I was lucky to always have great training partners through my formative years of running. I started with Greg Morgenson in Abilene who went on to be a state champion in the mile in Nebraska. When I moved to Lawrence I eventually hooked up with Kent, another great mentor.
The first time I saw Kent McDonald run was in 1970 at the Kansas Relays. I was with my childhood friend Gary Welsh watching the boys high school mile. I remember a kid a year or so younger than us joining us that Gary knew, he excitedly pointed to a kid with coal black, curly hair in a Lawrence High uniform. It was Kent's younger brother Greg all fired up about his big brother getting ready to toe the line. Unfortunately Kent got his ass kick finishing back in the field and I didn't think much about it.
But then a few months later our paths crossed again. This time it was on a cow pasture turned into a makeshift cross country course in Wamego, Kansas. Heavy rains had forced the meet, traditionally run at a nearby golf course, onto a patty filled, muddy slab of rolling farmland. I saw Kent with his Lawrence High teammates. My teammates on the Abilene squad were more interested in pointing one of Kent's big rivals, Randy Smith from Wichita East. Kent was injured that day and didn't run. Smith crushed the field in his race and would go on to have a sensational senior season.
Kent didn't do too badly his senior year either. He ran a school record in the mile, 4:18.9 if my memory serves me correctly. That record was broken seven years later by another pretty good runner Doug Peterson. But it was Kent's 2 mile record that has stood the test of time. He clocked a 9:08.9 to win the Shawnee Mission North Night Relays. It was one of the fastest 2 miles run by any high school kid in 1971, but still a good 12 seconds behind Randy Smith who had run 8:57.8 at the Kansas Relays a week before. Kent went on to finish second in both the 2 mile and mile run at state to Smith.
Kent and I didn't start running together until the summer after my sophomore year of track. By then he already had 2 Big 8 steeplechase championships under his belt. We would run together two or three times a week. He usually took it pretty easy on me as we would run anywhere between 7 to 10 miles together. Kent was always full of encouragement.
The tough days would come when Doug Schreve, a Lawrence High grad who turned into a very good miler at Pittsburg State would join us. Egos were on the line. Kent would push the flats and Doug would hammer the hills and I would hang on for dear life. I learned that if I could engage them in conversation that it would usually put some slack in the pace. We never timed our runs back then and I often wonder how fast some of those 10 milers were. It could get downright blistering.
When Kent and I ran together we would rarely throw down the hammer. Once in a while near the end we would play Paavo Nurmi versus Emil Zatopek. Kent would be Nurmi and I would be Zatopek and he would always just cruise away in the last quarter mile of the run. One time I put a scare in him during a nine mile run when we started jawing with each other and from about 4 miles out the gauntlet was thrown down. I pushed his ass hard for more than 2 miles before I cracked. He grinned and looked over at me and said he was trashed.
We ran summer races over in Shawnee Mission Park. The drives to and from the races with Kent would be instructive in all things from rock and roll music to beer. Kent's dad owned the local Budweiser distributorship. I always looked forward to getting to run with him.
The stories were endless. My favorite was a heart stopping story about the time he was out on a training run with several Jayhawks, I think Jon Callen was among the group, when they flipped off a van that almost hit them on a road north of Lawrence. The driver of the van turned around and chased the runners down. The driver and passenger jumped out and a fight ensued. It turned out the attackers were prison escapees. Now that's a training run with a twist.
Our training time together had one final spurt during his senior year at Kansas. I had just been kicked off the cross country team at K.U. as a freshman. Kent's arm had just come out of a cast and he was redshirting that cross country season. He had suffered a fall while on a trip to Egypt breaking his arm. We ran together for a few weeks in October and November. I was desperately clinging to the hope that I could round myself into shape and get back on the team. Kent was on his way to a historic track season.
A bad case of strep throat ended my dream in late November. My body simply wore down between the demands of the classroom, running and too much college partying. Kent went on to win his 4th consecutive Big 8 steeplechase championship and become an All-American for the second straight year at the NCAA track and field championships.
|Kent McDonald racing alongside America's greatest steepler ever, Henry Marsh at 1976 Olympic Trials|
Then that summer he chased Randy Smith to a still standing school record in the steeplechase, 8:28.54. Kent finished 2nd at the AAU National Championships when he ran that record. In 1975 his time placed him among the 10 greatest American steeplechasers ever. I find it ironic that these 2 high school rivals would end up going 1-2 at our nation's national championships their senior years in college, after going 1-2 as high school seniors at the Kansas State Championships.
Both Kent and Randy aimed for the 1976 Olympic Games and both came away from the Olympic Trials disappointed. Injuries caught up with these 2 great runners. Smith walked away from the sport while Kent went on to become a fixture on the road racing scene in the south when he moved to Louisiana. He was a force at everything from 10K to the marathon. As he grew older he return to Lawrence and became an outstanding age group competitor at triathlons. His success came despite going through the windshield of a van while out on a bike ride.
Kent is now a successful swim coach in Lawrence and he assists with the cross country team. Our paths cross on occasion. It's great to see that he still runs. It's a shame that he doesn't get the recognition he deserves for that steeple record, but he's understandably overshadowed by a handful of older running records still on the books at Kansas set by a guy named Jim Ryun. Each and everyone one of Ryun's outdoor records were world records at the time.