The Klecker Running Family Circus

The Klecker Family Running Circus
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 019, March 2020

Words and Illustrations by Liam Boylan-Pett
Photos courtesy of Sarah Klecker

Barney Klecker pulled into the gas station and zipped the Ford Excursion to an open pump. He shifted into park, and turned to his wife, Janis, in the passenger seat, and their six kids in the back. “Fifteen minutes,” he said. “You know the drill.” 

Mary, John, Sarah, Joe, Bit, and James all rushed out of the van, which had been packed by Janis the night before—a Jenga-stack of bags in the back along with a cooler filled with veggies and peanut butter sandwiches. They had been on the road since about four in the morning, heading west to Colorado for a family vacation from Minnetonka, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. This was how the Kleckers traveled—six kids made flying too expensive. So yes, the Kleckers knew the drill. They took turns using the restroom and picking out a few snacks while Barney filled the tank. 

Once everyone had taken care of the essentials, they gathered next to the gas station, where Barney made one more announcement: “Let’s race.”

Then, the Klecker kids raced. They would set a course—say, around the gas station–and then two or three would take off in a sprint. Eight years separated the oldest from the youngest, so Barney and Janis handicapped the races, giving the younger kids a start line farther up the course. The Kleckers would run around the gas station, and out-and-back to a street sign in a frenzied ten-minute period filled with races that added up to about one mile per kid, Barney estimated. A mini track meet condensed into ten minutes where everyone would double and triple.

This was not some new trick. It was the norm for the Kleckers, who used to run down and back on the cul-de-sac on Christmas morning before opening presents. When road-tripping, a race on the side of the highway was a welcome respite from sitting in the car. Plus, Barney would give out candies to the race winners—those circus peanuts, the orange marshmallow candy, being a top prize. The races complete, the kids laughed and shouted as they piled and crammed back into the van, which had a custom paint job depicting a crowd of runners and leaves that had been designed by the same person who designed the Twin Cities Marathon logo. Once they settled—the kids’ heavy exhales filling the back seats—Barney shifted the van into drive and it lurched forward, the road trip commencing again. It was how the Kleckers traveled, from one rest stop to the next and a chance to run around or chase the family van down a country road. 

Running was the norm. It had been since Barney and Janis began dating in the late 1970s. Barney would set the 50-mile world record and Janis would win the 1992 Olympic Trials marathon before their family started to grow. 

Running remains the norm for the Kleckers. In fact, at one point in 2011, there were five Kleckers on the cross-country team at Hopkins High School. Today, Joe (the fourth Klecker kid) is a senior at the University of Colorado, where he is one of the best runners in the N.C.A.A. (The recently cancelled outdoor season could mean Joe has run his last race for Colorado.) 

Back when they were racing around gas stations during road trips, the Klecker kids thought that’s what every family did on a road trip. It wasn’t until they got older that they realized they were unique—that they were, as Sarah (the third Klecker kid) told me, a “weird family of runners.”

Weird runners, it turns out, can work.

* * *

There are a few stories when it comes to how Barney Klecker met Janis Horns, but back in the day, a few articles in the Star Tribune in the 1980s said it all started with a race photo.

There was an early-fall 10-K in Minneapolis in 1979, and after the race, one of the race organizers was looking through a stack of photos from the run. The race organizer showed one photo to his friend Barney Klecker. “I’m going to ask her out,” the race organizer said, pointing to the woman in the photo, who happened to be Janis. 

Barney, then 28, was a minor celebrity in the Minneapolis running scene at the time and was soon going to be racing the City of Lakes Marathon (now the Twin Cities Marathon), a race he won in 1977. He would have been lying if he said Janis hadn’t piqued his interest. 

Janis was going to be at the City of Lakes Marathon, too. Janis, then 19, had started running only months earlier, but decided to line up with the 1,500 others running through Minneapolis in October 1979. She went in with a plan of running the first 15 miles as a long workout. Then she would drop back to run the final 11 miles with her mother, Mae, who was shooting for a Boston Marathon qualifying time. 

But Janis hit the 15-mile mark in third place. So, she kept going, and finished third in 2 hours, 58 minutes, 32 seconds—her mom got that B.Q., even without her help.

When Janis crossed the finish line, Barney—who had defended his title nearly 40 minutes ahead of her—recognized her from the photo. He was still interested. A few days later Barney asked the race director if he had asked her out yet. 

When he hadn’t, Barney decided to give her a call.

