The short story and cinematic portrayal of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” six decades ago embedded images of a solitary adventurer in many minds.
For the more than 800 folks who comprise Southern Oregon Runners, however, that’s hardly the case. Be it partaking in some of the region’s major events or training among a pack of friends, distance running in the Rogue Valley is a communal gig.
Laura Kimberly, a transplant from Reno, needed a little coaxing before finding her legs.
“I started coming once a week, then it became a regular thing — four, five, six times a week,” Kimberly says. “The camaraderie and support was amazing.”
Before long, there’s a sense of extended family. Never mind you’re not properly primped or dressed for an evening at the Craterian.
“You don’t look your best when you’re sweating and your face is bright red,” Kimberly says. “But when you’re on 20-mile training runs and spending four to five hours at a time, it’s really awkward when it’s silent.”
As a result there is intergenerational bonding.
“You form some of your best friendships in the running community because you spend a lot of time talking about life, trials and tribulations, and what you’re going through,” Kimberly says. “I know if I need something, they’ll be there.”
Southern Oregon Runners President Amber Jacobson is a second-generation club member, dating back to seventh grade, following in the footsteps of her parents, Adam and Dawn Dell. She even met her husband through the running club.
“Sam’s parents were runners, and we kept running into their family,” Jacobson recalls. “I became friends with his sister, and our parents became friends. So, running is near and dear to my heart.”
Jacobson suggests there’s a transparency among runners.
“You’re seeing somebody in their purest form — worst or best — so you make true connections,” she says. “Rather than meeting at a coffeehouse and putting on a front. You see a person work and struggle and can come alongside them, it’s a big deal for us.”
The running club is Oregon’s oldest, with roots dating back to 1969.
Jerry Swartsley, whose name later became synonymous with the Pear Blossom Run, regularly pounded the pavement with a handful of runners — often including Jim Dawson, John Finkbeiner and Clayton Dumont.
They decided to form a club.
“We didn’t want to call ourselves the Southern Oregon Striders, because there were a lot of those at the time,” Swartsley says. “But we wanted SOS, and we went with Sizzlers. For years people thought we were associated with the restaurants.”
The first race was a 9-miler, two years later, starting at Phoenix High School.
“We had an 8-mile loop south on Colver Road, but we didn’t have a name,” Swartsley says. “Then we went by Pioneer Road and said that’s a good name; what’s an extra half- or quarter-mile?”
Twenty-seven people toed the line for the inaugural Pioneer Run in November 1971.
Swartsley’s wife, Zellah, timed runners with a hand-wound, sweep-hand stopwatch that cycled every 15 minutes.
“People were running about 52 or 53 minutes, so that meant it went around three-times-plus,” he says.
There were no women in the first field, but five competed the second year.
“People can’t comprehend that now, but it was just a different era,” Swartsley says.
The club’s second race was the Stage Coach Run in Jacksonville, launched in 1972. The club changed its name to Southern Oregon Runners in 2007.
Today, two-thirds of the membership are women, and the organization puts on 19 races.
In addition to race entry fees, members pay annual dues of $18 for families, $15 for individuals and $7 for students. Quarterly meetings are held at Bobbio’s Pizza on South Riverside Avenue in Medford.
Retired Medford Corp. accountant Mike Barrett, better known as “Irish Mike,” was the club’s treasurer for 32 years before passing the baton last year.
“At one time in the 1980s, the club had next to no money,” Barrett recalls. “We had to borrow money from the Pear Blossom group to keep the club stable financially.”
With the help of Barrett’s financial expertise, the club was able to centralize the purchase of equipment and supplies for races. In turn, the organization put on runs to build up its treasury.
Barrett’s own running program shifted gears when he retired 25 years ago.
He recruited a handful of friends for 4- to 6-mile weekly outings on Tuesdays. Eventually the group swelled to 14. A second cadre gathered at Foots Creek Store on Saturdays for an 8- to 10-mile run.
“I could run alone a couple days a week, but I enjoy the company,” Barrett says. “When you’re going on those 10- to 20-milers, it’s good to have accompaniment to help you through those last few miles. It’s important to have someone to talk to, When you go beyond your training range, your mind can start playing games.”
And, the 80-year-old says, “It’s OK to stop and walk, or get water, which we do now. In the old days, that would’ve been a declaration of defeat.”
Some run for health, some for community, others embrace competition or just reaching the finish line.
Jacobson, who competed for Crater High School as a teenager, says motivations vary.
“Right now, a trendy thing is when you finish you get a medal,” Jacobson says. “If that brings in people, cool. Maybe I’m old school, but I competed in high school, and I don’t have to have a medal. I definitely like the camaraderie, mini-parties and celebrations.”
The running community is social-media adept, with most races having their own Facebook pages. Race directors have started involving students and teachers.
“We’ve noticed a huge change with elementary (school) kids coming out to races with their families,” Jacobson says.
While the Pear Blossom Run is the Rogue Valley’s signature race, it doesn’t necessarily create converts.
“A lot of people get inspired,” Barrett says. “They sample running, taking three months to get ready. Then a lot of them never do it again. The dropout rate is about 75 percent for people who try it and don’t stay with it.”
The reality, he says, is that people punish themselves to get in shape for the race.
“After the first few months, you either love it or hate it,” Barrett says. “There’s no doubt the longer runs take effort to prepare for the pain and agony, and post-race trauma.”
Those who persevere, however, have a widespread support system.
“It wasn’t like this when I was growing up in Reno,” Kimberly says. “This is an amazing running community. It’s more personable, with more opportunities for social gatherings.
“It’s not just for experienced runners, but for people who want to get off the couch, get into shape and take better care of themselves.”
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.