|Monday, November 26, 2001|
Don Kern looks so normal it is scary.
You'd mistake him for a youth pastor, or, on a wild day, an
(photo by Mark Oppenheim)
The Adventures of Martin's 'Marathon Don' Kern
Monday, November 26, 2001
Guys like this aren't supposed to run marathons on seven continents and two planets.
They don't own the only house in Martin with seven gargoyles on its flat roof, gallop naked on the South Beltline, or have pictures of their hind ends, romping down glaciers, in Gentleman's Quarterly magazine.
What's scary is Kern really is kind of ... ordinary. But only kind of.
In his heart, he is an adventurer. A backpacker in the forefront of some quest to dive into life's cup and drink it fully.
Like Walter Mitty, except that his secret life is real.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
What would you expect from a boy raised in Barryton (pronounced BEAR-a-ton by its residents, all 400), between Mount Pleasant and Big Rapids, son of a college janitor? Clean up after scholars, you never know what you'll find.
Kern, curious, wed a librarian, finished college, then took the only job he saw teaching both his majors, math and speech, for Martin Schools.
He learned he was no disciple of wielding discipline. "The district laid off six teachers the next year," says Kern. "I was happy to be one of them."
Except he and his wife, Nancy, now had a baby (the first of two) to support and a home in a farm hamlet between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
Always between things that, in comparison, seemed big.
Kern found work as the world's least-carnivorous collector for a company then converting to computers. "I learned to program in 1979 by doing it," he remembers. "I've made a living as a computer guy ever since."
It gets even tamer: Kern's now a grandpa whose website, cooladventures.net, offers thriller-dillers such as pictures of his granddaughter, grandmother's 87th birthday and ... what's this?
* "The Legend of Doctor Rick and the Pickle Juice (Detroit Marathon)"?
* "South Pole Marathon"?
* "Last Chance to Run Through the Woods Without Getting Your A** Shot Off"?
It gets stranger too.
Seven years ago Kern, 38, joined his daughter jogging around the dirt track at Martin High School. "I went eight laps -- real slow," he says. "But I did it. Then I started to run some more."
He went as far as eight miles during that first year, along the old interurban railroad track, highway shoulders in the exhaust wake of whooshing semis, and on washboard roads lined with cornstalks and scented with Eau de Chicken Farm.
Kern entered a road race, the now-defunct Scenic Emmett Challenge near Battle Creek, and took more than an hour to do the 10K. For him, that slow time was not a bad time.
"It was an accomplishment," he remembers. "I had fun."
What Kern lacked in speed, he made up in enjoyment. So he went longer.
His next adventure, the Borgess 15K in Kalamazoo, found him running last with an ambulance behind him and volunteers scooping up cones, used to mark the course, as he passed.
"I saw everything developing in front of me," Kern says.
When he read about the first Antarctica Marathon in 1995, he called right away to sign up for the next one. "There was one complication," says Kern. "I had never run a marathon before."
Which hadn't stopped him from already signing up to run four. He started training.
"I'd planned a 24-mile run," he remembers. "But at 18 I came on a pile of spilled potatoes. I jogged to a friend's home and we returned there in his pickup.
"So I didn't get 24 miles, but I did get 100 pounds of potatoes," he continues. "Seemed like a pretty good trade to me."
Kern still has a plaque from the '95 Chicago Marathon, his first, which he finished in 5:07:56, good for 7,978th place.
Near it is a thermostat draped with so many finisher's medals it may soon fall from the wall and leave Kern without a temperature. Which, more than likely, he would enjoy.
He warmed up for Antarctica by running the Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromso, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle.
"I showed up without having registered or made room reservations," Kern says. "The Tromso newspaper did a story because they thought that was strange, but that's usual for me.
"I like to simply show up and see what happens. It's more spontaneous that way.
"Antarctica was a blast," he says of his coolest adventure so far. "We braved winds and waves to take the Zodiac, sort of a glorified rubber raft, from the ship to the race site on King George Island."
Was Kern chased by polar bears, jaws snapping inches from his derriĆre? Not exactly.
But he was photographed, for a GQ magazine story about the marathon, from an angle few competitors ever see.
From there it was a slight stretch (OK, maybe more than that) to running marathons on seven continents. Later that year, on a whim and a four-day weekend, Kern did a marathon in Caracas.
