A lot of runners, myself included, are happy if they place in their age group. Not Mike Nelson, of Danville, formerly of Bonaparte. He’s out to win the race. He cares little for the medallions given to age-group winners. For lack of space, these medallions are piled in a corner of one of his trophy cases. He likes the First Place Trophy. If he gets a first-place trophy and an age-group medallion at a race, he will often give the medallion away.
No (this really dates me), he is not the Mike Nelson of “Sea Hunt”–Lloyd Bridges or father to Jeff and Beau Bridges. This is the Mike Nelson who was formerly a cross country high school coach at Danville, has worked at ABB (formerly GE) in West Burlington for going on 30 years, and has been known to run two races in one day: an early morning race locally, then the Mid Night Madness Run in Ames. “Madness” is right.
To say that Mike Nelson at 5’11”, 165 pounds, is a talented runner, is an understatement. In his running career he has won 159 out of 700 races, logged 60,000 miles running, with 2,800 miles being the most in a year. He has run seven marathons, all under three hours—his best being 2:43:12, which is an average of 6 minutes, 13 seconds per mile. His fastest mile is 4:44; fastest 5K is 15:55; and 10K is 32:22. He keeps meticulous records, logs and scrap books. He can tell you how many miles he has on a pair of running shoes, which he has multiple pairs of, and makes his own orthotics.
Number three out of nine children growing up on a farm north of Bonaparte in Van Buren County, Mike wasn’t always an athlete. He played no high school sports until his junior year at Harmony when a friend talked him into going out for track—there was no cross country. Sort of by accident he found out he was good at distance—so good in fact that he set the record at Harmony for two miles that was unbeaten for 12 years. He made a vow that he was always going to stay in shape.
Mike didn’t run much for a few years after high school. He worked at Jack’s Discount Store (that changed to Shopko) in Ft. Madison. In 1978 at the age of 22 he subscribed to Runner’s World magazine and became interested in running again. His first race was a 10 mile run on Memorial Day in Ft. Madison. He came in 10th overall and was hooked. He entered more races, but in the next three years never placed in an age group. So he picked up his mileage.
In the parking lot at Jack’s he found the results of a race in Shimek Forest. He didn’t even know there were races in Shimek Forest. It turns out that they had races every other Sunday. He won the next three races. It was 1982 and Mike was 26 years old. He won five races that year.
Finally Mike’s two mile record at Harmony was broken. At the Strawberry Festival Run in Farmington in 1986, Mike met the high school boy who had beaten his record. Mike won the race and beat the young man by a minute. But they started training together. The high school coach noticed and asked Mike to run with some of the other students.
Mike was now working at General Electric in West Burlington. He moved to Danville to be closer to work. A cross country coaching position opened there, and Mike took it. His hope was to take a cross country team to state. One of the boys and two of the girls did go to state, but not the whole team.
Mike qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon on its 100th Anniversary in 1996. He also met and competed against some world class runners such as Frank Shorter, Jim Ryun, Bill Rogers and Phil Coppess, who had been on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. Mike ran against Phil Coppess at Columbus Junction, beat him and won the race. Coppess then invited Mike to run with him on a Masters’ Team. Mike was shocked to think that Coppess knew him.
Mike will be turning 65 in February. He still runs, but not near the mileage. COVID has drastically reduced the number of races. Without internet, computer or smart phone, he occupies himself on his 10-acre farm north of Danville with his antique tractors, Harley-Davidson motorcycle, horses and an orange Dodge Challenger RT—it matches his AC tractors. Retirement is looming. His running has come full circle. Mike still has a competitive side, but he now runs for physical fitness, and even appreciates the age-group medallions.
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