This, however, is where family stories diverge, not only from the newspaper articles of the ’80s, but between Janis and Barney, too. The Klecker kids all laugh when asked how their parents met, each saying it depends who you ask. 

According to Barney, Janis’ mother, Mae, had gone to Rack Roast Beef Restaurant, where Barney was the manager, to pick up some pies. Mae, who Janis would tell me was a matriarch of Minneapolis running, had won the over-40 division of a race the week before and recognized Barney. She went up to him, showed him a picture of Janis and told him, “You oughta give her a call and go for a run.” So, Barney did. 

According to Janis, however, it is doubtful that would have happened. “If you knew my mom, that was just not something she would ever do,” Janis laughed as she told me. But Barney, she admitted, did call her and asked her to go for a run.

However it went down, the rest is history.

For their first date, Barney met Janis at the front door of her sorority house at the University of Minnesota in his running shoes. She laced up her shoes and they ran around campus. They chatted about her classes—she was taking courses so she could go to dental school—his jobs—he was teaching hotel and restaurant management at Normandale Community College while running and picking up other side jobs in the hospitality industry like the one he had at the restaurant where Mae supposedly gave him Janis’ number—and they chatted about running. Barney thought Janis had talent, and he told her she should keep at it. She agreed. And they both agreed to meet again. And again. And again. For six months, they simply met for runs. “We became great friends,” Janis said. Barney was working about 70 hours and running close to 150 miles each week. Janis was in school and studying as much as she could. For each “date,” they would meet at her front door in running attire, they would jog to the indoor track at the fieldhouse on campus, they would run a workout, and then they would go get dinner. Janis would later say she was an inexpensive date. Cheap or not, they kept on meeting and running. Eventually, they started to see one another outside of runs and short dinners. Being from a running family, Janis would invite Barney to races her and her parents were running. Not only was their relationship turning more serious, they were also running faster and faster. 

After taking third at the City of Lakes Marathon in her first attempt at 26.2 miles, Janis won the race in 1980. With Barney pacing her, she finished in 2 hours, 48 minutes. That same year, Barney would set the world record for 50 miles, running 4 hours, 51 minutes, 25 seconds (5-minute-50-second mile pace) in Chicago in October. The following spring, Janis finished Boston in 2 hours, 40 minutes. By 1981, Janis was turning into a Barney-like running celebrity in Minneapolis.

One June day in 1981, Barney and Janis woke up early and went for a jog with their pastor. That afternoon, Janis Horns laced up her Nikes again, this time to walk down the aisle to meet Barney Klecker so their pastor could marry them. 

Now, there were two Kleckers running races around the world. Eventually, there would be a few more. 

But first, Barney and Janis had some running of their own to do.

* * *

Near the 15-mile mark of the 1992 Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston, as Janis Klecker approached a water station, her feet tangled with a competitor’s. She tripped and fell to the ground, shouting as she went down. The pack went by in an instant—everyone except for one runner, that is. Cathy O’Brien stopped for a moment to help Janis to her feet. 

“Are you all right?” O’Brien said, as she helped Janis to her feet. 

Janis was shaken, but her hands had broken her fall and her body felt okay. She told O’Brien she was fine. So, the two started reeling in the pack. 

Janis was a 31-year-old dentist at that point. She had started running not long before she met Barney Klecker because her parents were into long-distance running. Once Barney started hanging around, they really got into it. With runners like Gary Bjorklund and Dick Beardsley, and eventually Kara Goucher and Carrie Tollefson, Minnesota can claim to be a distance-running hotbed. And the Kleckers established themselves in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, too.

Barney had already shown he was quite the runner before he met Janis. Born in 1951, he grew up on a farm in Ellsworth, Wisconsin. He was a decent high school runner, but a time of 4 minutes, 56 seconds in the mile wasn’t attracting college coaches. He went to the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and started piling up the mileage—and successes. He was a standout on the track and cross-country teams and couldn’t help himself from jumping into as many races as possible. He missed nearly six months of running because of a foot injury during his sophomore year, but on the Fourth of July after finally getting healthy, he ran his first marathon in Whitewater, Wisconsin. After staying up too late with some friends and running in 80-degree heat, he took the race out in 4 minutes, 50 seconds for the first mile. Things got ugly quickly. He took second place in 2 hours, 45 minutes and spent two hours after the race in the fetal position, taking a nap in some shade. Still, he was back running the marathon again that fall, this time fitting in a marathon the day after a 5-mile cross-country race for Stout. 

