How Minnesota’s First Running Organization Got Started

By Sarah Barker

 

Nine guys met at Columbia Golf Course to run twice around it—4.8 miles, as measured by car. They’d made arrangements for this time trial, as they’d done many times before, by phone tree. Someone—maybe Bob Harris

because he was the idea guy, or maybe Pat Lanin because he was the sort who actually kept track of people’s phone numbers—called a couple runners who called their friends, and so on. It was not onerous since there were only a dozen or so guys in the Twin Cities interested in pelting around city streets on a Sunday in March of 1961.

But this gathering ended differently. Instead of dispersing, the nine sweatsuited runners huddled around Lanin’s car and formalized their group, establishing a Minnesota branch of the national Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) that had formed in 1958. It was the eighth regional club in the country. Instead of an isolated bunch of weirdos randomly thrashing the pavement, the Minnesota Road Runners Club (MRRC), later the Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA), sought to become part of the small but serious national running community, to learn from others, to promote and to standardize the nascent sport of long distance running.

“The whole idea [of forming the MDRA] was the work of Bob Harris,” Lanin said recently from his home in the Brainerd area. “It was his call, his ideas. Running was Bob’s passion. He grew up in New Jersey, and at that time, the few races that were held and most of the activity around distance running was happening on the East coast. He talked about all the great things happening in New York and Philadelphia. He thought we should have a road runners club and took it upon himself to make it happen. Now, Bob was not the most organized guy in the world, but he had charisma, and he cleverly said, ‘Pat, you’re going to be the secretary.’  By joining the RRCA, we were part of a national thing, we were on the map and we were in communication with people who knew a hell of a lot more about running than we did—gods of distance running like Ted Corbitt.”

Distance running in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as an oddball pursuit, a rebellion against mainstream sports—no team, no stadium, no bench, little equipment, few rules. Outside of the Olympics and the collegiate system, long distance races were rare. Average citizens did not run on the road or sidewalk. A big road race attracted 50 people.

“I’d run in high school and my boss at 3M encouraged me,” Lanin recalled. “I used to run around Lake Phalen; I’d go months at a time without seeing another person running, or walking for that matter. That was in 1960.”

In the mid-1950s, even before the RRCA was formed, the few far-flung runners like Lanin and Harris, et al were tenuously connected by a 12-page mimeographed pamphlet called the Long Distance Log (LDL).

“Everybody here read LDL,” Lanin said. “You saw what others were doing. It had race results, sometimes training, course measurement. That was the internet of the day.”

Started in 1953 by a member of the New York Pioneers Club, which was one of the first interracial athletic clubs in the country, the Long Distance Log was taken over in 1954 by former Olympic steeplechaser Browning Ross. National circulation for LDL was 126 enthusiasts.

Track and field and cross country—putting on competitions, making rules, standardizing distances—came under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union. But as much as defining what the sport was, the AAU was also serious about what the sport was not, and who could and could not participate. It was an elitist, wealthy white man organization and they aimed to keep it that way. The “amateur” part of the name was used to block out anyone so course and common as to want to earn money from their sport, effectively filtering out working class athletes, non-whites and women. When it became apparent that the AAU was not interested in organizing events as plebian as road races, where all manner of average people might step to the line, Ross editorialized in the LDL for a national organization that would put on these sorts of races. With encouragement from LDL readers, Ross established the RRC in 1958. The AAU took offense.

Ted Corbitt, a black distance running legend and member of the New York Pioneers Club, became president of the RRCA in 1960. He wrote of the tension between the AAU and the grassroots RRCA. “Some AAU officials took the RRCA as a threat. Instead of recognizing the good work the RRCA was doing to promote distance running, the AAU refused to admit the RRCA as a member and took the position that the RRCA was illegal. In other areas, however, most RRCs had no problem with the local AAU. On the national level the AAU – strongly influenced by its New York association–disapproved of the RRCA. Attempts by the RRCA to affiliate with the AAU at the national level were rebuffed by the AAU and it advised the RRCA to function solely as a social or fraternal group instead of conducting races.”

Unphased, the RRCA continued to make running inclusive, opening races to runners under age 18 in 1963, establishing noncompetitive fun runs in 1964, holding the first national women’s cross country championship in 1965 over a distance, 2.5 miles, the AAU thought women could not handle, and in 1970, the first women’s marathon championship long before the AAU sanctioned it.

