Sometime Thursday, May 15, coach Greg Wenneborg, his assistant coaches and more than 20 members of his Pima Community College Aztecs track and field team will board a bus for Mesa Community College, where, over the next three days, they will take their best shots at winning an individual and perhaps even a team national championship. The aforementioned shot will certainly be of the long variety, but the fact that Pima is even in the discussion is a testament to the man and his vision.
Wenneborg knows all about long shots, about putting it all on the line and dealing with the emotional waves that crash over an athlete when things don't go his/her way. At first, he wasn't even sure he was even going to be an athlete. A middle-school teacher, Lois Thompson, who had once been an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team, suggested that he try cross country. He quickly found out that he was pretty good at running, especially long distances, the kind that eat at normal people's souls. He attended Scottsdale Chaparral High School, where he still holds the school record in the 3,200 meters. After high school, he broke the magical 30-minute mark in the 10,000 meters with Billy Joel's "Piano Man" going through his head. That's the equivalent of piping Celine Dion's "The Heart Will Go On" into a pregame football locker room.
In 1992, he decided to try a marathon. He entered the Mule Mountain Marathon, which is basically a race from Bisbee to Sierra Vista. To sweeten the pot, the race promoters offered a brand-new car to anyone who could win the race and run it in under 2 hours, 29 minutes, 56 seconds.
"There was a guy in the race who had just missed winning the car the previous year," Wenneborg recalls. "He was ready. I stayed right on his heels for the first half of the race."
While most people might think that it's downhill all the way from Bisbee (elevation 5,538 feet) to Sierra Vista (4,623 feet), it actually goes down at a pretty steep grade from Bisbee to the halfway point near the San Pedro River, then starts climbing again. When they reached the river, the other guy threw his hands up in exasperation and stepped off the course. Wenneborg continued on alone, eventually pushing his way to a finish of 2:29:52.
"It was great. The base commander (at Fort Huachuca) helicoptered in. I got some flowers and I won the car. I sold the car back to the dealer for $6,000 so I could use the money to keep training."
The U.S. Olympic Committee sets "A" and "B" standards for track events. If a qualifier hits the A standard, the USOC will pay for everything. If they only hit the B, the runners have to pay their own way. In training for the 1996 Olympic Trials, Wenneborg ran a 2:19 marathon in St. George, Utah. But on the mostly downhill course, he trashed his quads in the process. He again ran a 2:19 in 1998 and then finished in the top 20 at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Pittsburgh.
He wasn't sure what to do after that, but then he ran a surprising 2:18 in Austin, Texas, in 2002 and decided to give it one more shot. He poured all he had into the effort, running 120 miles a week in preparation for the 2004 trials, which would be held in Birmingham, Alabama. "I felt good. I always ran well in the South. I like heat, and humidity doesn't bother me."
When he stepped to the starting line in Birmingham, it was 32 degrees. That would be the warmest it would get all day. During the race, he felt like his face was being sandblasted. He eventually realized that ice crystals were being blown horizontally at the racers. "It was the worst day of my career." (The guy who finished second that day in Birmingham, Meb Keflezighi, was the surprise winner of last month's Boston Marathon.)
After being bummed out for a reasonable amount of time, Wenneborg took the job as track/cross country coach at Pima and ran with it. (Sorry.) His women's cross country teams finish in the top 10 in the country every year. In 2012, both the men's and women's track teams finished second in the ridiculously competitive Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.
While the monster of the ACCAC, Central Arizona College, routinely recruits athletes from all over the world, Wenneborg insists on living up to the ideals and mission of the community college. He recruits the Tucson area first, then Southern Arizona, then, as a last resort, the rest of Arizona. His conference champion distance runner is from Vail's Cienega High, his pole vaulter is from Benson and his national champion high jumper is from Phoenix.
Pima's women finished second in last week's regional meet and the men finished third. The Evil Empire from Pinal County, with its international lineup, grabbed the top spots.
Wenneborg has decided to run in the Chicago Marathon in October. He admits that, with the resumption of training, that day in Birmingham has begun to creep back into his thoughts. But he's staying positive. Might we suggest a selection from Billy Joel's An Innocent Man album, perhaps "Keeping the Faith." That's certainly better than "Leave a Tender Moment Alone."