The Dogwood Tree

I originally wrote this piece about 15 or more years ago, when we lived on Asbury Avenue in Evanston, Illinois. I never got around to publishing it, but thought it was appropriate now that the dogwood tree is once again full of blossoms.

The Dogwood Tree

Dogwoods are very rare in my neighborhood in Evanston, Illinois. We live too far north for them to withstand the rigors of winter. But there is a dogwood tree near my house on Asbury Avenue. It is about two blocks south outside the house that was once the “Chandler” house, owned by the family that owned and operated Chandler’s Department Store in downtown Evanston for many years, the store that published the “Chandler Assignment Notebook,” that my children and thousands of children bought each year in September to help them organize their homework and other assignments.

Chandler Assignment Books

Chandler Assignment Books

The tree sits on the southwest corner of the house next to the front porch where it is warmed by the sun. It is always a delight to see it each spring with its magnificent white blossoms, letting the world know that spring is back.

The Chandler House and Dogwood

The Chandler House and Dogwood

I’ve been thinking about that particular dogwood this spring. I had an idea, a thought. Why not take a photo of it, and possibly write a poem celebrating it. Before leaving for work the following day I put my camera in my backpack, hoping to take a photo or two with the morning light shining on the branches, with the delicious white flowers adorning the tree.

I approached the white house holding the dogwood and its blossoms in my consciousness. Just as I was passing the house, the owner came out, a slender man in his mid-40s. He opened the door, went out on his porch, and walked slowly, deliberately to the southwest corner near the dogwood to admire it. I marveled that we were both intent on the tree at the same time. He approached the tree and took a blossom in his hand, touching it gently, caressing it. Then he twisted off the blossom to take it with him.

Dogwood Blossoms

Dogwood Blossoms

I was in awe that we had each come from our separate places intent on the tree and its blossoms. I did not want to break the spell or intrude on his time with the tree. It was a shared moment of love for this tree, giving us both joy in its being. I enjoy that he loves and appreciates this tree, that others are entranced by its beauty, that is gives us this just by its being, to him, to me and to countless others walking or driving by. We are kindred spirits—him, the tree and me. What a blessing.


Is Your Running a Spiritual Practice?

“Run not to be fast, or to beat others, but to discover who you are and what you can become.”
Will Van Dyke 1998

I’m not sure what a spiritual practice is, but after running for over 50 years, it seems to me that my running has turned into a spiritual practice. It has turned into a kind of moving meditation that feeds my body, and my soul, each time I do it. As I began thinking about this I did a bit of research on spiritual practice to find out what it is. I found quite a few definitions, including this one–“Regular performance of an action or activity for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development.”

Recently my minister, Bret Lortie, did a sermon about Buddhism, and he said that a spiritual practice has three components.

1. It is an activity that one does over time that encourages beneficial habits.
2. It has a foundation built more on experience than on philosophy.
3. Acceptance of things as they are, that we cannot control or fully know.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that over the years my running has developed into a spiritual practice.

I certainly didn’t start running to develop a spiritual practice, but over time, it has evolved into one. There is within me a genetic disposition to run. I have no idea where it came from, but I have always enjoyed running, from running on the playground playing “boys chase the girls” (but hoping the girls would catch me), to running to get in shape for my high school basketball team, to finally running in my first cross country race as a high school senior, where I had much more success than I did at basketball. It is a gene I see in my grandson Jack and my daughter Gretchen. My son Garrett even says that Jack looks like me when he sees him running on the soccer field. I can’t see it, but I don’t often get a chance to see myself running either.

The arc of my running career has spanned over five decades and began modestly enough, but then changed as I trained more and began running races, first in New England, and then in the Chicago area. In New England I ran with the “big dogs,” and placed high up in many championship races, when I was running upwards of 80 miles every week. As I have aged, and am now in my 70s, I only run 20-25 miles a week, but I still enjoy running, although at a much slower pace, and fewer days a week than I did when I was younger.

