Gene "The Machine" Curnow
Don't put a toe tag on this Duluth, Minn., runner yet
While frantically entering the official finishing times of Grandma's Minnesota Mile runners on September 11, 2011, some commotion just past the finish line caught my attention. As I swiftly moved in that direction, someone asked me if I knew who it was on the ground behind the T-shirt table. When I said, "No," I was told, "It's Gene."
I completed the short but seemingly long journey to the scene of turmoil. There I saw Eugene Curnow, 67, on the ground with an oxygen mask strapped over his mouth, his eyes wide open, fully alert and attempting to get up despite the EMTs attempts to keep him lying down. Doug Happy and Randy Back, two of Gene's close running buddies, were standing near him and immediately briefed me on what had happened. His heart had stopped and an EMT, thankfully standing only 50 short feet away at that moment, quickly and effectively used a defibrillator to get it working again.
I made my way to his Gene's side and bent down to let him know I'd call his wife Barb. Through the oxygen mask he responded with a smile, "Thank you," and a short laugh.
Doug Happy, who has gone through a few ups and downs of his own, recently published a book that mentions Gene. Doug says he is now a stable runner, triathlete and skier in part thanks to Gene, who he met at a race in 1989. He said Gene helpfully told him then to relax because he had a tendency to bound when he ran. Doug said Gene also let him know that if he ever needed a ride to a race, Gene would be more than happy to take him. Since then the pair have traveled to numerous races and run many marathons together, including the Longest Day, Bismarck, Waukesha Trail and Twin Cities marathons.
Randy looks at Gene as many of us do, as a mentor, teacher, ultra running role model, race director and trainer. Randy said he really got to know Gene during one of the final runnings of the Skyline 25K in Duluth. Then a solid master runner, Gene caught Randy with about 5K to go. Randy said he was suffering on account of going out too hard. Randy said Gene adjusted his pace and started a conversation that helped Randy recover a bit so he could pick it up to the finish. Randy remembers both of them ending up with good results for the day. He said Gene could have just as easily run by him but he didn't.
I had the privilege of sitting next to Doug on a flight from Duluth, Minnesota, to Mesa, Arizona, last October. My purpose for heading south was to push my dad up a mountain in a wheelchair during the Mt. Lemmon Half Marathon. Doug was en route to completing his first half Ironman. While on the plane, Doug described in detail what he witnessed during his time with Gene after the Minnesota Mile.
"Randy Back and I were talking after the mile and Gene joined us. We all said something about finishing and as Gene congratulated Randy Gene leaned forward as if to catch his breath, or so I thought. He then went down backwards and I was completely surprised," Doug said.
"I immediately knelt beside him and asked him if he was okay. I figured he had become light headed and fainted. Randy asked me if he was okay, and I replied no, because he was not responding and losing color. I knew it was serious and told Randy to find a medic because Gene's breathing was ragged and sporadic," he said.
It seemed to take forever before medics arrived. "I had a similar experience with my dad a couple year prior and, unfortunately, he did not survive," Doug said. "When they hooked Gene up to the defibrillator, Randy and I kept saying, 'Come on Gene, hang in there, stay with us.'"
It was a relief to everyone concerned when Gene started breathing on his own again. "When they were loading Gene on the gurney, Randy and I gave him a thumbs up, which he was able to return."
Ed, the EMT who revived Gene, told me Gene was very lucky his heart chose to stop at the finish line instead of in the car on the way home, in the woods during a training run or while he was out doing trail maintenance.
Randy Back, who has known Gene since the 1980s, said he was just thankful Gene found his two friends after the race.
Gene told me a subsequent angiogram showed that he was in dire need of quadruple bypass surgery, which was promptly performed the following Tuesday.
I made a giant card for Gene that many runners signed at the Northern Minnesota Track Club (NMTC) Zapps' Loop Race. When I brought it to him in the hospital a few days after his surgery, he was in great spirits with smile on his face, energy in his voice and a twinkle in his eye. He said he had no memory of talking to me or anyone else after the race.
As soon as he was out of the hospital, Gene began walking. He was quickly up to five to 10 miles a day. With permission from his physician, he ran his first race on Thanksgiving morning just a little over two months after his surgery. As I was again timing, I was so excited to see him cross that finish line with his granddaughter. He was back.
Gene said he becomes winded so he takes frequent walk breaks. "I am panting like a mad dog so I gotta walk," he said.
