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.

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