So what makes running a spiritual practice? It is certainly something I do on a regular basis. Instead of running seven days a week as I did when I was younger, I now only run three days a week, but I do it outside, week in and week out, out no matter what the weather, although occasionally shifting the day of the week if the weather is particularly bad. Some days are a struggle just to get out the door, but I do, knowing that my body and mind will thank me when it’s over. Other days my body floats along effortlessly, and I feel at one with the universe. Who can deny that it doesn’t promote beneficial habits, and connect us with others on the same path? Running teaches perseverance and commitment. If you practice over time you can achieve goals that would seem inconceivable to you the novice runner, and in the process you learn about yourself.

There may be a philosophy to your running, but the experience of running is what matters. All the philosophy in the world cannot make you faster or fitter—it is in the doing and the training that you get better. It is engagement with the practice of running that matters most. It is the experience of running farther or faster than you thought possible. And in the process you discover who you are as you tap into your inner reserves and resources. If you are training for a marathon, you discover that yes you can run 26.2 miles. Or you may discover that you can run three miles without stopping, when months before you couldn’t run 100 meters without stopping.

Running certainly promotes an acceptance of things as they are. We must accept the weather for what it is when we go out to run (unless of course you run indoors on a treadmill, which I do not), our body and its limitations and our age with its own unique limitations and circumstances. Plus I believe running helps us process the pain and losses in our lives and learn to accept life, as it is, both the good and the not so good. To me there is something about the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and breathing in and breathing out that has a calming effect. Is it the endorphins? Who knows, but it is definitely a form of meditation—a moving meditation—that helps us cope with what is and the mystery that is this life.

I know that my running has become a spiritual practice—one that I cherish. Is it one of your spiritual practices too? If you are a runner, I bet it is, especially on Sunday, when many of you run together outside with other kindred spirits, instead of sitting inside on a church pew.

Next Up—Western States 100

This has been quite a year for our son-in-law Dave Vanmiller. He began the year as Dave Miller, but when he and our daughter, Gretchen Van Dyke, adopted our sweet newborn granddaughter, Nola, they decided to combine their two last names to make life easier for Nola and to avoid a hyphenated last name. So Nola Vanmiller it is, and as grandparents we are delighted no matter what her name.

Gretchen and Dave with newborn Nola

Gretchen and Dave with newborn Nola

He capped off the year by finding out he had been accepted to run in the Western States 100 Endurance Run in California, which bills itself as “the worlds oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race.” It’s the equivalent of the Boston Marathon for ultra trail runners. It doesn’t have Heartbreak Hill; instead it has it’s own heartbreak with 18,000 feet of climb and 23,000 feet of descent.

Dave and Gretchen are avid campers and hikers who have spent many happy days exploring the mountains and trails near their Tacoma home, as well as in other areas, including the Pacific Crest Trail and the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming.

Gretchen and Dave in the Grand Tetons

Gretchen and Dave in the Grand Tetons

Dave would also do solo trips on the Wonderland Trail, which is a 93-mile trail around Mt. Rainier. Calling it a trail is a bit misleading, because it has over 22,000 feet of elevation gain from one end to the other. It takes most people 10-14 days to hike the entire route, and each year only a few hundred finish it. But Dave doesn’t hike it, so much as he attacks it, having done it in a bit over two days in mid-summer when the days are long. He is familiar with that landscape and its vicissitudes as I can tell by the many astoundingly beautiful pictures he posts on his Facebook and Instagram accounts. Mt. Rainier is his neighborhood where he challenges his body and feeds his soul.

Dave running in the Yakima River Canyon

Dave running in the Yakima River Canyon

In recent years Dave has taken to competing in ultra marathon trail races after road racing and running marathons lost their allure, and the mountains beckoned. He has run over 30 marathons, including the prestigious Boston Marathon, the Vancouver Marathon, the Portland Marathon, the Tacoma Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. His first marathon was in Vancouver in 2003 where he ran 3:43, and that was just the beginning. He devoured everything he could find about running and training, and his times began to drop. Over time his goal was to get three hours. He came achingly close in the 2008 Boston Marathon where he ran 3:00:25, just 25 seconds shy of his goal. Eventually he did break three hours several times, culminating in a PR of 2:49 in 2010 Chicago Marathon, almost a full hour faster than his first marathon. He had accomplished much, but he was looking for new challenges, and he found them in ultra trail running through his beloved mountains.