"Nancy probably thinks I'm nuts," he says, "like most people. But my wife understands there are things that I have to do."
Kern "did" Asia when he ran the Tiberias Marathon in Israel. There, he floated on the Dead Sea and skipped a Holy Land tour in order to do a Hash Run involving crawling through concrete pipe ways.
Hash Run? Better let him explain.
A DIVERSION FROM REALITY
"The Hash House Harriers," says Kern, "is a drinking club with a running problem. It was founded in Kuala Lumpur and has chapters around the world."
A Hash involves sending out runners ("hares") to mark trails (with chalk, toilet paper or other creative substances) through the countryside--mud holes, thorns, streams--the worse, the better.
Other runners ("hounds") start later and try to catch hares, with "On On!" their call words. Afterwards, Hashers gather to sing bawdy songs and drink beer.
The first "Last Chance to Run Through the Woods Without Getting Your A** Blown Off" was born from such inspiration. Now Kern hosts the Grand Rapids Hash House Harriers on the last Saturday before every hunting season.
One precaution: In case of inclement weather, the Hashes are held outdoors.
To give something back to the sport that has meant so much to them, or to avenge themselves, Kern and a friend, Shawn Sweet, are promoting even-more-warped events.
The Hair of the Frog microbrewery in Grand Rapids hosted their first Frogger 5.5K on Friday the 13th last April.
The Gatecrasher 5K Sept. 2 involved runners shinnying under or scaling gates to a not-yet-open park. "The idea," says Kern, "was to give our friends a diversion from reality." At post-race festivities, Gatecrasher winners were awarded medallions made out of locks and chains.
In 1998 Kern finished marathons at Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa) and in Adelaide, Australia. His "second planet"? The Martian Marathon in Northville.
A gargoyle for each continent? Kern began picking up the grotesquely-carved stone figures from roadside stands while driving to and from more marathons.
The sculptures, thought in medieval times to scare away evil spirits, glower benignly from a home he has been remodeling for 24 years (that adventure continues too), and upon a funky, clunky Pontiac Aztek in his driveway.
"That car's like my alter ego," Kern says. "It gets me to weekend marathons and I can sleep in the back. I save a few bucks that way."
How can he afford this? "I probably can't," he says. "But I have to."
Only a few of the 63 marathons Kern has finished (as of this writing) have been in locales one might think exotic, unless one views Bismarck, South Bend or Vandalia, OH as dream vacations. No matter: revelations could lurk anywhere, in his eyes.
Take Vandalia, which Kern -- a coming-out-of-the-closet writer -- chronicles on his website as "My First (and Probably Last) Marathon Win."
Seems in December 1999, Kern realized he "only" needed to run seven winter marathons in order to reach 44 on his 44th birthday.
He drove nearly six hours through a snowstorm to Vandalia to fit in one of them. The weather was so bad that only two other people came to join him. Since the course, 105 laps around the high school track, was buried, it was decided to run 105 laps around the school parking lot.
"The course was very repetitive, yet uninteresting," Kern writes. "Across the street was a credit union with one of those digital time and temperature displays. Every 20 laps or so, the degree would change."
There were no course amenities, so he would stop at his car and refuel from a can of Pringles. More entertainment included a snowplow crew placing road cones to mark a pothole.
"I finished in 5:49:52, quite possibly a world record for the slowest winning marathon time in history," Kern remembers.
He picked up his trophy, took a shower at his cheap motel room, and headed home.
Mild wildman or wild mildman? Kern is both.
Yes, he did run naked, with a few friends, on a not-yet-open (to car traffic) stretch of the South Beltline just last weekend. He is planning a South Pole marathon, and has a doctor friend writing an article for the New England Journal of Medicine on the virtues of drinking pickle brine prior to marathons.
But Kern views his capers from a scholar's remove as well. He likes beer but not drunkenness. Hash Hymnal songs can become TOO bawdy.
He's a self-respecting computer guy, grandpa and Martinite, after all.
So when a driver pulled up next to him, as he neared the painful end of another marathon last year, and asked, "Why are you running?" Kern had an epiphany.
"I thought, 'God, that's a really good question,'" he declares.
Baby steps in a small town. Energy spent and returned. Friends everywhere.
Kern learns as he goes and plans to enjoy each step of the way.