Originally posted on December 1, 2014
Reposted January 7, 2018
Horace Ashenfelter died on January 6, 2018, at the wonderful age of 94. Horace Ashenfelter won the Olympic steeplechase in 1952, the first and last American male to do such an thing. In his honor, we are reposting several pieces on this wonderful man, classmate of our late editor, James Dunaway, and former FBI agent, Penn State grad, and winner of 18 AAU national titles, from cross country to 10k.
Elliott Denman sent me a note, as he always does, about a piece he wanted to write. I trust Elliott’s judgement, and while I may ask him a few questions, his pieces have graced this blog for several years and American Track & Field (and before that, American Athletics) for nearly two decades.
That fateful moment, sixty-two years ago: Ashenfelter over Kasentsev
Courtesy of North Jersey News Community website
But, Horace Ashenfelter is one of the special ones. If you can drag up American Track & Field in 1996, find the feature on Horace by James Dunaway. I believe it is the finest piece that Dunaway has ever written.
Dunaway’s point was this: 1952 was a very different time. Horace Ashenfelter was an FBI agent, working full time, raising a family with his wife, and would train, once a day, for an hour, in a park by his house. He used a park bench for hurdle practice. With that training (all things fast, no time to waste), Ashenfelter perfected his hurdle technique.
Horace was a fearless racer. He broke the American record qualifying for the final in 1952! In the final, he was racing the world record holder, and in one gutsy move, leaped from the water barrier to the lead, breaking the the WR set by the Soviet runner who was in second! This was the cold war. An American FBI agent defeating the pride of the Soviet Union was big news in 1952!
Ashenfelter is 91 years old. He still runs, and he is married to his sweetheart, Lilian, for the past 69 years.
And so, Elliott Denman, long time friend and fellow Olympian in 1956 with Horace, writes the following piece about an athlete, sixty-two years after the fact, enjoying the accolades and good wishes on a life well lived and well loved.
HORACE ASHENFELTER – AN AMERICAN ICON
AND GLEN RIDGE, NEW JERSEY HOMETOWN HERO.
By ELLIOTT DENMAN
GELN RIDGE, N.J. – As over 2,400 ran-trotted-jogged-slogged-walked-hiked-hustled past Horace Ashenfelter, perched on a bluff overlooking the Ridgewood Avenue finish line this Thanksgiving Day morning, the white-haired gentleman who is the raison-d’etre for this chilled-yet-thrilled parade of humanity passing before him, could only beam until the last of the starters stepped on the electronic timing mat that would eventually chronicle their journey of 8K (just under five miles.)
“Isn’t this incredible, isn’t this amazing?” he asked an old friend who’d made his own trek to the race to add his own cheers to the salutes of the multitudes paying personal homage to this distinguished citizen and certified Olympic hero.”
“Of course, of course, of course,” was the reply of that “old friend.”
“This is your day, Horace, they’re all here for you.”
Yes, November 27, 2014, was another great day in the life of Horace Ashenfelter.
He got to see Youssef Rochdi, a 31-year-old resident of Parsippany, formerly of Morocco, take a joyous swipe of the finish line banner to complete a swift 24:27 tour of Glen Ridge and win the 15th annual Ashenfelter 8K Classic by a decisive margin.
The race is acronymed the “A8K” and its program now includes the Tom Fleming Mile, an 8:15 a.m. warmup for the main event.
Soon after Rochdi, Ashenfelter got to see Hector Rivera. a 43-year-old Clifton resident representing his old club, the New York Athletic Club, lead all the Masters finishers.
And, along the way, he got to see at least 14 members – assorted generations – of the Ashenfelter clan run “his” race, and be joined by lots and lots of others from all over the lot dig into joy of these proceedings before digging into the turkey and all the trimmings that would surely follow on their return home.
Horace A. is 91 now – headed for a 92nd birthday on January 23, 2015 – still firmly fit and finely tuned. He runs a few miles every other day and, as one of his former Olympic teammates once famously said, “every step I take is a deposit in the bank of health.”
But there have been so many other great days in this man’s athletic life.
Among the most memorable:
March 6, 1948 – Penn State student Ashenfelter wins the IC4A indoor two-mile title at Madison Square Garden in 9:14.9. He’d go on to win the IC4A two-mile outdoors in 1948 and 1949, along with the NCAA outdoor two-mile in 1949, in a brilliant collegiate career as a Nittany Lion.
(But the 1948 NCAA cross country meet was memorable, too. In the lead by at least 30 yards, but on a poorly marked course at Michigan State, he took a wrong turn and wound up second to an IC4A rival, Rhode Island’s Bob Black. “After that, I didn’t have anything left at the end,” he once
told an interviewer.)
April 27, 1949 – Brothers Don, Bill and Horace Ashenfelter power Penn State to four-mile relay victory for Penn State at the Penn Relays in 17:35.4.
