Even a Mediocre Athlete Can Play a Part in the Olympic Games

On a hot day in mid-August, 1967, the town of Alamosa Colorado made a bid to show the rest of the country that it should be on the short list of training sites for the 1968 Olympics. Those Olympics were, and still are, held at the highest elevation ever, some 7000+ feet, at Mexico City.Alamosa is at the mid-7000′ elevation level, and local college running coach Joe Vigil, quite the visionary and renaissance man, was instrumental in arranging the 1967 Alamosa Marathon.About three years before, at the early teen-age years of my then-directionless life, I incorporated a distance-running regimen into my routine. Today, practically countless years later, my life is still directionless, and the distance-running regimen is still part of it.

I digress… I was basically untalented, and though I thought I worked hard, would never incorporate the internal drive and stick-to-it-ive-ness which could result in more than mediocrity at the pursuit. But in 1967 I aspired, and where there’s aspiration, there’s at least a hint of inspiration.

I ran in every long-distance event the area offered. 80 people showed up to run the 1966 Pike’s Peak Marathon, and the small cadre of chain-smoking local newspaper reporters relegated to cover this event (the more senior employees were off to cover more dignified stories) marveled aloud about how amazing that this many people would participate in this event. (The same event has a “cap” — a limit –of about 2,000 entrants each day of the weekend it has been held for years now). So, when I heard that an inaugural Marathon to be held in Alamosa was soliciting participants, and willing to foot the bill for a couple days of room and board and other benefits, my application was in the mail.

There was a minor problem, but this was easily surmounted. Coach (and Dr.) Vigil wanted qualified fast nationally-recognized athletes to participate, but after receiving RSVPs from perhaps a dozen at most, lowered the standards to basically anyone who applied.

I was a regular and enthusiastic member of the Rocky Mountain Road Runners. The RMRR, based in Denver, was probably the only organized running organization in the region. And when the RMRR wanted “any” participants to flesh out a team, I was frequently solicited, and just about as frequently, acquiesced.

Heck, there was no arm-twisting involved to get me on the RMRR team in the World Championship Pack-Burro Race. With no adequate training (other than running the mile in high school track) I was on the RMRR team to the Curtis, Nebraska Marathon. Thankfully, my 4:30-some time in that event (I walked half-way) “qualified” me for the Alamosa event.

The Denver Post ran a couple obligatory articles about the upcoming marathon. For many years afterwards I kept one such blurb, which, in later paragraphs listed the “other Colorado stand-outs” participating. My name was (as was almost always the case) mis-spelled, but hailing, correctly so, from Evergreen.

Being a mere just-out-of-high-school-kid I was thrilled to be along for the ride in a car-load of RMRR stalwarts. Steve Matthews, one of the nation’s premier marathoners at the time; Jim Matthews (no relation) — a decent marathoner; John Blank, another decent marathoner; Jan Frisby — whose name I had seen in the Colorado State High School record-book — the fastest (at that time) half-miler, from Cortez. I could pick up the phone and call Jan to this day. Oh, the brotherhood.

There has been a constant thread all my life since then of the runner’s brotherhood. In the early 1970’s I was a hippie dish-washing non-student runner in Boulder. And there was no hesitation to go to the CU Coach, Jerry Quiller, when I was injured, or sought advice, or to volunteer at CU running events. Heck, I showed up at the CU Relays and when the people at the gate tried to charge me to get in, I said “Coach Quiller told me to show up to help.” Jerry was there in an instant, and gave me a tape measure and a 16-pound implement called “the hammer” and I went out to a nearby field to be the Head (and only) Judge of the event.

Later, at CSU — townies and collegiates alike would congregate at the track meets; hang out together to root for the fast running girls.

But I rarely (if ever) felt so much a part of the Brotherhood as during that long weekend in Alamosa. We were feted, attended banquets, got free tickets to the movies (I still remember “Hombre”), big stuff for the delusional the-future-holds-lots-of-promise just-out-of-high-school kid.

The Marathon itself started at high noon in ninety-degree heat on the Adams State campus. My goal was simply to run further than I ever had run before (the 13 miles of my only previous half-walked marathon). At fifteen miles, I sat down on the roadside curb and stuck out my thumb. My RMRR team-mates did not fare much better.

Never-the-less, this humble footnote-of-running history event set the stage for the following year’s USA Olympic Trials. And Dr. Joe Vigil made a point to get to know all of us, a big-hearted big-idea fellow. Funny, as …

I participated on the WSC running team the following year. When we’d be at an event at which ASC was also present, Coach Vigil would call me over. After the obligatory small talk, he’d whisper “What’s your coach’s name again?” He could never remember Ernie DeGutis. After a bit more banter, I’d jog away and Joe would call “Coach DeGutis!” and Ernie, obviously pleased at being recognized, would go on over and they’d talk coach stuff.

The line from the present to that particular past was illuminated just a couple nights ago. I’m bubbling away in the hot-tub, reading Bowerman and the Men of Oregon (by Kenny Moore, one of the best “running” writers, ever). Call me biased, short-sighted, with no grasp of the heartland of Amerika, but this is a good book for anybody. You don’t have to be a “running nut” to step in, be swept away by the current, round the river from one set of rapids to the next scenic stretch, constantly alert, entertained, energetically paddling to stay the course the whole while. And I’m only half-way through, at the chapter involving the 1968 Olympic Trials.

The Trials Marathon held in Alamosa was chronicled, and, yes, I really felt like I was there. Excited. Knew what went on — though it was a year after I participated in the “dress rehearsal.” I knew the course, felt the heat, breathed the air. Even a mediocre wanna-be can actually feel like he/she was and is a part of the larger picture.

By: Rosco Betunada
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