Once he graduated with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management, Klecker started working in the industry. He kept on running, too. His training plan was simple and effective: He ran as much as his body and time would allow, reaching over 100 miles most weeks and sometimes hitting 150. “I worked because I didn’t have shoe contracts,” Klecker told me about his running career. “Nor did I feel like I deserved one. I mean, I was pretty good, but I certainly wasn’t going to ask for money to wear shoes. I just enjoyed working out. I loved training hard.” He raced as much as possible, too—he figured it was better to race a half marathon than run 13 x 1 mile.

“My dad was the ultimate grinder,” John (along with his twin, Mary, the oldest Klecker kid) told me. “It helped me to have a better understanding of his career when I heard about some of the stuff he did, because he just would always show up. He would run a mediocre marathon, then two weeks later he’d come back and run 2 hours, 18 minutes.”

Barney was a grinder year-round, even in the cold winters of Wisconsin and once he eventually made his way to Minneapolis. In the winter months and icy conditions, Barney would lace on his snowshoes and go out for hours at a time. Over three days in February 1979, he snowshoed 83 miles from Superior to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, traversing icy conditions and averaging 8-minute-15-second pace over a three-day stage race to become the world champion in snowshoeing. Not long after that, he met Janis. That didn’t slow him down. 

“I think 1980 to 1984 was some of the best running of my life,” Barney told me. Janis and Barney—sometimes along with Janis’ parents—ran and raced whenever they could. Barney estimated they ran over 35 races per year in that time, most over 10-kilometers. And he did have some great races. Barney was doing training runs of 35 to 40 miles at 6-minute-mile pace in 1980 when he saw that the 50-mile world record was that exact pace. “I thought, ‘Hell, if I can’t run 10 more miles at that pace, then something’s wrong,’” Barney said. His hunch was right. He ran 5-minute-50-second through the streets of Chicago to break the 50-mile world record in Chicago that October. In June the following year, Barney ran 2 hours, 15 minutes at the Grandma’s Marathon. 

Janis ran 2 hours, 36 minutes at Grandma’s that day. The following week they got married. 

For Janis, running was still fairly new. Like Barney, she upped her mileage while finishing school—the results were encouraging, even in snowshoe racing. By the time of the first women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984, Janis had set the world record for 50-kilometers (3 hours, 13 minutes, 50 seconds) and had run 2 hours, 35 minutes for the marathon. A stress fracture in her foot curtailed her training, but Klecker still finished 26th at the 1984 Trials.

“I kept running because I was motivated to keep improving,” Janis told me. And after 1984, she kept getting better. Working with Barney as a coach figure (as Janis said, they negotiated workouts together), she qualified for the 1988 Trials by lowering her personal best to 2 hours, 31 minutes, 53 seconds, but she had to withdraw because of a back injury. Still, she kept on running. She was a dentist by that point, practicing a few days each week, and in November 1988, she won a marathon in snowy St. Louis then followed it up in December by winning the California International Marathon in 2 hours, 34 minutes.

She would be 32 by the time of the 1992 Olympic Trials. And still, Janis continued to improve. In 1990 in Sacramento, she won C.I.M. in what was a course record time of 2 hours, 30 minutes, 42 seconds.

Over slightly more than 10 years of running, Janis had gone from a runner hoping to finish a marathon to one of the top-10 ranked runners entering the 1992 Olympic Trials. Training for a good portion of the race in the cold of Minneapolis, Janis ran many of her workouts on a treadmill. One 20-miler, she warmed up for 2 miles, then alternated miles of 5 minutes, 20 seconds and 5 minutes, 50 seconds for 16 miles, then cooled down another 2 miles. She was as ready as she was going to be. 

And 15 miles into the race in Houston, she was in the lead pack. That’s when she fell, though. This was her 35th marathon, so nothing really surprised her on the course. The fall wasn’t enough to throw her off her game. She got up quickly, thanks to some help from Cathy O’Brien, and they began reeling in the lead pack. They caught the pack quickly, and by Mile 19, there were only four runners fighting for the lead. That’s when O’Brien surged, running a 5 minute, 29 second mile to break the race open.

Janis remained calm once again, letting O’Brien’s lead grow while maintaining pace. With two miles to go, Janis was in second and she started inching closer to O’Brien, who was cramping. Janis moved into the lead with one mile to go and won the Olympic Trials Marathon in 2 hours, 30 minutes, 12 seconds—setting a new best in the process. (O’Brien made the team, too, finishing second.)

