Fred Van Vleck is giving me noon hour advice that I've received countless times before.
"The secret," Van Vleck says, "is not to over do it."
Normally, I get that advice when I'm at the front of a buffet line. But now, I'm at the back of a line of runners, and Van Vleck's advice has confused me.
You see, Van Vleck is 79 and he makes three-mile runs in the midday heat three times a week.
If that's moderation, I need to talk this guy into taking me to the all-you-can-eat Chinese bar.
"But I don't like hills," Van Vleck, a retired Kansas University math professor says. "I don't like going down them."
Great. I'm getting ready to run with a guy who would rather run uphill.
This certainly isn't going to be an ordinary lunch hour.
Maybe this would make more sense if I told you that Van Vleck is a Mad Dog. Or maybe it wouldn't. In this town, a group of fitness enthusiasts who work out under the moniker of Red Dog Days gets a lot of attention. But the Mad Dogs, not so much so, although they're a type of exercise hound just as persistent.
For more than 40 years now, a group of KU faculty and staff members has met every weekday at noon at the east entrance of the Robinson Gymnasium. On some days, there are just two or three of them, but on many days, especially Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there are usually a dozen or so who gather under one of the shade trees.
They stretch, then run. Their midday trek usually is three miles or so in about 30 minutes. Although most of the group members have some connection to KU, the run is open to anyone — even a hack reporter with a pencil behind his ear and a recorder in his hand. (For those of you who know me, I didn't wear the cowboy boots on this assignment.)
Van Vleck, 38 years my senior, gives me a little encouragement as we start out.
"This route is pretty easy," he says of the network of streets and sidewalks chosen by the group's leaders today.
He should know. Van Vleck has been here since the beginning. He remembers how professors from several departments — math, geology, art history, chemistry — came together in the early 1970s to take up the fad of jogging. For some it hasn't been a fad at all. On this day, there is Van Vleck, who is a 40-year member of the group; Wes Hubert, an information technology specialist who has been in the group for 30 years; and Jim Orr, a molecular biologist who has been with the group for nearly 30 years. Even many of the "youngsters" of the group have been in more than 20 years.
"It has become a nice habit," Van Vleck said. "And now it has become a nice social group."
In the beginning, though, it was a little more hardcore. There were exotic routes, training for marathons — Van Vleck has run six of them — and running times were paramount. Now, there is a slightly different way most measure their fitness levels.
"It is key that you are in shape enough to talk while you run," Van Vleck says.
If you want to debate, you need to be in even better shape. And if you are going to run with this group, you might want to be prepared to debate.
"It is a real diverse group of people," said Jim Guthrie, a business professor and 24-year member of the group. "But the common denominator is nice people, friendly people, and sometimes opinionated people."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Ann Cudd, professor of philosophy and vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies, yells back to Guthrie from the front of the pack.
I lose the pencil from behind my ear, and perhaps half a lung, but eventually I catch up with Cudd to quiz her on this alleged opinionated nature. She admits that perhaps there have been a few debates.
"I have carried on a number of important philosophical arguments here," Cudd says.
"Important to someone, I'm sure," Guthrie yells from a few steps behind.
A midday run, surprisingly, is a good place for a debate, she says. Cudd, who has been running since she was 10, has been known to run faster and faster to try to keep the other debater from breathing.
"You can win an argument that way," she says.
At the moment, Cudd could propose that my wife get an unlimited line of credit and I would be defenseless to refute it. I'm winded and I'm thinking about quitting, but I remember what several other runners told me early in the day.
"I used to spend lunch at my desk all the time," says Marcia Powers, who works in the dean's office of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "I definitely have a better afternoon if I get out and do this."
The master of the group, Van Vleck, agrees that a noon hour run will make for a better second half of the day.
"Well, provided that I can get a nap in, it does," he says.
A nap — now there's a reason for me to keep going.
How long this group will keep going is an open question. Once it wasn't uncommon for about 30 people to take part in the runs. Now, a dozen is a pretty decent turnout.
Running isn't any less popular, group members believe. But jobs that allow people to take a full lunch hour for a run may be. That's a shame, several runners say, because running alone on a treadmill won't give you the same experience.
"It is really nice to walk around campus to a meeting or something and see one of your running buddies," says Kit Cole, an information technology specialist for KU. "You know, we all get so locked into our own little worlds. This helps us get out of that."
Who knows, maybe the group will gain newfound popularity for that very reason. People are looking to break the chains that tie them to their desk or to email or to a wireless phone that's always on their person. A midday run doesn't leave much time for any of that.
The group is always looking for new members — just show up at noon at the east entrance of Robinson. Certainly several members invited me back. They really will take anyone, as my three miles in about 33 minutes will attest.
I didn't commit to return, but I might. Van Vleck had some other words that stuck with me. I asked him how long he thought he would be with the group. He noted he was participating in a memorial run in a few days.
"I'm pretty much goal to goal right now," Van Vleck said. "The current goal is to get through this run on Saturday. The next goal is to get through my 99th birthday."
That sounds about right. After all, he wouldn't want to over do it.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.