CHARLOTTE – Back in 1981, Joe Schlereth signed up to run in the United Way Corporate Challenge 5K.
Schlereth, who was working for Axa Equitable, had no choice.
“I was told all the managers were going to participate, and I was one of the managers,” Schlereth said. “It was a command performance.”
Schlereth didn’t train much for that race but he did achieve his goal of beating the other managers from his company. A year later, Schlereth again ran in the race. While he didn’t improve, the race proved to be an eye-opener.
“I have to get in better shape,” Schlereth said at the time. “I considered that two strikes.”
Schlereth, 69, of Pineville, has been running and running ever since. He started with local races – 5Ks and 10Ks – before running his first marathon in 1985.
“I still remember my time, and I wish I could get that now. It was 3 hours, 28 minutes and some seconds,” Schlereth said. “Pretty decent time for a first-time marathoner.”
In two weeks, Schlereth will depart for Boston, where he will run in his 19th Boston Marathon on April 15.
He has run in more than 300 marathons and ultramarathons, in addition to many shorter races. Ultramarathons are races longer than a 26.2-mile marathon and include distances of 50K, 100K, 50-miles, 100-miles and 24-hour races.
Schlereth would train for an ultramarathon by running a marathon or two before the race along with some long training runs of up to 30 miles.
“I lump my ultramarathons and marathons together,” Schlereth said. “I finished my 353rd (on March 17). Quite a few races over the years Half are marathons and half are longer races than marathons.”
The Boston Marathon is his favorite race.
The reasons are many. The 26.2-mile course runs through the historic suburban towns of Hopkinton, Framingham, Natick and Wellesley before ending in the heart of downtown on Patriots Day. All runners also must post a qualifying time to be one of the lucky 30,000 runners entered this year.
Schlereth finished the 2018 Boston Marathon in 4:23.02 but this year’s qualifying mark is 4:05 for his age division of 65-69. Schlereth has run several sub-four-hour qualifying marathons since the 2018 Boston Marathon.
“It is prestigious because it is one of the few marathons that you just don’t sign up,” Schlereth said. “You have to hit a certain time based on your age and gender. The bar is set pretty high, so you have to be a pretty decent runner just to get in. It’s kind of an honor. You have to qualify every year.”
And then there are the enthusiastic crowds that line the race course in support of the runners. Some years there are as many as 500,000 spectators lining the course.
“The city really supports it and it is really like a happening,” Schlereth said. “I have never seen a city embrace a race as much as Boston does. People are so friendly and supportive. It’s a fun place to go. When you go by Wellesley College, all the girls are out there screaming and that really helps your spirit. Then you go by Fenway Park. The crowd support has always been awesome. There is a lot of tradition with that race.”
Boston Marathon bombing
Schlereth was already back in his hotel in 2013 when two bombs exploded near the finish line. Terrorists placed two bombs 200 yards apart that killed three people and injured several hundred others.
“I didn’t hear any bombs, but I did hear a lot of sirens,” Schlereth said.
Schlereth was planning on returning to the finish line to greet a friend who was also running but he was told he couldn’t leave his hotel. He reunited with his friend, who was near the finish line at the time of the explosions but was not injured, several hours after the bombing.
“It was really scary,” Schlereth said. “I didn’t have a phone because I gave my cell phone to her, and I couldn’t communicate with anybody. I also had other friends that hadn’t finished the race and they had to be re-routed. It was several hours before we knew everybody was OK. It was a very emotional time.”
Schlereth said Boston was almost a ghost town in the hours after the bombing.
“There were police, National Guard-type people, on almost every corner because they hadn’t caught the terrorists,” Schlereth said. “Nobody knew what was safe to do or not safe to do.”
Schlereth said he didn’t think twice about returning for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
“We said, ‘We are not going to let these people scare us,’” Schlereth said. “I think there was even more demand that year (2014) to run the race. There was no question. If they were holding the race, I was going. Again, the city embraced the runners.”
Schlereth said he’ll keep running until his body can’t take it anymore. He’s already planning to run the Boston Marathon in 2020.
“I keep saying that I am near the end,” Schlereth said. “I want to do 20 Bostons. I’m realistic in that my body is going to say, ‘Don’t do this anymore.’ But I am feeling pretty good.”
Regardless of when his competitive running career begins to wind down, Schlereth intends to stay active in the sport. For the past 10 years, Schlereth, who is a certified distance running coach, has been active in Run For You, where he mentors runners young and old.
Run For You is a Charlotte-based running training program for runners of all ages and all abilities and pace. It has three training locations in Piper Glen, Midtown and University. Schlereth is affiliated with the Piper Glen group, which has more than 300 runners involved in the program.
“It is an awesome training program,” Schlereth said. “We are proud of our results. Very seldom do we have a person that isn’t able to finish their goal race, and do it well. We do a good job preparing people for the races that they are going to do. We have marathoners and walkers and everything in between.”
Run For You has weekly training sessions and Schlereth said runners are grouped with other runners of similar ability and that safety is a top priority.
“I have a passion for running and I want to pass some of that along,” Schlereth said. “If I can’t do the marathons anymore, hopefully I will still be helping people by being a coach and helping people train. Running will always be a part of me until I have to be in a rest home or underground somewhere.”