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Running men

Two MU employees make marathons a way of life

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  • Story and audio slideshow by Shane Epping
  • Published: Oct. 9, 2008

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MU employees Andy and Hugh Emerson run the Heart of America Marathon. A transcript is available.

One hundred fifty runners from 15 states lined up just north of MU’s Hearnes Center on Stadium Boulevard early Labor Day morning to start the 49th Heart of America Marathon. Only three out of four would make it to the finish line.

At 6 a.m., the temperature already was 73 degrees, with 95 percent humidity, and climbing. A rural run with little-to-no shade and merciless hills, the HOA tests the strongest runners, even in good weather.

“A good case can be made that we had the worst conditions ever for this event,” race director Joe Duncan says about the muggy morning.

For Andy and Hugh Emerson, both University of Missouri employees, 2008’s HOA was an opportunity to add to the collection of medals and plaques in their home gym. Both placed in the top three in their respective age divisions; Andy, 39, was third in the 35-39 group, and Hugh, 50, was second in the 50-54 class.

Runners’ high

Married since 2005, Andy and Hugh started competing in races together a few years after they met, in the mid-1990s. They train almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and average 50 to70 miles a week.

Andy expects to have completed more than 3,000 miles of running by the end of this year. Collectively, the two men have finished 24 marathons and innumerable other races of varying distances. “The first marathon I ran was probably more meaningful to finish than the rest because I didn’t know if I would actually be able to do it,” Andy says. “I’ve actually run farther than a marathon now. It’s kind of addicting, in a way.” In one of Andy’s longer competitions, an ultra-marathon in Arkansas, he ran nearly 100 miles in three days.

For Hugh, running provides a sense of accomplishment. “I just keep doing it because it makes me feel good about myself and gives me confidence,” he says. “My favorite aspect is the part where you’re trying to maintain a certain standard — always trying to do better.”

In their running, Andy and Hugh set and meet individual goals, but they also enjoy the camaraderie they’ve found in Columbia’s running scene. “It’s a good stress reliever, and I also run for the social aspect,” Andy says. They belong to the Columbia Track Club, whose members meet twice a week at 5:30 a.m. on the MKT trail, and the Long Run Lunatics, who meet on Saturdays. “They’re expecting to see us in the morning,” Hugh says. “It’s being accountable to other folks.”

The race’s beginnings

The Heart of America Marathon began in 1960 when Bill Clark, a Columbia Missourian sports writer involved with a boxing program that would become the Columbia Athletic Club, organized the race as a challenge between three boxers and two runners. The boxers dropped out.

Peter Hessler’s article “Running to Beijing” in the Aug. 11 & 18 issue of The New Yorker mentions the HOA and the fact that Columbia was “one of few towns in the Midwest that sponsored a 26.2-mile race” when Hessler’s family moved here in 1971. He adds that “somehow the event survived, and a small community of diehards trained for it every year.”

From two finishers in 1960 to 113 in 2008, participation has grown, but not drastically. As noted by Clark in a foreword on the HOA Web page, “It offers no cash prize,” and “it is the most difficult marathon in the nation.” The heat and the hills make it tougher than any other. “It remains a race for the plodder just as much as a challenge for the elite athlete,” Clark offers. “Easley Hill levels everyone; it has no conscience.”

The ages of HOA’s 2008 finishers ranged from 17 to 70.

Routine run

The day of the Heart of America Marathon, Andy and Hugh woke up at 4 a.m. and proceeded with their pre-race rituals. A protein shake with bananas and peanut butter provided their morning fuel.

Armed with GPS watches, energy gels and expensive running shorts that minimize chafing, they said goodbye to their cats and dogs and ventured to the intersection of Stadium Boulevard and Monk Drive. On his blog, Andy recalls, “With the temp at the start, I figured I would be lucky to run a sub 3:10. I still started with these goals in mind and figured I would adjust along the way.” He finished in seventh place with a time of 3:07:30. Hugh finished 21st with a time of 3:47:35.

Since the HOA, Andy and Hugh have run in two local competitions: the Heart of Africa 5K and the Paws in the Park 5K. Outside of Columbia, Andy competed in the Twin Cities Marathon, and Hugh ran the Twin Cities 10 Mile race. Their upcoming competitions include the MU College of Veterinary Medicine Dog Jog 5K, the Rock Bridge Revenge 10K/20K and the Thanksgiving Day Pie Run 5K/10K, all in mid-Missouri. In early 2009, they plan to travel to Florida and Massachusetts to compete in the Walt Disney World Marathon in January and in the Boston Marathon in April.

“I guess I’ll just run until I can’t anymore,” Andy says. “Then I would probably consider, you know, walking a marathon or doing a triathlon if I can’t run as far.”

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Last updated: June 6, 2013