Dave running the Crystal Mountain Marathon with 9,000 feet of elevation change

Dave running the Crystal Mountain Marathon with 9,000 feet of elevation change

He was introduced to trail racing by his friends Jon Robinson and Dan Paquette who would often urge Dave to try it when they went together on hikes in the mountains around Seattle and Tacoma. He resisted at first, but gradually he relented and entered the White River 50-mile race in 2011. That race started well enough with Dave running in 10th place for the first half, but then the wheels fell off, and he finished in 23rd place in 8:45. He said of the race, “It was the lowest I’ve ever felt in a race.” He vowed never to run another one. But running amnesia has a way of erasing such bad experiences, as most of us can attest, and he entered more mountain runs. In 2014 he redeemed himself when he ran the White River race again in 7th place, in a time of 7:45, an hour faster than his first one.

I interviewed Dave and asked him a few questions about his running and trail running. Below are his responses.

When did you start running?

Not until my mid 20’s. I was an inconsistent jogger for a few years. When I was 26 I signed up the Vancouver Marathon and the rest is history.

What are your personal bests, so far?

5k-17:49, 10k-36:51, ½ Marathon-1:22, Marathon-2:49, 50 mile trail run-7:46 and 100 mile trail run-20:20

What is your favorite racing distance, and why?

Right now it’s 100 milers. I love the endurance test, the certain adventure through the mountains, the competition, the training, and the preparation–all of it.

Have you had what you would consider a breakthrough race?
What was the race and what made it a breakthrough?

Probably the Chuckanut 50k in 2013. I beat my previous year’s time by over 40 minutes and edged out my much-respected running buddy, John Robinson, who I’d never beaten before–not even in a training run. I was shocked; I honestly didn’t know I had that kind of a race in me.

Why did you start running ultras?

Once I realized that I could run in the same places that I liked to hike it was a no brainier. I had been running a bunch of marathons so I was probably ripe for the transition.

What are some of your favorite places to run and train, and why?

Anywhere near Mt. Rainier is pretty special. On the weekends I like to run in the foothills of the Cascades, places like Tiger and Cougar Mountain. I love big climbs with a view.

I’m also lucky to live close to Point Defiance in Tacoma for weekday runs, and I recently discovered nearby Fort Steilacoom Park.

What do you most enjoy about running?

I just like being outside. I also like how it makes me feel during and afterward.

What do you least enjoy about running?

It can take up a lot of time. Long runs in the mountains can be a whole day affair. It’s especially conflicting when you have a cute little baby girl at home.

What is your favorite post ultra food?

Coffee, sandwiches from QFC, maybe pizza or a burger after a particularly long training run or race.

What are your running goals for 2016?

Stay healthy, get stronger, run my possible best race at Western States.

Western States Finish Waiting for Dave Next June

Western States finish waiting for Dave in June 2016

So we wish Dave good luck and look forward to rooting for him on his next adventure in June.

Running in the Rain

“I ran my fastest marathon in the rain.”

Bill Rodgers

I love running in the rain. Not a downpour or a storm with thunder and lightning, but a slow drizzle or a steady rain. I thought of that a few days ago as I did my usual 9-mile Saturday run by myself in a light drizzle. Living near Lake Michigan as I do, in the summer I often find the first part of my run a bit crowded with walkers, bicyclists and other runners who are also enjoying the lakefront path. But on a rainy day, I have the path all to myself with not a soul in sight. In the rain all is quiet and tranquil, and my mind just drifts and flows from one thought to the other in the solitude of the run. In fact, the idea for this brief essay came to me in one of those random thoughts on a rainy day run.

