It’s pretty hard to talk about the history of running in Minnesota and not mention the name Klecker. Having already interviewed Janis last month, I figured I’d better strike while the iron was hot and interview Barney too. In addition to winning numerous marathons, Barney, 56 of Minnetonka, was not afraid to mix it up on the ultra-marathon scene. He won the inaugural Edmund Fitzgerald 100K in 1982 by nearly an hour and a half – running in 6:50:43. He also held the World Record for 50 miles with a time of 4:51 – that’s 5:49 per mile pace.
Since Barney tends to stay as far away from computers as possible, this interview was conducted over the phone. Nearly all my other interviews have been done through emails, so you may get a different feel from these Q&As. (Photo by Scott Schneider)
For those that may not be aware you your accomplishments, what are some of your running accolades that you’re most proud of?
I won Grandma’s Marathon in 1978 and the Olympic Sports Festival Marathon in Colorado Springs in 1979. I won the City of Lakes Marathon in 1977 and 1979 and was second in Chicago in 1978.
It was hot in Chicago that year, but I didn’t mind. I actually loved running in the heat. I trained in the heat. Most of my marathons I ran without drinking water. I’d go on 30 mile training runs and not drink any water. It helped that I was not a big sweater and I never got thirsty.
Had I practiced taking liquids I probably could have done it in races. But I always cramped when I drank water. Even when I set my record [4:51] for 50 miles in 1980 in Chicago, I drank 3 ounces of water at 44 miles and cramped up. That slowed me down by about 5 minutes. I was up on the World Record by 5 minutes and the last 6 miles were pretty ugly. I only broke the record by like a minute.
I still own a bunch of American Records for races on the track; 20 miles, 25 miles, marathon and 50K.
You broke 3 hours for 50K many occasions, yet you were never credited with the American Record. What gives?
Yeah, I don’t know how they worked that out. I can’t even remember my fastest 50K. I want to say I ran 2:52-2:53 numerous times.
Was the ratification of the record ever a concern of yours?
You know, I ran to win. They had records and I certainly was running for them. I assumed race directors would take care of it. I didn’t waste too much time worry about it though.
What do you think set you apart from other runners at that time?
I ran track in college. I loved track. I was a miler and also ran the half. I got 6th place in the indoor 1000 meters in 1973 in the NAIA. I loved running the mile, but our team didn’t have anyone that was very good at the 3 or 6 mile, so as the season went on I began to run those events to pick up points.
I did a lot to track training. I loved running 200 and 400 meter repeats – even during my marathon training. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best training to run a fast marathon.
I could go out and run a lot of miles. I can remember averaging over 100 mpw for an entire year. I wasn’t afraid to run a lot of miles. In the summers I would frequently run 150-170 mpw. I wasn’t afraid to run 35 to 40 mile training runs. A lot of my 50K races were used as hard training runs. So I didn’t hit the wall running a marathon.
And I think the other thing that helped me a lot is that I enjoyed running 200 and 400 repeats. So, I wasn’t intimidated when I dropped down to 5K and 10K races. I could go out with the leaders in 4:25-4:30, but I always had tired legs [from running so many miles] and I would fade. Had I actually trained for 10K and tapered, I think I could have run well under 29 minutes and I think I could have run close to a 4-minute mile. I ran 4:11 when I was 29 just doing a lot of miles and hills – no speedwork.
I would have loved to out to Oregon in 1980 and been a miler and 5000 meter runner. I didn’t have great speed, but I could run a 50-51 seconds quarter mile.
It doesn’t sound like your ultra training was much different than your marathon training.
Because I was teaching, I had summers off and I’d really soak up the long hard miles in the summer. A lot of long runs, a lot of high mileage, a lot of races. Then when I got into the school year I’d do one-a-day training Monday through Friday and I’d get into track training – it really wasn’t so specific.
I did try to peak for marathons, but I think I only time I really tapered correctly was the 1981 Grandma’s Marathon when I ran 2:15, which is my PR. I remember doing a 2-week taper prior to that race.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s it seems like more of the top runners competed in ultras. Now there seems to be more of a distinct line separating marathoners from ultra marathoners. Would you agree with that?
It depends on what you call “top runners.” I kind of draw the line at 2:20. If they didn’t run faster than that, I didn’t think they were really a serious marathoner. They certainly weren’t someone I’d fear in a race.
It’s not that I was going to scare off someone like Bjorklund, but I wasn’t afraid to go out with these guys head-to-head. If I ran 2:16, they had to run faster to beat me. They weren’t going to cruise. I remember going to a lot of races and I’d go out with the leaders for as long as possible. I remember going through the half of a marathon in 1:05:30-1:07 and I’d try to hang on as long as I could – that was my goal. Then I’d hit the wall and run 2:18-2:20.
Even though I wasn’t ready to run that fast, I just wanted to see how long I could hang on. I wasn’t afraid to hit the wall. A lot of guys will just drop out if they hit the wall more than 2 miles from the finish line. I never, never thought about dropping out of races – not that I didn’t drop out, there were a couple of times that I did.
The U.S. is experiencing resurgence with its distance running. Why do you think that is?