June 23, 1950 – Ashenfelter wins National AAU 10,000-meter title in 32:44.3 at
College Park, Maryland; this would be the first of 18 National AAU titles he’d win at
events as varied as the 3,000 meter steeplechase and 10K of cross country (among them five straight in the AAU indoor three-mile.)
July 25, 1952 – Then-FBI agent Ashenfelter wins the Olympic 3,000-meter steeplchase final at the Helsinki Olympic Games in the world-record time of 8:45.4, in the process outrunning Vladimir Kazantsev, the Soviet athlete who’d held the previous world mark of 8:48.6. With an incredible burst over the final water jump, Ashenfelter won the race going away and oh, did the headline-writers of the day take joy in this Cold War episode. Best of them said “FBI Man Runs Down Russian.”
Summer of 1999 – Penn State completes construction of the nation’s foremost, most
versatile, state-of-the-art indoor track venue. It is formally named the Horace
Ashenfelter III Indoor Track.
Now enshrined in an array of Halls of Fame, Ashenfelter’s place in the honored archives of the sport is enduring.
These days, he’s recognized as just one of five living Americans to win a distance race at the Olympic Games, and he’s the senior member of that distinguished quintet which also includes Bob Schul (5,000 meters 1964), Billy Mills (10,000 meters 1964), Frank Shorter (marathon, 1972) and Joan Benoit Samuelson (marathon, 1984.)
“I’ve known Horace for over 50 years,” said Mike McDonnell of Middletown,
a former Team-FBI colleague and still-busy Masters runner. “He’s a tremendous gentleman, as I’ve said many times. A great family man, too. Once, he and a partner, they were chasing a perpetrator (alleged) around a lake, I think it was in Newark. He went one way around the lake, his partner around the other. Horace, of course, caught up to the guy first.
“He got his training in that way, that’s how he trained for the Olympics,” remembered McDonnell.
“This race started out small, with maybe 400 runners. Just look at what is now, a real
tribute to Horace” said McDonnell, who has been at the event since Day One.
“Horace is one of the real icons,” said A8K official Wayne Baker. “He’s a model for what Mills and Schul did in the 1960s. He was one of the inspirations.”
“One of the many he also inspired was Tom Fleming (the two-time NYC Marathon
champion.) Tom always tells the story of riding his bicycle over to Horace’s house (and getting advice from the master.)”
The Ashenfelter sense of humor is very much alive and well.
Having seen so many come and go, he has a lot of good answers to FAQ’s.
Q. “How are you feeling these days?” A. “Compared to what?”
Q. “Will we ever see another American win the Olympic steeplechase?”
A. “Probably not in my lifetime. I’d like to see it, but I’m afraid I’m not.”
Q. “How about that Evan Jager (who has lowered the American SC record to 8:04.71)?”
A. “I couldn’t carry his bag.”
And then a serious response:
Q. Did you ever dream that the world steeplechase record would get down to 7:53.63 (by Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar in 2004)?”
A. “That’s an amazing situation. It’s truly great. Just shows you what man can do.”
Horace and Lillian Ashenfelter, wed 69 years, are the parents of four, grandparents of 14, and great-grandparents of two.
They continue to count their many blessings. “Sure we’re showing our age,” he tells you, “but everybody else is doing the same thing.”
Ashenfelter is quick to credit Dan Murphy, the A8K director, local running standout, and Glen Ridge councilman, for the event’s ever-growing success.
And Murphy is quick to tell you that the very presence of Ashenfelter makes
this race – one of the nation’s oh-so-many Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trots,
a very special happening.
“I was a trackman and cross country runner at Glen Ridge High School and he was always at our meets, always cheering us on,” said Murphy. “As a matter of fact, his son was part of our mile relay team that still holds the school record.”
Before he immigrated to the U.S. from Morocco, Rochdi was a quality runner who often ran meets on the European circuit.
Among his list of impressive personal records is an 8:39 steeplechase, which he ran in Milan, Italy.
Which also happens to be some six seconds quicker than Ashenfelter’s 1952 Helsinki clocking.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve read a couple of articles about him,” said Rochdi.
“He was a tremendous runner. To run those fast times back then, he must have been amazing.He’s like an idol of mine. And I think of a lot of other people, too.”
Said Masters champion Rivera, now a high school teacher, “I was a baseball player in college (at New Jersey Institute of Technology) and then I graduated from Montclair State. I began running when I was 25, 26, 27, with Tom Fleming. That’s how it all started.”
“Tom was a great champion, too, from little Bloomfield, N.J. He went to William
Paterson, some call it a no-name college, but he beat them all. “
But Fleming needed early inspiration, too, and it was Ashenfelter who delivered.
When all the numbers were in, the A8K listed 2,455 official finishers and 317 more ran the Tom Fleming Mile.
By 11 a.m., the awards ceremony was over and the big crowd was on its way home.
Horace Ashenfelter was headed home, too. One more time, his hometown had done him proud.
FULL DISCLOSURE – The “old friend” joining Ashenfelter at the finish line was
Elliott Denman, a 1956 50K racewalker and USA Olympic teammate.