The Minnesota RRC followed this model of inclusiveness. “You could stretch the rules a little bit but I had to kowtow, if you will, to the AAU because if you wanted to compete in a legitimate national event, it had to be sanctioned by the AAU,” Lanin said of the AAU-MRRC relationship.

The newly formed Minnesota Road Runners Club leapt into action. Bob Harris was elected president, Dick Flipp was vice president and Pat Lanin was the very competent secretary treasurer. Meticulous bookkeeping by Lanin indicate that the club’s first credit came on March 26, 1961—one dollar by Paul Noreen to subsidize Bob Harris’ two dollar dues contribution. Records show that on the same day, one dollar was spent on a steam bath, bringing the club balance back down to two dollars. The three dollar annual dues covered AAU registration (competitions had to be sanctioned by the Minnesota AAU), the MRRC yearbook, a subscription to the national Long Distance Log and entry fees for all races the MRRC put on throughout the year. The club put on 14 races in 1961, mostly the same routes on which they had been time trialing before becoming an official club, charging a 50 cent entry fee for those runners who weren’t MRRC members.

MDRA Financials 1961

In 1961, there were eight members—Bob Harris, Chuck Bartholomew, Pat Lanin, Glen Gustafson, Jerry Smith, Ron Daws, Everett Luoma and Dick Flipp. The annual budget was $28.50. In 1962, membership rose to 13, adding John McCaffery, Fred Purcell, George Linde, Kermit Beske, Ed Hendrickson, Eben Howe and Rod Lazorik. Though he doesn’t appear as a dues-paying member in those early days, Rick Kleyman showed up at nearly all the races, and over the years, has been both a notable runner and strong supporter of what was to become the Minnesota Distance Running Association. Other MRRC pioneers were Rick Recker, Garrett Tomczak, Steve Hoag, Jeff Reneau, John Cramer, Van Nelson and no doubt others who don’t appear on the books. Though Pat Lanin credits Bob Harris with the impetus for Minnesota’s first running organization, that it thrived and still exists today is the work of Lanin.

His detailed race reports for 1961 show odd distances—4.8 miles, 7.8 miles, 6.4 miles, 3.3 miles—and a variety of formats including handicap races, cross country and roads.

“That was the thing about distance running at that time—there were no standard distances, and no way to accurately measure those distances,” Lanin said. “We measured everything by car or bike, but of course, no one else in the country was running 7.8 miles. That was one of the benefits of joining the RRCA. They were developing standard distances and course certification, and postal races. Postal races allowed us to compete nationally without traveling. That was a big thing; otherwise you’re just isolated. It legitimized the sport, gave it substance.”

Postal championships, most held on tracks since they were uniform and accurately measured, were held on a given day around the country. One-hour runs, and distances of 10 miles, 12 miles, 15K, 20K and 30K were contested in this way, and the regional results sent by mail (thus, postal) to the national RRCA, who compiled the results and announced national champions.

The MRRC took a leadership role in improving the level of competition in the US. In 1966, when distance championships were still held on tracks, the group decided to take advantage of what was then the first and only Tartan track in the country at Macalester College.  The MRRC’s willingness to put on events like this increased the level of competition here in Minnesota and established Minnesota as the non-coastal hub of distance running.

The sport, in Minnesota as elsewhere in the country, was first populated by serious, competitive practitioners—hardcores. The trouble was, MRRC was not a competitive organization per se. Its mission was to promote distance running by putting on races and informing members of local and national news. One still needed to be a card-carrying AAU member to, say, run the Boston Marathon or compete in a postal championship. So, in 1968, they formed the Twin Cities Track Club (TCTC) as the competitive arm of the MRRC, but since all of the MRRC members were serious competitors, they were also all members of TCTC.

“It became obvious we were going to have to have an AAU club, and if I didn’t do it, nobody would,” Lanin laughed. “These guys, all they wanted to do was run. They weren’t into paperwork and details.” But filling out the forms and sending in the paperwork paid off.

Ron Daws 1962 LK Gervais 8M

“Founded in 1961 and seven years later you had a guy on the Olympic team—Ron Daws [Daws ran the marathon in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics]. Our TCTC [Ron Daws, Tom Heinonen and Jerry Smith] won the National Championship Marathon in 1968. There’s no question, being part of a national organization, seeing what others were doing around the country, raised our level of competition.”

