Charlie Kern never expected the record to last this long. Why would he? Back in 1987, there was a flock of good milers in Section VI, guys like Dennis Webster and Kerry Fly, pushing each other to the limits of their talent. Kern wondered if he would even qualify for states that year.
But he did, and Kern ran the race of his life for Sweet Home in the state meet in ’87, running a 4:13.07 in the 1,600 meters (the metric mile) to win the state title and break the sectional record. Little did he know that his mark would stand for more than a quarter-century.
“No way,” Kern said. “No way. I broke a record that had lasted three years. So I never would have imagined it. I had a great group of guys to compete with. They wanted that title as much as I did, and it made everybody better.”
For 27 years, Kern’s race inspired legions of young distance runners who came after him, determined to better that record. Last weekend in Olean, Lake Shore senior T.J. Hornberger ran the 1,600 meters in 4:12.77, ending Kern’s long stay in the record book.
Hornberger said he would write “4:13.07” on pieces of paper and leave them scattered around as daily reminders of his quest. Kern wasn’t aware of it. He’s never met Hornberger, but by burning those numbers into his mind, Hornberger was honoring Kern and chasing him at the same time.
“Yeah,” Kern said with a laugh, “like a ghost of myself running around Parker Field or something.
“That’s awesome,” he said. “If you’ve got a goal, you have to be reminded of it, because all of a sudden, a week, a month, go by and you’ve forgotten what the goal was, because life becomes busy and there’s distractions.”
Kern was thrilled for Hornberger, just as he had been happy for Cole Townsend when the Canisius distance star broke his local 3,200-meter indoor record three years earlier. He tweeted out his congratulations.
“I got text after text on Saturday, saying ‘Oh, he’s a great kid,’ ” Kern said. “It was awesome that he was the one who broke it. That makes me feel good. It’s nice to be great, but it’s far greater to be nice.”
You see, Kern has the benefit of age and perspective. He understands, even more than these kids do, how lucky they are to be runners, and how much the sport can elevate a person’s life.
Kern, who turned 45 on Thursday, owes much of what he has to distance running. He realizes that it’s not about records and times so much as the journey. It’s right there on the top of his website, under My Credo: “I believe running changes lives.”
“Running is the most transformative thing I’ve ever done,” Kern said. “Just about everything connects back to running. My parents,” Charlie and Marietta, “didn’t really have money, so it was my ticket out, my opportunity to earn a college education.
“I went to Kentucky, and while I was there I met my wife, Lynne, who was an Illinois girl. We were both on track teams at Kentucky. She was on a national championship team in cross country in 1988.”
Kern was a nine-time all-stater at Sweet Home during the school’s athletic glory days of the 1980s. He was a five-time All-SEC choice at Kentucky. The biggest prize was Lynne, who brought him back home to Elmhurst, a suburb west of Chicago, where he eventually became an assistant coach at York Community High.
“I got to work with arguably the best track and cross country coach in America in Joe Newton,” Kern said.
York won eight state titles in 10 years when Kern was an assistant. Through Newton, he got to know Sebastian Coe, the great British distance runner, and Pat Tyson, who was a teammate and roommate of the late Steve Prefontaine.
Through it all, Kern never stopped running. He became one of the best Masters runners in the world, a nine-time age-group champion. He still returns to Western New York on occasion to visit his parents and participate in local races.
In 2009, he won the world championship of the 40-44 Masters age group at 1,500 meters in Finland. He achieved a lifelong dream to compete in Europe. Last year, he was inducted into the Western New York Running Hall of Fame.
Kern is no longer coaching high school. He’s a freelance running coach. He is directing a summer running camp. Kern said with two weeks to go, he has 400 runners registered from 17 different communities. He has one kid coming from Los Angeles. He still teaches high school sociology, world history and philosophy.
It all connects, of course. Distance running has long been known as a cerebral sport, a convergence of the physical self and the mind, of body and soul.
“Certainly,” Kern said. “As a distance runner, it’s you and your brain that you’re carrying around, so you have a lot of time interacting with your brain, thinking about the future and what’s happening. You have to be patient. You have to persevere.
“It’s the same thing in life. How am I going to pay these bills? How am I going to get this job? How am I going to compete with all these people who are trying to get this job? I’m going to do the very best I can, and I’m going all the way to the wire. Maybe I get it, maybe I don’t.”
Kern said running is the thread winding through his life. He wouldn’t have met his wife without it, wouldn’t have gone to Europe. That’s what Hornberger and all the other young runners couldn’t know – how running can be a lifetime companion.
In a way, by scribbling 4:13.07 on those pieces of paper, Hornberger was writing Kern thank-you notes in advance. Maybe some eager young runner will write 4:12.77 on scraps of paper to motivate himself to break it again. Chances are, it won’t take another 27 years.
So what would Kern say to Hornberger or any other high school track star before this weekend’s state meet at Cicero-North Syracuse?
“Savor the moment,” he said, “because you only get to be a kid once. There’s nervousness and pressure, yeah, but take it in. When you’re nervous like that, you know you’re alive. Later on, you can reflect back and enjoy it. But now … keep running, man.”
Kern isn’t ready to quit. On June 14, he’s running in an 800-meter race in Illinois. His goal is to break two minutes, 30 years after doing it for the first time. Chasing the ghost.
“I think I’m close,” he said.