Getting to the Heart of America

Every Labor Day, a small but determined crew of runners comes to
Columbia from around the country for the Heart of America marathon,
a 43-year-old tradition that, thanks to some mean-spirited geography,
ranks among the nation’s toughest races.
Monday, September 1, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:55 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Six years ago, Stephen Bourgeois crossed the finish line in his first marathon. Since then, he has completed 21, 14 in the past year. On Oct. 18, he will celebrate his 40th birthday by competing in the Indianapolis Marathon, and then, a day later, drive to Louisville, Ky. for his 25th marathon.

Columbia’s Heart of America was the race that got him started, though. Bourgeois is set to run in this year’s race at 6 a.m. today.

“I started running marathons because I wanted to complete this particular one,” Bourgeois said. “I saw this one and I decided that my first goal was to complete it.”

With no previous running experience, the Columbia architect completed the 1998 Heart of America race in 3 hours, 29 minutes and nine seconds. A year later, Bourgeois finished sixth in the race in 3:08. He was awarded the Dave Schulte Award for best improvement for his drop in time.

Bourgeois said he isn’t sure how he will do this year.

“It’s hard to set a specific goal for it, because it’s so dependent on the weather,” Bourgeois said. “Sometimes it’s so hot and humid, and sometimes it’s actually pleasant. But when you’re running a marathon, anything over 60 degrees is really hot.”

The Columbia Track Club has sponsored the annual event for the past 43 years. Race director Joe Duncan said he expects about 140 runners.

“And if we have 140 start, I’d expect 125 to finish,” Duncan said. “It also depends on how hot and humid it is. If it does cool off, that’s about what I’d expect.”

While running 26 miles and 365 yards might sound daunting, past years have shown that a wide variety of people can complete the race. Last year’s winner, Gerald Holtmeyer of Fulton, was 43 when he crossed the finish line. Wesley Paul, who was 7 when he finished in 4 hours and 4 minutes in 1976, is the youngest tocomplete the race.

“I think a lot of people are surprised,” Bourgeois said. “If you just keep at it, there’s a broad spectrum of people who can complete it.”

Holtmeyer finished last year with a time of 2:46:40. The female winner, Krista White of Columbia, finished in 3:36:09.

White was declared the winner after it turned out that the first female finisher, Thandeka Ngwenyama, had not registered for the race. Ngwenyama finished in 3:25:05.

The course begins at Providence Road and heads south past Rock Bridge High School. From this point follows a loop that makes up about 17 miles of the course. Runners will follow Route K west to Old Plank Road before turning onto the gravel Smith Hatchery Road. The halfway point is immediately after the Easley Road hill, which rises 200 feet in less than a mile.

“It’s a difficult course; one of the more hilly courses in the country,” Bourgeois said. “Often times, there are hills in a marathon, but in this one, they’re there the whole time.”

The course heads north on Route N to Route 163, and then retraces its course along Providence Road before ending at Seventh and Broadway.

“It is the type of course that if you go out too fast early, you will pay for it later,” Bourgeois said. “Unfortunately this has been my typical experience at this race.”

For people considering training for a marathon, Bourgeois recommends patience.

“Start out slow, and add your mileage slowly,” he said “Definitely a pacing situation, so I think that typically when you start out too fast in your training, you’ll end up stopping. If you start out slow, you’ll continue to do it, and that’s the most important.”

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