Culture

These Runners Were Done for Good. Then the Call Came.

The door to competitive running stays open longer than you might think.

Virtual races have helped offset the indefinite cancellation of mass events in 2020, but perhaps they’re not your thing. Despite numerous pros racking up PRs in limited-entry meets – and keep in mind, running fast remains their job – many longtime competitors feel adrift with the loss of bona fide races. 

If you’re among the everyday runners confronting such doubts while also trying to hold the basics of life and family together, you may have decided you’ll never regain whatever fitness you held at the start of spring, even if the rest of the world completes its stagger toward normalcy – and that you honestly don’t care to try.

On the surface, the following accounts have nothing to do with a pandemic-induced trip to the sidelines. But they emphasize that distance running, however capricious a host, never locks the door – and likes to extend sly invitations to return. So if you’re in a funk that’s feeling more like guilty freedom, take heart; even if you don’t hit the roads tomorrow in a blaze of renewed commitment, you may someday be in for a pleasant re-awakening of your own competitive self.

Revived By Curiosity

Photo: Judi St. Hilaire

Judi St. Hilaire graduated from the University of Vermont in 1981 with a still-standing school-record 33:17.8 for 10,000m – a world-class performance at the time. After a quietly brilliant professional career that saw her finish seventh in the 1991 World Championships 3,000m and eighth in the 1992 Olympic 10,000m, both in lifetime-best times (8:42.64 and 31:38.04), St. Hilaire competed for four more years before injuries led her to hang up her racing flats, ostensibly forever. She continued running easily a few times a week.

Ultimately, St. Hilaire’s decision to return to competitive running in 2000 wasn’t prompted by wanting to compete per se. “It was more a process of curiosity,” she says. “And wondering how fast I could become after turning 40 and four or five years of being dormant.” At the time, she was working with Massachusetts prep standout Sheela Agrawal, and one day jumped into a track repeat in order to slow her young charge down. “I ended up laughing hysterically down the homestretch because I was dying, but oddly enjoying it,” she says. “I realized that I missed challenging myself and the feeling of being in shape.”

St. Hilaire slowly incorporated short tempo runs, speed work in the form of fartlek or track sessions, and long runs up to 10 miles into her regimen. For what she wanted to accomplish, she decided against working with a coach. “I preferred not to have stiff structure,” she explains. “I wanted to enjoy it and to keep it fun.” It’s hard to argue that she didn’t or that it wasn’t: In a neat year-long burst of racing, St. Hilaire took masters titles at the 2000 Peachtree 10K, Falmouth Road Race and Beach to Beacon 10K and the 2001 National Masters 5K Championship, notching road times of 16:18 for 5K and 33:37 for 10K along the way.

After that, nagging injuries and the burden of her own rising expectations again bled the fun out of training and competing. “The novelty had worn out,” she says. “I slid back into running just for fitness, never to return because I finally accepted the reality that I’ve ‘been there, done that’ and will never be as fast again.”

Though she might be done with one endurance challenge, competitiveness always seems to find cracks through which to force its way back into lives. St. Hilaire started cycling and swimming regularly a few years ago, and last year, at 59, placed sixth in a sprint triathlon in Massachusetts last June in a field of over 100. 

Her latest focus at 60? Seeing how long she can maintain 21 MPH on a bike. “I haven’t reached my limits yet, but when I do, I’ll probably get bored and move onto another challenge,” she says, perhaps giving away the entire “secret” to accommodating your own fluctuating competitive appetite in one sentence.

Back On His Feet

Photo: Sue Pearsall

In the early 1990s, John Trautmann was touted as America’s next 5,000-meter power player. But after an 8:05 high-school 3,000m and a stellar career at Georgetown University, Trautmann’s increased workload as a full-time runner exacerbated a big-toe problem, hallux rigidus, that in turn stemmed from plantar-fascia woes. Though Trautmann won the 1992 Olympic Trials 5,000m, the toe forced him to drop out of his Olympics semifinal. Two surgeries and four years of continual struggling later, Trautmann didn’t just stop – he slammed on the brakes.

“I needed to get completely away from the sport,” he says, citing the difficulty of watching American rivals such as Bob Kennedy gain Olympic berths and set records. So Trautmann suited up and went to work on Wall Street.

