By: Sam Knehans, Communications & Sports Information Intern
PORTLAND, Ore. — Running is considered a lifetime sport. While speed and endurance may fade, it’s an activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Still, it’s not often you find a 59-year-old man who can handle the competition of collegiate athletics, regardless of sport.
That didn’t stop Fred Willet, an Army veteran who enrolled at Warner Pacific (Ore.) under the G.I. Bill. “When I first got to Warner Pacific, I was looking at the athletics website and saw that they offered cross country and track & field,” Willet said. “I thought I might as well try out for the team, since it’s something I have done all my life.”
Bryan Grove, the Warner Pacific cross country coach at the time, told Willet to start working out more in order to make the team. But, when Grove stepped down, his replacement, David Kilian, immediately accepted Willet as part of the program. “He wanted me to work out and then I just ran unattached when we had races, since I hadn’t been cleared by the Eligibility Center.”
Willet got his eligibility determination from the NAIA Eligibility Center this week, and while he won’t be running at the Cascade Collegiate Conference Meet on Saturday, he will be there to support his teammates.
“I like to encourage people. When I’m out watching the ladies race I’ll make a lot of noise for them, and encourage them, and then they reciprocate when I’m racing,” Willet said. “I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by these kids—they’re young adults really—they have been really supportive and some of them have asked me questions about my experiences.”
Willet does have quite an interesting story. He ran just one year of cross country in high school, but continued to run at Lower Columbia Community College (Wash.), where, in 1985, he was chosen as the team’s Most Valuable Runner after placing 50th in the conference with a personal 8-kilometer record of 26:50.
Since, Willet has continued to train and race. “That was what I did, I just trained. I didn’t have a whole lot of distraction,” Willet said. “I was basically running anywhere from 60 to 80 miles a week and entering marathons. I wasn’t a world-class runner, but I ran okay. In my opinion I wasn’t fast, but if there was a local guy who was having a bad day I could usually beat him.”
In 1984, Willet qualified for and ran in the Boston Marathon, the oldest and most prestigious race in the United States. Just qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a lifelong goal for many runners, but that wasn’t good enough for Willet. He completed the race in 2:45:24, finishing in the top 16 percent of the field.
“Boston was a whole different experience,” Willet said. “People were talking about how hard it was, but I found the course to be one of easiest courses I’ve ever run.”
At Warner Pacific, Willet draws from his wealth of experience and serves as an inspiration to his teammates, coaches and fans. “I guess I’m just kind of an inspiration to people that think they’re too old and slow to compete. I show them that there is an opportunity to run,” Willet said.
Willet‘s opportunity has reinvigorated his passion for running. “I’m really looking forward to trying to improve again. At one point I was kind of washed up and I lacked the will and desire to train sometimes, but I’m getting back to it and it actually feels pretty good,” Willet said.
He’s also overwhelming grateful for the kind welcome he’s received at Warner Pacific. “It’s been a really fun experience for me. The people of Warner Pacific—everyone here—makes me feel more than welcome,” Willet said. “People I’ve never even seen before will smile and say hello.”
When asked why he chose to try out for a team typically comprised of runners a third of his age, Willet said, “I just like running. I’ve been running basically my whole life. As far as running goes there’s not a whole lot that scares me.”
59-Year-Old Warner Pacific (Ore.) Runner Is A True Inspiration
Fred Willet will cheer on his team at the Cascade Collegiate Conference Meet on Nov. 9
November 08, 2013