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Hermantown's Harry Cottrell continues to run fast at 70, and he has the records to prove it

Harry Cottrell was 8 years old when he watched a newsreel of Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile.Cottrell was captivated. Emboldened by the innocence of youth, he confidently decided, "that's what I'm gonna do."...

Harry Cottrell, 70, of Hermantown runs along the Lakewalk in Canal Park Saturday morning. Cottrell is one of the top masters runners in the area. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)
Harry Cottrell, 70, of Hermantown runs along the Lakewalk in Canal Park Saturday morning. Cottrell is one of the top masters runners in the area. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

HERMANTOWN, Minn. -- Harry Cottrell was 8 years old when he watched a newsreel of Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile.

Cottrell was captivated. Emboldened by the innocence of youth, he confidently decided, "that's what I'm gonna do."

As fate would have it, there was an upcoming track meet in Cottrell's native Arcata, Calif. Here was his shot to join Bannister in mile immortality. Cottrell came up just short on that day 63 years ago - well, 4:58 short, to be exact - but the eclectic West Coaster, who has made his home in Hermantown since 1999, hasn't stopped chasing fast times.

"Think back to 1954, and Hardcore Harry's been at it ever since," said Duluth's Jess Koski, Cottrell's friend and occasional training partner.

It was Koski who bestowed that nickname on Cottrell, as well as another one - California hippie. Cottrell looks the part, this adjunct instructor of American government with the wispy gray hair and easy demeanor.

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He's 70 now, though surging toward 71 (Wednesday). Cliché would require a line here about Cottrell refusing to slow down, but that would be misleading.

"I've slowed down a lot, no doubt about it," he said.

Cottrell's "slow" is relative. In February, he ran the mile in 6 minutes, 7.72 seconds and covered 3,000 meters in 12:19.26. Both marks were Minnesota records for 70-year-olds. That's what drives Cottrell. Sure, he relives memorable races from the past, even referencing Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." But Cottrell likes to look forward. When he does, he sees more goals, more records within reach.

He already owns a passel of them. That includes a 5:59 mile at 68, plus 10-mile records for age 69 and age 70.

"In the whole scope of things, it's trivial getting age-group records," Cottrell said. "But it's fun. I enjoy it."

Superior's Dan Conway, a late-starter who became one of the world's top masters runners, knows the feeling. At 78, he doesn't have to compete against Cottrell. Thankfully.

"I'm glad I'm not in Harry's age group because he's tougher than nails," said Conway, another friend and sometimes-training cohort. "He puts in the time to be good, and he is good."

Cottrell was hooked after that first Bannister-inspired mile. He ran through high school and college, but didn't take it too seriously until about 1980. It was then that the Vietnam vet decided, "now or never."

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He took advantage of the myriad running surfaces in Humboldt County, Calif. - beaches, trails, pavement, dirt roads - and discovered a knack for longer distances. His times plummeted.

In 1983, he hammered out a 2:24:34 to win the Avenue of the Giants Marathon in Humboldt County. That race, on a postcard-pretty course through massive redwoods, doubled as Cottrell's personal record.

He was asked if he recalled PRs for other distances. Silly question. One of Cottrell's sons, Jeff, called his dad a "walking stopwatch." There was a 1:08:45 half-marathon, a 50:59 10-miler and a 14:54 5K, plus a 30:48 10K and a 24:24 5-miler. During this rehashing, it was suggested to Cottrell that all of this started with that 9-minute mile in 1954.

"8:58," he jokingly interrupted.

Point taken. Runners are fanatical about their times.

Cottrell currently is battling through a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis, with hopes of being healthy for the June 17 Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. Beyond that, there are records to chase, even if, as Cottrell says, "you only borrow a record." He has his eyes on a sub-70-minute 10-mile time and a sub-6-minute mile.

"I have no idea if I can reach either one now," Cottrell said.

But that's the beauty of this solo sport - the goal-setting, the fastidious training, the competition and camaraderie. Cottrell loves that. He likes seeing how far he can push his body.

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It's a part of his identity.

"What always happens to me when I run into people is they'll say, 'I saw your dad running' or 'Is your dad still running?' " said the 24-year-old Jeff, a 2010 Hermantown graduate who ran at the University of Minnesota. "So I take a few minutes to brag about him."

Cottrell's is a family of runners. His wife, Claudia, is a 3:25 marathoner, and their oldest son, 27-year-old Randall, was the Lake Superior Conference cross-country champ in 2006.

A year after winning the Avenue of the Giants, Cottrell decided to give Grandma's Marathon a try. He came through in "2:26 and change," but that's not what sticks out from that trip to Duluth. No, it was the first glimpse of the city that left a lasting impression. Cresting Thompson Hill and seeing Lake Superior, the Aerial Lift Bridge and the ships, Cottrell says he was struck by the similarities to his coastal roots.

"I told my wife, someday we're going to live here," Cottrell recalled.

He's a man of his word - the whole Roger Bannister episode notwithstanding.

Cottrell was asked if there's a secret to running fast into one's 70s. Unfortunately, there is not. He's the first to admit that he was blessed with good genes. He was born with a cardiovascular system - indeed, a body - conducive to running. More recently, injuries that derailed consistent training for 15 years, from 52 to 67, might have been a blessing in disguise. He came back rejuvenated.

Cottrell says he can't envision not running.

Why stop now?

"Everyone's born with an expiration date," he said. "We just don't know what it is."

In other words, run until you can't.

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