Monday, April 23, 2018

DARRELL CHRISTENSEN


Darrell and his wife, Lynne, at the
USATF awards banquet.
Photo by Tuyet-Anh Tran
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to present the 2017 Runner of the Year awards for USATF Minnesota. Minnesota’s incredible running community is never far from top of mind for me, but being able to speak about each of the 26 winners really reminded me just how great it is. It also reignited a spark in me to be able to share some insights from these top runners. I’m happy to kick Running Minnesota off (again) with Darrell Christensen. Last year, the 80 year old Bloomington resident was able to overcome a 1.5 year long injury just in time to earn enough points, in basically the last month of the racing season, to win his fifth Runner of the Year title. Now healthy, he’s eager to get back to racing a couple of times per month. He already has 3 races under his belt in 2018 and is currently leading the 80-84 rankings again. 


You won your first Runner of the Year (ROY) title in 2007 at age 70? What is your running history prior to winning that first title?
1996 or 1997 I was just walking around Normandale Lake in Bloomington with my wife. We’d see people running and I thought maybe I could do that. But when I tried, I ran a couple of blocks and I was tired and would have to walk. By the end of 1997 I was able to run around the lake without stopping.


Then in 1998, I saw in the news that the old Lincoln Del Restaurant sponsored a race called the Kaiser Roll that was an out and back race from Normandale College. It was the first race of my life. In 1999 I ran the race again and heard about the inaugural TC 10 Mile which I finished in 1:21. I was 3rd of 6 in the 65 to 69 year age group and it really piqued my interest in what I had gotten myself into.


I signed up for the 2000 Twin Cities Marathon but suffered an injury leading up to the race and struggled the last few miles before finishing in 5:06. That injury took awhile to recover fully from and although I did some shorter races, it was 3 more years before I did my next marathon. It was during those 3 years when I joined the Lifetime Fitness running group in Bloomington, led by Ken Cooper, and I really learned a lot. Up until then I’d just been running by myself.


In 2003, after 3 years of giving up on marathons, I ran the TC marathon for the second time in 4:14:56. A few days later a friend told me that was a Boston Marathon qualifying time. I said “no way.” I knew about Boston’s history, but didn’t know anything about what it took to qualify. Sure enough my friend was right, so in 2004 I ran Boston. That turned out to be one of the most exciting events of my running career and that’s really when I consider that my competitive running started – at age 67.

When I was 68 and 69 I was running really well, but when you’re competing against 65 and 66 year olds in the ROY rankings, those 3 years really make a big difference. In 2007, when I had turned 70, I was the youngest in my age group and won my first ROY title, as well as my only age group win at Twin Cities Marathon.

After that first title, you won 2 more titles in a row. Things have slowed down a little after that as it’s taken you 8 years to win 2 more titles. Is that a function of motivation, staying healthy, or strength of competition?
It’s never been about motivation for me. It’s more a combination of injuries and competition. For example, I’m just now coming back from a year and a half of being injured. I had an issue with a tendon in my arch. I couldn’t do anything about it so I just decided to rest it.

This injury occurred when you were 78 to 79 years old. Did you ever think that was the end of your running?
Well, I didn’t want to be done. I’m an very competitive person and I really didn’t want it to be the end.

How much emphasis do you put on things like the Runner of the Year rankings and the MDRA Grand Prix each year? Are these titles your primary goal each year?
I certainly do monitor it. Honestly, the only reason I won the Runner of the Year last year was because I was monitoring it. Because of my injury, I didn’t run my first race of the year until the Victory 10K in September. Then I looked at where (leader) Alan Philips was in the ROY rankings and I was able to calculate what I needed to do to catch him.


When you don’t start racing until September, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of races to generate Runner of the Year points. What races did you end up doing?
In addition to the Victory 10K, I ran the City of Lakes half marathon, and the TC 10 mile. When I signed up for the TC 10 mile I realized a still needed another race to win the ROY title, so I did the TC 5K the day before the 10 miler. That gave me enough points to edge Alan by 2 points. 

Darrell at the 2018 O'Gara's Irish Run
Photo by Tom Ruen
What are your goals for 2018?
I’m really looking forward to doing a couple races each month. After missing most of the last 2 years, I’m eager to be racing again. I want to run at least 1 race at each of the distances that make up the ROY rankings and I’d like to win another title. I have signed up for Grandma’s Marathon. That’ll be my first marathon in 3 years. I have one standing goal for all races and that is to not let anyone older than me beat me. 


Do you have a favorite race? Favorite distance?
I don’t know if I have a favorite distance, but I’ve never liked the 1 mile. Even though I’ve run 11 of them, they’re just too hard. They don’t last that long, but from the very beginning you’re just worn out. I probably like the 10K, 10 mile and half marathon the best.


What do your friends and family think about your running, especially now that you’re in your 80s?
I don’t think they’re worried. They’re more likely to use me as an example, like “look what grandpa can do.” I think they look up to me for it. I like to think it helps them to realize that running is a healthy sport.


Do you have any advice for someone that might want to start running, say in their 60s or 70s?
I highly recommend starting without any goals in mind. Just start by doing it for the exercise. Even though in your mind you may be thinking about competing, just focus on improving your fitness. And when you do decide to compete, don’t set any specific time goals at first.


What is your fondest running memory?
One thing I’m very proud of is having the state age record for 73 year olds in the marathon. In 2007, I ran 3:45 at Grandma’s. That's still my PR, although I've run several others under 4 hours.


I was also selected to run a marathon in Japan. Bloomington has a sister city in Japan and every year each city selects people to run their marathon. I was selected in 2010 and made the trip the following year. I stayed with a host family for 3 nights, ran the marathon, and was welcomed by the mayor. They really treated us like royalty the whole time we were there. The year before we had hosted a lady from Japan who ran the Twin Cities Marathon, so when my wife and I went to Japan, we stayed with her.


I also have to include my first Boston because it was just my third marathon and it was unexpected. Nothing in my mind was thinking of Boston. I knew of the history, but I didn’t even know what it took to get there. I wasn’t running the race to qualify for Boston.


What are your strengths? Weaknesses?
Dedication, persistence and my competitive nature. Although my competitive nature might also fall under a weakness. It helps to push me, but it can also cause me to push too hard at times. Especially as I age, I have to constantly evaluate how hard and I can push and what my body can handle.

If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
I’d have to say Greg Prom. I knew him fairly well, but I wish I could have run with him over a longer period.


Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?
I wish I’d known that you can’t just sign up for a race and try to keep up with everyone. You actually need to put in some training prior to signing up for a race.


Also, I now know that progress is never as fast as we hope it’ll be, but experience is the most important part of progress. It’s like life in general. We can all read and listen to advice from coaches and experts, but we learn best by taking this information and doing, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

Finally, when I started running, I didn’t realize how big a part it would have in my life. Not just because of the running, but because of the people. Even though I am much slower now than the many friends that I met and ran with over the last 15 or 20 years, I still enjoy seeing them at races and celebrating many life events with them. They have made retirement and running a a wonderful part of me life.