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Strider Spotlight - Tom Kinneman

Tom Kinneman | Published on 3/27/2022

What a long strange trip it’s been – almost 60 years and still running


It wasn’t until I couldn’t even walk a quarter mile that I realized how much I need to run.  No surprise that it’s important to me.  After all, I’ve been running regularly for almost 60 years.


I didn’t plan to be a runner.  But I just wasn’t tall enough to be any good at basketball; I wasn’t big enough to make the football team; and you really don’t want to see me with a bat and ball.  But I loved to run.  It was the one thing I could do better than all those macho athletes.


It probably started with going home for lunch every day in fifth grade.  We lived about three quarters of a mile from school.  We got out just before noon and I ran home to see Jeopardy while I ate.  I always waited to see if I got the Final Jeopardy answer right at 12:29 pm and I had to be back in my seat at 12:36.  So every day for years, I did an quick jog home and a 1200 yd  interval back to school.


In high school, I was on the so-called “distance” team.  The half, the mile and the two mile are now typical interval training sets, but back then even our cross country course was only three miles long.  Even so, we all dreamed that one day we might be able to run “Boston” but thought that was probably an impossible goal.


I continued casually running during college and ran pretty regularly when I moved to NYC in 1977.  I rarely competed, and running with the dog became my way to wind down at the end of the day.  Unfortunately, a running buddy from work signed up for the NYC Marathon and convinced me to train with him.  He got injured and bailed out but I toed the line for my first marathon in October of 1979 at the age of 26.  (Yes, I still have the tee shirt…).  You would laugh at my training and nutrition plan but we have learned a lot since then.  I did OK for a first timer but you needed a 2:50 in those days to get into Boston, and I didn’t think I could knock 21 minutes off, so that dream went back on the shelf.  I also realized that I was too competitive to “race” casually and I just didn’t have time in my life to train enough to get faster.  I was going to night school for my MBA, working long hours and traveling for business almost every week, so I swore off racing.


But…I kept running.  Still time for myself with my own thoughts, before the Walkman and headphones became a thing.  And since then I have run in something like 35 countries as we lived in Europe and Asia, and when I traveled for business and vacations.  We finally moved to North Andover in 2002 but I did less than a handful of races during that whole 20+ years.


Until, that is, when my oldest son took up running at North Andover High.  One day, he mentioned that there was 5K race on Thanksgiving (something called the Feaster Five…), and “did I want to do it with him?”  Who can turn down your teenager when they want to do something with you?


I came in 5th in my age group, so the flame was lit.  I started racing,  and I started training more seriously.  Running with a buddy, I found out that qualifying times for Boston were adjusted for age…and I actually had a chance!  So in 2005 at the ripe old age of 52 (and 26 years after my first and only marathon), I was on a mission.  I upped my mileage a bit and I signed up for the Bay State Marathon.  With cramps everywhere and a finish time about a half hour behind goal pace, let’s just say that year I learned a lot about just how much training you actually need to do if you want to get into Boston.  As the saying goes: “Sometimes you win; sometimes you learn.”


The next year I was actually ready and qualified with about five minutes to spare.  I was still running mostly on my own or with the kids, but I was increasingly curious about those folks in the MVS shirts I saw at the races and occasionally around town.  A friend heard that I had qualified and asked how I was getting to the start.  He recommended I sign up for the MVS bus.


I had a blast on the bus.  These were clearly my people, so I joined the club right away and started training with MVS and Fernando Braz.  I now had people to encourage and challenge me, and I got faster.  Over the next few years I took four minutes off my 5K and a half hour off my marathon time.  I’ve been lucky to qualify for Boston every year since then and completed my 14th in the row in 2020.


With all that training and racing, all the usual running injuries started showing up too.  In 2008, Tom Licciardello suggested doing some cross training with the folks doing triathlons.  I think he said something like: “You don’t have to actually do a triathlon, but the cross training will help with the running.”


So I signed up with Sharon Johnson, and soon was hooked.  For a long time, I was at the back of pack out of the swim, could barely hold my place during the bike but really had fun running people down at the end.  I’ve gotten better at the swim and bike, but the strength of my running has been my secret weapon in triathlons ever since.  The cross training helped the running a lot too; I PR’ed almost every distance since then.


