George Tinti: In The Midst of a Champion

NORWAY — George Tinti didn’t run a mile in his life until he was 46 years old.

He started his running career to support his son, David, in high school cross country, and to help his daughter (me) get ready for seventh-grade track.

George would go on to become a renown marathoner and 10Ker in the Midwest, finding a passion for the healthy side of running paired with the technical side of analysis and gauging “who you are” at any moment.

George lived and trained in Norway. He was a member of the Upper Peninsula Road Runners Club back when it was still young, but he also had the geographic ease of running races in Wisconsin.

We had the fun of competing in roughly 25 races a year — about one every weekend –mostly 10Ks. Those 10K races are wonderful because you go to neat places, and 6.2 miles is not too much to run.

Plus, we collected many, many colorful T-shirts.

By George’s early 50’s, he was running low 36-minute 10Ks (5:49 pace). This was about the time when he was taking marathons seriously.

He qualified for the Boston Marathon, and the first two times there, he ran a sub-three hour marathon. The next Boston, George would run a 2:47:08 (6:23 pace).

One story from the Boston Marathon occurred where George took third place for his 50-59 age group. One month later, George received an official letter in the mail from the marathon. They were awarding him the second-place honor.

Apparently, the original second-place award winner had been disqualified from the race because he had cheated the course and had missed several checkpoints.

In the ’80s, running for the fun of it was new, and running apparel and technology was not near what it is today.

There was no technical fabric. There was no chip timing, just an official stopwatch and lots and lots of handwriting. We did have Gore-Tex, however, and polypropylene long underwear, so maybe that’s how we all survived.

My dad was unabashedly practical, however, and I remember a few races and long runs, with him wearing long knee-high gym socks over his arms — that way when he warmed up and threw them off, it wouldn’t be a huge loss if he couldn’t find them again when we went back to pick them up.

George also liked to wear a singlet in races, with the big letters “I’m So Far Behind, I Think I’m First!.”

It was funny to see, and I think we should bring that slogan back.

We had our favorite races in the UP and Wisconsin, such as the Run Your Bass Off in Crystal Falls (the original course), Rhinelander Hodag, Green Bay Bellin 10K Run, Lake Antoine, Escanaba and Marquette races.

Whatever happened to the Husky Hustle 7 Mile in Houghton? The Menominee Run for Zinnias? And was their a 1600-meter Marquette race run on a track?

George clocked a 5:16:81 when he was 55 (that’s a 5:18:72 mile pace, according to my dad’s color-coded handwritten stat analysis).

George became the race director of the Norway Spring Classic 10K for several years, back when it was still forming to what it is today. George had a new course calibrated, brought in warm amenities for a springtime race in the U.P., and added a two-mile run to promote healthiness to everyone.

The race has been directed by Tony Adams for most of its 37 years now, and the stunning race has become a welcome harbinger of spring for many U.P. runners and residents of the area.

Another race story is a 20-Miler in May where the temps started in the 50s, but with three inches of pelting rain and wind, had dropped mid-race into the 30s.

One hundred twenty-five racers went to the hospital for hypothermia. My dad never wished for body fat more than on that day.

Or the race where tornadoes had ripped through the wooded course just the night before. I remember arriving to run, and the race directors were frantically driving around the course on ATVs to assess the damage. You’ve never seen such an unruly crowd as the group of disgruntled runners surrounding the race organizers as they called off the race.

And there’s a 10K race that gives all entrants a 10-pound bag of potatoes and awards colorful ceramic potatoes with legs and arms and a sweatband, made to look like a runner. Of most of the trophies out there, my dad would go out of his way every year to try and win one of those darn running potatoes.

My dad ran with me in my first half-marathon, the Cedar River Half-Marathon. We ran an easy pace together, but I thought I should be racing harder. My dad kept telling me to hold back, and to assess how I’m feeling at around 7-8 miles.

I felt good, so it was only then that I could really stretch my legs out and push my pace. I did that, and I felt strong. Finishing the half-marathon was a lot of fun, and my time was a success. It was great advice.

George was a chemical engineer and took an analytical approach to his running. His charts and graphs are impressive. He constantly reassessed himself on how his body was feeling, as all devoted runners do. He understood concepts such as VO2 training and how complex carbs compare to simple sugars in their breakdown at the cellular level, and he would enjoy discussing or explaining these if you asked him.

But above all, George trained and raced hard in order to beat his own record, not the guy next to him, who he would be encouraging.

George made many dear, life-long friends who had the same passion for running. The general camaraderie in the running community, and seeing familiar faces at a far-flung race, made up for the long hours of training alone.

Publications from the likes of the Upper Peninsula Road Runners Club and Michigan Runner were the glue that held runners together during dark months, and got you excited for the brighter months.

George got to meet the fathers of modern-day running, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, as well as Arthur Lydiard, one of the most outstanding athletic coaches of all time, credited with popularizing the sport of running.

My dad got me a big Arthur Lydiard poster, “The Art of Running”, personalized to me with a note from Arthur. Back then, I didn’t realize the significance of who he was or his teachings at the time, but today the poster is framed — tattered, torn, and all.

And George would be the first to admit, that he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish any of his success without the help of his wife, Joan, the consummate support system. Driving to new places, often in the dark, patiently (or anxiously) waiting for hours in the cold or in a car, and listening to all the bumps along the road of a runner, while remaining positive and empathetic, are all the duties of the running spouse.

Joan was always there, and George could always find her.

In the throws of George’s running journey, he suffered a devastating setback. He was on a training run along the highway for his upcoming first Boston, when a bottle was thrown out of a passing truck, striking George in the face in his left eye.

The hit had crushed George’s eye, and despite several surgeries, it could not be saved. What made this especially difficult was that George’s right eye was already damaged from a childhood accident.

Surgeons turned their attention, then, to doing everything they could to bring back vision to this eye. They broke up the scar tissue using a YAG laser and were able to give my dad vision to what was compared to as looking through your hand with the fingers spread apart.

George was only 50, but he wouldn’t give up on running. He adjusted his training and learned how to run with his disability. George did run his first Boston the next year, and, in fact, George’s greatest running would still lay ahead of him.

He also developed his own unique style of crossing the finish line, with sunglasses in one hand, visor in the other, and arms outstretched.

Besides running different marathons in the Midwest and even Finland, George certainly had his favorites. He had run the Columbus Marathon six times, Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon seven times, and Boston Marathon a total of five times.

The Detroit Marathon was always a good experience, and George ran a 2:47:39 there (6:24 pace) when he was 54.

Still, George loved racing a whole host of different distances, including half-marathons, 12Ks, and 10Ks.

At age 60, he was clocking the Bellin 10K in 38:24 (6:11 pace), and then one week later, would run Grandma’s Marathon in 3:08:12 (7:11 pace).

Frequently, he won his age division, and Michigan Runner magazine ranked George as the fastest runner in the state of Michigan in his age for several years. Not bad for a humble family man from Norway.

During a recent conversation with my dad, I told him how my running had become ho-hum and not fun anymore. He gave me great advice, and it has come true.

He said that it’s OK to take a little break, until the idea of going running “sparkles” for me. Take a break and wait until running sounds exciting again.

So I took a break, and when I became antsy again, it sure was breathtaking to be able to take those first steps of a run!

Sadly, George died in December. Too soon, but now he is without Parkinson’s Disease, heart problems, and poor vision.

His friendship and competitive ability had made a mark on the sport of running, and George will be missed by many.

But, he certainly is still with us.

May many things you do … sparkle.

(Kathy St. Germain is the daughter of George Tinti)