On Aug. 18, 1968, in the dusty, high plains town of Alamosa, Colo., about 120 runners toed the line of the first Olympic Marathon Trials. The race was designed to identify those who would perform well in Mexico City’s thin air in October, but the science of running at altitude — training, diet, hydration, clothing — was in its infancy.
There were six Minnesotans in the race, among them 31-year-old Ron Daws, a pioneer of the Twin Cities running community and widely acknowledged to be the country’s best “no-talent” runner; Tom Heinonen, 23, who’d qualified for an expenses-paid, monthlong training camp in Alamosa; and Jeff Reneau, a University of Minnesota graduate student who’d joined the Army in 1966.
This was an open race — anyone who could get to Alamosa could run. Some had never competed in a marathon. They went out too fast, or too slow. Cotton shorts with thick seams chafed. Some tried a new green drink, Gatorade, with varied results. Yale undergraduate Frank Shorter, who was among the marathon’s rising stars, borrowed a pair of shoes the night before the race. He dropped out with hideously blistered feet. (Still, he went on to win gold in 1972 in Munich.) Almost all suffered dehydration, some losing more than 10 pounds over the 26.2 miles. Only 63 of the starters finished.
While many of the favorites faded or limped off the course, Daws, who’d gone to Alamosa six weeks before to acclimate, ran the race of his life: He took the third and the last spot on the Olympic team. Reneau finished 10th, and Heinonen 14th, and the Twin Cities Track Club — Daws, Heinonen and Jerry Smith — won the team title.
The race was emblematic of the Wild West that was distance running, and galvanizing for Minnesota runners — with meticulous preparation, a guy they knew and ran with could achieve Olympic stature.
“The runner runs because he knows he must run. He understands this instinctively. This craving to run put me in pursuit of the Mexican Olympics,” Daws would later write in his memoir, “The Self-Made Olympian.”
Daws died at age 55 in 1992, but on the 50th anniversary of that Olympic trials race, Heinonen and Reneau shared their memories of Alamosa, the running scene in 1968, Daws’ idiosyncrasies and his legacy in the Twin Cities.
Heinonen: “I didn’t have a plan”
Heinonen, who grew up in the Twin Cities and ran for the University of Minnesota, lives today in Eugene, Ore. He is retired from 28 years of coaching University of Oregon women’s track and cross-country teams. Here are his recollections, edited for space:
"I didn’t really have a plan [upon graduating in March 1968], other than not going to Vietnam. Daws told me about a regional Olympic marathon qualifier to be held in Minneapolis. He was the race director and, of course, he was going to run it, too. The AAU was going to pay for 20 guys — the winners of the six regional qualifiers, and the next 14 fastest times — to go to Alamosa, stay in the dorms at Adams State, and train at altitude for a month before the trials. There was no prize money at the time — nobody got anything — so the idea that you could get travel expenses and room and board at an Olympic site was quite unusual and appealing. Daws and Pat Lanin created the running community in the Twin Cities. They were the organizers. They brought national events to the Twin Cities.”
"Daws was a 10-minute two-miler in college, no talent. In spite of that, and the fact that when he graduated , there really was no post-collegiate running community, he kept running. He made his own shoes. [Minneapolis runner Steve Hoag was wearing a pair of Daws-made shoes when he placed second at the 1975 Boston Marathon]. And he built a treadmill for running in the winter. He went to put it in his basement but the ceiling was too low. He hit his head. So he chipped a hole in the concrete floor and put the treadmill in it.
“I only had about a month, or six weeks, to train for that regional qualifier, which was my first marathon. I won it in 2:18:04, which is a lifetime best, and was then the sixth-fastest marathon by an American. Daws was, I think, fourth in 2:26.”
"There was nothing to do in Alamosa besides run. Everybody was trying to run harder than everybody else. I think I ran over 100 miles a week, maybe 120 miles, way beyond what I’d ever done. Guys, Daws among them, were doing 30-mile runs every week. Daws ran in full sweats — heat training. I thought, there’s no way I can run 20 miles in one workout so, stupidly, I ran five miles four times a day. I had no idea what I was doing.
“We stayed in the dorms at Adams State and ate dorm food. There were college girls around — it was fun. I fell on my knee playing volleyball a few days before the marathon. I got a cortisone injection under my kneecap. Daws, on the other hand, was determined not to go out too fast — that will kill you at altitude — so he ran the first mile of the course 10 times, memorizing his 5:45 goal pace. I was chasing girls and playing volleyball, and Daws was running the first mile 10 times to etch that in his mind.”
"I don’t remember anything about the race. I know what I was wearing because I’ve seen pictures — a painter’s cap because that was what you wore, a white handkerchief around my neck, my brother’s boys state T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. The race started at 3 p.m. It was awful. It had to have been. I ended up running 25 minutes slower in Alamosa than I did in Minneapolis. Daws ran 2:24 in Minneapolis and 2:33 in Alamosa. Nine minutes is an absurdly small difference between sea level and 7,500 feet. He executed his plan — even splits, pretty close to 5:45 per mile — and faded less than everybody else.”
Reneau: “It was a circus up there”
Reneau grew up in Laconia, N.H., and ran track and cross-country in college, before moving to Minneapolis in 1965 for graduate school at the University of Minnesota. He joined the Army in 1966 and was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, to work as a medical service officer. He made the Army track team in 1967 and 1968. After his military service, he returned to Minneapolis, earned a veterinary degree, and was a professor of animal science at Minnesota for 35 years. He’s now retired and lives in Madison, Wis. His recollections are edited for space:
"I joined Twin Cities Track Club the first year I lived there, and trained with Ron Daws a lot. My first marathon — Twin Cities Marathon, on the River Road — was in fall 1965. Daws established that race — he measured it, certified it, he was the race director. He was my mentor. Despite his quirks, people respected his ideas. He didn’t have as much talent as some, but he could get every drop out of himself. Daws and Pat Lanin were the nucleus of the running community. I still wear my TCTC shirt around, I have such good feelings about those people and that time.
“Daws did some crazy stuff. We harassed him about his handmade shoes — ’Ain’t no beauty contest, Reneau,’ he said.
‘I would have loved making that Olympic team, but I had other things going on. It meant a lot to Daws. I was happy, we were all happy, he made the team. He deserved it.”
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul. Reach her at email@example.com.