What is it about a spring rain that makes the colors of the trees and the grass vibrant and alive? There are so many shades of green shimmering through the raindrops like their water color namesakes–emerald, lime green, Hooker’s green, viridian green, sap green, olive green and cobalt green to name a few. The colors aren’t washed out by the light of the sun, but are saturated and full of life. The rain also creates a sweet earthy smell called petrichor, that combined with the vivid colors creates a delight for the senses.

I also hate running hot weather during the summer, and usually a rain shower signals a shift in the temperature as a cool front moves through. Then, instead of slogging through a hot, humid summer day, I can actually run at a steady pace and enjoy the run.

I have had some glorious experiences racing in the rain, as well as one major disappointment. My first Boston Marathon in 1970 was run in a steady rain with temperatures in the low 40s, but I was oblivious because it was “Boston” and I was overjoyed just to be in the race which was my second marathon. There are no photos of me running that race, but in this photo of the beginning you can see Canadian Jerome Drayton, who still holds the Canadian record for the marathon, and American Kenny Moore, who finished 4th in the 1972 Munich Olympic Marathon, dashing to the front in Hopkinton. I wore a sweat suit and was soaked to the skin when I finished, but overjoyed at the experience, especially going through Wellesley College in the days when we marathoners ran through the phalanx of screaming coeds with no barriers to intercede between them and us.

Race Start in Hopkinton #2-Canadian Jerome Drayton who still holds Canadian marathon record #3-Kenny Moore-4th place in 1972 Munich Olympics

Race Start in Hopkinton
#2-Canadian Jerome Drayton who still holds Canadian marathon record
#3-Kenny Moore-4th place in 1972 Munich Olympics

Then there was the Haverhill, Massachusetts (pronounced “haveril” by the locals) race in August 1970 in a steady rain. It was a breakout race for me running not too far from the front with some of New England’s better road racers. I managed to finish the 9.4-mile course a bit under 50 minutes in fourth place, which for me was a considerable achievement. My Cambridge Sports Union cotton singlet was soaked by the end of the race, but I was one happy fellow.

Those were a couple of the good memories, but there were also the ugly, one in particular, the Boston Marathon in 1978. I came into the race having run a 2:32 the previous September in the first Mayor Daley Chicago Marathon, so I expected to have a good race in Boston as well. My training had gone well, although the week before the race I had not been feeling particularly well, but I tried to ignore it. My running buddy Clyde Baker and I flew to the race in a small private plane piloted by one of Clyde’s friends, with a stop in Syracuse to see his sister and her family. At the race we caught up with another running buddy from Chicago, Bob Pates, who continues to run and race, now in his mid-70s, and was the 2011 CARA Circuit winner for the 75-79 age group.

In Hopkinton before the race-Bob Pates on the left and Clyde Baker on the right

In Hopkinton before the race-Bob Pates on the left and Clyde Baker on the right

The race started in the rain, and I felt really good for the early part of the race and went through 20 miles in about 1:54, if memory serves me right—on target for a PR. But then the wheels fell off. My quads were sore from the downhill pounding from Hopkinton through Wellesley, and I could barely lift them as the race wore on. At about mile 24 I started to walk, but could barely lift my legs up over the curbs as I walked along the sidewalks lining the race route. I walked over the bridge at the Massachusetts Turnpike just before Kenmore Square, and was less than a mile from the finish, but I couldn’t continue on. I was spent. I stopped and just stood in a doorway of a building on the route not knowing what to do. Just then a policeman came up to me and asked if I was okay and if I wanted to go to the hospital. I was in such a state of depleted energy and dehydration that all I could do was say “yes” and he took me to a local hospital, I forget which one, where they gave me an IV drip to replenish my fluids.

The look on my face tells it all

Boston-1978 The look on my face tells it all

But what about my friend Clyde who had no idea I had dropped out of the race. Remember this is 1978 and there were no cell phones and Clyde had no way of knowing what had happened to me when he couldn’t find me at the finish line. Somehow he had the presence of mind to call around to local hospitals and he located me, a bit worse for experience, but nothing that an influx of fluids couldn’t solve. That will remain the nadir of my running career and my first and only DNF in a marathon, and one of my few bad experiences running in the rain.

