I’m taking this ride down Memory Lane to recount my recent visit with cross country coach Jerry Quiller. As a freelancer, I wrote a story about Jerry in the October 1974 issue of Runner’s World magazine, where I worked (1977-84).
Jerry is well known in collegiate athletics and to those who follow his sport. However, track and field/cross country and cycling share one thing in common: They’re not mainstream sports in the U.S., even though we have plenty of Olympic gold and winners of the Tour de France.
Outside of Bill Bowerman, who co-founded Nike, track and field coaches live their lives away from the media spotlight.
I met Jerry in 1971 at the AAU 15K national championship (won by Tom Hoffman) held in Littleton, Colorado, but he was already familiar to me through a high school runner he coached at Aviation High School in Redondo Beach, California — Jim Barnett. Jim ran/runs marathons and convinced me that I could too during my first days as a student at Colorado State University (CSU). Following his training advice, I was soon running five miles pain-free through the streets of Fort Collins, Colorado, where Jerry was raised and attended Colorado State University.
From 1971-77, I got to know Jerry and joined him in a few of his many adventures. During this time I was going to CSU or working as a newspaper editor in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Jerry coached at CSU (1976-80) around that time.
Coaching is a 24×7 activity for Jerry, so I would see him on weekends or at races. He coached just about everyone on the Colorado Track Club in the 1970s. Even now when he is retired and battling cancer, he has been a volunteer coach at the Colorado School of Mines, near his home in Louisville just outside Boulder.
Poudre Canyon Marathon
As Jerry and his wife, Sandy, and my wife and two sons sat down in his living room swapping stories of days gone by (I had not seen Jerry since 1977), I raised the topic of the Poudre Canyon Marathon, now called the Colorado Marathon.
Here’s how it came about: Jerry considered the canyon, northwest of Fort Collins, an ideal race location, and so did I. I often rode my bike up the canyon while attending college and knew it well.
It’s a classic granite canyon, carved into the Rocky Mountains by the Poudre River. The two-lane paved road climbs gently from 4,980 feet to 6,108 feet at the current marathon start point.
In those days, marathons were mostly low-key affairs, especially in Colorado, which had only two marathons. Jerry wondered just how fast Poudre Canyon would be as a marathon course. We got together one summer day in 1976 (?) with several runners, piled into his van, and headed up the canyon to do a practice marathon.
While it was a bit far-fetched to believe a world record could be set at this altitude, we had our dreams. Derek Clayton had the world record of 2:08:33 (1969), a time so fast that some runners questioned the course length. Unfortunately, the distance could never be corroborated due to construction on the route through the streets of Antwerp, Belgium. As Derek confidently predicted (during his time at Runner’s World), his record was broken, convincingly.
Jerry and I followed along while the runners, who were on his track team at CSU, headed down the canyon to the entrance at Hwy 287 some 26 miles away. I don’t recall if they ran the full marathon. It may have been 20 miles, far enough to get a sense of how fast the course would be.
As you might expect, the times were nowhere near what we hoped for. Altitude and winds worked against the runners. Winds typically blow up canyons as hot air rises. However, today’s race bills itself as the fastest course in Colorado, with a course record 2:25:55, set in 2004 by Dan Shaw.
We also ran into a rattlesnake that day at what would become the race finish line near Ted’s Place at Highway 287. Even without fast times, Jerry knew a marathon down Poudre Canyon would be a fun event, so he and his volunteers cranked up the race machine and held the first one in 1977. His brother, Stephen, an artist who lives in Creede, Colorado, designed the t-shirt, using images common to the canyon, minus that rattlesnake.
The current course finishes in downtown Fort Collins. The race had 686 finishers in 2008.
I had other adventures with Jerry and his famous van. He must have eaten a million sunflower seeds while driving runners all over the country. In December 1972, he drove me and several other runners (Skip Hamilton for one) from Colorado to the Fiesta Bowl Marathon in Phoenix, Ariz. On the way, we stopped for a run at the Las Vegas, N.M., garbage dump. As I look back on it, I’m sure Jerry figured we would remember that day for years to come.
I could go on writing about Jerry’s career. He has coached dozens of All Americans and represented the U.S. as an assistant coach at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. He would be most proud of his three sons though.
What is unique about Jerry as a coach is that he treats everyone equally — great athlete, average athlete, it doesn’t matter. Jerry has always been more interested in his athletes as people than as record holders or NCAA champions. His positive attitude and ability to motivate is off the charts.
Being a coach must have its own reward (monetary would not be one of them) and I’m sure if you asked Jerry he could give you a good answer. For now, I and all who know him are doing what we can to show our appreciation for his coaching skills and cheering Jerry on as he continues his cancer treatment.
Lance Armstrong is living proof the battle can be won.
(P.S. If you can help with details about the marathon or you have something more to add, just leave a comment. Thanks. Jerry died on Feb. 2, 2012. If you want to make a donation, there is a track and field scholarship in his name at Colorado State University.)