A hug is the best award that Colorado Springs' own Boston Marathon champion receives these days.
Lisa Rainsberger says the thrill of winning the prestigious race has faded a little. Now it's all about her Kokopelli Kids program and the young runners to whom she gifts the love of running.
"We'll be out and maybe I'll see somebody wearing a Kokopelli Kids shirt, or I'll get a tap on the shoulder from one of the kids who recognizes me as the 'Kokopelli lady,'" Rainsberger says. "That's the best part about it."
It has been 30 years since Rainsberger, now 53, raised her hands to the sky, made one last painful stride and won the Boston Marathon. No American woman has won the race since then.
"I never expected that," Rainsberger says of that dry spell. "That's crazy. It's not that the American women aren't as talented, or deserving, or hard-working as runners from other places. But since then, I think there has been a revolution of opportunities for women in sports in America. There are so many sports for young women now."
For years, springtime kindled her memories of Boston. Her name back in 1985 was Lisa Larsen Weidenbach, and she led the women's race the entire way, finishing in a time of 2 hours, 34 minutes and 6 seconds.
She has recounted the story a million times and shared it with me not long ago for a story originally posted on the website PikesPeakSports.us. It begins with an unseasonably warm 72-degree day. She and many others had trained in snow and cool temperatures. The sun was unexpected.
"It created a disorienting feeling for me and everybody else," she says. But she had come to win.
"I went out fast. I went hard. The start is downhill, so I took control early," Rainsberger says.
The historic Boston course is known for its landmarks. Wellesley College and its all-female student body is one of them.
"The women of Wellesley created a tunnel of people that we ran through," Rainsberger says. "It was narrow and they did high-fives and slapped my butt, and they were just screaming. To be the first woman through Wellesley is memorable."
Then came Heartbreak Hill, where the heat worked her over. "I remember how hot it was on Heartbreak," she says. "I was 5-foot-10 and 130 pounds, and it was hard. I was depleted, just grabbing things from the crowd, orange slices, whatever I could get."
And then the finish, a mixture of pain and great joy. "When you finally make the left-hand turn onto Boylston Street, it's just insane," she says.
Rainsberger enjoyed a successful running career that included some big wins and frustrating finishes. She twice won the Chicago Marathon, but finished fourth on three occasions in the Olympic Marathon Trials, barely missing a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.
She came to Colorado Springs in 1996 to train as a triathlete at the Olympic Training Center, and never left the shadow of Pikes Peak. Today, she and her husband, Bud, live in the foothills of southwest Colorado Springs, where they're raising two children, Katie, 16, and Ian, 13. Katie is one of the top high school runners in the country. Ian, though he struggles with epilepsy, is one of the state's best young pole vaulters.
Rainsberger will travel to Boston for the marathon on April 20, where she'll be recognized as a past champion, shake hands and play the big shot again — though she is quick to clarify that in her household, Katie is now the running big shot.
Then she'll fly home to prepare for the Kokopelli Kids spring session, which begins on May 8 at Bear Creek Park. There is a pre-race clinic and registration at 6 p.m., May 6, at The Colorado Running Company. (Visit kokopellikids.com for more information.)
Nearly 4,000 young runners have participated in Kokopelli Kids since 2006, when Rainsberger and running friend Sonya Norris started the program. Some are fast, some not so much. It doesn't matter. Of all the activities she has created or participated in since her Boston win, Rainsberger says Kokopelli Kids is the most important.
"I want kids to realize that running is not a four-letter word," she says. "Running is not punishment. I want kids to learn that they can quantify running in a personal way by showing them their progress week to week."
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