It would end up being the fastest marathon of her career. Janis finished 22nd at the Barcelona Olympics (she has since moved up two places due to drug busts). Just like before, she went back to racing. She came back to Minnesota and ran the Twin Cities Marathon that fall, winning in 2 hours, 36 minutes, 50 seconds. (Someone once told Janis that she has likely run the most sub-2-hour-40-minute marathons of any American woman—Løpe Magazine was unable to confirm that stat.) Then, she was invited to a race in Tokyo at the end of the year. So, she went with her mother and she finished seventh in 2 hours, 34 minutes. 

“I got done,” Janis said of the race in Tokyo, “and I thought, I’m going to go home and start a family.” 

One month later, after a year in which she ran four marathons, she was pregnant with twins.

* * *

Sarah’s first memories are more like watercolors, a little blurry, but the picture is still there. The memories are not specific instances, but she can conjure up that feeling of being a groggy-eyed kid, just awake, and her mom returning from a run. Janis is either stretching in the green grass of the front lawn, or she’s coming inside, and Sarah is hugging her and that crisp, fresh air she brought inside with her.

That’s the way it always was, growing up as a Klecker in Minnetonka. Sarah’s parents going out for a run was part of a normal day, just like brushing your teeth. 

Of six, Sarah is Barney and Janis’ third child. At the 1996 Olympic Trials in South Carolina, she was an infant at the finish line when Janis finished 43rd place in 2 hours, 45 minutes, 8 seconds. Her older siblings, twins John and Mary, were there, too.

(Janis also ran a qualifying time for the 2000 Olympic Trials, running 2 hours, 49 minutes in Minnesota as Barney hauled five kids around in a van to different parts of the course to cheer her on. “I had the easier job that day,” Janis said. She did not run the trials in 2000 even though she qualified.)

The kids ran, too—especially after they grew out of the custom, three-kid running stroller the family owned. Sarah and her siblings would jump into some local 5Ks with their parents, but the Klecker family didn’t force specialization, the kids mostly ran to burn off the energy of childhood. They also played basketball, soccer, baseball, football, and they skied, too. If there was something that involved physical activity, the Kleckers tried it.  

Everyone in the neighborhood knew something was going on at the Kleckers if they looked out the window to see six kids racing down the street to the end of the cul-de-sac. It could have been pre-Christmas morning presents or just before a long-haul road trip to Eugene like the vacation in 2012 when they went to watch the track and field Olympic Trials. When Barney and Janis needed kids on their best behavior, they would send them out for races down the block and back or around the yard. 

“Maybe it was a catalyst to get us to start running,” Sarah says of all the racing, “but it was mostly ‘You guys have too much energy.’”

Sarah didn’t start running in a structured way until middle school, though. She had seen her older brother, John, run well in middle school, and thought, “I can be good at that, too.”

That was kind of how it went for all the Klecker kids. John was the first to join the cross-country team. He was at the International School in Minneapolis in seventh grade, and was also playing on the soccer team that fall. He did end up being pretty good at it, though. Mary joined him the following season, then it became the norm for the Kleckers to go out for cross-country once they hit middle school. 

In the fall of 2011, five of the six Klecker kids were on the Hopkins High School cross-country team (James, the youngest wasn’t old enough, and would end up being the only Klecker to not run on the cross-country team). A reporter from Running Times (Rest in Power) came and followed the family around for a story. The kids were competitive, especially when it came to each other. At the race the reporter was at, Mary, Bit, and Sarah finished within two seconds of one another. At the time, John was a senior and Joe was a freshman, and John finished 33 seconds in front of his younger brother. The Klecker kids were enjoying the success on the cross-country course and track.

They had always known that their parents were fantastic runners. There was a photo of Janis winning the 1992 Olympic Trials hanging in the family room, and she spoke to different church groups about running quite a bit when they were growing up. Plus, they heard Barney tell stories about running all the time, like that one time he got $10,000 just for showing up at a race in South Africa or the first time he ran a marathon and how he ended up in the fetal position at the finish line or how he thought he broke 4 minutes in the mile one time because the track was nine laps to a mile, not eight. Once they got older and saw random people coming up to their parents at track meets or road races, they realized that their parents had made a life in the running community, and that life was pretty special. 

“I don’t remember if it was my mom or my dad,” Joe told me, “but one piece of advice I remember is that they said, ‘If someone’s interested in your running, don’t get too big of an ego where you push them aside. If one person is interested in what you’re doing, embrace that, and do not take it for granted.” 

Mary ran track and cross-country at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. John ran at Augustana University in South Dakota. Sarah ran at the University of Minnesota, and Bit is currently on the team there, too. The Klecker kids have been successful runners, but Joe turned into the phenom.