I have these memories of races in the rain, mostly good, but most of all memories of solitary runs splashing through puddles, hearing the splat, splat of my shoes on the pavement and relishing in the glorious colors and smells of the rain, with many more rainy runs to look forward to in the future.

Gretchen Van Dyke–“You Are an Ironman”-Whistler Ironman Triathlon 2015

Gretchen pointing to her name on the list of participants

Gretchen pointing to her name on the list of participants

Last July our daughter, Gretchen, did the final step in the process of putting herself and her husband, Dave, in the queue for adopting an infant while we were staying on Vashon Island, Washington. That step was the completion of a 20-page colored booklet complete with photographs that told their life stories to prospective birth mothers looking for parents to adopt their babies. It had been a long, difficult road for the two of them for several years as they availed themselves of all the options for Gretchen to become pregnant, including in vitro fertilization and even implanting an embryo donated by dear friends, but none of them were successful, so they finally decided to see if they could adopt an infant.

The completion of the booklet was only one step in a long, complicated process to be considered as adoptive parents. As Dave said upon finalizing this last hurdle, “I feel like I have just completed another post-graduate degree program.” Prior to that they had met many times with the adoption agency, filled out a multitude of forms, attended workshops, had home inspection visits and much, much more. It’s a daunting process. My wife Johna and I, who had an easy time getting pregnant, wonder if we would have been allowed to be parents if we had to undergo the same scrutiny. Now all they had to do was wait and hope a birth mother would read their booklet and choose them to be the parents of her baby. But waiting is not Gretchen’s strong suit. She is an athlete who thrives on being active. She’s run many races, up to the 50-kilometer distance, and done three 70.2-mile half-ironman races combining swimming, biking and running. What was she to do with all the anxiety and the waiting? Prior to this, several of her training partners had urged her to try doing the full 140.6 mile Ironman, Gretchen had resisted, and thought it was a crazy thing to do. But that was before the adoption process. So she relented and signed up for an Ironman race in Whistler, British Columbia the following July. That gave her a place to focus her anxiety and energy while she and Dave waited to hear if a birth mother, who had decided for some reason to give her infant up for adoption, would choose them to be the baby’s parents.

A triathlon training regimen is not for the faint of heart. Beginning in January 2015, Gretchen alternated her weekly training between the three events—swimming, biking and running. On weekdays she would rise at 4:30 am to swim at the Tacoma YMCA, and then do a run or bike ride before going to Sheridan School where she teaches 3rd grade. On weekends she did her serious training. On Saturdays she did a long bike ride of up to 7 hours (usually 70-80 miles, up to a maximum of 115 miles) followed by a run of 45 to 60 minutes. On Sunday she did her long run, maxing out at 21 miles, followed later in the day by an hour bike ride. Once the training was finished, she was ready to compete in her first Ironman event.

Below is the account of the race she posted on Facebook just after she finished the race for her friends and supporters.

Bringing the bike to the transition area from the swim

Bringing the bike to the transition area from the swim

Waiting bikes in the transition area

Waiting bikes in the transition area

“Thanks guys for all the kudos and encouragement! You made me feel like a million bucks! Ok. Here’s the abridged version of my first Ironman: The swim was warfare with a mass start with 2,000 neoprened warriors on the same path. It took at least 20 minutes to break free. While swimming we hit about 48 degrees and the rain began. Not a sprinkle. Not a “northwest drizzle”. The bike segment was a frigid, dangerous mess. I feared the descents. My teeth chattered for at least 40 miles, and my feet were shaking in the pedals from the cold and the rain. I took my coat off at mile 90 so I could do the climbing, which came as a great relief. At this point the rain had subsided. 112 miles and over 5,000 feet of elevation change later I was feeling strong and ready to get off the bike. The running weather was great! Dave was trailing me on his bike and weaving in and out while encouraging me, as he has for all my pursuits.