The triathlon journey is another long story so I’ll stick to a few running examples that I am particularly proud of.  In 2013 at Ironman Florida, I came from 23 minutes back after the bike to win my age group and qualify for the World Championship at Kona in 2014.  Did it again from 30+ minutes back at Ironman Florida in 2017.  At Kona in 2018, I came off the bike in 14th and had to run down 13 guys to take 2nd in my age group.  In all of these races, knowing my teammates and training partners would be tracking me kept me in the moment and motivated.


The tri’s are all great fun, but plain old running races are still my favorite, so I’ve set my sights on completing the six Marathon Majors.  With NYC and Boston already done, Chicago 2019 was the logical next move.  One of my best races ever.  Even splits for every 5K from start to finish.  A ten-year PR and a second in my AG!


That gave me a chance to qualify for the Marathon Majors World Championship in London in 2021.  To qualify, you need two solid races in the prior year, so I headed down to see my brother in NC and posted another good time at the Charlotte Marathon.  Only the top ten in the world in my age group would get in, and there are a dozen of better runners than me…but then COVID came to town.  Races were cancelled everywhere and most of the best runners never got a chance to post a second race.  I was in!


Both London and Boston were virtual in 2020 and in 2021 they were postponed to the fall.  So the marathon training continued with a goal just get through Boston and focus on doing well in London.


Long a believer in science, I got my the first Covid jab in March 2021.  No issues other than some lymph node swelling in my neck.  When that didn’t go away, with increasing concern, my doctor sent me for an ultrasound, then a needle biopsy, then a CAT scan, then a PET scan, and finally a biopsy of my tonsil.   Diagnosis: HPV mediated squamous cell carcinoma.  The “Big C”.  Caught early and a good prognosis but immediately into seven weeks of chemo and radiation.


I’ll spare you of the details but it was a really miserable treatment.  By week five, I couldn’t eat and couldn’t keep down anything.  Lost 15 pounds in two weeks and ended up in the hospital on IV nutrition.  I will always be thankful for all the concern and support from MVS and other teammates.  I was cold all the time and I lived in the fleece blanket MVS sent me.  It kept we warm in more ways than one.  Just like in my toughest races, knowing my family, teammates, training partners and colleagues at work were rooting for me kept me motivated to make it through.  Thank you all.


Pause for a public service announcement: Trust me. You really don’t want to go down this road if you don’t have to.  This cancer was caused by a Human Papilloma Virus infection probably twenty to forty years ago.  Same virus that causes cervical cancer in women.  This cancer is now almost entirely preventable because we have had a very safe and effective vaccine for over ten years.  Ideally everyone (boys, girls and non-binary whatever) should get vaccinated before they are teens.  Everyone under the age of 45 can still get it if they missed out earlier.


I’m now on the mend since finishing treatment in early July.  All scans and exams since then have shown no signs of residual cancer and the doctors are optimistic that they got it all.  Still recovery is a process.  I needed a wheelchair to go thirty feet to the elevator when I left the hospital, and it was weeks before I could even walk a half mile.  But running is a big part of who I am, and I was still determined to run Boston and London in September.  Well, sometimes stubbornness and determination simply aren’t enough.


By the week before Boston 2021, I could only run a total of 8 miles with walking breaks every half mile.  My Boston streak would end at 14, and I had to bail on the World Championship too.  I’m not sure which hurt more.  You can never know what would have happened, but the third place finisher at London did come in slower than three of my last four marathons.


So, where am I now?  Sometimes it seems like forever but I am getting stronger every day.  Enjoying running again with all my teammates and back training hard for Boston (yes, I still have a qualifying time and I have a bib waiting for me at the Expo.)  Several 20 milers under my belt so far, and a few good shorter races behind me too.  Much slower that only a year ago but looking forward to riding the bus to Boston with MVS and running down Boylston one more time in my MVS singlet.  In honor of all the support I got on this journey and of the great Cancer Care team at Lowell General Hospital, I will be raising funds for the LGH Team Walk for Cancer.  I hope you will consider supporting me in this very special cause.


See you all out there running…


Road Runners Club of America USATF - New England Mill Cities Relay