A Life Well Lived

The local & regional running community has had a treasure in Gale Pfueller, a founding member of the Greater Bellingham Running Club and board member & treasurer into this year, long time race director and volunteer of many local events, encourager to all kinds of runners of every ability, Bellingham High School & WWU hurdles record holder, local racer, master’s steeplechase and cross country champ, and fan of local high school and WWU track and cross country.

Gale has also been my treasure as the best dad I could have ever ask for. 

My dad passed away at the age of 79 on March 25th. He lived a life of positivity and faith, seizing the best of every day and being such a good spirit to all who got to encounter him. He will be so missed, but we are focusing on gratitude for getting to have him brighten our lives in so many ways.

I wrote the below “A Lifelong Runner” article about my dad for Adventure’s NW Magazine in 2010, but so much of it still rings true today. If you want to read on, here it is:

A Lifelong Runner (written in 2010 by Gale’s daughter, Genevie, for Adventure’s NW Magazine)

My dad, Gale Pfueller, has set a lifelong example of seizing and celebrating the day, all the while being a good steward, support and inspiration to those around him – especially me – and being a lifelong runner. 

My dad has deep roots in this community, living his entire life in Bellingham and being a part of a family owned business encompassing four generations. For most of his 66 years my dad has actively celebrated his love for this place by embracing and enjoying the amazing outdoor opportunities available to him.  He has been an avid fastpacking hiker and he has probably run most of the trails, past and present, around Whatcom County, quite literally, covering many miles of this community and touching a lot of lives in the process.

A state level hurdler while at Bellingham High School, he continued to compete at Western Washington State College from 1962-1965.  He gravitated toward the down to earth, yet quirky personalities of the distance runners and so, in the off-season, would join them for jaunts up nearby Sehome Hill. After graduating, he dabbled in hurdling at the club level for a few years, training on his own as there weren’t a lot of post collegiate track athletes continuing on in those days. With a growing family, including two kids, he turned to running longer distances, in part, for the ease of it. 

A life long interest in traveling near and far, he along with my mom attended the summer Olympics from 1968-1984 where he filmed the world record breaking leap of Bob Beamon on Super VH in Mexico City, was there for the tragedy in Munich along with seeing Finland’s barefooted Lasse Viren win the 5,000 and 10,000 and take fifth in the marathon. He had his tickets for Moscow until the U.S. decided to boycott those games and, finally, witnessed Carl Lewis take 4 gold medals in Los Angeles. He stopped attending the Olympics due to the escalating financial costs and the more glitzy Hollywood-like presence, but still immensely loves following international competition in print and on television.

When running track in high school and college there were no women’s teams and he initially really gave no thought to the inclusion or exclusion of women from the sport.  This all changed when he went to a track meet in the late 1960’s and saw Doris Brown (Heritage) compete for the first time. Doris, a lifelong Seattle native, is one of the matriarchs of women’s distance running; her feats including winning the world cross country championships five times in a row between 1967 and 1971, winning 14 national titles and setting world records in four distances. Witnessing her power and fluidity, it dawned on him that women could be amazing athletes, too. 

I was incredibly fortunate to begin my foray into sports just as Title 9 legislation was enacted.  With a greater awareness of the right for equity in sports, there suddenly seemed to be great opportunities for girl athletes and my dad exposed me to it all. He took me to many a Western women’s basketball game where I got to see confident, strong, powerful and amazing female athletes. Desperately wanting to find my niche in sports, my dad supported me in any way he could, first paying me a penny per basket as we practiced in our driveway (I was a horrible shot so he didn’t have to pay out much), then coaching my elementary school softball team (I increasingly became more fearful of the ball being hit to me and was relegated to right field).  Hopelessly uncoordinated but finding that I had a gift for running pretty fast and pretty far, we seized on this when I was in middle school.  When he got home from work we’d go on a one mile loop run from the top of our driveway before he continuing on a longer run by himself.  Our runs the next few years were rarely longer than a mile – just exhilarating, quick fun.

 Entering high school I began running more and most days my dad was my selfless and loyal running partner.  When confronted by a nasty dog he put his body between us and took the dog bite for me.  On windy, rainy days he allowed me to run in his shadow for protection, but on any other day he made sure to run in inch or so behind and beside me, always allowing me to set the pace.  We thrived on short and fast runs, either all out or just plain quick, but always feeling giddy by runs end.  Back in the day we lived out Lakeway Drive and often ran on Galbraith when it had wicked trails inhabited by motor cycle riders and hunters, not runners, and Whatcom Falls Park with it’s then more rustic, rabbit trails. 

Despite being much faster than me at the time he often chose to race beside me instead of going for an individual win himself.  I remember one occasion while competing in the father/daughter division in a big Seattle area race, being stubborn as always, and incredibly averse to using the available port-o-potty before the event, I refused to use the restroom before heading to the starting line even though I really needed to. We were handily ahead until I had to slow almost to a walk because I had to go to the bathroom so badly.  Soon enough we were passed by one father/daughter team after another, but not a word of frustration from my dad.  

