Tucked in a third-floor corner of Lane Hall, the office of Assistant Professor of Economics Gary Wolfram is strewn with mementos of races past. A newspaper clipping shows his son competing in a soccer game, and a pair of red, green, and white Nike spikes dangle by their laces off a wall. His own story is on hangers: road-race shirts and track jerseys.
In his hall, that decor isn’t so unique: The economics department of Hillsdale houses remarkable stories of competition, endurance, and unpretentious dedication to the sport of running. In nearby offices, three other economics professors display similar tokens of running achievements.
Wolfram’s academic and athletic careers took him across the country, from Santa Barbara and Berkeley in California, to Massachusetts, Washington, and Michigan. His road-racing brought him to Hillsdale College partly through meeting Hayden Park Fitness Director Bill Lundberg, who was running road races after recovering from a bid for the Olympic team in the steeplechase.
Within the road-race circuit, Wolfram said, “if you’re in the top five or ten every time, you get to know everybody.” He knew Lundberg, who raced in Steeplechase Olympic Trials in 1976 but tore his achilles tendon while coming off the water jump.
Wolfram also tried out for the Olympics as a marathon runner in 1980 and again in 1984, scraping just short of the trials cut both times, “which was disappointing.”
But he set one of his best marathon times at the Boston Marathon in 1983, pushing his way to 200th place with a time of 2 hours and 26 minutes. Compared to the 2017 Boston Marathon results, Wolfram would have finished in 34th place overall.
At 9 a.m. on July 4, 1981, Wolfram ran a 10k with his best man Doug Curtis, “one of the top marathoners in the world at that time,” Wolfram said. The two tied for first, holding hands in celebration. Then, they jumped in Curtis’ car, showered at a friend’s house, and sped to Wolfram’s wedding at 11:30 a.m.
Wolfram said the fact that his best man was among the top marathoners in the world illustrates the easily accessible community of running.
“If you were a Hillsdale College football player,” he said, “you’re not gonna go out with Peyton Manning and hang out with him, whereas you can do that in running.”
Pointing to the colorful Nikes hanging off his wall, Wolfram remarked that “a world record was run in those shoes.” Through an assistant professorship at Washington State University, Wolfram trained with and befriended Henry Rono, a Kenyan who broke world records in four events — the 3k, the steeplechase, the 5k, and the 10k — in one 90-day period. After their time in Washington, Rono traveled to Michigan and stayed with Wolfram, and on a race day, when Wolfram missed his spiked racing shoes, Rono tossed his own pair over. Just months before, Rono had broken his own 5k record in the same shoes.
Charles Steele, an assistant professor of economics, also discovered the same community; not on asphalt streets, but on gravelly forest-service roads in Montana.
His speciality is ultra marathons — any race longer than 26.2 miles. He’s run 41 of them.
On his first trip to what would become his favorite 50-mile race, “Le Grizz,” in Montana, Steele drove out to the starting line of the race, which was in a primitive campground area, and threw down a sleeping bag. Several racer-campers called him over to their campfire, and Steele found himself chatting with the previous year’s winner, who had held a course record for many years, and was national winner at some of the biggest 100-miler competitions.
“It’s the kind thing where the very top people and the very bottom people know each other, or can know each other,” Steele said.
Le Grizz is one of the oldest ultra marathons in the world, directed by Pat Caffrey, a “completely crazy guy,” Steele said. The course winds from Spotted Bear, a ranger station in Montana, to the town of Hungry Horse.
Steele describes the race in Caffrey’s words, saying that while some think man’s salvation is in the wilderness, and others in civilization, “we need both, and so we run in terror through the wilderness for civilization, knowing that there’s a bunch of things out there that know that we’re not at the top of the food chain.”
A 5k may be about winning, Steele said, but an ultra marathon is about survival: “You’re doing something where you don’t know for sure if you can, and you don’t always.”
The community in this kind of race is one of “great respect,” Steele says. “People will work together and support each other, and there’s a number of times…the front runners have been battling it out, and…they grab arms and run across the finish line holding hands. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, we finished together.’”
Despite his accomplishments, Steele doesn’t hold himself up as a superman. He said humans beings are naturally adapted to run like this.
“How do you think the Indians caught their first horses?” he asked. “Well, they went out and ran them down. Humans have the endurance and other animals have the speed.”
Steele preaches knowing one’s limits, not boundless optimism. One of the most important lessons ultra running has taught him is that humans can’t do anything, even if people say so.
“[Ultra running] has taught me that my limits — whatever they are — are much greater than I thought, and the only way I know is to explore them,” he said.
Since rote training, not glamorous performance, is the basis of human capability, the playing field levels, even among 2.5, 50, and 100 milers.
Though he classifies himself as an amateur runner, Assistant Professor of Economics Matthew Clark also runs regularly. He has run two official races with his wife — once, a half-marathon with no training at all, and later, a 10-mile run after months of preparation.
“We had a blast,” he said in an email.
Assistant Professor of Economics Chris Martin, who recently “vanquished the competition” in his age category at a local 5k, said in an email that, according to his high school coach, he “had no real talent” but “nonetheless worked my way up to average performance by dint of training intensity and pain tolerance.” The theme of persistence defines Martin’s running career, especially as a professor and father in his “wizened middle age.”
“Econ for some reason disproportionately attracts runners, and they are almost to a person good students as well as blindingly fast,” Martin said. “Does pain tolerance also explain this?”
For Wolfram, “competition was the whole thing.” Once he got to to where he couldn’t compete “up at the front,” Wolfram said he “just didn’t have the urge to just go out and run.”
Despite Steele’s invitation to run a 50-miler, Wolfram said he doesn’t miss the training: “I did enough of it — I was running 85-90 miles a week for decades. In November I’ll be 67 years old. I’m just not going to go out and run a 2:20 marathon, you know?”
Only in the past ten years has Wolfram scaled down from his routine of running 85-90 miles a week.
Steele, meanwhile, is still in recovery mode, following his second hip replacement this August. His most recent training included walking a 5k, plus regular physical therapy work. He’s determined not to “pick up any bad habits” because he wants to race at Le Grizz — not once, but several more times.
“I gotta get to 20,” he said. “I told my surgeon, that’s what our goal is.”
Steele proudly hoisted a slab of polished cedar cut from the Flathead Valley area of Montana near Le Grizz, which he won for his 10th time completing the race.
“You’re not leaving without seeing some of my trophies,” he said.