It is Friday at 3 p.m. The temperature reads a cool 40 degrees and the setting sun is already casting a shadow across the intramural fields behind the University of Oregon’s Student Recreation Center.
And just as he is every Monday through Friday, Club Running coach Tom Heinonen is there, taking the time before assigning the day’s workout to acknowledge each runner at practice.
Freshman Joelle Bruck-Frisk jogs up to the group of runners that has formed. Heinonen immediately remarks on the bright colors of her new running shoes. Junior Shane Callen does a calf stretch and Heinonen walks over, asking about his day.
It is this genuine interest in the members of his team that has allowed Heinonen, the team’s volunteer head coach, to expand a program that had just seven runners in 2003 to one with over 40 regulars and 150 on the mailing list today.
“He’s very personable. The second time you come to practice he already knows your name and where you’re from; he says hi to every single person,” said Bruck-Frisk. “It’s very inviting and makes you want to come back.”
Heinonen spent 1975 to 2002 as the head coach of the UO women’s track and field and cross-country teams. During that time he established one of the greatest women’s programs in the country.
While leading the teams, Heinonen brought home two NCAA cross country championships in 1983 and 1987, qualified for the national meet 24 times, won eight Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards and finished with a 124-21 record in dual meets.
Athletes coached by Heinonen have made 17 Olympic appearances and set three American records. Heinonen was also named NCAA Coach of the Year twice, and in 2006 he was inducted into the USTFCCCA Hall of Fame.
Upon his retirement from coaching at the varsity level, Heinonen was approached about taking over the running club by Richie Carpenter, the club’s former coordinator. It was a change in pace that Heinonen gladly accepted.
“Over there, it was all about performance and all the worries that that aspect was concerned with,” said Heinonen, pointing to Hayward field. “Over here, it’s just lighter.”
Running Club attracts runners with interests ranging from simply having social running interest, to those seeking a spot on the UO’s varsity team. Only a handful have made it as walk-on members, and Carlos Trujillo was a unique exception. Trujillo walked on to the UO’s distance program and in his first competitive 10,000 meter race took home the Pac-10 Outdoor title in 2008.
That’s not to say that the club team has not been successful.
In 2007, Heinonen brought home two NIRCA cross-country championships for both men and women – the men took the title again in 2012.
“He’s willing to take it easy with the people who are here recreationally and get serious with the people who want to run hard and push themselves,” said senior club member Andy Girod.
Sixty-nine-year-old Heinonen has cut back his own mileage, and still works at a variety of meets across the state as a stadium announcer and webcaster. But he has now prioritized being a consistent leader for a group of people with a passion for running.
“I show up with a workout, they show up and run, and even an hour after practice, they’re still here,” said Heinonen, looking on as nine of his runners toss around a Frisbee. “It’s all I could ask for.”
Follow Sarah Scrivens on Twitter @sarahescrivens