Tom Heinonen has moved the UO Running Club’s Tuesday pre-practice meetings to the lower-level overhang of the Student Recreation Center, next to the turf fields but away from the drizzle. The usual meeting spot is the waterfall in front of the rec center; the runners’ presence by it is ubiquitous, in the shape of a semi-circle around their Hall-of-Fame coach.
Heinonen begins the day with a simple gesture: Say hello, then say the name of each runner, from the regulars to the occasional members to the infrequently appearing members. Heinonen, the coach of three NCAA title teams in his 28-year Oregon track and cross country career, remembers them all. And he can prove it.
This is not a simple gesture for Heinonen. This is an expectation upon himself. Everyone, regularity of appearance and skill level notwithstanding, is equal in the UO Running Club.
The UO Running Club has existed throughout the years in less of a competitive sense – and with fewer people. Essentially, interested parties would work out together and call themselves the official club. In 2003, Heinonen retired from the Oregon track program and volunteered his service with “only a half a dozen or so active members.”
Brad Russell, a junior from Minneapolis, Minn., joined the ranks – which began growing after Heinonen accepted his position – in early 2006, the middle of his freshman year.
“There were probably 10 or 12 guys and maybe 10 girls, tops,” Russell said. “Our biggest day, we maybe had 20 people there. This year, on our biggest day, we’ve had 60. This year, it’s definitely grown.”
Just as attendance has risen significantly, the institution of club running has achieved new heights with the founding of the National Intercollegiate Running Club Association in the spring of 2006. The NIRCA hosted its first National Cross Country Championship that same year. Oregon sent a men’s and women’s team to the 2007 meet, held at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., and came back with two national championships and an individual champion, then-junior Keith Laverty.
“Last year, the national meet wasn’t very organized,” Laverty said. “This year, they were super-organized.”
Laverty is an interesting case among Oregon running club participants in that he initially was recruited to join the Oregon track and cross country teams. The Woodinville, Wash., native jumped at the chance and ran two cross country seasons and one track season in Duck colors. He began running unattached in track (Laverty is a 5,000m and 10,000m runner) and was cut from the Duck program during his sophomore year. In joining the UO Running Club, Laverty welcomed a change to the way he approaches the sport he loves.
“There’s no pressure,” Laverty said. “You don’t have to go practice every day. If you have a bad workout, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve been running faster times.
“I can still race top guys in big meets.”
Running club participants compete in cross country and track events across Oregon. Several runners obtained license provisions to drive commercial vans, and the team coordinators, senior David Reid and sophomore Giovanni Guzman, tirelessly fundraise to support the team.
“My first year, we had a budget of $600,” Heinonen said. “(The trip to nationals) cost about $11,000, and we fundraised most of that.”
Cross country season may culminate in a national championship at year’s end, but working out and improving upon times never has to cease. As a result, the club runners develop strong bonds with one another.
“We’re all best friends. We all hang out on weekends,” junior Kristen Mohror said of the camaraderie. “We go to the library together, we do homework together, we cook together. It’s like a family thing.”
Mohror, a native of Chamberlain, S.D., committed to Black Hills State University, an NAIA school in Spearfish, S.D., for track and cross country, but her heart remained in Oregon. She had taken a campus tour and had fallen in love with the campus and Eugene – and the widespread commitment to excellence in running that is the standard in Track Town, USA.
“Being stuck in South Dakota was not good. I came out here for the journalism program, and I didn’t know there was a club team,” Mohror said. “I think I got really lucky.”
It bears mentioning here, of course, that the running club welcomes any and all non-competitive runners. (“We’ve had joggers show up and this is way above their level, because they can’t keep up on a steady run,” Heinonen said.) Heinonen will help with everything from “holding their sweats” crafting a workout plan to simply chatting after the day’s run. Heinonen originally came to Eugene to compete in the 1972 Olympic Trials marathon (back when the marathon and the track and field trials coexisted) and fell in love with the town – and met his wife, Janet. He was twice named NCAA Coach of the Year and has guided his athletes to 108 All-America honors. That remains his role in the running club: Not entirely as a coach, but as a guide, in running and in life.
“There’s a little knowledge that passes this way and that,” Heinonen said.
“He’s had such a huge impact on my experience with running,” Mohror said.
He’s also great at remembering names.