Biking in the cold and rain

Biking in the cold and rain

Heading into the running transition area

Heading into the running transition area

I even accepted a hug from a spectator with a sign reading “FREE HUGS.” Never saw that one coming! She really did give me a boost. I took it one 5k at a time on a gorgeous wooded path that meandered by Green Lake, a blue green, glacially fed lake. It was a 2-loop course and I anxiously awaited my chance to follow the arrow that said, “Finish” instead of “2nd lap”. I tried to pick it up as I heard the announcer with his famous line. Then it was my turn, “Gretchen Van Dyke. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. One of the darling volunteers personally escorted me in, took care of me and directed me out where David Miller and my parents were waiting for me. This immediately brought me to tears. I had wanted to cry about 10 times that day already. You picture that moment for a long, long time. Months. And a bit later I puked in the bushes and called it a day. I was hoping to finish in less than 13 hours and came in at 11:58, breaking the 12-hour barrier. I rode out every emotion I had in one half of a day. I am beyond thankful to so many of you for the miles you’ve put in alongside me and the support you have given me.”

As Gretchen said the weather in the morning was dreadful, including the first part of the bike ride. It was 48 degrees Fahrenheit and raining when the swim started. Not a typical Northwest drizzle, but a full-fledged rain. This occurred even though the Northwest had been in a drought and heat wave for much of the summer and most of the athletes were prepared for heat, not cold and rain. As Gretchen said, the bike was particularly hazardous, with most of the riders shivering and shaking as they rode, even risking potential hypothermia. Several of the professional riders quit rather than ride in those conditions, but Gretchen persevered and pedaled on valiantly.

Swimmers treading water waiting for the starting cannon to go off

Swimmers treading water waiting for the starting cannon to go off

The swim before the run in Alta Lake was quite a sight to behold with the multitude of bobbing heads treading water waiting for the starting cannon to boom and echo through the valley. Then they were off, swimming a two lap rectangular course around four large orange buoys, and then to the beach and the transition area to hop on their bikes. The transition from swim to bike is quite a sight to see as the volunteer “strippers” pull off wet suits as the athletes lie on the ground, and then bound up quickly to a large white tent to change into their biking clothes. Then it’s off onto the roads for 112 miles of very hilly riding. Gretchen completed the bike leg in 6:37 (less then the seven hours she hoped for) and then took off for the 26.2-mile marathon, which is her strongest event. Fortunately the rain abated about halfway through the bike ride and the sun came out in the afternoon for the run. We got to see her several times on the out and back course, and she looked very strong, passing as many as 100 other athletes on her way to a 4:00 hour marathon time to enter the ranks of Ironman. As she run through the finish chute the announcer loudly proclaimed her to be an Ironman, as he did for all the athletes before and after her as they crossed the finish line. What an accomplishment, and we are so glad we got to experience it with her and Dave.

Gretchen running by Green Lake

Gretchen running by Green Lake

Into the finish chute-"Gretchen Van Dyke--You are an Ironman"

Into the finish chute-“Gretchen Van Dyke–You are an Ironman”


Several weeks before the Ironman event Gretchen and Dave got word that a 29-year-old woman had chosen them to be the adoptive parents of her unborn daughter. The baby is due in late August and now Gretchen and Dave’s life will change forever, and they could not be happier to welcome this new life into their family. Who knows, maybe another triathlete in the making?

Slogging to the Back of the Pack


Author at the USATF Cross Country Championships in 2013

I went out to dinner with my former training partner, Clyde Baker, and his wife Jeanette a few years ago. We both used to be fairly good runners and spent many enjoyable Saturdays and Sundays training together when we were both much younger, me in my mid-30s and Clyde 14 years my senior. Now as someone in his early 80s Clyde told me he doesn’t run anymore, he doesn’t even jog. As he said, “I just schlog now, which is even slower than a jog.” As I get older, now in my early 70s, I can relate really well to the concept of schlogging along. Even though I finish very well in my current 70-75 year old age group, I find myself winding up further and further back in the overall race standings. I used to finish in the top one or two percent in races, or better, when I was much younger, but now I’m finishing in the top 20 percent of male finishers, or worse, and slowly making my way to the back of the pack. It’s quite disheartening, but as Rick Bayko, one of my racing adversaries from the early 1970s in New England said, “‘a time for every purpose under heaven…’ It’s our time for the back of the back now. Better than quitting.” It may be, but that still doesn’t make the transition easy.

