Monthly Archives: December 2008

Talk to Your Heroes

One of the most pleasant surprises about living in Glen Ridge is that it's home to some serious runners–including one Horace Ashenfelter, who won the gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.  Dan Murphy–another serious runner–took over the organization of the town's Thanksgiving Day "turkey trot" and renamed it in Ashenfelter's honor.  Ever since I first did the race in 2006, I wondered about Ashenfelter–where does he live?  Does he still run?  What was it like to compete in the Olympics?  I asked around–and got some answers.  Ashenfelter was still running strong and is friendly.  After being Ashenfelter_web
encouraged by some fellow Essex Running Club members, I wrote him a note and pitched a story–which appears after the jump.  I got the impression that Ashenfelter was accostomed to answering questions from curious runners and was honored that he granted the interview.  When he competed in the Olympics he was an FBI agent and defeated Vladimir Kazantsev, from the USSR when the Cold War was going hot.  Have you had a chance to meet someone you deeply admire?  How did it go?  I'm glad I had a list of questions and that I recorded the conversation.  I have to say, running a steeplecase sounds like fun.  It's great to have folks share their stories.   

Horace Ashenfelter: An 8K Classic

On Thanksgiving Day at the Ashenfelters, four children and twelve grandchildren don their sneakers and run an eight-kilometer race before sitting down to dinner. The 1952 gold medal winner, Horace Ashenfelter, for whom the race is named, is still going strong and inspiring runners of all ages.

Fifty-six years ago, Ashenfelter competed in the Helsinki Olympic Games and brought home the gold in the steeplechase. He was the first and only American ever to win this event, defeating Vladimir Kazantsev of the USSR. How did the kid from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, wind up competing in the Olympics? What keeps him running?

Ashenfelter ran cross-country in high school and en- rolled at Penn State University as an agricultural student or, as he likes to say, an “aggie.” He befriended other runners, who encouraged him to try out for the team. So, he went to the coach, who asked him, “Can you run two miles?” Ashenfelter replied, “I can run two miles.” The young man would go on to make the two-miler his specialty at Penn State.

World War II interrupted his running career and studies. He served three years as a lieutenant in the Air Force. When the war ended, he returned to Penn State to completed his education. After graduation, he married his high school sweetheart, Lillian, and went out in search of a job. With anticommunist fervor near its peak in the late 1940s, the FBI recruited Ashenfelter as a field agent and placed him in Newark, New Jersey. He and Lillian, now expecting their first child, settled in nearby Glen Ridge, on a street not far from Watsessing Park.

Ashenfelter’s job and his responsibilities as a new father didn’t leave him much time for training, but he managed to run for the New York Athletic Club, and he competed as well. He worked out on Watsessing’s cinder, fifth-of-a-mile track and surrounding paths. He says he never trained more than 35 miles a week. “I figured I had about an hour each day that I could run. I would get home at six o’clock and take my trot. I got my schedule lined up so that at the end of that hour I was tired. I had worked out hard. It was intensive work, as intensive as I could do.”

Building on his New York Athletic Club successes, he competed in the Olympic trials and, with his brother Bill, made the US team. The event was the steeplechase.

The 3000-meter steeplechase race, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations, includes 28 hurdle jumps and seven water jumps. Different stories about the origin of the event have sprung up. One legend has it that, with English villages about two miles apart, the only thing visible from one to the next was the steeple of the church. Competitive villagers raced from one steeple to the other—scaling walls and jumping streams along the way. In another story, two men on horses were racing. When one of the riders was thrown about two miles from the finish, he left his horse behind and ran the rest of the race on foot.

Ashenfelter’s FBI managers supported his Olympic bid. As the race neared, he was relocated to the Princeton, New Jersey, field office so he could do three workouts a day. Nevertheless, he arrived in Helsinki as the underdog, with the Soviet Union’s Kazantsev favored to win. But Ashenfelter had confidence in his training and abilities and set his sights on winning the gold.

He started out slower and stayed with the pack but knew he had the race. “There was no question that I was going to win.” When Kazantsev stumbled at the final water jump, Ashenfelter sprinted away to finish in a time of 8:45.4. Not only did he win the race, but he smashed Kazantsev’s unofficial world record and, in breaking nine minutes for the first time, set both a personal record and a US record.

Ashenfelter returned to Glen Ridge a hero. He later set records for the indoor two-mile, and from 1952 to 1956 was the indoor three-mile champion. Then, in 1957, at age 35, he announced his retirement from competitive running.

Horace Ashenfelter stopped competing 50 years ago, but he still runs through Watsessing Park several times a week. “It’s such an easy way to keep in shape. I don’t think there’s any question it’s promoted my longevity. I enjoy running. I enjoy being out, and taking a trot.”

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Originally appeared in the Essex Running Club Newsletter, December 2008. Thanks to Chris Jaworkski from the Essex Running Club for editing this article.