Asked his age during a recent interview, Dan Conway’s response underscores precisely a mindset that was so integral to his ascension as a world-class masters runner.
“67,” Conway said, before correcting himself. “Sorry, 76 - I had that backwards.”
A natural slip, perhaps, for a guy who previously has said he doesn’t like to think about age because it can be a crutch. So it was that the Superior resident morphed into a national and world champion.
Conway didn’t get serious about the sport until his late 30s while serving as an exchange teacher - via Chetek High School in Wisconsin, where he taught and coached for more than 25 years, starting in 1972. Across the pond for the 1976-77 school year, Richard Wilde, who would go on to win the third Grandma’s Marathon in 1979, encouraged Conway to give racing a try.
The fortuitous prodding spawned a whirlwind career that included national championships, a world championship, age-group records and a 15-year sponsorship from Nike.
A dizzying list of accolades and accomplishments has the modest, self-deprecating Conway headed for induction Thursday into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame. He will be honored with four others in a ceremony that begins at 6 p.m. at the DECC’s Harborside Ballroom.
Conway graduated from Superior Cathedral in 1957 and earned education and physical education degrees from Wisconsin-Superior and Minnesota Duluth in 1963 and 1965, respectively. He kicked around, coaching a multitude of sports and teaching, before heading to Chetek, about 100 miles south of Superior. It was there, four years into his tenure, that Conway had an opportunity to teach in England.
He returned a changed man.
‘I MIGHT BE ABLE TO RUN WITH THESE GUYS’
“When I came back to Wisconsin, it was, ‘This is what I was going to do,’ ” Conway said. “I was going to run 12 months a year instead of sitting on the couch.”
Conway turned 40 in 1979. As he flipped through running magazines, he noticed results from races around the country.
“And I started to think, because of some of the local things I was doing, ‘I might be able to run with these guys,’ ” he said.
So Conway entered the 1980 national 15K championships in Seattle, where he surprised everybody, including himself, by winning his first national masters title.
The victory announced Conway as an improbable contender among the world’s best masters runners.
“He took such a non-traditional route to elite running,” said one of Conway’s longtime friends, Tim Stratioti of Duluth.
Conway was just getting started.
Already a national champion, he upped the ante in 1983 by outkicking a loaded field en route to victory at the world masters 10K championships in Perpignan, France. Ahead of that race, Conway vowed to kick with 300 meters remaining, regardless of place or pace, in honor of an uncle who was killed in France during World War II.
Approaching the final 300 meters, Conway had one competitor to beat.
“I put 7 seconds on the guy and won it,” he said of a race in which he set a personal best of 30 minutes, 26 seconds in the 10K. “My uncle was with me.”
That same year, Conway ran Grandma’s in 2:23:25, a mark he topped in 1984 at the Twin Cities Marathon, where he hammered out a 2:23:06.
Another highlight in a career full of them arrived in 1992 at the Sunkist Games in Los Angeles. There, Conway set a world indoor mile record for the 50-54 age group of 4:41.31. The time bested the old record by 3 seconds and propelled Conway past the likes of two-time Olympic gold medalist Kip Keino of Kenya.
“He was the first great Kenyan runner,” Conway said. “I don’t put myself in Kip Keino’s class by any stretch, any stretch, but it was just a nice experience.”
All told, Conway claimed four national masters championships in the 10K and 15K to go along with his world title. He also is a seven-time national masters indoor champ in the mile and 2-mile, as well as a four-time outdoor champion over 1,500 and 5,000 meters.
Not bad for a guy who, while getting his feet wet in England, thought, “This might be something I could do if I started training and take it seriously.”
It was Conway’s idea to revitalize the then-defunct DECC Hall of Fame in the early 2000s when he wanted to nominate Garry Bjorklund, the running whiz from Twig.
That was just his style - to promote running and fellow runners after the sport gave him so much.
“What an ambassador he is for running,” Bjorklund said. “He’s a great coach and a super supporter of positive things in running. He’s a super man, a tremendous human being.”
Conway retired as a coach at Chetek in 1999. But when the pull to move back to his hometown beckoned, he unretired to coach at Superior High School, which he did until 2012. Today, the four-time Grandma’s Marathon masters champion - he also holds records for the 55-59 (1:18:04) and 65-69 (1:25:00) age groups for the Grandma’s half - still runs, often with a group that includes Duluthians Kathi Madden and Jess Koski.
What Conway calls “jogging and giggling” allows him to enjoy his favorite aspect of running - socializing.
The giggling, Koski says, stems largely from Conway and his endless collection of one-liners.
“He always wants a fresh audience, though I’ve probably heard all of his jokes and stories four or five times,” Koski said. “He’ll always say, ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one.’ ”
Koski never stops him.
Winning races didn’t change Conway. He remained down-to-earth, relishing the camaraderie as much as the competition.
Stratioti remembers the first time he raced alongside Conway. It was a 15K and Stratioti was an up-and-coming 19-year-old. Conway won the event.
“He stuck around after the race and sought me out just to let me know he was proud of me. He said, ‘Things are coming along nicely; keep it up,’ ” Stratioti remembers. “And he had, like, celebrity status at that time.”
Tuesday afternoon, during a quick photo shoot, Conway ran a few out-and-backs on the Osaugie Trail near Barker’s Island. His stride was effortless and light.
So were his one-liners.
“I got it wide-open now!” he barked amid a short dash.
About his running at 76, he said: “I figure my life’s about half over now.”
There were others sandwiched around a quick 1-2 air punch as Conway did what he’s always done - refuse to act his age.