He was a national-class high school athlete, running 4 minutes, 4.03 seconds in the mile and 8 minutes, 50.12 seconds for 3,200 meters. He has only improved at the University of Colorado. Before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the N.C.A.A. Indoor Championships in early March, Joe was a favorite in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters, and had taken second place at the N.C.A.A. Cross-Country Championships last November. With outdoors canceled and the Olympic Games postponed, Joe, like everyone, is ready and waiting to see what is next. 

One thing is for sure: He is going to keep on running. That’s what the Kleckers do. 

They always have. Mary had graduated from Augsburg when, in 2016, she joined her grandmother and mother as a finisher of the Pikes Peak Ascent, a 13.32 mile climb up to 12,000 feet. Sarah ran the California International Marathon in December 2019, finishing in 2 hours, 50 minutes, 44 seconds. Joe, too, will keep on running. “He loves it,” his dad says. “You should see how serious he is about his training. It’s just like Janis and me. We had a good time with it, but we took it seriously.” 

Come 2021 and whatever the Olympic Trials look like, Joe Klecker could be a name to watch in the 5,000 meters. 

* * *

The Kleckers are more than just runners. In fact, one of them isn’t much of a runner at all. James, the youngest, never ran cross-country in high school. He ended up being a great 300-meter hurdler, but football was his poison. Next fall he’ll be a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, playing football for a program that was Division III when he matriculated, but that may end up being Division I by the time he graduates

James does still consider himself a runner. He remembers racing on road trips, and he loved that he got out of school early to go watch his five siblings run for Hopkins. He is simply proof that there’s more to life than running, even for the Kleckers.

Bit told me the family is also a family of shovelers. Barney owns a business that keeps driveways and parking lots clear in the Minneapolis area, so it’s not only running that the Kleckers do well. They’ll spend hours moving snow in winter (and sometimes spring in Minneapolis).  

They’re making their way in the world, too. Bit is on the track team at the University of Minnesota, but she also is a wedding photographer with her own business. Mary lives in the Minneapolis area and is a communications specialist at a public school. She is pregnant with Barney and Janis’ first grandchild. John is getting his PhD in chemistry at Stony Brook University on Long Island. Sarah lives in Portland and is studying Sports Product Design at the University of Oregon. Her capstone project focuses on the design of Paralympic uniforms and recovery apparel. Joe is about to embark on a professional running career, and James is gearing up for another football season.

And regardless of what they’re doing, the Klecker kids support one another. “Running was very much something that brought our family together,” Joe told me. “Any given day I could run with John or Sarah or Mary—even my little brother who plays football loves to run. It drew us together, even to this day. Not all of us are still running competitively, but we still have goals.” 

“I’ve got a bunch of cool and smart siblings,” Sarah told me. 

For Janis, that is the part she’s most pleased with. “This is our first year as empty nesters,” she said. “And we have poured our heart and soul into raising these kids. And I just really, really love being a mom. And it just warms my heart to see them as young adults being so encouraging of each other.”

* * *

The Klecker kids encourage their parents, too. 

The video is no longer on YouTube—at least not in the first ten pages of search results that combine the words “Klecker,” “400,” and/or “Barney and Janis”—but at one point, there was a video online of a race between Janis and Barney long after their competitive running days were behind them. Joe had followed along as he prepared his mom and dad for a 400-meter race one summer of high school. 

Joe was going to his dad’s track workouts, and Janis was doing her own thing, preparing for a race much shorter than they ever ran when they were winning the Olympic Trials or breaking world records. 

On race day at Hopkins High School, all six Klecker kids showed up to watch their parents race a lap. Sarah said Janis took the lead from the start with Barney running behind her. He bided his time then went by with 100 meters to go and held her off in the final straight. He won in a time of right around 80 seconds. The kids went wild cheering them on. Joe conducted post-race interviews.

It was just like old times on road trips and the kids running around the gas station for candy, only this time it was Barney and Janis racing around. 

The Klecker kids know they are unique, now. They know it’s not exactly normal to run a mile around a rest stop. Or to run hill repeats before opening Christmas presents. Or to line up for a 400-meter sprint when you’re over 60 years old. 

But they like that they’re not normal. They like that they’re a “weird family of runners.” Or, as Barney said, “It’s not weird. We just get up and exercise every day.” 

It is simple, and it is working.

Running has done many things for the Kleckers, but in it’s purest form, it has shown them how to be a family.

The Klecker kids (from left to right: Sarah, Joe, Mary, John, James, Bit) at the 2012 Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

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