The foot surgeries Trautmann underwent in his twenties were meant to salvage his standing; a toe-fusion option would have eliminated the pain, but also, it was believed, his career. Because Trautmann assumed he’d never again require a champion’s stride, he underwent the fusion while still idle. But after his father passed away in 2008 from an apparent cardiovascular episode, Trautmann – then 40 and boasting over 200 pounds of inactivity at 5’ 10” – took stock of his vision of life.

“I just wanted to get fit,” he says. “That got me wanting to get back into some sort of running shape.” 

Relying on an arc trainer and twice-weekly jogs, Trautmann dropped about 30 pounds in a year. He got back in touch with his old coach, Frank Gagliano, and found himself in a workout of 90-second 400s. After a year with the group, he entered a 1,500m and reached his modest goal of running under 5:00 (about a 5:24 mile). Against most expectations, he had also adapted his stride to accommodate the fused toes on his left foot.

After another year of building himself into condition, Trautmann ran the Fifth Avenue Mile in 4:33. “For some reason, that race got me really fired up about running fast again,” he recounts. He set his sights on breaking the 45-to-49 world record in the mile – then over 4:20, but down to 4:16.83 by the time Trautmann turned 45 himself in 2013. After missing the record with a 4:18.72 at his hometown New York Armory, Trautmann shattered the mark with a 4:12.33 in Boston.

Trautmann wound up finishing one more race, an 800, before again calling it quits – but not quite with the same mindset. “I ran 45 miles last week,” said the now-full-time coach with both NYU and the NY-NJ Track Club shortly after turning 52. “I’m still trying to stay fit. If I race again, I race again. If I don’t, I don’t.”

Writing Her Own Stars 

Stephanie Herbst ran on the legendary Badger team in the 1980s at the University of Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Athletics

When Stephanie Herbst-Lucke arrived at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1984, she had already been told on a recruiting visit to her program of choice that, based on her form, she would never amount to much in college. When she graduated less than four years later, she had collected three individual titles on the track, been part of two national-champion Badger squads, and set a collegiate record in the 10,000m with a 32:32.75. 

In addition to making a leap to the national-class level, Herbst showed at a precocious age and time in history that she was the architect of her own destiny. Citing nagging injuries and the pressures inherent in committing everything to the sport, Herbst sat out a year of running – spanning her junior outdoor season and her senior cross-country and indoor campaigns – before returning in the spring of 1988 and taking second at the 10,000m at the NCAA Championships. Graduation spelled jobs with IBM and AT&T, marriage, motherhood and years of scattershot training.

In the late 1990s, Herbst-Lucke found herself back in Madison thanks to her husband’s job transfer. She started working out with fellow alum Suzy Favor-Hamilton and the legendary Wisconsin team, and soon found herself in the best shape of her life. But the then-mother-of-two was hobbled by injuries – largely, she believes, the result of changes to her pelvic structure – before she could race even once.

Then, in 2006, Herbst-Lucke, having just turned 40, joined a college teammate in prepping for her first marathon. She was not entirely surprised to qualify for the Olympic Trials with a 2:42:53, because she estimated that she was in 2:37 shape and had run somewhat tentatively. “Looking at everything I had done, I was convinced that the marathon was really ‘my’ distance,” she says. Herbst-Lucke decided to see how fast she could get in the next few years. 

While she never quite solved the marathon itself, Herbst-Lucke has a lot to show for it. Between the ages of 42 and 44, she ran 32:55 for 10K, 55:36 for 10 miles and 1:12:16 for the half-marathon. (Consider: Her oldest daughter was in high school when she ran that 5:31-per-mile half.) Even in invited fields, she was in the hunt for the overall win nearly as often as she’d been half a lifetime earlier – a fact that she admits added motivation to the game. 

Herbst-Lucke says her defining spirit lies in a long-ago exhortation from Favor-Hamilton during a workout: “C’mon, you can do anything!” She says that it took her years to treat this as anything more than feel-good nonsense. “You really can do anything,” says the 54-year-old college professor, Ph.D. candidate in complex sustainable system design, and daily fitness runner. “You just have to determine just what that ‘anything’ is, and focus specifically on that at the expense of other things.”