URBANA — Like many individuals who will compete in the third Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon on Saturday, Urbana's Leonard Wilson has been in training.
He has increased his walking routine as he prepares for the 13.1-mile half marathon, which will start 30 minutes after the 7 a.m. full marathon.
Though he believes he'd be all right if he jogged part of the distance, Wilson doesn't plan on giving in to that temptation.
He has undergone two knee replacements.
"I don't want to have them replaced again," Wilson said.
Wilson has been part of the local running community for nearly six decades. That's one of the reasons he and his wife are not volunteers helping with traffic this year.
He'll turn 75 later this year and, in November, it will be 60 years since he was part of the most recent athletic team from Urbana High School to win a team state championship.
Wilson was the No. 4 runner on the record-setting 1951 IHSA cross-country titlists.
"I've been talking about doing it," said Wilson, who has been walking about 45 miles a week to get ready for his feat.
With the two anniversaries on the horizon, the timing seemed right. He should be easy to spot on his trek.
He'll wear an Urbana jersey.
He is no stranger to the half-marathon distance. Wilson has competed in several of the races that precede the Indianapolis 500.
It's a little different knowing you'll walk every step of the way.
"No matter how old you get, once you get out there and hear the gun, you have an adrenaline rush and a little bit of young comes back into you," Wilson said.
In training, he has been able to walk a mile in about 15 1/2 minutes. It's a pace he hopes to maintain as he ambles through various Champaign and Urbana neighborhoods in two days.
Though it will be just Wilson and the clock, he said, "I'm still competitive."
His main quest will be to find a comfortable pace.
"I want to make sure I finish," he said.
Urbana's 1951 cross-country champions featuring four underclassmen among the top five runners set a scoring record that has never been beaten. The Tigers had five of the top 16 overall placers, but when the team scoring was compiled (eliminating those runners who were competing as individuals), coach Gene Armer's Urbana team had five of the top eight and a team score of 21.
"At the time, I didn't realize what we did," Wilson said. "As I got older, the accomplishments meant more."
Wilson and junior Tommy Luker are the only surviving members among the top five runners. Luker lives in Madison, Wis. At the state finals, Luker placed sixth and Wilson 12th.
They were also prominent runners on Urbana's 1952 squad, which was the state runner-up.
Leonard Wilson remains an inspiration for young runners of today thanks to his son, J.R., the boys' track and field head coach at Oswego East.
"I coach the distance guys for my team," J.R. Wilson said, "and they know a lot about him. They hear so many of the stories. Everything I know is attributed to him (Leonard Wilson) or Coach Armer."
When Oswego East participates in the annual Gene Armer Indoor Meet at the UI Armory, J.R. Wilson makes sure team members get an introduction to his father.
"They think it's cool, as good as he was and he's still running," J.R. Wilson said. "He definitely has an influence on my team."
The elder Wilson also could be an example for his son's physical education classes.
"The fact that he been able to stay active for as long as he has shows what staying active can get you," J.R. Wilson said.
Tracking more success
The knee replacements have enabled Leonard Wilson to stay active in a sport he got into by chance but enjoyed for years.
"I ended up in cross-country because of an injury," Leonard Wilson said. "I fractured my collarbone in freshman football, and Gene talked me into cross-country. I ran part of the year with my arm in a sling. Then I just stayed out for cross-country and track."
He never lost touch with the running world. For years, Wilson was a volunteer at UI track events, often joined by his son J.R.
"He was a timer for the UI, and I was a results runner," J.R. Wilson said. "I'd run the results from the finish line to the head official. His love of track and running definitely influenced the things I did."
As Leonard Wilson's knees deteriorated and he found himself less active, he also found himself more frustrated.
"We'd go somewhere and I'd be looking for someplace to sit," he said. "They bothered me so much."
In 2004, he had his right knee replaced. In 2008, his left knee was replaced.
"Since then, I've been able to walk and do things," he said. "I like to exercise."
On Saturday, he plans on showing just how far he's come.
Another son, Mitch, will be in the same half-marathon race Saturday, but the two of them may not see too much of one another.
Mitch Wilson, who ran the full marathon in 2010, plans on running the half marathon. That's fine with Leonard.
He's pleased to just be in the race.
"I'll do the best I can do," he said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.