Sunday, September 1, 2002

The Challenge of Getting It "Write:" Researching Rocky Racette

A few months back I challenged myself. It wasn’t through running exactly, although as with most things in my life these days, running was a part of it. I set out to write what I thought would be an interesting (but easy to tell) story. I had no idea what paths I would need to take.
I told a group of MDRA people I’d like to write a feature story about Rocky’s Run for ‘Run Minnesota.’ I was fairly sure the story of Rocky Racette and the genesis of Rocky’s Run hadn’t been told in a long time, if ever, so I thought it was time.

After I mentioned Rocky’s Run to this group, 3-4 of them smiled and nodded. One said, ‘Good idea, and it’s an MDRA race.” Another said, “Make sure you tell them about the cookies.” None of those responses surprised me. What did surprise me, however, was that every other person in the room was staring blankly at me. So I asked if everyone knew what Rocky’s Run was – all of the other people shook their heads. Then I asked if they had at least all heard of Rocky Racette. More blank stares.

That’s when I knew I had a story and I set out to tell it. I was going to be the one to share the story of Rocky Racette with today’s running community. I had worked at the race a few times in college, and last year, while working at race registration, I believe I ate no less than half of the 70 dozen cookies that are a big part of Rocky’s Run. I figured with a few phone calls I could fill in the blanks and – viola! – I’d have my feature story. What I didn’t know then was how much I didn’t know.

My first two calls were the only two I thought I’d have to make. I called Lillian Racette, Rocky’s mom, and Gary Wilson, head women’s track and cross country coach at the U of M. My talks with them led me to Charlie Quimby, who had, along with his wife Susan Cushman, started Rocky’s Run 22 years ago. I also called Mike Lawless, who had been Rocky’s coach at the U of M. I talked to Chris Fuller who has been the race director for Rocky’s Run since 1997.

Those calls led to talks with Sue Alm Jorgenson and Cathie Twomey Bellamy, two former teammates of Rocky’s. Then I talked to Phil Jenni, a former partner in the GBS stores. Each person I talked to filled in at least one more blank for me. Each person had one more funny or poignant story I hadn’t heard before. The final piece filled four pages in the magazine. I think I could have filled the entire magazine with the stories I had heard.

I spent an afternoon at the Minnesota History Center and in the archives of the Minnesota Daily, the U of M campus newspaper, poring over clippings from Rocky’s years at the U. My digging led me to photographers in Illinois, Florida and Minnesota who had all worked at the Daily in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

When I had completed all my research I realized that before I started this quest I had had some basic facts – Rocky had been an athlete at the U of M and she died in a car accident while still in school. What I didn’t know was that she had gone to the 1980 Olympic Trials – and finished third in the 5,000 meters. I had no idea Rocky won the 5,000 at the prestigious Drake Relays. And I certainly didn’t know she was the U of M Homecoming Queen in 1980.

Even more than all of the facts on Rocky is what I learned about myself. I learned that I could throw myself full throttle into something I wasn’t even sure was going to interest anyone but me. From the response I’ve gotten, I’m happy to say, I think I was wrong on that count. I set out to write a simple piece about a cross country race and the person it was named for. What I learned along the way is that nothing is as simple as you might believe at first glance. I also learned that while it had been years since I used the investigative skills I acquired while in the journalism school at the U of M, I hadn’t forgotten how to do research. And selfishly, that renewed skill will help me in my freelance writing career.

I also learned that one person can have a very big, and lasting, impact in a very short time. I thought it was important for this running community to hear Rocky’s story and for some unknown reason I believed I was up to the challenge of telling it. I’m glad I didn’t back down from this challenge.

Monday, July 1, 2002

Why We Run and Other Life Mysteries

Running has played a big role in my life for almost twenty years. Two decades ago I had no way of knowing the path along which it would lead me. In my early years, softball was my first love. This, apparently, was something I inherited from my paternal grandmother, along with my enviable bowling talent and ability to play strange musical instruments. I would have liked to inherit her artistic ability, but that was not meant to be. And that’s a story for another column, perhaps another publication.

I played softball in middle school and junior high, I played it in summer leagues, I played it with friends and family. However, I did know, even then, that I liked to run. Throughout my softball days, there were parents and coaches who told me I was the only one who ‘knew’ how to run to first base. I thought they just meant I was gutsy enough to run out any meager hit – I had to with my hitting skills. But I later realized that I was a bit unique in my running skills – for one, I just looked different (better?) when I ran. That, and my ability to catch any ball hit straight at my face, may have made me a decent softball player. But when I started high school, at a very small school, they didn’t offer softball as a sport. Only track & field in the spring.

The main reason I gave track a shot was because my brother, who was one year ahead of me in school, ran track. As a freshman he came home from every meet with one appendage or another scraped, bruised or bleeding. You guessed it – he was a hurdler who fell often. But he still really enjoyed the sport. So the next year, I gave it a try. And we both became sprinters. Track (and running in general) ultimately ended up being my sport of choice. But every time I talk about those early days I hear Bruce Springsteen singing – ‘Glory Days…’ so I don’t need to go there too often.

The rest, as they say, is history. I never looked back after my very first track meet in high school. Some of my best high school friendships came as a result of track. I chose my college partly based on track and I’m writing this column today because back in 1983, I decided to become a runner. In fact much of my life today revolves around running, and while my race distances have increased at about the same rate my speed has decreased throughout the years, I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had due to my interest in and love of running.

I recently interviewed Kara (Parker) Peterson about this year’s Grand Old Day On the Go race. Many of you may remember Kara as an outstanding young runner – she’s still on top of the Minnesota all-time 5K list for women under 20. In 1986, the summer before her junior year of high school, she ran Hennepin-Lake Classic in 17:15, putting her in the record books for 16 years and counting. She was just 16 years old at the time.

But now, while she still runs often and even competes once in awhile, Kara’s new ‘love’ is inline skating. And, while she says she’s a bit behind her competitors because she took it up so late in life, she’s been at or near the top of many races in her four short years of competing. She won the Grand Old Day On the Go 8K in June – for the third consecutive year. All because she bought her first pair of inline skates during college and really enjoyed the experience of inline skating. She credits her running background with giving her the physical strength she now needs for inline skate races.

I also know someone who swears he probably would not have gone to college if it hadn’t been for his running skills. He went on to become a nine-time All-American and is now successful in the insurance industry. It’s funny where life takes you.

Obviously, it’s not just the decision to run or not to run that changes your life. As I look back on my life so far, there are many, many decisions I’ve made that, if I had gone the other way, could have easily changed where and who I am today. But looking back should just be to reflect on experiences, not to analyze and second-guess every decision made. Everything that happens in life makes us the people we are today.

There was a long period in my life where I wanted nothing more than to be a sportscaster. Looking back I wonder if I couldn’t have given today’s ‘stars’ – Michelle Tafoya, Hannah Storm or Carol Lewis – a run for their money? But it just doesn’t matter – I’m happy with the route I chose. And choices are what life is – or should be – all about.

I was running with a friend past a girls’ softball game the other day and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia – not regret – just fond memories of the fun days spent on softball fields in what feels like another life. Watching them play got me thinking. And running gives you plenty of time to think – about your past, present or future.