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1981: Eco­nomics pro­fessor Gary Wolfram tied for first in a 10k with his best man Doug Curtis before jumping in Curtis’ car and speeding to Wolfram’s wedding the same day. Gary Wolfram | Courtesy

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.