Reaching new Heitz
Local runner puts top ranking on line at U.S. Nationals
Top-ranked runner Paul Heitzman heads this week to the national track and field meet both a champion and a challenger.
The Eudora resident will hit the track Thursday morning for the USA Track and Field Master's Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., where he will compete in the 65-to 69-year-old age group's 800, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs.
"I'd probably be considered the favorite to win all those, but it won't be easy," Heitzman said. "You just never know who's going to show up at a national meet."
Despite returning as the 800 and 1,500 meter champion, the 69 year-old looks to redeem what he said turned into a disappointing showing last year.
Because of a season plagued with dehydration and three mid-race collapses, Heitzman pulled up in the 5K race in Orlando, Fla., last year and lost his first and only race in about three years he placed second.
Heitzman said he was focusing mainly on the 5K run that will kick off the weekend because he will be rested and ready when the gun sounds.
"I'm looking forward to a real good race because it's the first event," Heitzman said. "I'm hoping to run it in under 19 minutes. Whatever else I do would be gravy. If I could run an 18:59 I'd be a happy camper."
A couple weeks ago, on the same track he will run this weekend, Heitzman ran the 5,000 in 19:10.61, a mark he said he thought he could better this week.
But he will need to work hard to break 19 minutes. The fastest he has run the race this year is 19:06 on New Year's Day, and he hasn't run his personal best of 18:30 since his early 60s.
The other big race-for-redemption is the 10,000 meters, because Heitzman pulled out of the 10K last season after the dehydration scare in the 5K.
"I would like to win the 10. I had won the 10,000 4 years in a row until last year, and that's why I hated not to run it," Heitzman said. "But I didn't feel like it was worth the risk."
Heitzman, who holds several single age records and the 65 to 69 year old record in the 3,000 meter track race at 10:49.81, said he had been running better than he ever has this year and felt strong going into the meet.
"This is the best year I've had for running," Heitzman said. "I'm running so well right now."
He said he would need to continue to run well this weekend to regain his titles, but more importantly, he will be running a lot.
This weekend, Heitzman will run the 5,000 meters on Thursday and the preliminaries for the 800 on Friday, if they are needed to reduce the field. Then on Saturday, he will run the 10,000 meters and the 800-meter finals, and he will wrap up the weekend with the 1,500-meter race on Sunday.
"I'm running just about every time the gun goes off," Heitzman said. "Some people are specialists and run just one event, but I've never been able to do that."
This national event also marks the end of an era for Heitzman. He has no plans to retire, but he will advance to the 70 to 74 year old bracket next year when he turns 70 in February.
"I'm not letting myself think about turning 70," Heitzman said. "But I'll be the top 70-plus runner. There are a lot of records that I should break, if nothing happens."
The competition and the drive to be the best have kept Heitzman in the game for almost a decade now. Although the sport has consumed his life, he said the thrill of the race, the people he has met through running and the joy of success was worth the sacrifices he's made.
"When you're running at the level I'm running at it pretty much becomes your life," said Heitzman, who trains by running six miles a day. "Every day I've got to run. That's top priority, it comes before everything."
Because of the grueling commitment, Heitzman, who didn't start running competitively until after his 60th birthday, attributes part of his success to his wife Marilyn, who supports him through all the training and the 40 to 45 weekends a year when he is traveling to races.
"If you're married to somebody who is a compulsive distance runner, that's not easy," Heitzman said. "A lot of women wouldn't put up with that. But she's been really good about that. Not everyone is as fortunate as me."
And what does she think?
"I think he's a little nuts," Marilyn said with a laugh. "It's more work than I would put into it, but he likes it and it's good for him."
Because many of the races Heitzman runs are road races, Marilyn, who said she supported all the running that her husband does, doesn't usually travel to them.
"I like to travel and sightsee and he doesn't. He goes and he comes back," Marilyn said. "So I don't go to too many of his races. I've gone to some but not too many."
Despite the fact that his 70th birthday lurks just around the corner in February, Heitzman said he had no plans to retire from track and field.
"I don't have any plans to quit," Heitzman said. "As long as I can run and be competitive I will keep it up."