Scott Walschlager is always himself – he looks like a long-legged, slightly greying praying mantis, with a wry smile and the smallest bit of vocal fry when he talks. There’s something about him that’s sort of always laughing, and he’s both heartbreakingly sincere and a little oblivious all the time.
It can be a charming combination.
For the past 18 years, he’s been the leader of the Sioux Falls Area Running Club, a local nonprofit that puts on the Newton Hills Trail Race, the Kids Cross-Country Series, the Run for Food and the Thursday night trail runs at Good Earth State Park.
Scott’s been at the core of all that. He’s moving back to Indiana this week, and we sat down to talk about what it’s meant to him to live here, to run with friends all over this city, to lead the club and to leave a legacy of trail running and friendship. This weekend, nearly 50 people came to an open house to say good-bye, a sort of who’s who of long-time distance running in Sioux Falls.
“It was a little overwhelming,” Scott, 52, says.
It wasn’t for us – we know what he’s meant to this community.
It started when he moved here in 1999. He grew up in Indiana and went to school in North Carolina, and then he took a job in Sioux Falls.
He was looking for a group to run with, so he went to Peak Performance and asked around. Brian Brinkman was working and told him about a group that left from Lincoln High School on weekend mornings. Scott went, and the group ran a 14-mile loop to Harrisburg and back.
Scott kept coming back, and that group at Lincoln, running every Saturday and Sunday, and some again on Wednesday evenings, became his core of friends, his training partners, liner notes in his logs for the next 18 years.
They ran loops to Harrisburg, loops around the battleship and then the bike path back to the high school, loops to Falls Park. The group still meets, some of the same faces, some new ones. When Scott started with them, they just guessed how far each loop was based on time.
“We left at Lincoln and would run the Westward Ho loop,” Scott says. “We always counted it as 10, but it was closer to 9. We just rounded the wrong way. Nobody had watches to know what distance it was. We were really giving ourselves a lot of extra miles.”
This is where Scott did all his training, with these guys, this ragtag group he says was the first bit of the running club in town.
“We would fly,” he says. “We would come down the back side by Westward Ho, running a 6-minute pace, and it would be a race to get back to Lincoln. We just fed off each other. We had the mile markers and I would look at my watch and be like, ‘wow,’ we were 5:50-something, and we would keep it going the best we could.”
This is why you run with a group sometimes – the friendship, the accountability, the reason to wake up and stand in a parking lot in the dark. And then, the feeling, like flying, like every breath in lockstep, as you push your way back.
“It wasn’t a race, but everyone goes a little faster and sees who can keep up,” Scott says. “It was fun.”
We talked on the phone for over an hour the other night, and it was just like running with Scott – he told story after story of people in Sioux Falls and places he’s run and things that happened.
Here are some of my favorites:
On starting the Newton Hills races: I was discouraged there were no trail races on this side of the state. Jamie and I went down to Newton Hills to measure out a course, and it was raining the whole time. We kept getting lost, and we had a map and finally found our way around. We measured out 8 miles, and we ran that course for the first five years. But we were getting fewer and fewer people because it was too hard. I was like, too hard? Trail racing is supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be difficult. Owen convinced me to make it 6 miles and get more people, so I did. We got more people.
On the growth of ultramarathons and trail running: The club is geared more toward trail running now. We’re posting photos from Big Sioux and Good Earth. Ultramarathoning now is what marathoning used to be in the 1990s. So many people now have run marathons. Patients would find out I’m a runner, and I would tell them I’ve done an ultramarathon (Big Horns 50-miler), and that just blew people away. I would say, ‘well, that’s nothing, people do 100s.’”
On his college friends and the Hood to Coast relay: We did Hood to Coast for two years, 2002 and 2003 and got third one year and fourth the next. We were always competing but just couldn’t get over the hump and get the win. This was back when it was still the big relay race in the country. Ever since then, there have been a lot added on over the years.
On group runs at Lincoln: We all got along, and it was just a fun group of people that made running fun. You know, running isn’t always fun. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, living in North Carolina, we were training and racing to win money. It was basically a second job, and it wasn’t always fun.
