The Twin Cities Marathon is awash in change: new competitors, updated technology, first-time runners, and the list goes on.
One key narrative has been steadfast amid the churn for 31 years.
Phil Coppess, a then-single dad who got in his training around night shifts at an Iowa corn-processing plant and raising three preteens, came up to the Twin Cities and blew away the field in 1985, with a course record 2 hours, 10 minutes and 5 seconds over the 26.2 miles from Minneapolis to St. Paul.
Remarkably, the record hasn’t changed. Endearingly, neither has Coppess.
He still is all about family (he’s going to watch a niece play college softball in Ottumwa in southeastern Iowa the weekend of the marathon); all about small-town life (still in Clinton); and all about blue-collar shifts (he works at Alcoa).
How about his 1985 marathon?
“Usually only when someone like you calls for an interview is the only time I think about it,” said Coppess, 62, when reached last month just after he mowed his lawn.
Coppess’ marathon still ranks among the top 20 in history by U.S. men. In fact, the closest anyone has come to challenging the record happened the next year when Californian William Donakowski, 30, ran 2:10:41.
Coppess was back, too, but struggled in at 2:17:04, good for 12th place.
Coppess is borderline indifferent to his exploits. “It was a half of a lifetime ago,” he said. Still, his story is rich: A factory worker from an Iowa town was one of the fastest marathoners in the world for a time. One motivator, he said, was to run faster than Bill Rodgers, who won four Boston and New York City marathons (some as fast as 2:09) in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Coppess would make his own headlines in the early ’80s. He won the 1981 Chicago Marathon (2:16:13), beating former Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter, and Coppess took sixth in the 1982 London Marathon.
Then 1985 happened.
“That whole year, every distance I PRed by so much that I knew I was going to run super fast,” he said, talking about a run of personal records. Before Twin Cities, Coppess ran a half-marathon (13.1 miles) in Philadelphia that beat his previous best by a minute and a half. By his calculations, he said he was set up to go three minutes faster than his marathon PR of 2:13.
When he set the course record in the Twin Cities it was the fastest marathon by a U.S. runner in two years.
“That had to be the top of my running career,” said Coppess, who was 31 at the time. “The best race that I ran.
“When I set that time I thought I could run a lot faster. Twin Cities is a hard course, [and] I never could get back in the same shape that I ran there.” His final marathon would be the 1988 Olympic trials, in which he finished 55th in 2:30:45.
Coppess said the Twin Cities course — the sneaky inclines and punishing march up, down and along Summit Avenue — has kept his name next to “course record” all these years. He returned a few years ago and witnessed the challenge firsthand, sitting in the press vehicle. “That course is a lot harder than people think. That’s the only reason the record has lasted that long.”
What will it take for a runner to beat the mark? Unfailingly humble, Coppess still chuckled at the memory of talk of besting his mark over the years — and more recently. In 2014, Kenyan Dominic Ondoro made history at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, running 2:09:06 to break Dick Beardsley’s 33-year-old course record. Ondoro went on to win the 2015 Twin Cities Marathon in 2:11:16, well off Coppess’ mark, but still at the time the fastest in the Twin Cities since 1990.
“I just went up there to run fast,” Coppess said of his long-ago day in the sun. “You’ve got to be willing to go for it. If the pace is too slow … like me, I took off at six miles and basically ran the rest of the way by myself because I wanted to run fast.”
He did run fast Oct. 6, 1985. And that story line will never change.