Running from obscurity: Madison’s Rod DeHaven may be America’s top marathoner
"You think we'd have inspirational running photos up, but he doesn't like that,” says Rod DeHaven’s wife Shelli. "Even this story, he's uncertain about it. He's low key. But he likes the blood and guts of running."

Madison’s best unknown athlete moves four Teletubbies puzzle boxes from a shelf in his sons’ playroom. He thinks he put an award here somewhere, maybe behind the Tubbies and a few Legos?

“This is it,” says Rod DeHaven, 33, and he reaches to an obscure spot to grab the glass trophy for winning a prestigious road race last year.

DeHaven – a leading Olympic candidate who might be America’s best marathon runner – eyes the award as if he hardly recognizes it. Then he returns it to the shelf behind the puzzles.

“There are things that are hard to put away,” he says.

What he means is the glass trophy probably would break if kept in a basement box that holds mementos from last summer’s Track and Field World Championship marathon in Seville, Spain, to his finish as the second American at the Boston Marathon in April.

As a result, there is virtually no hint in the West Side house that DeHaven – a  subdued lanky computer programmer at CUNA Mutual Insurance Society – runs any more than a couch potato.

Except, that is, until DeHaven’s oldest son, Addison, 3, playfully pulls several pairs of his father’s New Balance shoes from the family’s front-porch bin.

DeHaven wore the shoes, both seemingly as light as waffles, during the World Championship, where race-day temperatures reached 100 degrees.

A Madison resident since 1989, DeHaven quietly and anonymously strives to make the Olympics.

At 5 a.m., before starting work at CUNA Mutual, DeHaven begins training sessions to reach 90 miles per week, running through the Arboretum, across the UW-Madison campus or on Odana Hills Golf Course.

On May 7 in Pittsburgh, he will line up alongside several dozen American marathon runners. The top three finishers will go to the Sydney Games in September 2000.

“He is very modest about his running,” says his wife, Shelli.

“You think we’d have inspirational running photos up, but he doesn’t like that. Even this story, he’s uncertain about it. He’s low key. But he likes the blood and guts of running.”

Running in obscurity

Without self-promotion or any UW ties, DeHaven slips through the state media’s radar. It’s common for track athletes.

Consider Madison’s most well-known runners who may compete in Sydney. Hurdler Reggie Torian is best known for his stint as a wide receiver on the Badgers football team and veteran distance runner Suzy Hamilton combines athletic prowess with marketable good looks.

The Olympics, however, provide a worldwide stage. But its four-year gap “is the beauty and ugliness of running,” DeHaven says. “As badly as you want to make it, you have to wait four years.”

Also, when DeHaven and other American athletes met reporters before the Boston Marathon last spring, DeHaven recalls, the topic rarely wavered from, “What do you think of the Kenyans?”

After all, Kenyans dominate the sport as much as NBA stars rule Olympic basketball.

And so, in his own mind, DeHaven’s marathon accomplishments seemingly have diminished. He brushes aside his achievements as easily as wiping dust from a coffee table.

“He made the (U.S.) world championship team and that’s a big deal – in  the track world,” says Tim Hacker of Madison, DeHaven’s friend and a former UW cross country star who still competes at the international level. “It’s probably more prestigious than making the Olympic team because the standard to qualify is tougher.”

Self coached, DeHaven earned as much money last year running as he did working as a full-time computer programmer. Co-workers at CUNA Mutual have supported his efforts, although DeHaven, who often runs 5 miles during lunchtime, keeps each separate except on rare occasions.

For instance, after finishing the Boston Marathon on a Monday, he had planned to work on Tuesday. He never made it.

“I couldn’t get up and down my stairs,” he says.

South Dakota roots

DeHaven grew up in Huron, S.D., population 13,000, where the city slogan is “Pride in motion.” Inspired by a teen runner who lived in his apartment complex, DeHaven joined the older boy and completed a 15-mile race at age 10.

“We made it to 11 miles, then started walking and finished it jogging,” DeHaven says.

The next year, DeHaven improved his time in the race by 40 minutes. A natural runner was born.

At South Dakota State University, he qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 1,500 meters. After graduation, DeHaven followed his future wife, Shelli, to Madison, where she had several job leads in the summer of 1989.

“Running is a pretty small circle of people in Madison,” Hacker says. “We heard a good runner moved into town, but we’re always skeptical. Then we realized how good he was.”

