More often than not, when a track coach tells a young runner that he is “more fit for the marathon,” than a regular season track event, it is because the lad is a bit slow and the coach doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.
Feature photo: Twin Cities Pioneer Press, click here!
This was not the case when Coach Bill Kackley conveyed his opinion to a gangly, young distance runner by the name of Phil Coppess.
Coppess did not go out for track until his sophomore year in high school. Despite the late start, he showed he had running and racing ability by winning 5 state titles, one coming in cross country and four in track, before graduating in 1972 from now defunct, Oxford Junction High School. But, it was the talent he showed after reaching the age of 27 that shocked everyone; everyone but Phil Coppess.
Phil is a great story. He has a storyline that is better than many movies about distance running that have ever hit the big screen. He is a common ordinary factory worker now living in Clinton, Iowa who never gave up on his dream.
Coppess was the youngest of nine children from Oxford Junction in northeastern Iowa. As a high school runner, he was not especially fast but prevailed in distance runs, the longer the better, with remarkable endurance and sheer determination.
“Our family wasn’t rich,” he said. “If I went to college, it was going to have to be a full ride, and there were a lot of kids faster than me. I ran a couple track meets that summer after I graduated, in 1972, and that was about it. Said, guess I’m going to have to get a job.”
By 1974, Coppess was married and working the corn evaporator at the Archer Daniels Midland processing plant in Clinton. That year, he and his wife had their first child. There was no time for running, especially after a daughter was born in 1977 and another son in 1980.
But during a 1979 strike at ADM in Clinton, Coppess got a job at a nuclear plant in Cordova, Illinois, where he observed some of the office workers going for a run on their lunch hour.
Coppess thought, “I used to do that” and took up running again in 1980. He trained hard while working in the factory and raising a family as a divorced father of three. While training with the likes of Gregg Newell and Jim Ijams, his times dropped like a rock and the medals, trophies and records began to multiply.
In 1981 he won the Drake Relays Marathon, the Huntsville Alabama Marathon and the Chicago Marathon, in 2:16, beating two time Olympic Marathon medalist Frank Shorter along the way.
After Chicago, Shorter had this to say about Coppess: “Phil may get mad at me for saying this, but he didn’t have a heck of a lot of talent, yet he ran nearly as fast as I did in the marathon. Our PR’s are very close. The reason is, he was willing to work, and that is what showed through in Phil”.
1985 was the magic year for the small town boy from northeast Iowa. He ran over 40 races that year. His times got better, at every distance, from the mile through the marathon.
Coppess had eventually designed a training regimen that dovetailed with his rotating shifts at ADM (a corn processing plant) in Clinton and his parenting responsibilities; he was awarded full custody of the children in a 1985 divorce. He ran 14 to 15 miles on work days, longer on his days off, carrying a palm-sized stopwatch to record each mile. “I didn’t think it was a good 20-miler unless I had gone under two hours,” he said. One day a week, he did a track workout, and on another, hills. Physical therapy consisted of weekly chiropractic adjustments.
He won the Lincoln Marathon, and a marathon in Auckland, New Zealand. And 32 years later, Phil Coppess’ course records still stand.
In early October, 1985, he took a weekend off and flew to Minneapolis. His parents made the five-and-a-half-hour drive with his three children. Coppess was confident that he could break 2:11, at the Twin Cities Marathon , which he figured would be good enough for first place. As always, his strategy was simple: go out hard, a pace just under five minutes per mile, and keep it up for 26.2 miles. If others wanted to go with him, fine, and if they didn’t, that was fine, too.
On October 6, 1985, Phil, was on his way to setting the course record with a winning time of 2 hours 10 minutes and 5 seconds. The second-place finisher was three minutes behind. Coppess’s time was the fastest by an American that year, and at the time, ranked him among the top 20 American marathoners ever, just ahead of Frank Shorter. Track and Field News named him the US Marathoner of the year. He was also selected American Road Runner of the Year by Road Runners Club of America.
Twin Cities timed the 30K and 20 mile splits in route. Coppess’ 30K split was a world record time (stood for 20 years) and his 20 mile mark set a new American record (still stands).
Coppess is an Iowa road racing legend. He became a fixture at the world renowned Bix 7, placing in the top 10 in 1981, 82, 83, 85 and 86. He took fourth behind Rob DeCastella, Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter in 1982 and was third behind Mark Curp and Rodgers in 1986. Six times he broke 35:00 at Bix.
Coppess says his best road race in Iowa was the 1985 Dam to Dam 20K in Des Moines where he set new PR’s for both the 10 mile and 20K. Both 10K splits were under 30 minutes in route to his winning time of 59:23.
Some more of Phil Coppess’ Road PR’s:
10K-28:49, Mobile Alabama
7 Mile-33:29, Bix 7, Davenport, Iowa
10 Mile-47:23, Bobby Crim, Flint Michigan
20K-59:23, Dam to Dam, Des Moines, Iowa
Phil also holds the two fastest times for a marathon by a native Iowan: 2:10:05-Twin Cities and 2:11:34 in Auckland, New Zealand.
While he seemed unstoppable in races, by 1986 injuries did what competition couldn’t: Slow him down.
Back problems came in 1987 and he was never the same after that, bringing his competitive running career to a halt in 1989.
Coppess quit at ADM in 1986 and now works as an Ultrasonic Inspector at Arconic (formerly Alcoa) in the Quad Cities. He finished his BA, in Education, from Marycrest in Davenport, Iowa in 1990.
Phil got back into the road racing scene, albeit for a short time, when he reached “Masters Age Group” status . He set the Iowa All Time Best masters mark for a road 8k when he ran 25:59 at the 5th Season 8K in Cedar Rapids, in 1995 at the age of 40. His last race was in early 1997.
Phil Coppess was inducted into the Iowa Association of Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 2014.