Photo by Zach Bauman
PARKVILLE NATIVE JERAMEY JORDAN IS IMPATIENT. He started working at Pro Athlete, Inc., the world’s largest Internet retailer of baseball bats, in high school and bought his first house at age 19. He couldn’t shake the thought that an idle four years hitting the books would amount to nothing more than an expensive pit stop, so after graduation Jordan put college on hold, worked ferocious hours at Pro Athlete, and on weekends turned his house into a house party.
The Freshmen 15, or in Jordan’s case the Freshmen 35, isn’t just for college kids. Decent paychecks, rivers of beer, and his hard working lifestyle brought success – and a weight problem. Jordan wrestled and pumped iron in high school, but never hung out with the track and cross country guys. Now he had to do something to lose weight, so he began running, took a breather from the house parties, and started logging serious road miles. Eventually he entered his first half marathon. Jordan was hooked.
That’s when he noticed what every observant weekend road racer knows, that each race is really two races, one for the people who line up within 25 feet of the starting line and one for everybody else. He also “pretty much figured that the guys who were going to win wore a singlet with the words ‘KC Smoke.’” So Jordan read everything he could on the Internet about running, got help from local coach Eladio Valdez, and focused in on a singular goal – to earn his own KC Smoke singlet. This would take a “Level B” qualifying time in a certified race longer than 800 meters. He had his work cut out for him.
Kansas City is a running town, no doubt about it. We have, per capita, more race finishers than any major city in the Midwest. Hospital Hill is one of the oldest, toughest half marathons in the nation (“Broadway” may be a place where the neon lights are bright, but for generations of KC runners it’s also the hill where your quads and calves once screamed out “Enough Already!”). 10 months a year runners can pick from a diverse menu of 5ks, road relays, half marathons, trail races, 100 mile ultras, mud runs, color runs (ambulating tie-die parties inspired by the Hindu Holi Festival with volunteers who launch paint and glitter bombs at participants), cancer fund raisers, and even one or two beer miles (combined drinking/running races that take place on a track and involve chugging a cheap beer at the beginning of each lap. Puke and you’re disqualified).
Just as great music towns overflow with mutton-chopped guitarists, wicked female drummers, and slackers who fill the clubs, they also usually have a great record label (like Seattle and Sub Pop). So it is with great running towns, but instead of a record label, great running towns have an elite training group, a tribe of top caliber speedsters who work parttime at running stores, coach middle school cross-country, get people psyched up about weird shoes like Vibrams and Hokas, and serve as local rock stars to the thousands of people lining up at weekend races. Portland has Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, Mammoth Lakes has Team USA California group, Colorado has a half dozen colorfully named teams based in hipster mountain hamlets.
Our closest equivalent is the Kansas City Smoke. Officially certified an elite development team by USA Track and Field, the Smoke is a group of 30 or so men and women who have qualified at either Elite, A Standard, or B Standard levels. It also reflects in many ways how Kansas City matches up against other running towns.
There’s no really good metric for measuring a city’s running mojo. Linear miles of paved trails and Jerry Brownian pedestrian laws don’t work, nor does the gross domestic product of local running stores. You might think counting Olympians would be incisive, but the scarcity of Olympic spots – at most 3 for men and 3 for women in each of the 5 distance events longer than 800 meters – skews the story; the top American running town by that standard would be Elkhart, Kansas which has produced 2 Olympic medalists. It might be better to focus on the number of Olympic trials qualifiers a city can produce since every four years hundreds of very fast runners battle it out for the three spots in each distance event. Using this metric, Kansas City’s running capital might be growing.
The Smoke launched 8 years ago with the goal of developing runners for the Olympic trials. If Kansas City ever makes it into the top echelon of running towns, Randy Wasinger will deserve part of the credit. The KC Smoke director is quick to point out that, although the Smoke hopes to send athletes to the Olympic Trials, “we are not a true elite team – we’re one notch below that. All of our runners are self-coached, or work with their college coach. The girls and guys on the team are there because they want to keep their competitive running dream alive.” It’s a po werful bond.
Marathon running is incredibly popular – almost 500,000 people f i n i s h e d a US M a r a t h o n last year – but it can be hard to make ends meet if you are on the elite end of the sport. All but a handful of professional distance runners in the US aren’t much better off than bass players in alt.country bands who have to travel around in vans and live off merch sales. That’s where the Smoke comes in. After taking over as director 2 years ago, Wasinger polished the team’s operational strategy and landed a few key sponsorships. The money is used to defray costs for Elite and A Standard runners when they travel to races like the USA Track and Field Nationals. At meets and big races across America, people in running circles are beginning to notice the Smoke. Wasinger said “If you ask about Kansas City, people know we have a great running scene. The Smoke is about development. When a runner gets fast, we’re happy if he can graduate to some of the more elite programs. But Kansas City has a great reputation.”
