, put tape over his spikes because he didn't own flats and won in around 4 hours. Somehow Heart of America has persevered, if not prospered. (See: One From The Heart.)
I included Heart of America on my 7-7-70 schedule, because I won the race in 1968 two weeks after dropping out of the Olympic Trials Marathon. Disgraced, I was looking for redemption and found it with a 2:41:45, a performance better than it seems today. But 34 years later, cresting Easley Hill at 13 miles, I looked at my watch and noted that I was already slower than my earlier time and was only halfway home!
Easley is one reason why Heart of America mostly attracts Far-Siders. Coming after a flat stretch beside the Missouri River, Easley climbs 240 feet in less than a mile. In comparison, the Boston Marathon course rises 187 feet through Newton over 5 miles culminating in Heartbreak Hill. You know a hill is tough when it has a name on it.
It was less Easley's vertical profile that caused me to slow and more a road with little shade and a glowering sun in a cloudless sky. The temperature was 88. At 20 miles, I sat down on a stone face wondering if I could continue. Steve Kearney, a friend and pacer, moved between me and the sun to offer shade. Too many people had pledged too much money for me to quit as I had in the Olympic Trials. I stood and began moving.
Soon I spotted Yolanda Holmes, one of my daughter Laura's best friends from high school who now lived in Columbia. Looking like a guardian angel, she held a "Go Hal Higdon" sign in one hand, a bottle of frozen water in the other. Earlier that week, my daughter had sent me a prayer: "I believe that friends are quiet angels who lift us to our feet when our wings have trouble remembering how to fly." I began to run again.
Near 22 miles, I overheard a woman in a car tell a course official, "He's the last runner." The irony of being recorded as finishing both first and last in the same marathon intrigued me. Alas, at 25 miles I passed another runner moving into a more anonymous next-to-last. By then, Holly Campbell who was using one of my training programs to train for the Jacksonville Marathon appeared to walk me in the final mile.
My time in 126th place was 6:22:05, a Personal Worst by nearly an hour. Given time in the sun, believe me: it's tougher to run 6-hours-plus than 2-hours-plus. Joe Duncan said afterwards that the race had fallen short of its record entry, but there's always next year. As my 7-7-70 quest continued, I had five weeks to prepare for Chicago and the anonymity of a larger pack. Despite my visit to the Far Side, I would not be wearing a propeller.