Champaign native running for his life, even at 89

Champaign native running for his life, even at 89

What do the Red Square in Moscow, the Great Wall of China and every street in Champaign County have in common? It's that Champaign native Mel Schriefer, 89, has been there on a run.

The Korean War veteran started running in the late 1960s to simultaneously beat his smoking habit and improve his health, he said. Since then, Schriefer has run in 364 road races.

"Running is my passion," Schriefer said.

Most recently, he took part in the 45th Steamboat Classic 2 Mile race in Peoria, on June 16. It was his 45th time participating; Schriefer is one of three people, along with Jerry Kokesh and Beverley Enslow, to have run in every Steamboat to date.

The Steamboat Classic offers runners three options: a 2-mile fun run, a 4-mile race — one of the world's fastest races for that distance, according to many in the running community — or a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) race. Schriefer has run the 4-mile and 15K several times before, but he said he prefers the shorter of the two courses, although neither are feasible for him anymore.

"My goal was to run (the Steamboat) for 25 years, a quarter of a century. But I did that and ran through the 30th year," Schriefer said. "But then I had to have a knee replacement, so that ended my running, but I still go back to Steamboat every year and have never missed one."

But the race itself has also changed, Schriefer said.

He contrasted his first Steamboat experience, alongside 153 runners, to his 25th, which had approximately 5,000 participants. According to Schriefer, the Steamboat Classic is more of a community event than a race today.

In 2008, Schriefer was inducted into the Steamboat Classic's Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed to the most exceptional members of the Steamboat running and volunteer family.

Schriefer was inducted in the same class as Steven Jones, former marathon world-record holder, and Carey Pinkowski, executive race director of the Chicago marathon.

That's not the only highlight of Schriefer's running career. Around the late-1970s, after having run about 160 races, he said he started looking for a long-term running project. His initial idea was to run from coast to coast, but he said he ruled it out because of the excessive time commitment and cost.

Eventually, though, the former University of Illinois employee crafted a plan.

"One day I just decided that I will run every road in Champaign County," Schriefer said.

He embarked on his trekking odyssey on Oct. 9, 1980. First, he said, he ran the entire perimeter of the county, and then methodically mapped out his path through the rest of it.

Two and a half years and approximately 2,043 miles later, in May 1983, Schriefer had run out of roadway to trod on in the county, so he decided to turn his attention abroad.

Over the next few years, Schriefer went on an 18-day running tour of Europe and ran on the Great Wall of China, but his most memorable run was in Soviet Russia, he said.

In 1989, while on a tour in Moscow, the devout runner had an idea to go for a run at Red Square. It wasn't easy, he recalls.

Schriefer went to the Square four different times on four days before he had some luck. He said he would wear his running clothes under his regular ones to avoid suspicion, but the crowd and the inordinate amount of the security around him discouraged him.

"You don't see any runners in Russia," Schriefer said with a chuckle.

On the fifth day, Schriefer made a bold move. He handed his camera to a friend, stripped down to his running clothes, warmed up and just went for a run around the Kremlin.

Toward the end of the run, Schriefer remembers a moment of panic when two Russian soldiers approached the group. He was worried they would confiscate his camera, but in the end, there was no trouble.

Fortunately, Schriefer said, their tour guide spoke fluent Russian and explained the situation to the soldiers, who then left with an amused smile.

Schriefer credits his dedication to running for his longevity; he turns 90 on July 16.

"I feel as I've been a long-distance runner my whole life, it's paying off now," he said. "Running has extended my life."

Sections (2):News, Local