The running man

Polson native has strong showing at Boston Marathon

By FRITZ NEIGHBOR of the Missoulian

PHS Grad runs at the 2010 Boston Marathon

Buy this photo: Jason Delaney, a 1999 graduate of Polson High, runs in the Boston Marathon last month. Delaney finished seventh among Americans and 20th overall in a time of 2 hours, 19 minutes and 17 seconds. Photo by Victah Sailer/adidas

The Boston Marathon is the oldest race of its kind in the United States, and possibly the best measuring stick for competitive runners.

And Jason Delaney, a 1999 graduate of Polson High School, was measuring up pretty well on April 19.

“Boston is a hard course,” Delaney admitted last week while still recovering from the 114th running of race, which he ran in 2 hours, 19 minutes and 17 seconds, the seventh best finish by an American and 20th finisher overall. “For me to run that well, on that course, is pretty encouraging.”

It’s hilly terrain in Boston, and the thousands of runners can trap an athlete two ways: You can get held back, or you can get out too fast. Delaney has experience with the latter. At the 2008 Olympic trials in New York City, for example.

“I ran really well for about 18 miles,” he remembered. “But the fact that I was running well outside myself – really making a gamble – caught up to me late in the race. I’d tucked in behind the lead pack for about 16 miles.”

Delaney faded, finishing somewhere around 70th.

“I actually don’t remember,” he said. “Because really, honestly, I was reduced to jogging the last several miles.”

In 2009 he ran Boston for the first time, with similar results: Another quick start and forgettable finish.

“I learned last year, don’t go out with the lead pack,” he said of Boston, and on April 19 things were different.

“I went out really well,” he said. “I kind of found myself alone for awhile. There was a second group that had fallen behind me, and I didn’t want to wait for them, and I didn’t want to catch the lead group. I kept waiting and thinking: ‘Come on, somebody join me here.’ ”

Eventually some runners caught up to him. He’d clocked himself at five minutes, five seconds through the first mile. At mile 20, he checked his watch again.

“I’m on about a 2:18 pace,” he thought. “I’m going to kill it.”

And then he hit Heartbreak Hill.

Delaney can’t explain exactly how he decided to become a marathon runner, other than he’s a 30-year-old who can’t seem to lose his Jones for competition.

“I try to retire,” he says, “and it usually doesn’t work.”

Delaney ran sub-two-minute 800s as a Polson Pirate, but he won no state titles and wasn’t a blip on most colleges’ radars coming out of high school.

“I wasn’t all that good, anyway,” he said. “The bigger schools, the ones I was interested in attending academically, weren’t recruiting me. After my last high school season I thought I wasn’t going to run.”

Delaney went to the University of Wyoming with the aim of being an engineer. But when he got there one of the first places he stopped was the office of Jim Sanchez, then the school’s cross country and track coach.

“You said I could walk on,” Delaney told him. “Is that still an open offer?”

And so Delaney unretired, though his 800 days were soon behind him.

“I thought I was a middle distance runner,” he said. “I never even ran the two-mile in high school. But it didn’t take coach long to say, ‘You don’t have the foot speed.’ ”

So Delaney became a steeplechase runner as a redshirt freshman, and by his senior year he was running the 10,000 meters.

In between, he bonded with the guys who made up the cross country team.

“There were about 10 of us that were as close as you can get,” he said. “We’d always go all over the place together.”

Delaney also did his road work.

“I had a great summer of training,” Delaney said of 2001. “I was so fit coming into the season.”

He decided to try his first half-marathon that August and he was waiting around at the starting line when nature called.

“I ran up into the trees,” he said. “It was the stupidest thing.”

He walked back down from the woods, stepped into a hole … and bang.

“I’d always had bulletproof ankles,” he said. “Two surgeries resulted from that. I spent the rest of my college career injured.”

A couple weeks later, when his teammates stopped by to try to get him to go to Fort Collins, Colo., for a night out, Delaney was still hurt.

“I looked over at my crutches, and I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know. I’d better stay here,’ ” he said. “I went over to another friend’s house and watched a movie.”

Come morning his roommate hadn’t returned, but Delaney thought nothing of it. He walked around the apartment, testing his ankle. He figured he’d try a short run.

Once outside, he decided to go harass some teammates at another apartment. No one was there, either.

