PROFILE--Don Chaffee has been running for 61 years

Winning Dipsea, 1979
(June, 2021) Don Chaffee has run, biked, and swum in California, Kenya, Uganda, and Michigan. He may be the only person on earth who can claim the following: He has won the Dipsea Race and been congratulated after a Kenyan marathon by the legendary Kip Keino. He has also served as a guide runner for Harry Cordellos, run a 2:43 at Boston, and been competing in triathlons for 30+ years. Chafee, now 81, appreciates Walt Stack’s credo: “Start slow and taper off.” On his current runs and bike rides, he makes sure to “loudly thank whatever deities have blessed me.” That’s never a bad idea.

Career-profession? I spent 50 years trying to inspire college students to think like economists starting with graduate school at the University of California, Davis. Besides Davis, I taught at Middlebury College (undergraduate alma mater); University of South Carolina; Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda; San Francisco State University; Golden Gate University; and for the last 24 years of my career, Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

When and why did you start running? In spring 1959, my junior year in college, I began jogging

with twin goals: become a better high jumper (failed), and prepare for my upcoming ROTC summer training (some success). I kept jogging-running for over a decade: the rest of college, Army active duty in Korea, and graduate school. At my first professorial job (University of South Carolina) I joined a group of faculty runners who shared my dream of running a marathon. My first race in January 1971 was a ten miler in Sumpter, SC. My first marathon was the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, December 1971.

How much did you train in your peak running years? My best years were the late 1970s-- my late 30s, early 40s. I ran as much as 100 miles a week for several weeks before marathons. When not pointing at a marathon, I ran about 70 miles a week.

What do you consider your top achievements? My second marathon, in April 1972, was a win (over a massive field of 11) at the Southeastern Masters Track and Field Championships. We ran the Duraleigh course: Durham (Duke University Chapel) to Raleigh (NC State track). My time was 2:47, a PR that stood for several years.

In the spring of 1972 I moved to Uganda to teach at Makerere University. In December of that year I ran a marathon in Thika, Kenya - before that country became a dominant force. I finished 10th out of about 50 with about a 3:15 (hot day), and was awarded a medal by Kipchoge Keino, making it worth the suffering. In 1974, just before returning home I ran a marathon in Uganda and I swam in the country’s swimming championships. Because I won the 1500 meters “marathon” and the 400 freestyle I can claim to be a national swimming champion. People who have seen me swim are initially mystified when I claim that title. Only two people have asked the right question, “What country?”

With Kip Keino

Back in the U.S., in the San Francisco Bay Area, I joined a bunch of crazies who ran the Mt. Tamalpais trails. All the running, falling, bleeding and ankle twisting led to my biggest win, the Dipsea race in 1979. The next year I won the Double Dipsea, and before that I was fastest over the Double Dipsea course in 1977. Also in 1977, I ran the Boston Marathon in my lifetime PR time, 2:43.

In 1981 I began my triathlon career. After all, I could run and swim, and I biked enough to complete the Davis Double Century back in 1978. In the summer of 1981 I did the Sierra Nevada half-Ironman, and that November I accepted a friend’s challenge: the first ever Escape from Alcatraz. The glory was just finishing, especially the swim with only a Speedo for (no) protection from the 57 degree water.

We moved to Michigan in 1989, and besides running scores of races, I continued triathlons. I completed 28 consecutive Reeds Lake triathlons, and I was the oldest to finish it at 79.

What is your running and cross-training like today? I bike more than I run. My biking pace and distance are not that much different from my running pace and distance when I was in my 30s and early 40s. Each ride is between 10 and 20 miles, three or four times a week. My walk-jogs go about 3 or 4 miles, a couple of times a week. I have run only three races since turning 80, two 5Ks and a 5.3 miler. I won my age group in all three; I was the only one.

Running-fitness philosophy? At my age, too much of my personal news is full of the decline and death of friends, classmates, etc. I love being able to ride and walk-jog beautiful trails, mostly around West Michigan. As I move along, I loudly thank whatever deities have blessed me. 

Your advice to other runners? Enjoy the ride. Don’t let anything hold you back. One of my longtime friends is Harry Cordellos, a blind athlete. We met in San Francisco when we were both in our early 20s, just after he went totally blind. At his request I taught him to ice skate. Later in life we remet, and I guided him in four of his 150 or so marathons. Improbably he also ran the Dipsea several times.

Also, one could do well by heeding Walt Stack’s motto, “Start slow and taper off.”