I think for a number of years Runner’s World had these articles that said, “Train for your best marathon on 60 mpw.” But any good marathoner I ever talked to that was consistent told me you have to run 100 mpw. With a very gifted 5K-10K runner, you might be able to structure a program on 80 mpw. My feeling is that you have to condition your body for the pounding of the road for 2+ hours. Yes, you have to run fast, but your body has to be able to take the pounding.
I remember some of the writers didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about Janis make the Olympic Trials in 1992. They I thought I over-trained and over-raced her. They sat on the outside looking in and didn’t really understand was her training program was.
I remember the last time Arthur Lydiard was here, I had his ear for about 3 hours and I showed him all of Janis’ training and asked him what he’d change it. He said “Nothing. She continued to run PRs, right?” And I said “Yeah”. He said the problem with a lot of American coaches is that they read too much and they want to try too many different training philosophies.
You do have to train different runners, different ways. Everyone comes to the table with different skill sets. Some are faster, some have better cardiovascular systems. Janis had a very unique cardiovascular system where she could put the throttle down 4 miles into a 10K and she could run flat-out till the finish. She didn’t have great speed, but boy she could hold onto about 5-minute pace at the end of a 10K better than a lot of women. But she had to train for that too. We had to do specific training to get her ready for that.
Where did you get ideas for her training? Did you read Lydiard’s books?
I was an Arthur Lydiard fan. I believed in time trials. We would substitute a lot of the local races as time trials. She’d be training-through them, so she didn’t really taper. A lot times when they had a 5K and a 10K, she’d run them both. A workout like that would allow her to get in the equivalent of 9 repeat miles. Would you rather do that or go down to the track and run 9 x 1 mile?
Talking it some other people, it sounds like you’d follow that up with a long run the following day?
We would do a long run, it probably wouldn’t be a 30 mile run, but it was probably anywhere from 20-25 miles – depending on where we were in the season. When you’re already beat up a little bit [from the previous day’s racing], we’d go out and do a long run. We’d hit the wall at about 10 miles, but it was part of conditioning the body. Then, of course, you had your easy days in there too.
More recently, you’ve been working with Derek Dippon for the last two years. He’s only been running for four years and he’s already run a 2:30 marathon. What’s your “secret”?
When I started working with Derek I told him he wouldn’t see quick improvement – it’d take a year or two to get used to the training. Once you get used to the mileage that won’t change, but we’ll change the pace where you run intervals.
You have to build that base before you can do quicker stuff. It doesn’t do any good to run 200s and 400s if you can’t run 25-26 miles. If you can’t go out and just run 25 miles at an easy pace, how are you going to race it?
Are you coaching anyone else?
I would call it advising. I don’t do it like I used to. I would write the monthly program for an athlete and then I’d train with at least once a month, either on the track or on the hills so I could coach. I’d go to at least one of their races just to observe and go on a medium-long run with them. Basically, 3-4 times a month I tried to physically workout with them, observe them, time them, run intervals with them.
But I don’t really have any free time. Besides having six kids, I teach full-time and run a business. And I’m as fulfilled as much doing that as running. And I love running. Everyone thinks we stop racing because we got hurt or something. That wasn’t it and it’s not like we don’t love the sport. Janis and I both still love the sport.
What’s your running like now?
If I can get 4 days a week I’m happy. Right now my goal is to keep the pounds off and to be able to run with my kids.
Are your kids showing some signs of interest in the sport?
Well they definitely have blessed genes, but unless they have a passion to run and race, it’s not going to happen. They’re into a lot of different sports; soccer, karate, baseball, and football. I think some of them will come around to running, but it has to be their choice not mine.
Are you still snowshoeing?
We have our snowshoes and we’ll take the kids out once in awhile. It’s still a great, great workout. A lot of people are totally underestimating the positive effects of snowshoeing.
Did you snowshoe when you were running your best times?
Oh yes, that’s when we made big jumps in fitness. When I ran 2:16 at Boston and 2:15 at Grandma’s, I snowshoed a lot those winters. But it was never every day. It’d be 2-3 times a week and we did that in addition to our intervals, hills and long runs. The beauty of the snowshoe workouts is that when you got done, you weren’t hammered. I could go to the track the next day and run intervals because my legs weren’t beat up at all from snowshoeing.
One of my standard questions, to my younger interviewees, is; “If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?” My thinking is they’ll say something like Barney Klecker, Ron Daws, Garry Bjorklund, etc. That makes me curious to hear whom you would choose.
I never trained with Mike Slack or Garry Bjorklund – they kind of trained by themselves. I would have loved to train hard with Garry and Mike. They could have called me anytime day or night to run hills or intervals and I would have been there. But I didn’t know them that well and I did my running around my work.
Did you mostly run by yourself?
Yeah, I mostly ran alone. After I turned 40, I trained with Todd Sperling and Jon Stokka for about 3 years. We’d meet for long runs and intervals. At the time they were about 10 years younger than me and they’d just hammer me during the intervals. But I just enjoyed that so much because I wanted someone to go out and hammer with. Then of course I’d take them on the long 25-mile runs and by 18 - 20 miles they’d be hurting. Then we’d make ourselves hurt a little more – and, of course, give each other a hard time. Those were awful fun times.