Willmar notebook: Four-miler hits its stride early

Richard Rasmussen, a physician who happened to also be a serious runner (as in multiple marathons), had a suggestion 20 years ago. Perhaps, Rice Hospital might want to sponsor a foot race, such as 5k.

Foot Lake 4
Tribune photo by Rand Middleton The morning air was sauna-like for the start of the 15th annual Foot Lake 4 on Litchfield Avenue on July 27, 2009. The “chipped” field of 436 was second only to 463 in 2007, a standard broken in 2012 with 473 runners and again last year with 522 finishers.

Richard Rasmussen, a physician who happened to also be a serious runner (as in multiple marathons), had a suggestion 20 years ago. Perhaps, Rice Hospital might want to sponsor a foot race, such as 5k.

Lori Massa thought it sounded like a fine idea. The head of the hospital walked over to the office of Mary Downs and told her to make it happen.

Mary was the hospital’s marketing specialist, not a runner. But she knew that another Rice employee, Chuck Roelofs, did some running. Chuck sometimes ran with Leon Lentz, a top-flight competitor who had helped start the Green Lake-12 in 1975.

Lentz took on the challenge. Mary’s only qualification was that the route starts and ends very near the hospital.

Citizen runs in Willmar go back to the late 1960s. Willmar teacher Corby Newman and his wife Mary organized a summer run each year for city rec. The six-mile course went around Upper Foot Lake. A card table at the east entrance to the fairgrounds served as race headquarters.


Later Kaffe Fest races started and ended at the college.  The annual event faltered in the 1990s. Cashwise picked it up for a time, running a 5k from the parking lot. In 1994 there was no race.

Leon’s training runs often took him through Robbins Island. It seemed to him, a circle of Lower Foot from downtown was the way to go. He wheeled it off. A 5k just didn’t work. But a four-miler would.

Lentz wanted the run to have credibility from the start. The hospital paid a fee to have the course certified. Since 1995, the first year, the path hasn’t changed, except for allowances for flooding and for moving the start line to Litchfield Avenue at Third Street.

Heavily promoted, the race drew over 200 runners and walkers the first year. The 19th year set a record with 522 “chipped runners.” Over a hundred walkers, registered but not chipped, followed.

In 1998, Lentz arranged for electronic timing. The FL4 was the first outstate race to deploy ChampionChip. Since 2004, PickleEvents has been the official timer, and also for the GL12.

Rasmussen ran the FL4 many times, sometimes as a pre-run since he was a volunteer, serving many years as the awards announcer.

“The race committee and Mary Downs pulled everything together right from the start,” said the internist, who now works part-time specializing in kidney disease. “I think the hospital fronted money for support early but then the race became self-sustaining with many sponsors. Everyone did such a wonderful job and continues to do so. I think it’s the premier race in western Minnesota and has brought Willmar a lot of recognition and made it a much healthier place.”

So many others have been essential to the continued success. This year 90 volunteers have signed up, half connected with the hospital. Communications Coordinator Joy Baker also tells me that Gale Johnson, a Nursing Services Technician, has helped at every race since 1995. Many others will go uncredited here, for fear overlooking other key contributions. The Ambulance garage and personnel, at the finish, have long been a large part of the volunteer effort. Proceeds have gone to support programs such as heart health or medical-program scholarships at the college.


Roelofs told me that from the start there was an emphasis on recruiting volunteers, training them and treating them well.

Multiple age-groups (30 in all counting male/female), quality T-shirts through Rambow, Inc., and a marketing blitz got the race off to a fast start.

The race attracts top athletes; the winners are most often college or high-school standouts in distance running.

But Rasmussen points out those citizen races are about participation. Overcoming the pain, there’s a buzz runners get near the finish as they descend the Highway 71 Bridge and turn into the final blocks lined with cheering friends and family.

Rasmussen: “It’s a personal accomplishment. You set a goal, you train. Everyone who runs the race becomes a champion.”


A memorial service was held Thursday at Vinje Church for Ed Otto. Coach Otto died June 15, three days short of his 88th birthday.

Ed moved his family to Willmar from Pipestone in 1970. He’d coached Arrows’ basketball for 10 years after coaching six year in his native North Dakota.


Some say Litchfield and Willmar both wanted Ed, not to mention his 6-foot-4 son, Bob, to move into their district. Bob was a senior that fall after starting three years for the Arrows. Willmar would finished the regular season unbeaten and ranked No. 1 but lost a heartbreaker to Alexandria in the 1971 region tournament.

Bob didn’t recall any “recruiting war”. Rather, it was principal Ernie Peterson, who needed an assistant principal and he knew Ed as a famous North Dakota athlete because he also came from a small farm town in eastern North Dakota.

Ed was the Cardinals’ head baseball coach from 1974-77. Many of his coaching and teaching colleagues and former players attended the memorial service.

A finer person you could not know; he was opinionated and firm but full of wonderful humor and quick to laugh. Coach Otto got teased for his Arrows basketball team being unable to beat nearby tiny Edgerton during the Flying Dutchmen’s’ Cinderella season (1959-60). A former Cardinal did a spot on imitation of the old Coach that put a lump in my throat: “Yeah, Yeah, Coach would say holding out both hands in front of him, his chin up, and his eyes big: ‘Go ahead, you go ahead, tell me, who else beat ’em that year? Huh?’ ” Then he would chuckle and shake his head.

BOLD’s Johnston honored

John Johnston was inducted in the Minnesota State Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame on June 9th at the state tournament banquet in St. Cloud.  Coach Johnston served as head coach at Olivia and BOLD High School for 50 years.

 One of three coaches inducted, he was introduced by long-time friend and fellow teacher/coach, Chet Boen.  The audience, listed at 550 people, gave Coach Johnston a standing ovation. In the audience were fellow coaches, family, friends and the state-qualifying golfers.  In his crisp, stirring speech he thanked many people, including his former assistant coaches.

 Following the ceremony, John and Vi Johnston were asked to pose for photos - including with the two new BOLD golf coaches:  boys coach Dan Gross and girls Dave Altmann, whose Warriors finished second at the Class A State Tournament.


Kallevig is All-State

Tony Kallevig has been named to the 25-player Class AAA Boys All-State Minnesota Golf Coaches’ Association Golf Team. Tony has golfed leadoff for the Cardinals boys golf team since ninth grade. As an eighth-grader, he played second-chair to only his brother, Grant, then a senior at No. 1. His scores ranked him CLC All-Conference all four years of high school. Tony will attend Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, on a golf and music scholarship.

On the fly

n Here are awards in several Willmar spring sports as reported in  year-end summaries submitted by head coaches to the athletic office - Boys track MVPs: Chris Cunningham, Colton Carlson, Tom Seifert; Girls track: Sophie Schmitz, Samantha Hanson, Miranda Roelofs …. Baseball MVP: Adam Nibaur; Silver Slugger: Josh Tinklenberg; Top Rookie: Noah Vreeman; Golf Glove: Austin Smith.

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