Archive for Thursday, August 10, 2000

Hitting the road with the nation’s top runner

August 10, 2000

When the best runner in the country lives just a few miles from you, it makes sense to spend a little time getting to know him. It's just a little tougher when you do it on his terms.

Trying to keep up physically and keep up a conversation with 69-year-old Paul Heitzman was difficult, but that's exactly what I did a couple weeks ago. In the Eudora version of Tuesdays with Morrie, I had "Hills with Heitzman."

In just over an hour, I learned what drives this man to be the best. I learned what his favorite race story was. Most important, Paul taught me some new things about living life.

With my wife's support (and understanding of the alarm going off at 5:15 a.m.) I trudged off to Paul's house for a brisk six-mile run at 6 a.m. Paul runs every day at that time. His wife thinks he's nuts as well, but I realized while he may be a little fanatical, this is life for him.

He told me stories about his daughter getting killed, and how he started running shortly after. He did a Kansas City race held in honor of another young woman killed about that time. And he just kept running.

The story wasn't a funny scene from Forrest Gump. It was real life. It's hard to run no matter what, but when you're getting choked up, it's even tougher. Yet Paul doesn't think he's doing anything special, running with the memory of his daughter burned in his head.

In fact, he's so modest and sincere, it's tough to get him to talk much about it. Running has given Paul life in his daughter's absence. Unfortunately, no matter how fast he goes, he can't bring her back. But his glory is shared in the love he still has for her in his heart and through his feet.

Racing is something Paul loves to talk about. He might have been trying to be polite, but he kept up most of the conversation while I huffed through the workout. We talked about races in the area. He is partial to events in Oklahoma, saying he thinks the Sooner state puts on better events. I suggested at one point we should get him running in a News (Explorer) shirt, but I doubt anyone in Tulsa would care much about our Cards.

Still, with the US Nationals around the corner, I'd love to see in full color in Runner's World.

Any time you're running with someone and they start a sentence with the words, "that's the race I beat Frank Shorter head to head" you realize the ability that person has. In his favorite race story, Paul raced in well-below freezing conditions, initially trying to beat a similarly aged rival.

Little did he know when he started running he'd also beat the man Runner's World magazine named the greatest Olympic marathon runner of the 1900s.

Age has little to do with running ability. Races, like golf, are handicapped for age grading purposes. This levels the playing field (running path?) and allows all participants the opportunity to see how they stack up against the whole field. At this spring's Trolley Run in Kansas City, Paul competed stride for stride with the actual winner when age-grading is considered. Of course, he also was four minutes faster than me head-to-head, but he's got almost 40 years of life lessons carrying him faster. But unlike the golf stories this paper has been running, I'm not making excuses.

My run with Paul was a reminder that if something is important to you, make a commitment to it. For some, it may be your job to which you need to re-dedicate yourself. For others, it may be family time.

Young or old, athlete or pack-a-day smoker, you can be the best at what you do. The glory is the challenge to be more than you thought you could. Paul works daily at his craft and he's seeing the rewards for it. Reaching deep inside yourself will deliver things you never knew were possible.

A better lesson Paul taught me was believing in yourself. Having greatness just down the road is a resource I plan to take advantage of again. I occasionally give motivational speeches to groups and I will talk about ordinary people achieving extraordinary things. I've added Paul to my repertoire.

As we plodded up the final hill, I could almost hear the announcer calling the race:

"Here's Heitzman and Simon head to head. It's going to be a sprint to the finish. The best runners in the country stride for stride."

At least half of that sentence would be correct: Paul Heitzman is the best runner in the country. For one morning, I was in the presence of greatness. Thanks, Paul, and good luck at Nationals.

I'm pulling for you.

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