By Dan Brannen, AUA
Barney Klecker's ultra career spanned the decade of the 1980s. His greatest ultra performance was his first one. Never before or since has an American come out of the proverbial nowhere to rock the global ultra scene as Barney Klecker did in his inaugural ultra. It happened in the US National 50-Mile Championship at the Chicago Lakefront Ultra on October 5, 1980, where the Minnesotan took off at an unprecedented race pace right from the starting gun. Until that day, no man had ever broken 5 hours (6 minute per mile pace) for a road 50 miler, although American Allan Kirik (2009 AUA Hall of fame inductee) had come within half a minute of 5 hours the previous year. Only Brits Cavin Woodward and Don Ritchie had done it on the track, and Ritchie's track world record from 1978 stood at 4 hours, 53 minutes, 28 seconds.
In Chicago, Klecker, 29 at the time, averaged under 5:40 per mile for the first 30 miles (including a marathon split of 2:27:30), faded slightly approaching 40 miles (which he still reached in 3:46), then crashed and burned through his last agonizing 10 miles. But the early pace had given him enough of a cushion to bring him safely home in 4:51:25 and the new owner of the absolute 50 mile world record.
Klecker had twice broken 2:17 for the marathon, and for the next three years he focused his attention on breaking the US record for the shorter 50K distance. In 1981, he set the still-standing US track 50K record of 2:52:48 in Tucson, which he ran barely a month after defending his 50 mile title at Chicago in 5:05:04. The following year he moved up to try his first 100K, the longest distance he would ever attempt. In October, he won The Edmund Fitzgerald 100K in 6:50:43, putting himself in the #2 spot on the all-time US 100K list. Two months later, he bettered the U.S. 50K road record with a sterling 2:51:53 to win the Tallahassee Ultra 50K. In 1983, he returned to the Tallahassee race and won the 50K in 2:53:45, as his wife (and 1992 Olympic marathoner) Janis ran 3:13:51 to break the women's world record by almost 8 minutes in the same race.
In October 1984, South African Bruce Fordyce broke Klecker's 50 mile world record on the very same Chicago lakefront course on which Barney had set it. The American made a valiant attempt to regain the record in January 1986 in Dallas, but fell short, fading in the last half of the race to a 5:10:47.
In October 1988, Klecker tried something different: back-to-back 50K races on successive weekends. He won the Mid-America 50K in Muncie, IN, with a 3:01:48, then despite running 30 seconds faster the following weekend, he lost the Edmund Fitzgerald 50K by less than 2 minutes to Bruce Mortenson. It was the only time he ever lost an ultra that he finished.
Two years later, Klecker returned to the Mid-America 50K, which this time hosted the USA Championship. There he closed out his decade-long ultra career by winning his second national ultra title with 3:07:40.
During those 10 years, Barney Klecker had run almost a dozen 50K races with an average time under 3 hours, and three 50 mile races with an average time barely over 5 hours. From that perspective, Barney Klecker holds a place in American ultra history that no other man has ever come close to matching.
To visit the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame, go to: www.americanultra.org
Note on AUA Hall of Fame policy: to be considered for the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame, candidates must be either retired from serious competition for 10 years, or have reached the age of 60.