DeHaven worked temporary jobs in Madison warehouses and offices while running full time, making about $12,000 per year in the early ’90s by competing in American and European track events.

Yet he failed to meet qualifying times for the 1992 Olympic Trials in the 5,000-and 10,000-meter races, his best events at the time.

“During the Barcelona Olympics (in 1992),” DeHaven says, “I heard (sprinter) Michael Johnson say, `If you don’t think you can win a medal, then you might as well get a job.’ ”

DeHaven lets out a sigh: “Well, here I was unable to qualify for the Olympic Trials.”

He got a full-time job and continued to run, clinging to the belief that his fastest times were ahead of him.

In 1996, DeHaven placed 10th, seven spots from an Olympic berth, during the 10,000-meter run at the trials in Atlanta.

“Mentally, it was a huge letdown,” DeHaven says. “Everyone who knows I run was excited, `Tenth in the Olympic Trials, that’s great! You’re a winner for being there!’ That wasn’t my mind-set. I thought, `Maybe, I’ll think like that in 30 years.’”

Advancing to marathons

Nearly two years before the Atlanta disappointment, DeHaven’s weekly training schedule reached 100 miles.

“It got to the point where I thought, `I’ll run a marathon. Why not?’ I was 28. It wasn’t like my bones were going to break,” he says.

He entered the 1994 Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota, finished fifth and posted a time (2 hours, 14 minutes, 48 seconds) that put him among the top dozen Americans.

The time qualified him for the Olympic Trials in the marathon in February 1996. During the race, his second marathon, the event’s punishment mounted. His hips, back and groin were sore, but it was calf pain that forced him to drop out at 20 miles.

“My calves,” he says, “felt like someone hit them with a bat.”

Injuries plagued him again during the Twin Cities Marathon in 1997.

“At about 22 miles, I started getting cramps in my hamstrings,” DeHaven says. “I couldn’t see the point in dropping out of the race because it would have taken me 2 hours to get picked up and brought to the end. I kept walking and jogging.”

He laughs: “I was getting a lot of these Rocky-esque cheers from people, `You can do it.’ I thought, `Please, leave me alone.’ ”

In October 1998 at the Chicago Marathon, DeHaven ran 2:13:01 (less than 3 1/2 minutes from the American record) to finish as the first American, which earned him $10,000.

That performance put DeHaven on the U.S. team for the World Championship in Spain last August and the time ranked as the second-fastest qualifying time among Americans for the Olympic Trials this May.

“If I run a good race, I’ll make the Olympic team,” he says, sitting at his home in late October. “Sure, there’s some anxiety, but there’s nothing to worry about unless something happens in Chicago.”

“Chicago” is the Chicago Marathon, which was held a few days later.

And something – lots, really – happened there.

Morocco-born Khalid Khannouchi ran the fastest marathon ever by 23 seconds. To DeHaven’s chagrin, however, Khannouchi wants to obtain American citizenship in time for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Khannouchi, a small-town New York resident, may become an American due to an obscure provision aiding citizenship applicants whose spouses work abroad for companies helping American foreign trade.

(Khannouchi’s American wife could receive a token job, DeHaven says, noting the politics of international sports.)

If Khannouchi is granted citizenship, he is certain to take one of three American spots in the Olympics.

The bad news from Chicago didn’t end there.

David Morris, an American who trains in Japan, finished fourth and set a U.S. record.

“I listened to the race on a Chicago radio station up until (Khannouchi) crossed the finish line, then I went running,” DeHaven says. “When I got home Shelli said, `David Morris broke the American record.’ I was like, `What!’ ”

He adds: “It may take more than just running a good race to make the (Olympic) team. Now, conceivably, it’s down to two spots. It’s funny how things change practically overnight.”

Chasing the Olympics

On a postcard-perfect November afternoon, DeHaven runs in UW’s Picnic Point, a narrow wooded area that sticks out into Lake Mendota like a thumb.

DeHaven will run 15 miles today despite working into the wee hours at CUNA Mutual last night.

“After 5 or 6 minutes into a run, it’s pretty much autopilot for me,” he says, maintaining a rapid pace through the soft dirt paths at Picnic Point. “For me, it’s like playing. I’m an adult who gets to play every day.”

DeHaven is slight: 5-foot-8, 133 pounds. His watchband is tightened to the last notch. Hacker says DeHaven’s body, with narrow hips, is suited for distance running.

