Before there were color runs every other weekend, and before thousands gathered for races, and before there were even road races in Wichita, there was Clark Ensz.
Ensz was a fanatical runner during a period of time, the 1970s, when the sport of running was viewed as an oddity. But a running revolution was coming and along with it a leader would be needed.
When Ensz agreed to direct his first road race in 1979, he wasn’t signing up to become the sport’s pioneer in Wichita. That’s just what happened.
“He’s the father of road running,” said Bob Lida, Wichita’s premier masters athlete and a close friend of Ensz. “He’s responsible for the progression and success of road racing in Wichita.”
At the very event that established his career 35 years ago, the River Run, Ensz directed his final race on May 31.
Ensz dismisses the notion that he was responsible in any way for the explosion of running in Wichita. He will tell you his legacy had more to do with timing than accomplishment.
“I was just very lucky,” Ensz said. “I was the right guy at the right time, I guess.”
But what made him the right guy?
Before competing in a marathon in a surrounding state, Ensz and Lida, training partners that took their running seriously, bemoaned the lack of a running scene in their hometown.
The year was 1979 and the two believe there needed to be a change.
Ensz, a perfectionist, agreed to take on the challenge of creating such an event. Lida, an advertising exec at Fourth National Bank, agreed to handle the promotional work.
The result was the 1980 River Run, which attracted more than 2,000 runners to an event that had drawn closer to 200 in the past.
“I’ve always felt like that was the day running was really born in Wichita,” Ensz said.
From there, a career was born. Ensz said he didn’t accept the position as race director as a legitimate career until he realized the need for it.
Running was booming across the country and Wichita was no exception. The opportunity to make an impact was there and Ensz seized it, designing courses that he would want to run himself and tailoring the race to the runners.
“It was all so new and exciting at the time,” Ensz said. “We didn’t know what we could do, but we also didn’t have any limitations. We could try to make big things happen.”
In a time when there weren’t many options for accomplished runners after graduating college, Ensz started a running club based out of Wichita in 1983.
Using his title as race director to his advantage, Ensz would recruit the more talented runners after his races. He would offer to set them up in apartments and line up jobs for them if they agreed to move to Wichita and train under him.
Ensz was able to recruit around 10 runners who would all go on to become some of the top runners in Wichita. All agreed to be trained by a coach who had never coached before.
“You just got the feeling that Clark was committed,” said Randy Mijares, one of Ensz’s first recruits. “His commitment to you was more important than any credential.”
Attracting the runners to Wichita was the initial challenge. The city does not offer the ideal climate for running, such as Eugene, Ore., or Boulder, Colo. There were no hills or altitude to train on. Only the trust in Ensz.
“It was purely for the joy of competition,” said Molly Lavacek, who under Ensz’s training competed in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. “Nobody was getting rich. Nobody was getting famous. I think that’s what attracted a lot of us. It was just how far can we push our bodies?”
Ensz would drive the team around the country, as it would become the Midwest’s marquee team and one of the best in the country. But what made it a rarity is that every member lived and trained in the same city.
There was a bond that still elicits strong emotion from the runners 30 years later.
“That’s what sends a chill up the back of my neck,” said Curt Shelman, who still owns one of the state’s fastest marathon times. “When I think back to those times and the memories they created, I can say it was one of the best times of my life.”
Not only were Ensz and his team expanding Wichita’s presence across the nation’s racing scene, he was establishing the city as a hotbed for talent. Because of the success of his team and the quality of his runners, local races attracted the best fields Wichita has ever seen.
Wichita had become a destination for world-class runners.
Ten of the 14 fastest marathon times run by Kansas men were recorded in the 1980s, during the team’s hey-day. Similarly, four of the top six times by women were logged in the same decade.
“The 1986 and 1987 Rainbow Classics are still two of the greatest races ever held in the state of Kansas,” Ensz said. “We had Olympians, world champions, all kinds of extremely high-level people from all around the world.”
It was an era that likely can never be duplicated and it was a direct result of Ensz’s doing.
So why did those early runners buy into a coach who had never coached before?
It might take a few, but attending races in surrounding communities or states is the only way to truly appreciate Ensz’s work.
All it takes is that first mismanaged race, where something a Wichitan isn’t used to pops up and Ensz’s effect becomes clear.
“You could tell immediately that it was obviously not a Clark Ensz race,” Lavacek said. “The miles weren’t marked correctly or the times weren’t right. There weren’t people reading out my split times and you didn’t know where the water stations were.
“Clark brought a level of professionalism to races in Wichita. He wasn’t just some guy organizing races on the weekends. That was his life.”
Ensz always said that if everything goes according to plan, the job of a race director is a pretty dull one on race day. Unfortunately, plans rarely stick and his job title morphs into crisis management.
There have been races that have needed their courses redirected 15 minutes before a race because of an outside influence – an arrest made on the course, a car wreck near an intersection, or a power outage.
“You have to be the person that knows exactly what to do and know how all those pieces will fall into place,” Ensz said. “You have to be the right person to know how to fix it and how to adapt. It’s just one gigantic checklist you have to know.”
Ensz estimates that he has directed close to 1,000 races. With running’s popularity growing, he was doing more than 50 races per year near the end. It was that workload that was beginning to wear on him.
But moving on was a decision made easy by Mijares, who stayed in Wichita after his time with Ensz and became co-owner of GoRun Wichita, a popular running store in Wichita.
Mijares had the platform, along with an innovative website – www.gorunyourrace.com – that allows runners to sign up once and use that data to register for future races in the area. There was also a replacement, recent college graduate and former runner Trevor Darmstetter.
“It’s comforting to me to know that the people taking over the business feel the same way about running as I do,” Ensz said. “It’s not just about the numbers or making money. It’s about putting on a good event that the runners like.”
Following Ensz would not seem to be an enviable position to be in, but in some ways it is. Ensz has paved the way for a future generation in Wichita to enjoy running.
The job of Mijares and Darmstetter is to continue it.
“Clark has been absolutely indispensable to road racing in Wichita,” Mijares said. “Without Clark’s presence here, road running would have been very disjointed. He’s definitely the glue that held it together all these years.”
All along, Ensz was the right guy.
“There were maybe other people who could have done the job, but nobody else in this town was willing to devote the amount of time that Clark was willing to devote,” Lavacek said. “There were other people who could have been decent, but we didn’t need that. We needed Clark.”