He, along with my mom, never missed a single one of my cross-country or track meets in high school or college and even made the national meets in such tourist meccas as Kenosha, Wisconsin, Clarksdale, Tennessee and Hillsdale, Michigan. 😉

His best road race times coincided with my high school and college running career as we ran together on weekends and in the off season.  At age 45 he ran 33:31 for 10K (a 5:23 per-mile pace to put it in perspective). 

As my collegiate running career was drawing to a close, my dad’s own interest in track and field and cross-country was rising. With more time on his hands he was able to jump from the spectator role into being a competitor himself.   A great distance runner, with his past aptitude at hurdling, he quickly picked up steeplechase racing on the track.   One of my most fun track memories was when he ran one of his first steeplechase races in one of my college meets.  How many college athletes get the opportunity to shout, “Go Dad!” at one of their meets.

His training mode has always been simple.  Never into mega-mileage, he thrived on good quality, quick, tempo runs.  Incorporating only one longer run in each week, for decades, each Saturday morning he met up with whoever happened to show up at the Interurban Trail trailhead for the same plan –  Run just about as fast as you can to the end of the trail and then turn around and run a bit faster on the way back.

He embraced track and field and cross country as a master’s runner, and went on to run in national and world championships.  While he has run in and won numerous master’s U.S. championships in track, cross-country and road racing, in the back of his head he always had a dream of being in the top three (and getting to stand on the podium) in the world championships in steeplechase.  After traveling to championships here and abroad, including Finland and England he finally attained his goal by finishing 3rd at the age of 60 in Puerto Rico.  A fantastic thing about aging and master’s racing is that from a competitive standpoint, you look forward to growing older. Every time you hit an age milestone such as turning 60, you end up being the youngster in your age group with what you hope are relatively fresher legs.

As he has aged he has had more than his fair share of barriers thrown his way.  In 2000  he was told he had pancreatic cancer and underwent a drastic surgery in a last ditch attempt for a cure.  During surgery he was found not to have cancer, but instead a chronic health condition that he deals with to this day.  Ever since the surgery he has dealt with varying levels of chronic pain that worsens if he runs too hard.  He has also had to be more careful and do less miles to ward off or deal with injuries. 

He has a strong sense for what’s kept him going.  He quietly evokes a deep faith and readily states that, “Each day is a gift from God and I try to treat it accordingly.”

Over the seasons and the years, the cast of characters on local roads and trails and at the races has changed, but he has always felt that distance runners by nature are kind, intelligent, mellow folks who are fun to be around.  He treasures the friendships and acquaintances he has made. 

He loves all the epic components that come into running and racing – the preparation, the nerves, the intensity of the effort, the sense of accomplishment and the high that stays with you for the rest of the day.

He’s maintained great balance in interests and activities. Although running has been a mainstay in his life, he’s made sure to seek out new pursuits and challenges along the way.  Through the decades his passions have included hunting, dirt biking, road biking, hiking/camping, mountain climbing, scuba lessons, photography (outdoor), building a canoe, sailboat and dune buggy, restoring and collecting cars and even getting his private pilot’s license at the age of 56. 

Immeasurable has been the presence of his always accommodating and sometimes humoring wife, Gretchen, who’s been his biggest supporter since they became sweethearts at the end of junior high.  

Over the years he has had to make the necessary adjustment from focusing on overall race placing to trying to be the first master’s runner to trying to win his age group. It has been with a mix of fascination, perplexion, resignation  and a bit of frustration that he has noticed and experienced the changes his body has made in his 50’s and especially his 60’s.  He can still envision and remember what is was like to run with the strength, fluidity and flexibility of his youth, and every once in a while still finds himself surprised that his body is not cooperating with him like it used to.  He feels he has turned into more of a “shuffler”, the days of quick feet and great leg turnover are gone and he has difficulty getting into a higher gear during a sprint to the finish line with a younger competitor.

He’s gets sorer then he used to be, still doing track workouts with an all ages group, but needing more recovery time afterward.  His body is less forgiving when it comes to injuries and the aches and pains are a bit more pronounced.  In races he’s trying about as hard as he used to, but the time on the race clock just doesn’t show it.  The goal in a particular race now from one year to the next isn’t necessarily trying to get a faster time, but seeing how close he can come to the time he ran the year before.

Despite it all, he still loves to compete.  He hasn’t fallen into the trap that many runners who participate in races find themselves in – i.e. not wanting to put themselves out there unless they believe they are in great shape or shirking racing with their perceived local ‘rivals’ at times.  No matter the barriers he still wants to be part of the action.  His philosophy is that you can always have a good, honest, hard effort no matter what kind of shape you are in and he revels in just doing the best he can each time he steps up to the starting line. 

A mainstay at road races, he is a humble and encouraging presence.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to take part in a Greater Bellingham Running Club event you have him to thank in part as he has been the longest, continuously running board member and race director since the inception of the club in 1976 (then the Bellingham Track and Field Club).  He has been race director of one or more area runs for the past 30 years. 

These days, he’s continuing to seize the day running wise, whether out on his regular southside neighborhood/100 Acre Woods route, doing track workouts with the running club or acting as a pace leader at the Fairhaven Runners All Paces Runs. If you’re lucky, on a sunny day you can catch my mom and dad tooling around in his ’57 convertible, just like the one he had in high school.

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