IN THE BEGINNING
by Phil Coffin
Editors note, this article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Keeping Track, the 20th Anniversary issue of the club’s newsletter.
It was the winter of 1983, and John DeHart, a manager at the Essex Health & Racquet Club in West Orange, had decided he wanted to start a running club. John, a reformed smoker who had lost about 60 pounds, was convinced that “running changed my life; running saved my life.” It was a sensibility he wanted to share.
But John was a businessman, too. He wanted to start a running club because he thought it would be good for business at the health club. He thought it would bring in new members.
Word got around; Bill Mishler thinks a notice went up in the club, and Craig Van Doren recalls that a poster might have been put in the locker room. On a cold Sunday morning, Feb. 6, 1983 – Craig has the date marked in his old diaries – a small group gathered at the health club to hear John DeHart talk about why they should enlist in his new running club.
Not everyone was convinced. Some, however, were – Bill and Karen Mishler, Craig Van Doren, Gary Peters and Jeff Hartke joined John to form the Essex Running Club.
Bill, Karen and Jeff had been part of a group from Tom Fleming’s Running Room in Bloomfield. “There was no club outside Tom’s in the immediate Essex area,” John DeHart recalled. “So I said, I’m going to start a club.”
The Running Room group was very serious about its running. “John wanted to form another club, a more recreational club,” Jeff Hartke said. “Tom’s club was getting to be a few people who tended to be more elite.” Karen Mishler has a similar recollection. “Tom’s club was kind of an elite runners’ club,” she said. ‘We weren’t really those types of runners.”
But they were not far from it. Craig, who was 27 that year, was already running with John and would run up to 80 miles a week while training for marathons. Jeff, then 31, was running 40 to 60 miles a week. Bill, who turned 40 that year, said, “If I did under 50 I didn’t think I was doing enough”; for marathons, he was running at least 60 miles a week.
Gary Peters, who was 28 that year, was not running nearly as much – 25 to 30 miles a week, he recalls, but he had been an excellent runner in high school and would soon increase his mileage to 40 to 60 a week and 70 during marathoning season.
John ran with them, too. He recalls weeks of 100 miles. There were speed workouts together, sometimes twice a week, and long runs on Sunday mornings. Sometimes very long runs. Craig remembers running a 30-miler with John that began at 4:30 in the morning. ‘We were running down the middle of Grove Street in the dark: Craig said, adding, “John was nutty … and I was nutty enough to follow him.”
The training, John said, “was awesome.” He remembers a 10-mile run with Gary at 5:30 pace. The group’s long runs were hardly long, slow distance. “We went out on a training run and it started slow,” John said, “but it started moving pretty quick.”
The club was growing as its members were racing. John pushed Essex singlets and for club members to wear them for every race, and were plenty. “It was a form of advertising to build the club; he said. Craig the Singlets and a club banner, purchased in the first year, were factors promoting the club and helping its growth. “I think it really took off in that first year,” he said. ‘We got the banner. We got the singlets that said Essex Running Club. The name got out there.”
If they were not elite runners, they were very good ones. “Oh, we were all gung-ho racers,” Karen said. Bill, Gary and Craig all ran sub-3-hour marathons, and Jeff just missed, at 3:00:27. John ran a 3:11 as a training run. There were plenty of 10Ks, a dominant distance at the time, run in the 34s and 35s and 36s. “I’d run a 35-minute 10K; Gary said, “and there’d be a half-dozen of us from the club under 37 minutes.” Karen passed on the marathons – she ran a 10-mile race once, she said, and thought, “God, that was hard!” But she often won the women’s divisions in shorter races.
The races mattered, but so did the group dynamics. Gary had run for only a year at Montclair State, where he found the group aspect lacking that he often saw his teammates only at meets, and after college he became a solitary runner. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie” in the Essex club, he said. “It really sparked my training. When I joined the club, a whole different world opened up. I could see my potential.”
Others did, too, but they don’t recall competitiveness splintering the club. “These guys were always pretty darned good at what they did; Gary said, “but there was no rubbing your nose in it. It was always, ‘Great job.’”
Craig recalls going to the Columbus Marathon with John DeHart and Jill Booth. Club members would go as a group to Philadelphia for the half marathon or the marathon. Races were a reward for hard work, and afterward there was reward for hard races. ‘We’d tailgate after the races; Craig said. There were picnics, too. “I guess it was more of a social thing,” Karen said. “We were kind of supporting one another. It was a group of people that could go together, support each other at races, provide moral support.” Jeff affirmed that it was very much “a kind of support group for one another.”
Because the group was so small at the outset and trained and raced so much together, the bond was special – different, perhaps, from what is possible in the current 200-member club. “One thing that changed, and it was probably a natural progression, is that because we had shared interests, the initial core did pretty much everything together,” Gary said. As the club grew, not all the members would train together or race together. The bonds became looser, though the -charter members say the- balance-of serious running and serious friendships has remained a vital part of the club.
John wanted the club to grow, and he pushed it with his businessman’s zeal. He soon got help from a new member and running and fitness convert: Larry Hollander. “In the early days, anyone who came into Grove Pharmacy who had any inclination toward running, Larry recruited them,” Bill said. Craig said that Larry “was probably the one that drove the membership numbers the most.” Larry was a mid pack runner, and Craig recalled with a laugh: “He was recruiting all during the 10K. He was reaching out and grabbing everyone to be a part of this.”
The club grew and changed. It was important, John and some of the early members felt, to rotate the club’s leadership so it would not become stale. In Essex, Karen said, “There was a pretty strong consensus that one person should not be president for a long period of time in order to keep the club alive, not get stuck in a rut.”
Change was inevitable, anyway. John DeHart left after a few years. He moved to Maine, where he embraced coaching, and then California. He is now in Albuquerque, where, at age 62, he continues to coach and preach his belief in solid nutrition. His clients have included numerous world-class runners, including Cosmos Ndeti, a three-time winner of the Boston Marathon.
Craig Van Doren, who is in the insurance business in Wayne, says of his current running, “I dabble,” running a few miles a week to stay healthy. He does, however play about 70 rounds of golf a year and knows his golf statistics the way he once knew his running statistics. “I got into running and all my golfing buddies said, ‘How can you do that?’ ” Craig said. When he eased from running back into golf, “all my running buddies said, ‘How can you do that?’ ”
Jeff Hartke’s mileage has waned, but he still runs 20 to 25 a week. He has not run a marathon since shortly after his first child was born in 1981. In fact, he rarely races now, but says he still feels the urge. Jeff, the public works director in Morristown, says he would like to break 20 minutes in the 5K again.
Gary Peters routinely breaks 20 minutes in the 5K and 40 in the 10K, having run his final marathon in 1990 – at Boston, in 2:59. He runs 35 to 40 miles a week and races frequently, fitting it in around his job at Nabisco.
The Mishlers are both active runners. Bill was badly injured in a hiking accident a year ago but, after diligent rehab, is back running 30 to 35 miles a week, with a long run to date of about 14. He has run about 60 marathons and hopes to resume them. Now that he has retired, he has also been able to more fully indulge his passion for cycling and has completed seven weeklong cycling hours this year. Karen, meanwhile, has sworn off competitive racing but still is out early daily for runs before heading off to work as a legal secretary and does a 10-miler on Sundays.
“Running has to be a habit like brushing your teeth,” she said. ”You don’t ask yourself if you’re going to brush your teeth or take a shower. You just develop a habit. Sure there are days I’d like not to run. But that’s just not an option.”