Just a junior in high school when he met Lanin, Daws and Bob Harris (running on the dirt track in the U of M Fieldhouse), Garrett Tomczak concurred, the 1960s was no time for joggers.

“Races were races, not events, and if you were there only for fun, you were better off birdwatching,” Tomczak recalled. “Everyone I knew at the time was training for a national championship or the Olympic Trials because this was an era when dreams like that were possible. When Ron Daws made the Olympic Team, it was proof positive that anybody, through hard work and perseverance, could do the same. If you’d said to those guys that running was fun, they’d have scoffed at you. Running wasn’t fun; it wasn’t meant to be fun. If you were having fun, you weren’t running hard enough. Running was difficult, painful, serious business.  But maybe if you trained hard and had a little luck, one day you too could stand on the Olympic podium. My point is, the MDRA had its genesis in a group of oddballs driven to excellence.”

This band of hardcore brothers put Minnesota on the distance running map, such greats as Van Nelson, Mike Slack, Garry Bjorklund, Steve Hoag and Ron Daws making their marks nationally and internationally well ahead of the running boom of the late 1970s.

While this passionate, hardcore attitude was essential in getting the sport off the ground, and those pioneers’ passion as much as their talent made Minnesota the running hotbed that it remains today, it may have discouraged less competitive people, and women at first. It was not the norm, in the 1960s, to see men running around the lakes, and that much more unusual, unacceptable even, to see women running. AAU swimming and gymnastics existed for girls at the high school level, but not running. It would take an exceptionally bold woman to show up to a race for which she had not trained when most of the participants, who knew each other, would be miles ahead.

As Garrett Tomczak noted, “Women were always welcome, but they didn’t show up until later, and the ones who did were real outliers.”

Como Relay 1973

“We were trying to get girls and women involved by holding a 1-mile race along with a longer distance,” Lanin said, “but there was not much interest. Sometimes a dad would bring his daughter, and some guys brought their wives. But still, a big women’s field was five or six runners. It was not just running—there were very few sports of any kind for girls at the time, so I think it just didn’t occur to women that this was something they could do.”

Lanin’s carefully kept reports show a “Run for fun 1-mile cross country race” held at Lake Calhoun in the spring of 1966. Of the 17 finishers, five were female, either wives or daughters of some of the other entrants, including one Emily Lanin. Though her name does not appear as a member of MRRC in those early days, Emily Lanin was involved in all aspects of the organization, from helping to publish the newsletter (starting in 1968, a hand-illustrated, typed and stapled affair) to course marshalling and timing to race directing and actually running.

Sometimes athletics organizations tasked with governing the sport instead prevented girls from participating but, true to their mission of providing opportunities for all, MRRC races were open to girls before any Minnesota high schools offered girls’ track or cross country. As the boys’ cross country and assistant track coach at Hopkins High School, Pat Lanin encouraged Toni St. Pierre, who had already competed in some MRRC races. He was berated for doing so by members of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). St. Pierre eventually sued the MSHSL, and won, with supporting testimony given by Lanin. Under duress and new leadership, the MSHSL established girls’ cross country and track at the high school level.

“We [MRRC] were organized as a group, and were able to show [in court] that girls and women had already competed successfully in distance running,” Lanin said. “You had to have men who were willing to get involved, to advocate for women’s sports.

”Once Title IX passed later in 1972, and high schools established girls’ track and cross country programs, numbers of women in distance running, and in the MRRC, skyrocketed.

In early 1972, the Minnesota Road Runners Club changed their name to the Minnesota Distance Running Association, still affiliated with the AAU and the national RRCA. The reason for the change was to reflect the fact that they put on all sorts of races—road, track, trail, relays, cross country and postal competitions. And by removing the word “club” from their name, they hoped to clarify that the MDRA was not a competitive organization, that its members could be, and were, members of a variety of different competitive clubs, TCTC among them.

Mud Ball 1972

The registration form from that year indicates the MDRA had about 300 members of both sexes, in ages ranging from 8 to 62, encompassing all abilities from jogger to national class athlete. The roughly nine-month schedule included 24 races. Membership fees were $3 for high school or younger, $5 for individuals, $8 for a family and $20 for a sustaining membership that included free entry into all MDRA races for the year. Membership afforded the runner free entry in three members-only races and a subscription to the monthly newsletter (news, race results, entry forms).

