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Sunday, May 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

One final run: Heritage ends her passion in glorious style

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Every morning for so many years, Doris Heritage woke up before the sun.

She dressed slowly into her running clothes, listening to the insistent thump-thumping of the tails of her Dobermans, one named Lasse Viren, another named Zola Budd, her running mates, who were impatient to get out there and start logging some miles.

Every morning for so many years, she started her day running five, or 10, or more miles. It was part of her religion, part of her soul, a huge part of who she was.

Passing the faces of the same runners, day after day, she smiled to them through her early morning bliss. She didn't know many of their names, but she shared their passion, and she recognized the unique bond they shared.

For Heritage running is as natural as breathing. The beating of her feet has kept her alive as much as the beating of her heart.

But yesterday at the Ken Foreman Invitational in West Seattle, Heritage, who will have replacement surgery on her left hip on June 1, ran her last mile.

Some 200 friends — former teammates, former students and people who just wanted to say they had run with Doris Heritage joined her for those final four laps.

As Heritage angled around the turn and accelerated into the final kick of her career, her friends kicked with her and cheered as she blissfully glided the last 100 meters.

It was one of those small, throat-clenching moments that reminds you how great sports can be, when all of the veneer is stripped away, when no owner or television network or pampered superstar is around to spoil things.

It was a moment as pure as oxygen.

"I can't believe how good the run felt," said Heritage, 62, a two-time Olympian, five-time world cross-country champion and member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. "I think I was getting some extra energy from all those people. I have to say this probably is the highlight of my running career. To see all these people — my friends and my athletes — it's pretty humbling and pretty special. I'll never forget this day as long as I live."

In the recent months, running had started hurting Heritage and like most serious runners, she did everything she could to ease the pain. She shortened her stride. She changed her terrain. Nothing helped.

"I had no idea what the pain was," said Heritage, who has been coaching at Seattle Pacific for the past 39 years. "I always thought I could push through anything. But my doctor told me this is one of those things that isn't mind over matter. He told me, you're not going to be running again. There was no way around this."

At some point, we all run our last mile. Drain our last putt. Swish our last free throw. Serve our last ace. That knowledge is one of life's wretched realities.

"I think Doris would rather lose an arm than lose her ability to run," Seattle Pacific men's coach Jack Hoyt said yesterday.

This is Doris Heritage.

She once climbed Mount Rainer and told fellow climbers she wanted to bring some fresh fruit on the climb. She put the fruit in her backpack and took it to the summit. The fruit was a large watermelon.

As part of her training, she used to run with teammate Vicki Foltz up to Rainier's 10,000-foot Camp Muir.

This is Doris Heritage.

One winter she was injured and unable to run and her coach, Ken Foreman, ordered her to run in the waters of Green Lake. Like the U.S. mail, no weather conditions stopped her.

One sub-freezing day Foreman went looking for her, thinking she would be running at the lake's indoor pool. Instead he heard a familiar voice calling him from the icy lake. All he could see was Heritage's head poking through the ice.

And this is Doris Heritage.

"The way she's performed on the running track is also the way she's lived her life," said former SPU runner Tracy Baker Bianchini, who had tears in her eyes as she ran the final 100 meters with Heritage. "She holds nothing back. She lays it all out there no matter what it costs her. Who can do more than that? She never stops. Never uses anything as an excuse. She loved running so much. She never thought about the cost."

She loved running so much, that as a young girl growing up in the woods on the Olympic Peninsula, she ran, when her girlfriends rode their bikes, or their horses.

"She had a bike," her mother Villa Severtson said. "But she didn't use it. She'd tell me that she was going to see a girlfriend who lived a couple of miles away, and she'd just go out the front door and just start running."

Through most of her adult life Heritage ran along the beaches and through the woods in West Seattle. She passed sights as familiar to her as the furniture in her living room. The resident bald eagle. The barking sea lions. The stately fir trees.

"I think the aesthetics are what I love most about running," Heritage said. "A love of nature. There's a lot going on by the water. Even when I ran cross country, it was the elements I enjoyed. The mud and the rain and the hills.

"Many of us are drawn to what we enjoyed as a child. For me it was the feeling of being at one with nature. I hate to call it endorphins, but there's a feeling when you put yourself out there a little bit on the edge of your comfort zone (that) this is very important."

Heritage was a pioneer. She was running miles when women were being told they weren't physiologically equipped to go long distances. She was running cross country for her country even before its governing body would pay her bills.

When she began running competitively, the longest women's race was 800 meters.

She figured she'd run forever. But now she has learned she won't.

"You have to be willing to let things go," she said. "All the years I ran in the morning and trained in the afternoon, I knew some day it would just be running in the morning. I guess, though, I never thought it would come to not even running in the morning."

Yesterday she ran her final mile, but — psst — don't tell anybody, she isn't quite finished.

On June 1, Heritage must be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. That gives her plenty of time for one real, last run.

So somewhere around 4:30 that morning, she slowly will pull on her running clothes, meet some of her best friends and say a final farewell to the eagle and the sea lions, the firs and the unadulterated joy of running.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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