It’s been a slow, inevitable reduction in my race times, as I have gotten older. I used to run a 5k race under 16 minutes in my 20s, but I now run close to 24 minutes, or almost a 50 percent increase. It’s hard to believe, and especially hard to get used to, but the watch doesn’t lie, unfortunately. It’s not that I don’t try to run fast, but my legs just won’t cooperate. I usually run on the Lakefront Path in Evanston for the first part of my runs and often see someone running ahead of me and think to myself, “Boy that guy (or gal) is running slow.” Then I realize he’s slowly moving way farther and farther ahead, and it’s me who is running slowly. It’s quite sobering. I find it especially vexing when I meet one of my friends who has seen me while I am out running. “Oh, I saw you out jogging today,” they say. “What,” I want to say, “I was running; I wasn’t jogging!” But perception seems to becoming reality, and if not yet schlogging, I am already perceived as a jogger by many people.

Currently I am running about 25 miles per week, and that seems to work for races up to 10 miles. I still enjoy racing and seeing how I can do against my 70 plus year old peers, but even though I finish well in my age group, somehow it doesn’t compensate for running as slowly as I do. My suspicion is that I may stop racing in the not too distant future, just because I do not enjoy running so slowly. But I will never stop running so long as I am able. It is one of the pleasures of my life and has given me so much that I can’t imagine life without it. Occasionally when I am injured and can’t run, I realize there is no substitute for running and the feeling I get during and after the run. Bicycling certainly can’t substitute. I find it quite boring, and there is no comparing the level of exertion to running, and walking just cannot even come close.

So when you see me out on the Lakefront Path in Evanston, or other places, schlogging along, please be kind and tell me you saw me “running.” You’ll make my day, even if you have to exaggerate a bit in the telling.


Elpidio—Our Very Own “El Speedio”

It’s 30 degrees out! Who’s that fellow running bare-chested, without a shirt? Why that’s Evanston Running Club’s (ERC) own Elpidio Vilchez on his way to another PR (personal record for those of you who don’t run). Elpidio, or as he’s becoming known, “el speedio,”—by me at least—is a very talented master’s (over 40 years old) runner, whose story is all the more remarkable considering that he didn’t start running until about seven years ago to improve his health and to lose weight. He recently set his 5k PR at the Good Life Race in Oak Park, Illinois where he ran 16:15 and improved his PR by almost 30 seconds, and in the process won the overall Master’s trophy for the fastest runner over 40. Than a few weeks later he again set a half marathon PR of 1:18:14 at the First Midwest Half Marathon in Palos Height, and again was the first over 40 runner. Not bad for a 42-year old former non-runner.

Elpidio running track workout in the snow-without a shirt, of course

Elpidio running track workout in the snow-without a shirt, of course

Everyone now knows who he is by his distinctive shirtless running style, his considerable racing skill and the tattoos on his back with all of his marathon times.

Elpidio's marathon times for all to see

Elpidio’s marathon times for all to see

Elpido's speedy marathon  times for all to see

Elpido’s speedy marathon times tattoo closeup

We know him not only because of this, but also because of his infectious spirit and the encouragement he gives to other runners. When he’s at a race he is on the sidelines, after he’s finished his own race, cheering other runners as they finish theirs. Those of us who finish well behind him welcome the good wishes and encouragement he gives us. I can plainly hear him in my mind, “Go Will, go Nancy, go Fritz, go Debbie,” as we shuffle by on our way to the finish line. He will often run with some of his friends at races, when he is not running himself, to help them achieve their racing goals. He is our biggest cheerleader, as well as one of our most accomplished runners.

Shirtless Elpidio on his way to 5k PR in Oak Park

Shirtless Elpidio on his way to 5k PR in Oak Park

What’s most remarkable is the transformation he has made to his health, his body and his life through running. Running has given much to Elpidio, including the love of his life, Debbie Warner, another ERC club member who he met in 2009 while running with a group of runners at a local park. She started running with a group that included Elpidio. They were friends for four years, but as Elpidio says, “I don’t know what happened but suddenly we became a couple.” Their affection for each other is obvious when we see both of them at races.

