Long awaited athletic glory

by Carmen Jhonson

When he was younger, Arlington resident Jim Laatsch wanted nothing more than to be an athlete.

The 76-year old remembers when he had dreams of competing in baseball and basketball in high school, but the problem was that growing up on a farm in Tigerton, a small community 50 miles west of Green Bay, he had duties to attend to.

“I would have given anything to be an athlete in high school,” Laatsch said. “But I grew up on a small dairy farm and my dad was sick. So by the time I got to high school I was the barn clearer. As soon as school was over, I had to go home to shovel the manure and there were no sports.”

Fast-forward 60 years and Laatsch is finally living out his dream of being an athlete and not by competing in senior league softball or basketball, but as a marathon competitor. In 2015 at the young age of 75, he started walking marathons.

Just keep going

“They are long,” he said with a chuckle. “One of our friends asked when do you hit a wall and I hit the wall at about mile five. But you just keep on going and it all works out.”

Jim’s wife of over 50 years, Karen, 71, also has taken up competing in races, half-marathons. Like her husband, Karen was not an athlete while growing up in Long Island (NY).

“When I was in high school there were no girls’ sports,” Karen said. “I just roller skated and rode my bike through New York City, that was my athletic background.”

The parents of three children and six grandchildren, the Laatsch’s never really considered competing in marathons, especially at their age.

“When I was younger I wanted to do a marathon, but I was sure I couldn’t do it,” Jim said.

The couple has lived in Arlington for 39 years after moving from Colorado. Jim is a retired Lutheran pastor and has served on the Arlington village board for the last 12 years, four of which were as president.

From 1978-82, he served in the Wisconsin assembly after being elected to office in the 47th District.

While working full time as a property claim adjuster, Karen was on her local school board in Colorado and also worked with students in the Poynette School District.

Even though they didn’t compete themselves in marathons, the couple did attend several races to watch their kids compete.

“There are a lot of marathons around Wisconsin and the area, but we never paid attention to them unless our kids were in them,” Karen said. “But I could never understand why they kept doing the races when they were not winning. I learned that the goal is not to take first place, but to compete with yourself and finish the race and improve your time.”

No longer spectators

It was not until after a trip to the Grand Canyon that the idea of marathons was tossed around.

“We went on a 24-mile trek at the Grand Canyon and my son said that if I could do that, I could do a marathon,” Jim said.

Soon after, Jim and Karen were planning a trip to New Mexico to watch their grandkids while their son competed in a race at the White Sands Proving Grounds.

“A couple weeks before the race, my son said I could do the race also,” Jim said. “So I did. Then I didn’t do another one for a year until my daughter got me into the Green Bay race.”

In the two years since his first race, Jim has competed in races in 34 different states, while Karen has competed in 29.

“Our friends think we are crazy,” Jim said. “They always want to know where we are going next and they tell us that we are never home.”

The couple is in Washington this week for their next event and will head to Oregon for another one next week. The schedule also has them doing four more races in May.

“We can’t do them every day, but sometimes it seems like we do,” Karen said.

The chance to travel and see the United states from coast-to-coast has been a big draw for the couple.

“When we do the races we go for about a week and see old friends that may live nearby,” Jim said.

It’s usually the norm that Jim and Karen are the oldest competitors in the marathons they walk.

“That is why we are winning,” Karen said with a smile.

Since Jim competes in full marathons and Karen does half marathons, they don’t race side-by-side. They do walk together during their training sessions six days a week in Lodi.

Even though they have made a lot of friends in their time in the sport, they spend a lot of time by themselves on the course.

“In the larger races there are usually people to talk to, but in the smaller ones you are by yourself,” Karen said. “You start counting down the miles and you realize you can do it and it is exciting.”

Rough roads

From rough terrain, bad weather and poorly marked courses, each race has its own challenges. That’s kept Jim and Karen on their toes and gave way to some memorable stories.

“There was one race that Jim got lost,” Karen said. “I was going to bring him a hamburger at mile 20. I went to where he should have been and they said he had not been by. I followed the course backwards and I saw him going the wrong way. I had to tell him to turn around. Some courses are marked and some are not. I don’t know what would have happened if I had not seen him.”

Jim, who set a personal-best time of 6 hours, 30 minutes in Green Bay, enjoyed a race in Fargo, North Dakota the most.

“As far as I’m concerned, they had the best venue, the best music, a great course and I talked to some interesting people,” he said.

Karen, who has a personal-best time of 3:45 in half marathons, has competed in one full marathon. She even competed in a race just days after breaking her arm.

“We are all capable of doing things you thought you couldn’t.,” she said. “You just have to believe you can.”

Before getting into marathons, Jim and Karen spent their time climbing the highest points in every state they visited. They have continued to do that and have hit all but four states.

“We are not shoppers,” Karen said. “We have always wanted to be outside, so hiking has been what we do. Even when we go on a cruise, our favorite part is to get out and see things. That’s our personality type.”

Jim has hiked to the top of most of the highest points in Colorado and even attempted to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“We like to check off things from our list,” he said. “We do this because we want to be able to say we got something done today.”

No matter what your age, Jim and Karen encourage everyone to get out and push themselves by taking on the challenge of a marathon.

“Give it a try because you would be surprised what you can do,” Karen said. “You can start with a 5K or a 10K and go from there. There are a lot of people who used to run and then they may have had an injury and they think they can’t do it anymore. But it’s okay to walk. Just keep going.”

The couple plans on continuing to compete in marathons and visiting the high points of every state until they are no longer able to physically keep doing it.

“I’m saving visiting all the state capitals for later,”Karen said. “That is what you do when you can’t walk a mile anymore.”

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