Gene said he inherited his heart issues from his mother's side of the family. Otherwise his cholesterol is great and he is in excellent physical health thanks to all the exercise he gets.
Fount of wisdom
I met Gene when I first began participating in NMTC races eight years ago. I arrived to find a very welcoming man wearing cut-off blue jeans as "warm ups." Since that time, I have had the pleasure of working and running with Gene at various events, including timing with him at the Grandma's Wednesday night races for kids, running mini meets at UWS with him and many more events.
Because of my extreme personal challenge with navigation, I have relied on Gene for directions to get to the same trail race starting lines for years. "Ya go out through those trees and take a right at the rock," he say, "then take the next right after those steps and run the lollipop back to the flag again that is just past the bridge...."
Gene has vast wisdom and experience he's willing to share with others too. When I tore my hamstring while bowling and unable to run, Gene told me he had suffered from a similar injury a few years back. He gave me the most helpful advice: "Heck, you can run. Just make sure you pick a pace that doesn't bother it and don't go faster than that even if it feels good or you'll start the injury all over again."
Gene began his extensive distance running career at the age of 39 by doing a few of the shorter NMTC races in the 1980s. The Hibbing Mile, which he ran in five minutes flat, was his favorite short road race at the time. He was 40 when he ran Grandma's Marathon, his first stab at 26.2 miles, and finished in 3:30 or so. He has run Grandma's every year since and plans to run it again this coming June. Gene said his favorite road marathon is Twin Cities where he set his 3:10 PR.
At age 42, Gene ran his first 50 miler, the Voyager, on July 25, 1987. He placed 21st overall in a time of 9:48:57. With that, Gene was hooked on ultrarunning, adding 10 completions of the Superior 100 Mile to his legacy.
He said the only ultra he'd failed was the Black Hills 100. It rained five inches during the race and was unseasonably cold. The waist deep creeks he had to traverse threatened him with hypothermia. At mile 72 around midnight, Gene smartly pulled out of the race.
Race coordinator extraordinaire
Gene's feats are all the more impressive when you learn he has frequently worked 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts on Friday and Saturday nights, meaning he's often been up all night prior to his races. Gene also rides his bike to and from work in Duluth, 25 miles each way, every day.
Gene has coordinated the NMTC trail series for more than 25 tears, giving up his duties only last year. Every week Gene carried two heavy coolers of soda and water, he and Barb timed the races, and he and Austin Jarrow Running store co-owner Jarrow Wahman took turns marking the courses.
Of all the NMTC races, Gene said his favorite is the Rough Rider, which is run on the most challenging section of the Voyager Trail. He said it is also the most spectacular section of trail.
The first time I ran this race seven years ago, I finished frustrated, muddy and worn out. I asked who the heck created this dang crazy course of countless steep climbs through wet clay with only weeds to hold on to. Three years ago during a training run there, I fell and broke my wrist.
For 17 years, Barb coordinated the full Voyager 50 from Carlton, Minnesota, to the Zoo in Duluth. Gene's brainchild was the Half Voyager, from the Zoo to Carlton, two weeks prior to the full Voyager. He ran that event for 16 years ending last year.
Gene also maintained the trails for the Voyager, diligently venturing out alone with a lawn mower and a weed whacker. Believe me, it's quite a hilly, muddy and tick-ridden task. In addition, he and fellow runner Ed Dallmann have bench cut the side hills, giving runners flat spots on which to run.
In 2007, Gene started feeling ill but chalked up to getting old. By the time he was diagnosed with lyme disease and ehrlichiosis, Gene had to be hospitalized for four days and put on an IV. To help Gene pay his sizable medical bills, I helped put on a Smush Da Ticks Run that raised $3,000.
This summer while running the UWS mini meet prediction mile, I noticed Gene was not himself. When asked if he was O.K., he replied, "Ya know, this getting old stuff stinks! I just feel like I'm working harder than ever right now."
He told me he found it depressing he was unable to run like he had in the past. To solve the problem, he said he quit looking at his watch and just tries to enjoy the running. I'm wondering if he'll be donning a watch again now that he has that "new heart" of his.
Although he's now retired from race directing, Gene said he still intends to help out, encourage and others, share his wisdom and continue to run races. Gene persuaded to star in a TV commercial for the Grandma's Marathon Minnesota Mile this year, a reflection of what he means to the local running scene.
May the trail running gods continue watching over him for years to come.
Eve Stein is an avid runner, Nordic skier, skijorer and dragon boater in Duluth, Minnesota.