A Conversation with John Kalin


By Julie Clark


Preface: When Myron & I first started running together (fall/winter of 1996), we were charmed to meet a peculiar and interesting little fast guy who smiled and chattered all the time. He would skip along seemingly effortless and talk about subjects ranging from politics to wrestling to girls to “Mad” magazine articles. Half the time, we didn’t even know what he was talking about. However, before we would know it, we would be cheerfully at the end of what used to be a difficult trail run. It all seemed to pass by so quickly with this guy. Who was that funny guy and how could he run so fast? Well… of course it was John Kalin. We all became good friends and continue to run Paper Cup Trail on Sundays.

I could easily have asked more questions and written a book about John. He has inspired so many people over the years and has a long history with GWTC and the Tallahassee running community. He is currently an assistant coach for Maclay Cross Country Team and a licensed massage therapist by occupation. The following are John’s preliminary answers to some questions that I had sent him over e-mail. Although somewhat lengthy, I thought the writing and humor was so good that I left it as is. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did.

JDC: When, Where & How did you start your running career?

JK: Career, huh? Well, what did I not do . . . but first, maybe a bio for your perusal. After moving to Tallahassee in 1956, I attended FSU’s University School (FL High) from K-6th grades. Mom died of breast cancer while I was in 5th grade My dad remarried within months, adding to our family a slightly younger step-brother and sister to my older natural sister. I attended Cobb Jr. HS 7th-9th grade, and Leon HS 10th-12th. During these years, we probably ran a total of 5 miles (that’s 5M total over 13 years) if we weren’t kicking or catching a ball at the time.

Photo by Rex Cleveland (circa 1984)

I can remember a timed 660yd run while at FL High, after which we all rolled around puking. And at Leon, we ran a timed mile, also for no apparent reason, and without any warm-up. (Warm-up? We don’t run, so why warm-up?) I was somewhere in the 5:50 range. Maybe this should have been what we call a “clue,” but if Leon had a XC or Track team or coach, I never heard about it at the time.

Between HS and college (summer 1969), I ran for a couple months while hanging around my dad’s Math Education office at lunch time. Eugene Nichols, Math Ed Prof. with my dad at the time, was known for hanging his running log on a door in their office. I hadn’t observed anyone “jogging” or running at the time in Tallahassee (at least they hid somewhere if they did it), so Nichols was a real freak. I was impressed, but he was still a freak. I can remember hearing terms like “3M under 18min,” so at about age 40, he was obviously pretty fit. Well, at first I ran with a couple of the less crazed junior professors. I wore gum-soled black cotton “spikeless spikes” (they were not “flat shoes” like racing or training flats) with ankle weights. These guys noticed that Kalin’s scrawny kid (I was smaller – certainly lighter – than Ryan Deak as I grew up) was having no trouble keeping up with them. So they suggested that I run with Herb Wills. That’s Dr. Wills, another associate math ed. professor in the office, “our” Herb’s dad. Now this guy could run! (In 1969, he’d have been a bit younger than Herb is now.) He had me running something like 3.5M one day and 5M the next, 5 days a week. Then, after a month or so, I went off to college, and gave it all up.

Ten years later, a girlfriend inspired me to run one day while I was visiting her up in Thomasville. Well, I ran a mile. I came back to Tallahassee after the weekend, heard about a race the following Saturday. It turned out to be the 1979 Palace Saloon 5k – seems as though it was called the Budweiser 5k at the time, but my memory is probably faulty on this, but it was the same course. So I went to the FSU track every day during the week and added a lap or two to my mile each day leading up to race day. By Friday, I’d covered 3M. I ran the race in 23:40 and “quit running” for another year or so.

June 1980 was the fateful time. I had been harassing the Fat Guy at work about his cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling, slowpitch softball playing life. He finally asked me to step outside. In front of all our co-workers, we were to run a sprint to decide who was the real athlete, or something like that. Well, this guy smoked more than cigarettes. He smoked me, too. So that’s how I started my running “career!”

I proceeded to run 4-5 days a week over that 100-degree summer. I’d get home, eat dinner, then run 3/4 mile around the neighborhood. Downhill, uphill, over, down, up, over, up and home. It always hurt, and I always timed it with my sweephand Timex watch. Having totally forgotten my experiences with Dr. Wills, I thought sidestitches were normal. And weren’t you supposed to eat dinner first? After a few weeks of this, I progressed past the hilly portion of my neighborhood. Suddenly, it got much easier. Obviously, I was by now benefiting a bit from some aerobic improvement.