Most of the Smoke runners live in the metro, but the team also draws from nearby towns. At least twice a week, Joe Moore and Kory Cool train together on the gravel roads outside Manhattan, Kansas. Moore, who grew up on a farm in Green, Kansas, population 128, is a mostly full-time runner. Little Apple native Cool coaches at Manhattan High. On their long runs, Cool said they have different strategies for dealing with rural dogs who won’t take no for an answer – Cool hurls rocks while Moore uses a back-off-now-dog voice that sounds a little like Hulk Hogan when he points his finger and shouts “You!” but without the scarf.
Last year, Cool trained for the Ft. Collins marathon, a race that starts at 6500 feet and drops downhill into the city. Two weeks before the race he entered the Abilene marathon, really just to get in a long pre-race training run. He won. The next weekend, again for training, he entered the Garmin Marathon in Olathe. He won that too. On the third consecutive weekend, Cool took first place in the Ft. Collins race, finishing 5 minutes faster than the second place runner. His times for the three respective marathons: 2:36, 2:35, and 2:34.
But even a 2:30 marathon and a trifecta of wins isn’t enough to make the 2016 Olympic Trials. Joe Moore, Cool’s running buddy, has already qualified with an insanely fast 1:03 finish at the Houston Half Marathon last year. Moore finished 56th in the 2012 Olympic trials marathon. His marathon PR is 2:19. Moore is laid back about his accomplishments and says he’s “still trying to figure out the marathon.”
2:19 is in the top 1% of the top 1% of marathon times, but still a few minutes off what it will take to make the Olympic team. This raises the general issue of goals in running. Besides the personal goal to get faster, what shared standards do runners have? Until 1970, making the Olympic team was the only goal for marathon runners. Then the Boston Marathon instituted qualifying times and became a new milestone for fast runners too slow for the Olympics. Since then, the Olympic trials has become an end in itself. Every year the list of new goals worth pursing gets longer.
Smoke member Aaron Davidson, who is only 3 minutes shy of a 2016 Olympic marathon trials qualifying time (using the half marathon option), said, “We’re really blue collar runners. We work full time and find time to train on the side. To really try to make the trials, I’d have to quit my job, hire massage therapists, and work with a coach. But another goal I can try for is the elite gate of the Chicago marathon. Or a top finish at USA track and field. If I didn’t have the benefits the Smoke offers, I wouldn’t be able to spend $400 to travel to race. We just had our first kid. This helps me feel like I’m still in the game.”
A Smoke veteran since the early days, Davidson said, “We’re trying to find more runners who can make our B standards who we can develop to work their way up to the A group and go to nationals. We’re really a development team.”
To attract B Standard runners, the Smoke is getting involved in the community. They help at Tuesday night track sessions organized by the Kansas City Track Club, their primary sponsor. Davidson spoke at the “Running on Solid Ground” series. They volunteer at local races. They’re trying to be more than just the fast guys who show up and win.
This benefits runners like Jeramey Jordan. After months of effort, he finally cracked the B Standard and earned his singlet by running a 4:46 mile at the Kansas City Corporate Challenge, representing Pro Athlete, Inc. where he’s now Facilities Manager. He regularly joins the faster guys for workouts. “These turn out to be mini races for me, just to see if I can keep up. But I’m getting faster. I’ve run the Boston Marathon three times, and my marathon’s down to 2:52 (he finished an hour before the bombs exploded at the 2013 race, barely missing the mayhem at the finish line)”. He’s done USA Nationals, and even pitched in and competed in the steeple chase (without knowing how to hurdle) and race walk (without knowing how to race walk – but who the heck knows how to race walk?). Jeramey Jordan is impatient though, he’s not satisfied to just chase the fast guys. He’s run 11 marathons and 26 half marathons since 2010. One race at a time, he keeps chipping away at the gap between his current PR and the A Standard qualifying time.
Jordan said, “The running community in KC is getting huge. You see a thousand people at every race, and there are six races every weekend. People get together after the races, they get brunch, or go to one of the cool coffee shops. The running scene in Kansas City is starting to really pick up. Hopefully more people will join the Smoke and get f aster.”
Nurturing its B Standard symbolizes what the Smoke does for Kansas City – it’s a trickle down thing. More B standard runners will help the Smoke support more elite runners. More elite runners will help drive participation in big races. Big races will fill up local restaurants and motivate those restaurants to offer healthier fare – and a better IPA selection. All of this will give city officials justification for building new running trails and promoting Kansas City’s mojo as a running town that’s starting to blur the difference between runners who line up within 25 feet of the starting line and everybody else.
To find out more about the Kansas City Smoke’s B Standard qualifying times, visit their website: http:// www.kansascitysmoke.org.