Gerhard Behrens embarked on a mid-life correction in the 1980s that essentially changed the course of fitness and running in the Corvallis area.
Behrens, a Bay Area native who had served in the Peace Corps and worked as a technical writer, said that “he wanted to do something more important with his life.”
So he went back to school to get his teaching credentials, moved to Corvallis, and helped set off a bit of a fitness and running boom in town.
At Adams Elementary School, where he taught second-, third- and fifth-graders as well as physical education until retiring last month, he put together the Adams in Motion program. He built a 0.2-mile track, passed out cards for the students to fill in their laps and offered prizes for those who ran 10 miles.
“We built it ... and they came,” Behrens said.
Behrens secured some grants for the medals, T-shirts and other bells and whistles needed to run the program.
“And it’s still going strong 13 years later,” he said. “We never missed a beat, even during the pandemic,” when the kids put in their running on an honor system.
Behrens also helped found the Heart of the Valley Runners, which runs all-comers meets and other running events. He also set up a regional middle school cross country event at Avery Park because “there weren’t enough races for kids.”
Behrens speaks glowingly of the Northwest Middle School Cross Country Showdown, noting the rush of color as the runners start and all of the partnerships that went into it, particularly the Corvallis Parks and Recreation Department, which essentially gave up their park for most of a day.
“The race became very special,” Behrens said.
Race participation has grown from about 200 to 1,000, although last fall’s race (it generally runs on the second Thursday in October) was cancelled due to the pandemic. Behrens noted that volunteers from Linus Pauling and Cheldelin middle schools baked 100 dozen cookies for the runners.
Behrens said he was thrilled to hear kids say “I’m going for the cookies this year!”
Behrens, who didn’t start his own running career until college, said he didn’t have a master plan for all these initiatives.
“These things just started to come up organically,” he said. “And it kept snowballing. It all made sense to me. I’ve had kindergartners run 100 miles per year. They learn how good it feels to do it well and they keep on doing it. It’s infectious.”
Track and field also appeals to Behrens because of its purity.
“You’re just running or throwing something,” he said. "It’s a beautiful amalgamation of an individual sport and a team sport. And there is an ethics among athletics. First-place runners know how hard the last place people are trying. There is a mutual respect there.”
Behrens said he recognizes the challenge of keeping kids fit these days.
"It's like fighting a flood with a spoon," he said. "I only can do what I can one person at a time. It's a real problem, but our goal has always been to unleash as many kids as possible."
Behrens has competed in multiple marathons, but his previous pattern of 50-mile weeks has been reduced to 25 because of joint issues. He usually runs 6 or 7 miles four times a week. He still does the 50 miles overall, but he fills in the gap with biking and walking.
His favorite running spots include Peavy Arboretum, the Oregon State University campus, Crystal Lake and Bald Hill, although he also says “75% of the time I just go out my front door and go.”
Now that he is retired, Behrens no longer will have his life governed by the school year calendar. He and his wife Mary, also a retired educator, plan to do a bit of traveling, visit their daughters (in South Bend, Indiana, and Austin, Texas) and cross off as many items on their national park bucket list as possible – Big Bend in Texas, Canyonlands in Utah, as well as the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
"And now I can go there in September or October," he said.