COLUMBIA — Joe Schroeder doesn't run like he used to 50 years ago when he was the first to cross the finish line of the original Heart of America Marathon.
This marathon began as a challenge, but has become a staple in mid-Missouri's running community and is hailed as one of the toughest marathons in the country. Today's race is tougher than the race Schroeder remembers.
The almost 200 participants who are expected to run on Monday in the 2009 Heart of America Marathon, which is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, are a vast improvement from the four who competed with Schroeder in the inaugural marathon. Even though memory lane is longer than a marathon for Schroeder, his memories of that first race are sharp.
Joe Schroeder came out hesitantly onto the small porch of his shaded, split-level Columbia home.
"I haven't had time to comb my hair yet," he said sheepishly. Looking at Schroeder, a 6'4" bear of a man, you would think vanity is not something that he would worry about at age 70. But he ducked back into his house to comb his hair and retrieve his royal blue Adidas track spikes. The pair Schroeder wore to win the first Heart of America marathon 50 years ago.
Schroeder doesn't move around like he used to back then. He finally emerged from his home proudly holding a high school state track medal and his track shoes. He slowly lowered himself onto the edge of the deck to try and squeeze into his old shoes.
"I wouldn't recommend using spikes for a marathon. It was the best alternative for me at the time," Schroeder said. The track shoe options were few until the mid to late 60s with the advent of Bill Bowerman and Phil Knights Nike shoe empire. Schroeder's only option was to tape cotton over the spikes for more comfort. The lack of heel support was also a problem. After six miles, Schroeder tore off the tape and cotton and ran the rest of the race in spikes.
To look at him now as he tied the thin strings into neat bows, you would never think there was ever any discomfort. A small boyish grin lit up his face as he finished the last bow. "It feels good to have them on again," Schroeder said.
From the deck, Schroeder carefully lowered himself onto the plush green grass in his picturesque, well-manicured back yard posing for a photo. Among the marigolds and strategically placed ornamental rocks stood a Fisher-Price jungle gym that Schroeder's grandchildren climb on when they come to visit.
Playing with his grandchildren and gardening are two of the many activities Schroeder enjoys these days. Certainly a change of pace compared to the time he spent on the MU cross county team in the summer of 1960.
At the time, Schroeder never gave much thought to running a marathon.
“It was kind of unheard of to run a marathon in this part of the country back then,” Schroeder said. In 1960, the Heart of America race was the only marathon between New York and Los Angeles. Today cities and towns throughout the Midwest hold marathons throughout the year.
The summer of 1960, Schroeder traveled once a week to Kansas City for Olympic-intensity training with Heart of America creator Bill Clark. Talk began on the way to Kansas City about a group of cocky boxers who were training in Columbia at the time. They thought they ran more in their training than distance runners.
Clark understood the competitive nature of young men. “He put it out there in front of us not knowing what it would lead to,” Schroeder said.
The boxers, who ran five to six miles a day, were confident they could outrun Schroeder and his fellow running mate Morris Patterson. Clark upped the distance and proposed they race in a marathon.
The 8 a.m. start on Sept. 5, 1960 brought with it heat, humidity and five runners for the 26-mile, 385-yard distance between Columbia and Fulton.
“None of them were the boxers,” Clark recalls. They had chickened out. "They said it was too far to run," added Clark. But that didn't deter Schroeder from competing in the race.
In addition to Schroeder and Patterson, two weightlifters and one race walker, Darrell Palmer, started the race. One weightlifter dropped out after a mile. The other weightlifter only ran five. By the end of the race, Clark learned that Palmer got a ride back to Columbia around the halfway mark. It came down to a test of wills between two running mates and the elements.
At the start of the race, Schroeder was figuring out “how to strategize how to beat my track partner, Morris, but when the heat and humidity set in, it was how do I survive to finish?”
By today’s standards, race conditions were brutal. The sweltering heat and unbearable humidity became tolerable halfway through the race when one water thermos became a welcomed oasis for Schroeder and Patterson.
But those obstacles weren’t going to stop Schroeder. “My mental preparedness was different from what you think of now,” Schroeder said.
Preparation both mentally and physically weren’t necessarily priorities. The summer before the marathon, the longest distance he ran to train was six miles. For Schroeder, it was running a marathon for the thrill of running a marathon.
“I’m going to do this and by golly, I’m going to finish this, “ Schroeder said. After 3 hours and 57 minutes, he did.
Clark agrees. “They weren’t in the greatest shape, but they made the distance. They opened the gates.”
Schroeder and Patterson did open the gates. The Heart of America Marathon is still beating strong as it celebrates its golden anniversary.
The only marathons Schroeder runs these days consist in his memories. “Exercise is under supervision at The Health Connection gym doing aerobics and weightlifting,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder and his wife plan to be “cheering spectators, wishing them their best” at this year's race.
Schroeder will forever be a part of the Heart of America Marathon history.
“If the two of us didn’t finish, the Heart of America Marathon probably wouldn’t have survived,” Schroeder said.