While President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the Marines to be fit enough to hike fifty miles in 20 hours, and his 1962 U.S. Physical Fitness Program raised awareness of the importance of health and fitness, it was Frank Shorter’s dramatic, and televised, gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon that really captured the public’s attention. Shorter’s subsequent 1976 silver medal, and a raft of other inspiring runners—Jim Ryun, Steve Prefontaine, Kathrine Switzer, Jacqueline Hansen—running-specific shoes and attire, books about running and the launch of Runner’s World magazine (supplanting the Long Distance Log) all helped fuel the running boom of the 1970s.

The MDRA reflected the national running boom: Membership increased to nearly 2000 by the early 1980s, Lanin’s typed-and-mimeographed newsletter morphed into the quarterly Minnesota Distance Runner magazine and MDRA sponsored races filled the twelve month calendar. The MDRA magazine has shifted from quarterly to monthly and back again, and has changed names from Minnesota Distance Runner to Minnesota Running and Track to the current Run Minnesota.

Some of the races founded in the 1960s are still around today—the Meet of Miles in January, the MDRA 7-mile in March, the Ron Daws 25K a week later, Fred Kurz 10-Mile Handicap, the Mudball Trail Run in April, Get in Gear, Mississippi 10-Mile (formerly part of the Multi-Distance Classic), Hopkins Raspberry Race, the Como Relays, MDRA 15K and City of Lakes Marathon (now half-marathon).

In 1985, past MDRA president Jim Ferstle submitted an annual race calendar and log book he’d picked up from a west coast running organization as an example of what the MDRA might provide its members. With about 2000 members, the board thought it was a good idea, but expensive. President Tim Zbikowski created a membership promotions committee and launched a labor-intensive (read: show up at every race in Minnesota and talk up the MDRA) membership campaign. It worked. By 1986, membership was up to about 3000, enough to cover the cost of a spiral bound calendar of all races in the upper Midwest, not just MDRA races, with space to log personal running data. The annual calendar log remains one of the perks of MDRA membership.

In keeping with the MDRA’s original mission to promote distance running, the organization’s races focus on providing accurately measured and timed courses over a variety of surfaces and distances, organized progressively such that they can be used in training for a spring and fall marathon. Entry fees have remained low and accessible partly because fluff has been left out—souvenirs, photo booths, a buffet of post-race food, live bands along the course, hurlable powdered paint.

In the 1970s, local runners regularly ran 29-minute 10ks, 2:13 marathons—times that would warrant a lot of attention today—and earned a pat on the back for their efforts. In 1980, the MDRA, along with national running organizations, faced the fact that those running professional level times needed to be able to earn prize money. Trust-based awards from 1981 to 1983 gave way to direct awards of cash prizes. MDRA’s Victory races and the Jeff Winter City of Lakes Half Marathon offer prize money in open and master’s divisions.

The vast majority of races that sprang up since the 1970s have been fundraisers, with proceeds supporting a cause or organization. The ten races the MDRA holds per year, true to their original mission, simply promote distance running and provide Minnesotans opportunities to do so. Races put on by runners, for runners—the MDRA is a community of runners doing what they do.

Como Relays 1973

Now in its 44th year, the Como Park Relays exemplifies the spirit of the MDRA. It had its roots in an early 1970s MRRC invention, mixed doubles cross country relays—a fun way to involve women and young runners while at the same time providing competitive runners a challenging workout. Now 44 years later, the recipe for success is still working. Families come and spread blankets on the grass, the young ones enjoying their watermelon and cookies while mom and dad take turns over the rolling course. High schoolers, lean as flagpoles, gather in groups, reconnecting after the summer’s adventures. Competitive athletes are working just as hard as the veterans they pass. It’s at once fiercely competitive and low key, lung-searingly difficult and fun. Men, women, old, young, those who just love running and those who love competing coming together to do that, for the cost of a latte.

As Minnesota’s first running organization, the MDRA has encouraged millions of runners over the years, and was the foundation for hundreds of races, running clubs, retail stores, homegrown Olympians and full-time race organizations. Like the veteran runner, the MDRA continues apace, not flashy but focused, putting one foot in front of the other and inspiring others to come along.

 

 

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