Runs quickly progressed in distance to 2M and beyond. Then hills no longer mattered. I quickly looked forward to the uphills, as my lightweight was something to take advantage of. By now, I had forgotten my idiotic pledge to never want to run farther than 5M. Remembering Dr. Nichols’ running log, records were kept on a homemade calendar. My stupid but very motivating training technique was to run each distance faster than the day before. So if, for example, I could run the “Campus 4.2M” under 26min, I’d increase the distance to keep the pace no slower than 6m10-something per mile. This was highly inspiring to me. It also led to a long line of soft tissue soreness.

My first race was the Blue Crab 5k in Panacea. I woke up in Shell Point from my tent campsite (we sailed Hobie Cats every weekend), and rode the motorcycle over to the race. The First person I met while warming up was Kent Vann. I thought I’d maybe run 21min or so, but was shocked when I crossed the line in 18:59! Talk about seemingly instant gratification. My next race was near Havana at a hilly 5k in the Reston neighborhood. 19:16 was the time. Then I heard about this Pine Run 20k thing. I hadn’t run that far, but figured, “forests are flat, so I’ll just run a couple minutes slower per 5k, no problem.” Imagine the look on my face when I turned off the highway onto the course and saw that hill at about the 4M point. But some 88 minutes after the gun, I was addicted to the Pine Run like everyone else.

A couple weeks later was the Forest Festival 10k in Perry. 37:57 was the finish time, after thinking I’d do a 42. I was still really stupid when it came to race predictions. Heck, I was training faster than 42.

Mileage for long runs went up steadily. It was a few years before I hit a 50M week, but I got up to 15M training runs before Dec 1980. 4-5 days running per week, 35-45M total were the norm. After some early iliotibial band problems cleared up, my next physical challenge was miscellaneous tendonitis around the kneecap. I’d wrap one or both knees with ace bandages and keep heading out. By early 1981, I’d had my first “comeback” from that injury.

Springtime ’81 on the old course was completed in 37:06, Rose City 10k in 36:17. By May, the Cairo Syrup City 5k in 16:48. Then the knees began to take me down again. At the suggestion of a running buddy, I spent several months at a chiropractor. The knees had backed off enough to allow a 34:50 at my second Perry 10k (still the PR). Another race the next morning, one of those famous 3.3M 5ks in 17:49. Needless to say, the knee problems recurred. Newly arrived podiatrist George Merritt cured my knee problems with some “temporary” soft orthotics. Try to get him to do that now! Now, as I grew some vastus medialis muscles to go along with my lungs, George’s fine work gave me the crutches I needed. With knee problems behind me, I could move into the more intractable hamstring and hip adductor (groin pull) areas.

After a late 1983 injury layoff, I had gained 10lbs (to 126) and ran a personally disgusting PW of 20:59 at the Penrod’s “Last Chance 5k,” Dec 31, 1983. So then I accidentally ran 1906 days in a row, took two days off for a muscle-spasmed back, ran 1907 days in a row, then quit the streak running. During these streaks, I raced very rarely, but managed to tie a 5k PR of 16:41 (Palace ’88) and finally broke 80 at the Pine Run ’88. Both of those races were off very low mileage, 3M per day, but all fast.

The hardest training occurred during summer/fall ’85, running with the FSU XC team under Coach Al Schmidt. (Al had invited GWTC folks over in ’83, and I stuck around for a few years, racing and traveling with his girls team in ’84. I managed an 8k PR with them at a 1984 Jacksonville road race, 27:11.)

Skipping forward a ways, I finally started some trail running in 1996 after an invitation from wonderful friends Betty and Chuck Booker. That eventually got the race stuff going again. And I began to “re-socialize” into the club.

I attended Core Institute of Massage, graduating in Oct 98. That was a nearly spur of the moment decision, and it’s been great.

JDC: We see you everywhere from timing intervals on Tuesdays, working races, taking pictures at events, working with the cross country kids, teaching new runners trails, etc. etc. etc. How can you do all this? Can you tell about the things that you do with the track club what you like the most, etc.?

