Going it alone: Marathoner keeps 43-year streak running
Tuesday, July 21, 2020
Consider it an extra credit project.
Kirk Jefson of Forest City was the only person to run the University of Okoboji's Homecoming marathon this year. The U of O called off most of its homecoming events due to COVID-19, but Jefson and the local marathon are kindred. The 63-year-old mail carrier has run every U of O marathon since the inaugural event in 1978 — which also happened to be the very first marathon Jefson ever ran. He said he's the only person on the planet to have completed the course each year, but he doesn't hold that distinction too high — it's just something he's enjoyed.
"It's not a race to do for a personal record or anything, it's the people," Jefson said, noting he and his family frequent the Lakes Area as often as they can. "It's a beautiful area, and it's just become a summer tradition for us. It's an annual rite of summer."
University of Okoboji Director for Life Bob Rose explained the marathon was established after the sport of running became popular in the early and mid 1970s. He and others initially thought to organize a local marathon in Spencer — neighboring Clay County's seat — but they decided the scenic beauty of the Lakes Area would be the better backdrop.
Rose, along with fellow founders Paul Williams, Steve Avery and Ray Tredway enlisted the help of U of O Director of Student Affairs Herman Richter, and the inaugural homecoming marathon was set for July 29, 1978 — the weekend of the U of O's mythical centennial celebration. Other events, such as a homecoming dance, grape stomping contest and a Big-Boat-Bash in Browns Bay were slated for the weekend too. The classified section of the July 6, 1978, Okoboji Fun Times — a section of the former Spirit Lake Beacon billing itself as U of O's unofficial newspaper — sought persons interested in selling lemonade, salt tablets and foot pads along the marathon route, as well as competent softball referees "able to take verbal abuse and interpret sign language" and soccer balls for the U of O's Fighting Phantoms to use during their practices.
"We've been using bowling balls, but the action is slow and the head shots have left a dull impression on some minds," the request read.
Soon, homecoming 1978 arrived, and a 21-year-old Jefson came with it.
"At the time we started, we didn't know him," Rose said. "Of course, he came the first year, and he came the second year and before long we got to saying, 'You're quite a guy. You don't miss any.'"
Over the years, Jefson became a friend to many of the marathon organizers. Rose described Jefson as "the epitome of goodness" and an outstanding, dedicated man of faith to his family and community.
"You can't say enough good about the guy and what he does," Rose said. "His determination and initiative to put on his shoes every day and work out — that's inspiring to people. We all are examples to the people around us, and sometimes the examples we portray aren't the best. His is outstanding, and all that people need to do is look at him and know just a little bit about him."
The university created a memorial award to honor Paul Williams after the marathon co-founder passed away in 1997. Jefson was the first recipient of the award.
"It was no contest," Rose said. "He was the example we were looking for. Paul was a similar person — always helping others and doing great things."
Spirit Lake Beacon archive
Jefson's predilection for the Lakes Area marathon is so great that, even though he's been known to run marathons elsewhere, he made sure the U of O's 2014 marathon would hold a special place as his 100th career marathon. This week's run marked Jefson's 43rd U of O marathon and his 118th marathon overall.
Jefson said his first taste of marathon running came by chance in 1978 when his sister Joyce, who had taken up running and was home from college, happened to see a U of O advertisement calling for participants in its first marathon. The U of O had run advertisements in the former Spirit Lake Beacon as well as in the program of the Drake Relays that year. Jefson's sister offered to pay his entry fee if he ran the marathon with her. The siblings came from a competitive family of 14, and while some had competed in track, Jefson himself had never run in a formal competition. Still, he agreed to give it a try.
"It was just by happenstance," Jefson said. "Now I'm hooked."
Archives of the Spirit Lake Beacon said more than 40 people signed up to run the full 26 miles that first year — the fastest did so in 2 hours, 38 minutes and 12 seconds — and more than 80 ran in the half-marathon. In those days, the marathon's starting line was at Pike's Point State Park on the eastern shore of West Lake Okoboji. The race ran clockwise around the lake, and runners had to return to the state park before trekking south toward the finish line at the State Pier in Arnolds Park. Today, the university uses the pier as the hub of its major homecoming events. The marathon course now takes runners from the pier to the former site of the New Inn and back before they circle the lake — still clockwise — and finish at the pier.
Jefson had planned to run this year's self-assigned solo marathon on Saturday, July 18 — the original date for this year's race — and expected to avoid the sun's heat by getting underway even earlier than the event's usual 6 a.m. early-bird start.
"If I can get an early start, that's huge," Jefson said, estimating it would take him around 4 hours and 20 minutes to run the 26 miles.
However, as the day drew closer, Saturday's forecasts called for highs in the 90s, and the veteran marathoner — despite having run a separate 9-mile race the previous Sunday — decided to run the course Wednesday morning and spare himself some heat-induced strife.
The sun hadn't quite risen when Jefson left the starting line that morning, but the clouds over East Lake Okoboji were ablaze with shades of orange and yellow, and white headlights sporadically pierced the purple shadows still clinging to the pavement along Highway 71. As the first morning commuters made their way to work, Jepsen was striding along beneath the street lights. It didn't take long for him to cross the bridge between East and West Lake Okoboji toward the switchback point and begin the bulk of the course.
"I've done it so many times, that I know the route," Jefson said.
In fact, it wasn't even his first time running the course as the lone participant. Flood waters in 1993 prompted the only other cancellation of the university's homecoming events — though Rose contends the university merely postponed the 1993 activities until 1994. Either way, Jefson decided the flood wasn't going to stop him from going the distance, and he returned that year — in the fall as Rose recalled — to maintain his streak.
"I did come back, and I ran a loop around the lake just so I could say that I'd run them all," Jefson said. "That's why I've got to do it again this year. I can't miss."
And miss he didn't.
Jefson's tennis shoes pounded rhythmically down the center of Lake Street near the Roof Garden Ballroom as he approached the space which normally would have marked the finish line. He was able to run the course in approximately 4 hours and 32 minutes, and he was met with a shout of encouragement and applause from his wife Julie.
By chance, Richter himself happened to be at the nearby boardwalk and, as director of student affairs, proclaimed Jefson's 43rd U of O marathon to be official — similar serendipity played out after Jefson's '93 run. Both Richter and Rose said they felt the decision to cancel this year's homecoming events was the right one, though Rose again contended the fun had merely been postponed by a year.
"We made the right call early on — there's no question," Richter said. "But we'll be welcomed back even more next year."
And Jefson hopes to be part of the celebration for at least a few more years.
"This is where this craziness all started," Jefson said, looking around the pier's lakeshore loop. "Lord willing — it's a long way away — but, if I can get 50 in, I think I'd put my shoes on the street and say, 'That's enough marathoning.' We'll see. Every year, you just have to wait and see how you're feeling."
- Coronavirus sidelines U of O events (05/18/20)
- U of O Homecoming continues to highlight Lakes Area (07/16/19)