Elpidio and Debby after a race

Elpidio and Debby after a race

I recently met up with him to ask a few questions and below are some of his answers.

When did you start running?

I started running in 2008.

Why did you start running?

I started running to lose weight. I weighed almost 210 pounds and I wanted to get healthy, so I started running. For four months I ran on a treadmill, and then I started out running four miles outside.

Elpidio-before he started running

Elpidio-before he started running

What was your first race?

My first race was a 15k race in St. Charles, Illinois. I met Enrique Murillo, a former ERC member, at a local park and started to run with him and his group. He was a very enthusiastic supporter of running and encouraged me to run a race. He kept telling me I should race, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But he kept insisting, so I ran the race and finished in 1:10 and I won a medal for getting 3rd in my age group, and I have been racing and winning medals ever since.

What was your first marathon?

I ran my first marathon in 2009. It was the Indianapolis Marathon in the fall of that year. Enrique kept encouraging me to run a marathon. I thought it wouldn’t be that hard—only 10 more miles than my 15k—until I realized it was 42 kilometers long, and more than 15 miles farther than the 15k. I ran the first half in 1:41 and the second half in 1:37 which is pretty good, but I still don’t know how I finished.

Why do you race without a shirt?

I believe it helps me to run five seconds faster per mile. My breathing is a little bit slower without a shirt. It’s like breathing through my skin, I feel like it regulates my body temperature more efficiently.

Have you had what you would consider a breakthrough race? What was the race and what made it a breakthrough for you?

My first marathon in 2009 was my big breakthrough. When I was at the starting line I doubted I could finish it, but I did and my time was 3:19.

What are some of your running PRs?

5k–Good Life Race, Oak Park, Illinois-16:15


Half marathon–1:18:14

Marathon—Chicago Marathon 2011- 2:49:00

What is a typical training week for you now?

A typical week of training–Monday 50 min recovery, Tuesday track workout-varies, Wednesday 10 miles 7 min (base pace) Thursday 7 miles at 8 mi pace 56 min. Friday track workout-varies, Saturday off or recovery, Sunday long run 14-16 miles, one and one normal pace 7 to 6:45 pace, fast pace 6 to 5:40 pace! I am currently coached by Robert Alvarez of the Chicago Road Runners and am running faster paces in my hard workouts and doing two track workouts a week instead of just one.

What’s the farthest you’ve run?

Marathon distance–26.2 Miles

What are your favorite things to eat before, and after a race?

Pre-race—meat; a good big and juicy steak! Post-race–anything!! LOL (Elpido’s own words in a Facebook post)

What do you most enjoy about running?

I can eat whatever I want. I love to eat and running helps me burn off calories so I can enjoy food without worrying about gaining weight. (Parenthetically, all his Facebook followers can tell how much he loves to eat by all the pictures of food he posts on his home page.)

What do you least enjoy about running?

Running by my self. I enjoy running with friends and having company on my runs.

What has running given you?

Running has given me a better life. I have gotten to know many interesting people and have friends now that I probably would not have without running. Many of my friends in the club are from a different socio-economic background than me with interesting and successful careers. Running has also helped me deal with the anger and disappointments I had when I was younger. It has made me calmer, and I am a happy person because of my running. One of my goals now is to keep running for the rest of my life. I see many older people in the Evanston Running Club still running and enjoying it, and they are role models for me.

What are your running goals for 2015?

Since I just got my new P/R for 5k (16:14), the New York Marathon will be my next big challenge, but till then I would love to get some more PRs at different distances.

Elpidio and the author with a Gatorade toast after Oak Park 5k

Elpidio and the author with a Gatorade toast after Oak Park 5k

All of us in the Evanston Running Club are so pleased he has been running with us. We wish him more PRs in the future, and look forward to hearing his infectious, enthusiastic cheering at many more races.