A professor in the physical therapy department at Concordia University near Milwaukee, Hacker estimates an elite distance runner sustains “10 billion pounds of pressure on your knees and ankles in the course of 10 years of running.”

DeHaven worries about how each nagging injury – and his calf, Achilles and back have been sore recently – could derail Olympic plans.

Any marathon also presents unexpected obstacles. At the World Championship, DeHaven suffered an upset stomach at the 15-mile mark and dry heaved. He had a small bout with diarrhea at 18 miles.

Regardless, DeHaven runs a weekly schedule that is the equivalent of jogging from Madison to Milwaukee.

Hacker understands DeHaven’s drive to make the Olympics.

“I’ve been chasing the same thing myself,” Hacker says. “It’s eluded me – that that ring behind your name: `Olympian.’ There’s an allure to that. That’s what Rod is chasing.”

DeHaven pauses near UW’s Union Terrace to say goodbye to a reporter, who followed his workout on a bicycle.

There’s one more question, though: Is Sydney on his mind while training?

“Not Sydney,” he says. “I’m thinking about Pittsburgh and the Olympic Trials. I’m getting into harder training now. I’m thinking what I need to do there.”

With that, he waves and heads up a steep roadway near Bascom Hill.

He has 5 more miles to run today.


(May 8, 2000)

In sweltering heat, Madison’s DeHaven triumphs in Olympic Trial marathon; earns spot in Sydney

One block from the finish line, a spectator handed Rod DeHaven two miniature American flags en route to his stunning 48-second win in the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in Pittsburgh Sunday morning.

For DeHaven, the race was red, white and whew.

Facing 80-degree temperatures and high humidity, the Madison resident surged past Peter De La Cerda, who had held a comfortable lead since the halfway mark, with 2 1/2 miles left and won easily.

The victory earned DeHaven, 33, a berth in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and $75,000 in prize money.

“It’s overwhelming, close to disbelief,” DeHaven said, speaking by phone after the race. “I’m so happy.”

Up to three runners were eligible to make the Olympic team, but the brutal heat prevented anyone from beating the qualifying standard of 2 hours, 14 minutes.

As a result, only the race’s winner – DeHaven, who finished in 2 hours, 15 minutes, 30 seconds – will represent the U.S. in the Olympic men’s marathon Oct. 1.

DeHaven, a computer technician at CUNA Mutual Insurance Society, trained by running an average of 100-plus miles per week through Madison streets this winter.

A Madison resident since 1989 and a South Dakota native, DeHaven crowned his two-decade running career Sunday.

DeHaven’s wife, Shelli, watched the race in a Pittsburgh hotel room, where it was broadcast live on local TV. When her husband closed in on De La Cerda at the 20-mile mark, she headed to the finish line.

“I lost contact with how he was doing. I was dreading a close finish,” Shelli said. “Then I saw him alone, 250 meters from the end, and I thought, `It’s happening! He’s an Olympian!’ ”

Back at the hotel room, DeHaven’s mother, Jacqueline, a Madison resident, and the DeHavens’ two sons (Addison, 4, and Graham, 22 months) watched the finish on TV.

“My heart was beating so fast,” Jacqueline said.

DeHaven did not reach the race’s top 10 runners until the 14-mile mark.

“I was trying to be patient wanting to feed off the energy of being near the lead,” he said. “At 18 miles, I could see (De La Cerda) struggling when he was going up a hill. I could tell the lead was shrinking.”

Still, it wasn’t until a downhill slope between miles 23 and 24 that DeHaven, who is self-coached, edged past De La Cerda.

Controversy surrounded the Olympic trials race last week. World-record holder Khalid Khannouchi received U.S. citizenship Tuesday, but he announced Wednesday that injuries would keep him out of Sunday’s race.

Still, the race’s lineup included American record holder David Morris and several former Olympians. Last Friday, Runner’s World magazine asked 20 track and field journalists and officials who would win and only one person picked DeHaven.

In Madison Sunday, world-class runner Tim Hacker, who helped DeHaven train, enjoyed his friend’s victory.

“He spent hours and hours every day thinking about (the race) and training until his bones ached,” Hacker said. “To win is huge. That’s the pinnacle.”

Winning eased DeHaven’s memory of numerous 10-mile pre-dawn jogs.

“Every step was worth it. I will need a miracle to win a medal in Sydney, but it’s going to be a great thrill to run there.”

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