Jeannie Wokasch runs in Kapiolani Park with her sons Chris, left, and Andy. Photo by Craig Kojima, Star-Bulletin
By Pat Bigold
She could be making her living
at distance running via prize
money and a major sponsorship
With her deep well of endurance and energy, she could have been honed into a 2-hour, 30-minute marathoner, or better. She could have been making her living at distance running via lucrative prize money on the world circuit and a major sponsorship of a shoe company.
But Wokasch never took herself all that seriously.
"It would ruin all the fun of racing if I did," she said with the eruptive laughter that punctuates all of her conversations.
Wokasch is an athlete who relishes every moment of her sport. To her, running is the people who surround her, the air she breathes and the scenery she can take in over a marathon route.
Which is why she lends her time and energy to events that don't do much to promote her career but which go a long way to defining what she loves about the sport. Case in point: she will defend her share of the women's title in this weekend's Run for the Rain Forest, Sunday at 7 a.m. at the Manoa Recreation Center.
At age 30, Wokasch's full abilities remain untapped. She was invited this year to both the Olympic Trials marathon and the 100th Boston Marathon. Twice, she has been Hawaii's first female finisher in the Honolulu Marathon.
But she is also the woman who sped past Ireland's Chris Kennedy into third place with a mile to go in the 1992 San Francisco Marathon, only to let her soft heart get the best of her.
Kennedy was experiencing a severe stitch in her side and was in obvious pain as Wokasch went by. "I just felt so guilty," said Wokasch, "I had to go back and talk to her to see if I could help."
The race had a prize money scale for highest finishers, so Wokasch was risking everything to help the Irish woman. "One guy was freaking out about it," said Wokasch, laughing again.
"But I talked to her and helped her and she finished ahead of me, and I was right behind." Wokasch still earned $1,500.
Helping people is something the Minnesota-born Wokasch, who works as a children's daycare aide, can't resist.
At the Boston Marathon in April, with temperatures dipping into the mid 40s, Wokasch saw a superb women's front field pull away early and decided to enjoy her run. Waving, smiling and chatting with the crowd, and other runners, including four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, Wokasch pranced, danced and cartwheeled her way to a remarkably noncompetitive 2-hour, 50 finish.
"I had fun with the crowd all the way," she said.
But, unlike so many who struggled that day, elite and rank-and-file, Wokasch had a furnace of energy and goodwill left inside her when she completed the 26.2-mile ordeal from Hopkinton to Boston.
Her first order of business was to tend to a lady she found crying with her head on her knees at the side of the finish line at Copley Square.
"She said her fingers were too cold to get the micro-chip (used to time each runner) off her shoe lace and she didn't have the energy to turn it in to receive her race medal," said Wokasch. "So I said I'd get it off for her and do it."
Then she ran to the assistance of a man who had collapsed with hypothermia just after 25 miles and was finishing on wobbly feet. "He needed help, he had to get to the massage table," she said with a shrug.
Wokasch has a personal best of 2 hours and 40 minutes in the marathon and doesn't have any immediate plans to break into the 2:30s range.
"I guess I'm in a comfort zone," she said. "Besides, I have plenty of time to do that. Look at runners who did it in their 40s, like (eight-time Honolulu Marathon winner) Carla Beurskens and Priscilla Welch.
"Right now the kids are really more important," she said.
Those kids - 10-year-old Chris and 11-year-old Andy - are Wokasch's mission in life. Every day after work she takes them for an outing to the park or the beach just so that they can be together.
"They're only young once," said Wokasch. "I'd rather focus on them, get them out every day. It's important that they have a chance to look at the grass and the beach and see people. I think a lot of kids don't get that anymore."
Wokasch replaces the hours she could spend training to become a better marathoner with those daily mother-and-son outings. But she said she has no regrets.
Chris is autistic and, instead of being frustrated, Wokasch is fascinated with the boy's positive attributes.
"There are a lot of positive things about autistic children," she said. "I wish more kids were like them because they're very loving and they look around at life. They're very smart and they have a lot of talent. His memory is amazing. I would love to go into the schools with the parents and say, 'Look what these kids can do.'
"Chris gets on roller blades, he swims, goes hiking, he does a lot of things and people don't know he's autistic. I think it's the way you treat them. They just have problems communicating."
She said her sons, though different, interact very comfortably and are helpful to each other. "Chris reads and spells very well and he'll help Andy, while Andy will help Chris put his shirt on," she said.
Wokasch, whose mother skated with the Ice Follies and whose father coached football, grew up with five brothers and two sisters. Despite growing up with a collapsed lung, she ran cross country and was a cheerleader at Highland Park High School in St. Paul, Minn.
It was in high school that she developed the cartwheel that has become her postrace trademark in Hawaii and the mainland.
With her photogenic smile, engaging personality and physical agility, Running Times convinced her to pose for its cover in 1994 and she has modeled Danskin running wear for Japanese catalogues.
"I still have time to do what I want to do," she said. "But the kids are more important right now."