Brown Heritage takes her last run

  • By Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Monday, May 31, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

You wonder if there were tears.

After all, it was her last run


The final run of her life.

They did it this morning before the sun came up, she and two old running chums, an hour-long workout before she went to the hospital in Seattle to have surgery to replace a hip.

If there were tears, they werent tears of sadness. That wouldnt be her nature.

Theyd be tears of joy, tears of anticipation. Hey, one chapter of my life is over, and anothers about to begin.

Thats how shed look at it.

Im about to undertake a new adventure.

Thats the way its always been with Doris Brown Heritage.

Every day is an adventure.

On a training run with her cross country team at Seattle Pacific University, shed be the one to literally stop and smell the roses while her student-athletes were panting and puffing and missing the fascinating world around them.

She found joy in the smallest of things.

She didnt drink coffee, but on a trip to San Francisco for a regional cross country meet, one of her athletes, Claudia Shannon, remembered the coach wanting to try a latte, but before she took a sip, Heritage put all these condiments in it just to see what it would taste like.

She didnt worry about anything, Shannon said. She had no fear.

She tried to instill that in her athletes.

Shannon had entered SPU when she was 40, a former bartender and a mother of two intent on earning a law degree, which she did 10 years later.

She really wanted me to excel, Shannon said.

Forced to go to night school because she had a full-time job during the day, Shannon couldnt work out in the evenings with the cross country team, so her coach would come out on her lunch hour and put her through her paces.

The coach would stress the mportance of hard work. I only got to where I got because I worked harder than everybody else, Heritage would tell her.

It took her places where no female distance runner had ever been. To a plethora of national and world records in the 1960s and 70s. To five consecutive world cross country championships. To being named to two U.S. Olympic teams.

And, ultimately, to induction into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame.

She was a pioneer, Doris Brown Heritage was.

And maybe thats how you learn to be fearless.

Before women were ever allowed on tracks, she had probably put in enough miles to circle the globe.

We crawl before we walk, we walk before we run.

But for this one, God made an exception.

Oh, about nine months, she said with a laugh when asked how long before she started to run.

She ran everywhere in the town where she grew up, Gig Harbor. The neighbors told my mother, You should tie her up.

That spirit to float down a street on light-winged feet would never die. It would take her to a U.S. Masters cross country championship in her forties.

And it took her on that final run this morning.

Final run, but not final adventure.

People have been asking (if its going to be hard not to run), she said, as she sat on the arm of a chair in the living room of a friends old farmhouse outside Stanwood the other day, a small group of her old running buddies gathered around to swap stories. I prayed about this, I really believe in prayer, and I prayed that I would be able to focus on positive things and not be moping around about how awful it would be not to run. I think Ive had an answer to my prayer because I really dont feel a bit lost about it when I would expect to.

I really believe if you pray for something you can expect an answer. And sometimes you get the one you want.

Shell still be able to hike and cross country ski. And, fierce competitor that she is, shell undoubtedly lay down some challenges to whoever comes with her.

She likes challenges.

When she was growing up, women didnt run distances because there was this absurd belief that they would hurt themselves. Of course, young Doris Brown as she was then known was running all over the place.

When I was in high school, girls werent allowed on the track, she said.

One time she did get to ride on the bus with the boys to watch them in a meet.

We never thought of getting a lawyer, she said. I was running up and down the road at home. My dad marked off five-tenths of a mile.

She ran until she got sick. Then went to the doctor to find out what was wrong. Do you warm up? he asked.

Well, no …

With no track program for women at SPU, Doris Brown ran for the Falcon Track Club, which was started by Dr. Ken Foreman, the mens track coach at SPU.

It became a magnet for top women runners from all over the country. We had people from everywhere, she said. New York, California … Girls started coming here so they could go to college and be on a team.

It was an elite team, with several women earning berths on national squads. Led, of course, by the young woman from Gig Harbor.

Vicky Foltz, who now lives outside Sultan, moved from Wisconsin to Seattle so she could run with Brown.

Foltz would win a national cross country championship in 1967, and finish second to Brown in the world championship at Blackburn, England, the next year.

Foltz said Brown was totally paranoid about her weight despite being built like a sparrow.

And tougher than barbed wire. I dont think she ever ran from behind, Foltz said.

When Brown got injured, Foreman ordered her to swim.

She started out in an indoor pool, didnt care for that, and went out in the frigid waters of Greenlake. One time Foreman almost had to drag her out because she insisted upon finishing her workout.

She inspired others to reach for lofty goals.

As a junior high teacher in Shoreline, she started a track team for girls. They worked out at 6:30 in the morning because the boys had the track in the afternoon.

She expanded the world for a lot of kids, said Laurel Boyd, a seventh-grader on that team. One girl lost 50 pounds.

I know without her my direction would have been so different. Running led me down a certain path and made me see I could do far more than I thought I could do.

That included becoming one of the top cross country runners in the nation in the mid-70s.

For all of her achievements not only as a runner, but as a coach (she was just the second woman inducted into the United States Track Coaches Hall of Fame) Heritage remains very humble.

Shes so self-effacing, Boyd said. No one would ever know what a world class runner she was.

Two weeks ago, Ralph Heritage learned that his wife was the first American woman to break the 5-minute barrier in the mile. Theyve been married for 28 years.

The Falcon Track Club didnt have a large operating budget and often stayed in places that werent quite the Ritz. This is Doris, Boyd said. Our team once stayed in a room at the YMCA that had cockroaches and ants. But you never heard Doris complain. We were thankful for everything we had. It was the best of times.

Little things mean a lot.

Shed be training for the Olympics, Boyd said. Dr. Foreman had a cherry tree by the track. Shed go over there after workouts and stuff herself with cherries.

Heritage encouraged her SPU runners to venture out and be curious.

Shannon about had her fill of adventure after her very first cross country meet. It was in Fairbanks, Alaska in a blizzard.

Instead of bending birches, we had snapping birches, Heritage joked.

SPU won the meet. My best trophy ever, she said with a grin.

The prize deer antlers.

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