On Owen: We would always be looking for money (while running), and we would fight over whatever we found on the ground. One time we were coming down Cliff, and I ran right over a bill and Owen was behind me and picked it up and just started laughing making fun of me because I missed it. I was so mad, because I was always the one to find stuff.
On finding stuff: One time Phil and I were doing the battleship loop by ourselves, and were on West 12th Street, and I looked down and there was the biggest screwdriver I had ever seen laying there. It was industrial-sized, and probably a foot-long screwdriver. I picked it up and carried it for the next 8 miles. People looked at me like I was a mass murderer running down the street with this giant screwdriver.
On litter: I used to pick up cigarette packs, and I would send in the UPC symbols when you could buy stuff with them, the Marlboro miles and stuff. I have sleeping bags and camping gear and winter coats and jackets – some of the nicest stuff I have came from picking up empty cigarette packs. I thought of myself as the street cleaner of people’s garage. Then the Coke caps came, where you would get points. I was always picking up bottles that still had caps on them – I would fund my entire Christmas gifts with gift cards from Coke.
On his first run: It was April 25, 1979. I ran 2.6 miles, two laps around my neighborhood. I still remember the shoes I wore – Nike Internationalist training shoes, blue with a yellow swoosh. I knew I wasn’t going to play basketball, and the high school coaches had talked me into going out for cross-country. So that was the day I decided to start running.
On running logs: I’ll hit 80,000 lifetime miles in January. I’m like Chris Anderson – we buy the same running logs, and next year will be 39 years. I love writing down the weather and how I felt. I keep all my race numbers and stuff I want to hang on to, all in the log. I could write a book – nobody would read it –but it would be all the stuff I’ve written down over the years. It’s fun to get them out and see the stuff you used to do and think, ‘man, I can’t believe I used to be able to run that fast.’
On the club: I made it a priority to meet and get to know everybody who was in the club. I kept track of the members and tried to introduce myself. I wanted to try to make people feel welcome and important. I have so many friends from the club. That’s what I’m going to miss the most. It’s grown so much – when I moved here it was a ragtag group of guys who ran all year.
On his license plate: I have “Marthnr.” Non-runners don’t get it. The want to know what a Martha-ner is. It’s up for grabs when I move. I would love to know who gets it.
Scott knows there’s still a lot of work to be done with the club – on Sunday, members voted Nathan Schwab in as president, set a board and a trail committee and made a promise to each other and to members to be more organized and strategic moving forward, to take advantage of the boom in recreational running and continue some of what Scott started.
He knows the club didn’t always do everything it could to be welcoming: “We took off and left them for dust and they never came back,” he says of weekend runs at Lincoln.
That changed – the Thursday trail runs at Good Earth are known for being welcoming, and Scott stops at every intersection, waits for people to regroup and then tells them the mileage for whichever way they choose to go next. He credits 605 Running Co. and the Sioux Falls Women Run groups for helping bring in more people and more excitement around running in general.
“They’re posting photos, and that helps people get motivated,” he says. “They see this picture of ordinary people running and think, ‘if they can do it, I can, too.’”
The Lincoln group still meets, and it’s morphed over the years. “You know, that run has been going on for decades,” Scott says. “It’s a different group – it’s not the old guard. It’s a lot of newer runners.”
We end our conversation talking about the bike path, the state parks, the races in town and how they’ve changed, the people we know and why we love them. We talk about the open house, about how nice it was to catch up with them.
“We could have sat around and told stories all night long,” Scott says.
We did, a little, but not as much as we should have. There’s never enough time, when you get down to it, to know people like you want to know them, or it’s too late when you get around to it. I wish I had kept going to Lincoln, even when I couldn’t keep up, wish I had been carried along the weeks I could. I ran my share of miles out there with different versions of that group, always in the back, always glad to be there.
I saw a friend this weekend and she talked about how encouraging Scott always was to her. “He told me once I could be one of the best runners in town,” she said. “He was wrong, but it was nice of him.”
He’s a nice guy. If you want to run with him one more time, join us Thursday at Good Earth at 6 p.m. Bring a headlamp. Be ready for stories. Be ready to say thank you.
Happy running, Scott.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.