Heart of America Marathon director celebrates 41st year in charge of race

Saturday, September 3, 2011 | 9:18 p.m. CDT; updated 9:31 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 3, 2011
Joe Duncan, 77, has been the race director of Columbia's Heart of America Marathon for 41 years. Since 1960, the Heart of America marathon has been held on Labor Day, except for eight times in the 1980s.

COLUMBIA — Joe Duncan is a remarkable runner. He is also a great organizer. And he knows how to combine both skills.

Duncan, a 77-year-old Columbia resident, has been the race director of the Heart of America Marathon for 41 years. In this time, many things have changed, but he still enjoys the essence of it: putting together an event that helps create bonds between people from Columbia.

Race day

The 52nd edition of the Heart of America Marathon, a Labor Day tradition in Columbia, will be Monday. The race starts at 6 a.m. at the Hearnes Center on Stadium Boulevard, and the finish line is at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Street. There is a 7-hour limit to complete the race.

Although the number of participants is small compared to other, high-profile marathons in the country, the Heart of America is considered one of the toughest races. The hilly course and the weather pose the most serious challenges to runners.

"Runner's World magazine has declared us the most difficult non-mountainous course in the country," Columbia Track Club President Bill Stolz said. "As a runner, you also have to deal with the extreme temperatures and the humidity."

The small number of people in the race and the crowd is another element that adds to the difficulty of the Heart of America.

"There are parts of the course where you don't see other people. Maybe a few runners, but not many," CTC member and Heart of America racer Andy Emerson said. "Having a lot of people cheering you up is an advantage because it takes your mind off the race when you feel tired. The more distractions, the better," he said.

But there are many advantages to the Heart of America as well. Although tough, the course offers runners and spectators the chance to be in close contact with nature.

"You are running down in the country. You see cows, lots of farm fields and woods. It's very nice," Stolz said.

And the fact that the Heart of America is a small event means it is more accessible to runners of all ages and skills. Also, the $40 entry fee is much lower than some marathons.

"Before you hang up your running shoes, you have to run the Heart of America, at least once," race Director Joe Duncan said.

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"The Heart of America is a nice community event," Duncan said.

A longtime runner himself, Duncan has participated in 12 editions of the Heart of America, of which he has finished nine. The event is special for him because it was where he started his own running career.

"I first started running in 1966, when I was 32 years old. I had never run before," Duncan said. "I read about the Heart of America coming up and thought 'that sounds kind of fun.' So I decided to run the marathon and haven't stopped since."

Duncan was one of the founders and the first president of the Columbia Track Club, a position he held from 1968 to 1987. He is still a member of the board of directors.

It was through the club that Duncan became involved in the organization of the Heart of America. He has been the race director since the 1970 edition.

During Duncan's experience as the director of the Heart of America, the race has experienced several changes, namely in the number of participants and the course.

"Back in the '70s and '80s, we used to have 30, 40 or 50 runners. On Monday, we'll have a little over 200 runners," Duncan said.

But the most important change is how the different levels of runners who participate in the race has increased.

"The marathon was more competitive in the '70s and '80s than it is now," Duncan said. "I think that is great because it means that ordinary runners are competing in marathons."

And that is exactly the point of the race.

"The Heart of America is not reserved for intense, competitive, national-class runners," Duncan said. "It's a people's marathon. The Heart of America is a relatively small, low-key, casual sort of race. But it is Columbia's own, and we have a mixture of people from the community."

The small size of the Heart of America does not mean that its organization is a simple process. It is actually quite the opposite, especially for Duncan, who is in charge of most aspects of the race, such as advertising, registering participants and keeping individual statistics for each runner.

"Joe has pretty much single-handedly organized the Heart of America every year," said Andy Emerson, a current CTC member. "He is willing to devote a lot of his time to it. It's amazing."

Current CTC President Bill Stolz also praises Duncan's contribution to the organization of the race.

"Joe is the Heart of America," Stolz said. "He handles all of the publicity, he puts together the fliers, he does the T-shirts and the awards. He does it because he loves it."

But Duncan also gets a lot of help from volunteers both from the CTC and the rest of the Columbia community. They are in charge of managing aid stations and assisting participants throughout the race.

"This year, there will be around 120 volunteers out there," Duncan said. "Their work is critical. Without them, we wouldn't have a marathon."

Duncan's family is another source of support for him.

"My wife, Carole, and my sons have always been very supportive. They have put up with it all this time," Duncan said.

Duncan has no plans of quitting his activities with the Heart of America.

"I'll be here until they carry me out," he said with a chuckle.

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