“At the third apartment, another former teammate was home,” Delaney recalled. “And he said, ‘Something weird is going on.’ ”

Ankle forgotten, Delaney sprinted back to his apartment.

“At that point, I was pretty nervous,” he said. “I ran back pretty fast.”

Word trickled in, first of the wreck, then of the horrible severity of it. All eight who were in the Jeep Wagoneer coming back from Fort Collins, including his roommate and best friend, Morgan McClelland, had died in a collision with a drunk driver.

It happened at Tie Siding, south of Laramie. It was five days after 9/11.

“The ladies on the team and the guys that were left all congregated at Coach’s house,” Delaney said. “And tried to grasp what had happened.”

Competition was suspended for 10 days, but there was no thought of quitting.

“I think there wasn’t any question that we were going to finish,” Delaney said.

So the survivors stuck it out.

“For the rest we took a bunch of redshirt freshmen and middle distance runners and pieced together a team,” said Delaney. “There was always at least one of us hurt. I just raced; I didn’t train.”

For that year and the next Delaney fought the injured ankle. Then, as the team rebuilt and he got serious with a grad student named Charlotte, he started thinking maybe he’d compete after college.

“I don’t love training for marathons, from a time perspective and the length of the training,” he said. “I enjoy them from the standpoint that I’ve been fairly successful at them.”

He ran his first at age 25, in Austin, Texas. The race was memorable for being part slapstick, part adventure.

“It was 32 degrees and freezing rain,” Delaney said. “There were icicles on the water fountains. A lot of racers didn’t make it because of traffic accidents.”

And there was a bridge early in the route.

“We ran about three miles, and the whole lead pack almost fell down,” he said.

But he ran 2:19.45, which at that time qualified him for the 2008 Olympic trials.

It was a heady start for a runner taking his first shot. Delaney found some sponsorship, but he also has that structural engineering degree and a job with Haselton Construction. He helped design the National Renewable Energy Lab’s RSF building, in Golden, Colo.

“Basically it’s a big, $64 million office building that will use basically no energy off the grid,” Delaney said. “That’s probably the coolest thing we’ve got going right now.”

All this puts Delaney in elite company. He races for adidas and the Boulder Running Co., but he’s not a professional runner.

“I’m pretty darned sure I was the first person to finish who has a real job,” he laughed. “At least among the Americans; the rest were all sponsored.”

Delaney trains hard. Right now, in recovering mode, he’s been running a half-hour, tops, but eventually he’ll get to the 90-miles-per-week range: running twice a day, 5-7 miles in the morning, and 10-13 in the evening, and maybe 18-22 on the weekend.

But the days of having time for massages and extensive strength and flexibility training are mostly over. He and Charlotte have a 19-month-old daughter Morgan – named after McClelland – and another daughter due in August.

“Putting a nice limitation on my time to continue chasing the dream,” Delaney said, with another laugh. “But it’s all worth it.

“Even missing all those things, I put together probably my best marathon to date.”

Back at the base of Heartbreak Hill, the pack Delaney was running with had whittled down. He felt good; Boston College was near. Six miles were left.

“There are three hills before that, that are pretty good too,” he said. “But sure enough one of the guys actually managed to pick it up. He gapped me by a bit. And when I hit the top, I knew I had a little chink in the armor.”

Delaney tried pushing to make up the gap, and made it maybe 200 yards. “And my body said, ‘Nope.’ ”

He checked his watch, and did the math in his head. All he needed was 5:20 miles.

He rechecked at mile 22, then 23, then 24, his calves cramping and loosening with each stride.

“I kept seeing 5:25, 5:25,” he said. “That’s how a marathon goes. You start running easy, and then it gets tough and you fall apart.”

The Olympic trials qualifying standard has been lowered to 2:19:00. He just missed it.

“It went pretty well for an old guy,” he says now. “If a marathon’s going well, it feels so easy for 20 miles. Then things go away. ‘There goes my hamstring. There goes my left arm.’ ”

There goes 2:19. So what’s next? Well, Delaney could retire. Or he could try the Chicago Marathon in October.

“I haven’t officially set anything up yet, but that’s the initial thought,” he said. “I have until late 2011 to meet the standard. I’ve got a couple more shots.”

The trials are Jan. 14, 2012 in Houston. That’s only 20 months – and 17 seconds – away.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at [email protected]