JK: After working for over 20 years doing nothing but screen printing at one job, I had no desire to replicate that style of work in my “massage career.” Gary Droze, as I recall, had invited folks to come run in the woods over the summer after the 1999 Maclay track season. I usually had early mornings open, so I began starting my days with his kids at Forestmeadows. These “United Individualists” took that admirable Droze character and ran with it. I traveled to Maclay’s ’99 and ’00 XC meets, and 2001 T&F. Training with the kids, doing a little massage, getting splits, remembering food, water, ice, the blister kit . . . I’m still hooked. If Gary asks, and there’s any way, I’m there.

I started the weekly trail e-mail sometime during fall ’99 as a way to help remind our Paper Cup/Forestmeadows group (that you’ve been a part of, Julie) where we’re meeting on Sunday mornings. It’s obviously evolved a bit – cool!

Tuesday Speedwork was possible since I was running my repeats with the Maclay kids earlier in the day. And it’s an honor to be around GWTC Heroes Bill Lott and Gary.

I first took racing photos during my injury days in 1983. That continued for a couple years. Look for a “The Way It Was” GWTC photo album embarrassing some of our gang 18 years later. Digital and the Internet make things a little easier, huh?

JDC: You are one of the few people who can run at any pace and coach anyone from beginner to elite. Many of us have chances to help someone start running whether it be a relative or friend. This is easier said than done. What are your coaching “secrets”?

JK: I might dispute some of these assumptions. But I do like to be around folks with purposeful enthusiasm. Having helped Bill deGrummond and Charlie Yates with the Sunday Afternoon Fun Run during the 80s and 90s, the FSU kids with Coaches Al Schmidt/Gary Winckler in the 80s, Coach Tom Shaw’s FSU sprint types in the early 90s, that’s just invigorating to be associated with. I think anyone can read a coaching plan to get themselves or a team to some modest goal. The mental stuff is the toughest. “Focus without boredom – If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else.” Hey, it’s just running!

If it’s a new distance runner type who can’t run a mile, I’ll just distract them with incessant yapping till they’ve gone two. I love the look when you trick someone into doing way more than they thought possible. And for some (normally younger) folks, calf massage is a necessity as their lungs catch up. Something about those soleus muscles (the “second heart”) and tibial growth.

JDC: You are a great runner. Do you have any personal running goals? What are your training “secrets”?

JK: Great runner? Gee whiz. I tend to do best personally when I get in enough up-tempo running, and delete the junk mileage. 60 plus miles a week of trails with some leg-turnover stuff (200m repeats and striders after easy days). I’m sure if I want to do 5ks well ever again, I’ll have to do mile repeats. I’ve done way too much slow running the last two years. And marathons hold zero fascination.

Probably my biggest disappointment in the running scene – and I know I shouldn’t let this bug me – is the marathon craze. Can’t wait ’til it passes. So few people will do a quality one, no matter what their genetic makeup. And it will nearly always result in mediocrity in their shorter stuff. But there are those fascinating exceptions . . . Lack of fast running will get you every time, if you have the desire to run fast again. Connective tissue will lock the key.

JDC: Anything else you want to talk about running, yourself, etc.

JK: Volunteer to do what YOU want to do. Not what you are begged to do, not what you feel a duty to do. We’ll all benefit from your efforts when they’re done to make you happy, not the rest of us. Nothing like an angry volunteer to spoil the day. And don’t ever criticize our volunteers. Put your hand on a shoulder and say “thanks!” If you don’t like the way a race is done, put on your own just the way you want it to be done. Otherwise, keep a cork in it. I know, I’ve been guilty, too!

Move the finish of the Springtime Tallahassee 10k back to the 1983 version. Even if they move the festival to the Fairgrounds – yeah, right! Be nice to Bill Lott. David Yon’s my all-time GWTC hero so far. Grade school running kids are the best sports. And they talk about something other than running while they’re running. Fall ’84-Spring ’85 FSU XC and Track girls were some tough customers. Don’t forget to ask how it used to be. Ask Rex Cleveland, Bill McGuire (talk about running excellence!), and Herb Wills to write anything about running. Martha Haynes rules. Scan and post all the old Fleet Foot newsletters, even if it’s not yet searchable. Brent&Jane&KramerJ/Kara&AlexisN still my favorite GWTC family. I do miss The Midget, Lacey, and Jerry.

Buy more woods, if you want to keep them. It’s counter productive to just whine about the destruction. Passive parks are great! John Harvey is my trail hero. Somebody give this guy anything he wants. There’s no place like home. But mudfights and outdoor showers are the bomb!

“If I fall you’re going down with me” – trail running advice from my Dixie Chicks