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Doug Robinson: For Harpers, winning state titles runs in the family

SHARE Doug Robinson: For Harpers, winning state titles runs in the family
We saw how much our parents enjoyed it; you do what your parents do. They made it fun. If kids are having fun they’ll train hard and love it. It’s a lifelong pursuit. – Summer Harper

Family legend has it that Utah’s First Family of Running began when Mom and Dad literally bumped into each other on the track at BYU.

Cheryl Howlett, a freshman on the BYU cross country and track teams, was running one direction, and Ken “Hawk” Harper, an accomplished road racer who was training with BYU runners, was running in the opposite direction when they collided. Nothing much happened, except apologies, but at Harper’s request a mutual friend wrote her number on a napkin. A week later he drove three hours to Pocatello to watch her run in a cross-country race and to ask her out. They married 11 months later.

He was 35, she was 19, and running, which provided their introduction, became the nexus of their family. When the kids came along — Golden, Amber, Krystal and Summer — they naturally followed in their parents' waffled footsteps.

Everything they did involved running. It became the family hobby, vacation, vocation, exercise and gathering point. It is only a happy sidebar or byproduct that they succeeded in competition in a way maybe no other family of runners can match, the result of young driven personalities. Every child has won at least one high school state championship in either or both cross country and track, and earned a college scholarship.

Golden won two state cross country championships at Orem High and went on to run at BYU. After serving a mission for the LDS Church, he transferred to BYU-Hawaii, where he won a conference championship in the 10,000-meter run and produced the 15th fastest collegiate time in the nation that year.

Amber won 12 state championships and at one time ranked No. 1 in the nation in the junior competition (19 and under) in cross country and the 3,000-meter steeplechase (she won one of her cross-country titles on the same course that her mother accomplished the feat, 20 years to the day). Amber competed for BYU.

Krystal won five state championships and recently finished her collegiate career at Utah Valley University with a conference championship at 10,000 meters.

Summer, who just finished her high school career at Orem, won one state title in cross country and holds the distinction of having finished second five times — thrice in the 3,200-meter run, all to different rivals, once in the 1,600-meter run and once in cross country. She did this even though she ran faster every year, as fast or faster than her sisters in high school. She will run for Weber State in the fall.

Counting the five titles Cheryl won at Alta High in 1979 and 1980, the Harpers can claim 25 state championships. This is to say nothing of the races they won on the road or in collegiate competition. Hawk, who is 66 and still runs 50 miles a week despite a right knee replacement and a left knee that was damaged by a fall on the trail, estimates he has won 75 races and completed 75 marathons and several ultra-marathons.

The attic of the Harpers' house is filled with boxes of trophies. Only first-place trophies were displayed in the house for the simple reason there wasn’t enough room for all of them.

“Running has been a family thing for us,” says Hawk.

None of this would’ve happened if Hawk hadn’t had a weight problem or if he hadn’t literally bumped into the girl with the long curly blond hair and toothy smile.

Hawk is a legendary figure in Utah running circles. A native Californian, he was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam (“for one year and one hour,” he says). He came to Utah to play football and baseball at Dixie College (he picked up his nickname for being a “ball hawk”), and then moved to Provo to finish his schooling at BYU. With his athletic days behind him, Hawk settled into a more sedentary lifestyle, with predictable results. By his early 30s, he had collected 240 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame. He took up running to lose weight and because of his father’s heart problems — “I didn’t want that,” he says — and lost 100 pounds. When the running boom came along in the '70s, Hawk became smitten with the sport and took up road racing, including marathons and ultra-marathons (at one time he ranked 11th in the world in the latter).

Which is about when he met and married Cheryl. They traveled to races around the state and country and became a force on the local running scene. Among their biggest victories: Hawk won the St. George Marathon once; Cheryl won it twice (and finished second eight times). “That’s been a dinner conversation,” says Hawk dryly. The children viewed these trips — which included camping or staying in hotels — as vacations and connected running with fun. Soon they wanted to run in the races and go on trail runs like their parents.

“It just kind of happened,” says Cheryl. “It’s what we did. Everything we did was around running. The kids grew up with it and wanted to be involved. It was fun. ”

Instead of pounding monotonous miles on the track and road, they ran mountain trails, and the kids hardly seemed to notice they were doing hard workouts, even if their parents were reminding them of proper running mechanics. They ran in the foothills above Provo in various combinations of siblings and parents. On vacations, they searched for the area’s highest mountain and ran to the top of it.

“We just ran,” says Summer. “We love to run. Every time we went on vacation we ran. We saw how much our parents enjoyed it; you do what your parents do. They made it fun. If kids are having fun they’ll train hard and love it. It’s a lifelong pursuit.”

“Growing up around my parents, I thought that’s what everyone did — run,” says Golden.

Golden, the oldest, ran before he walked, or so goes family lore. Hawk and Cheryl had read a study that stated kids develop better if the crawling stage is prolonged. Every time Golden stood up, they gently pushed him back down to his hands and knees. Then one day Golden stood up and ran before his parents could ground him. Golden ran his first race at 2.

“I probably ran 100 races from age 2 to 7,” he says.

He urged his parents to let him run a marathon, but they resisted. He persisted and they relented, and he ran his first 26.2-mile race at 10, finishing in a head-turning 3 hours, 8 minutes. He finished in 2:57 a year later. At 12, he set a national age-group record by running 2:44. At 13, he ran 2:43, finishing one minute behind his mother.

And so it began. The rest of the children also gravitated to the sport. Every aspect of their life was infused with running. To keep the kids healthy for races, Cheryl fed them only non-processed, whole foods and banned sugar and pop (Golden didn’t taste sugar until he was 3 and then only because an acquaintance gave him a popsicle and a sucker).

“I became a label reader,” says Cheryl. “I didn’t want to do all that training and then get sick before a race.”

The Harpers turned their passion into a family business. Hawk, a former financial planner/insurance salesman, opened a small running store called “Runner’s Corner” 18 years ago and the entire family worked there. The business thrived. Two years ago they moved the store into a new three-story, 9,000-square-foot building in Orem that is a runner’s paradise. It contains classrooms with big-screen TVs, locker rooms, offices, a tiny indoor track, and of course running shoes and running-related merchandise.

The classrooms, which include several large-screen TVs and video equipment, are used to study proper running mechanics with individuals or as part of a clinic. The runners are filmed in the parking lot so their technique can be studied and corrected. Runner’s Corner also serves as home base for the Sojourner Track Club, which Hawk started decades ago, and for their race operations — they organize and put on road races and rent equipment to races. Each May the family migrates to Midway to put on a race Hawk started and named after his oldest child — the Golden Homestead 15K.

Over the years, while working in the store, Golden and Hawk tinkered with building better running shoes, cutting up existing shoes to use the parts to make something better. Golden continued to pursue the project and founded Altra, a “zero-drop” running shoe that is designed to function more like a foot, which means no raised heel or bunched toes. To finance the national marketing and sale of the shoe, Golden signed an acquisition deal with Icon Health and Fitness two years ago, but retained a role and stake in the company.

“It’s in the top 10 shoes nationally and we expect to do $20 million in sales this year,” says Golden.

The shoe is just one more byproduct of the family’s passion for running. Whether it was business, pleasure or competition, running was always the family nexus. The Harpers ran together, worked the family store together and organized races together, and by all accounts it played a role in producing a happy family life.

“Running is the most wonderful sport,” says Hawk. “It has been great for our family. Running was part of the package.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com