By Rich Stiller
Back in the 1970’s during the first running boom, we weren’t all winners by just showing up and participating in races. You actually had to win a race or your age group to get a medal or trophy. Participants received ribbons and an oversized t-shirt if they were lucky.
I wanted no part of being a participant. I wanted to run as fast as I possibly could. My serious racing years were 1972-1995 but my really serious years were 1975- 1985 when I doubled my weekly mileage and fought it out to be one of the top fifty ranked runners in Northern California. It wasn’t an easy task. Based on the scoring system of the time, you had to finish in the top ten in a competitive race to get points. Otherwise you got zilch. Yes, there were divisions: open, masters, and women but that was it.
The first running boom had depth so almost every race in NorCal could be a nightmare as far as scoring was concerned. The San Francisco Bay Area was a magnet for fast runners much on par with Boston. Races regularly saw the likes of Duncan MacDonald, Paul Geis, Bill Clark, Brian Maxwell and a myriad of other national and world-class runners.
I was nowhere near their level. I was local class at best just breaking 16 minutes for 5K and 33 minutes for 10K. I was better to the field if the course was off road or just plain hilly. The more of those I ran, the higher I finished, the better my rank. In 1977 I had my breakthrough and achieved a top fifty ranking. My name popped up in the local running magazine, NorCal Running Review. I had made it.
I didn’t have to say anything. Other runners started to take notice. Two years before I had been a pack filler. Now I was a contender. We all knew who the fast runners were. Now I was one of them.
One day I was at a local college track doing 6 x 800’s while a friend timed me. Another runner jogged over and started to watch. When I completed the workout I came over and was introduced to Paul Geis. Paul had been a member of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Team as a 5000m specialist. He had also been the first guy behind Prefontaine on the University of Oregon’s 1973 team.
“You looked good out there,” Paul said. “You should join Bill, Duncan and I for an interval session.” Of course I knew he was talking about Bill Clark, one of our faster runners in the Bay Area and Duncan MacDonald who was another member of the 1976 Olympic 5000 meter team.
Oh yeah, I thought to myself. That ain’t happening. Rich Stiller, sub 16-minute 5K runner did not belong in an interval workout with Bill Clark who could run in the 14’s and Paul and Duncan who regularly ran in the 13’s. I politely asked Paul what their target pace for the 800’s was.
“We try to keep it around 2:08-2:10,” he answered.
“How fast did you think I was running mine?” I couldn’t resist.
“Try 2:25 to 2:30,” I said. “I’m a 16 minute 5K runner.”
“Oh,” he responded.
Now Geis was a class guy. He could have just walked away but he stayed and we chewed the fat for a bit. Before he left he mentioned something about joining him and the gang for a ten miler that weekend. “We take it pretty easy,” he mentioned in passing. I actually began to consider it. Ten miles. Maybe they would only run 6:30 pace. I could do that with my eyes closed. It would be great to run with some elite runners. My buddy was really excited about it: “Paul Geis. Bill Clark. Duncan MacDonald. Man, that’s fast company!”
That evening after the euphoria wore off I realized that I was tempting fate. I was a lowly local class guy thinking about running with the gods of the Bay Area.
The truth was, I didn’t belong.
I begged off the ten miler but another friend of mine didn’t. He was a bit faster than me. He called me Sunday evening after the easy ten miler.
“We ran 55 minutes,” he said. “I was hanging on the whole way while they didn’t even seem to be breathing hard.”
I laughed out loud. My PR at ten miles was 55:11.
At the end of 1977 I was ranked thirtieth in NorCal. Paul Geis was 29th. I had arrived there simply by running a few more races than he had. That was as close to him as I ever got.
Rich Stiller is a regular columnist for The Level who specializes in the good ole days and masters’ running. This article originally appeared in the May/Jun 2014 issue of Level Renner. Get your free subscription today (box in upper right portion of screen). Since it’s all free, the little things like getting on our subscriber list go a long way in helping us grow!