Mark Bennett: At 63, Jeff Kackley aims to run 54 miles in 12 hours in Hawthorn Half-Day

Saturdays can get busy, even on a holiday weekend.

Lots of folks look ahead to their schedule and say, “I’ll be running all day.”

For Jeff Kackley, that isn’t an exaggeration. He’ll actually be running from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. this Saturday. He’ll run through the shade, sun and wildlife areas of Hawthorn Park along with more than 150 other competitors. Kackley hopes to cover at least 54 miles in those 12 hours during the 18th annual Hawthorn Half-Day Relay and Ultra race.

If he does, Kackley will set the race’s distance record for his age group — 60- to 69-year-olds.

Yes, Jeff Kackley will start running a half-hour after sunrise and finish 90 minutes before sundown, and traverse the same distance as a trip from Haute City Center mall to Vincennes, at age 63.

Unlike most of the 150-plus distance runners in Saturday’s race, Kackley didn’t become an avid runner until he was almost 50. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to get off the couch. I’ve got to do something,’” he recalled Tuesday morning, standing at his desk at Jones Fabrication & Machine on Terre Haute’s north side, where he’s the owner and general manager.

So Kackley walked out to the mailbox of his Prairie Creek home and started running. He got about 100 yards and stopped, breathless. He kept at it, though, and made rapid progress. That November, Kackley completed his first marathon — a 26.2-mile race. At 53, he ran the Hawthorn Half-Day Ultra and covered 69.7 miles in 12 hours. Now, a decade after setting that race record, Kackley wants to set the 60-69 age-group record, held by Damon Clements, who ran 53.7 miles in 2018.

Running holds a significant place in Kackley’s life and schedule now. Along with family pictures, the walls of Kackley’s office are lined with ribbons, plaques and mementos from his 18 marathons, numerous 5K and 10K runs, a 50K run and others, including the Hawthorn Half-Day Relay and Ultra race through the past 14 years. Aside from competitions, Kackley runs approximately 50 miles a week. He used to do those workouts in the mornings, before dawn. Nowadays, Kackley runs whenever he can, sometimes on a work break or evenings. On weekends, he runs with a group of friends.

His reason for running isn’t complex.

“I don’t want to get out of shape and feel like crap,” Kackley said.

Saturday’s Hawthorn Half-Day is for dedicated runners such as Kackley.

“These are just very special athletes,” said Majel Wells, director of the Terre Haute race. “It’s just a different kind of running and preparation.

“It’s a pretty cool race,” she added. “It’s one of a kind.”

There are different ways to compete in the Hawthorn Half-Day event. It includes both a 12-hour race and a six-hour race. Some participants run those races in teams of two to six runners, “which makes it more digestible,” said Wells. Kackley ran his first Hawthorn Half-Day with a six-man team.

Some choose to run the entire time solo, as Kackley eventually did. The goal is to cover the greatest distance in the allotted time.

Wells is a serious runner, too, and ran the Ultra race solo every year from 2013 until last year, when she decided to become the owner and operator of the annual event. She stepped into the role previously handled by longtime organizers Mark Achenbach and Paul Clapp since it launched in 2006. She’s also a volunteer with the Wabash Valley Road Runners, which isn’t associated with the Hawthorn Half-Day.

Wells has run the local Half-Day’s winning distance five times, sometimes not only leading all the female competitors but also the men’s runners. She covered 67.1 miles in 2014, a distance record for the 30-39 age group that still stands. All have a similar trait.

“There’s a lot of perseverance that’s required for a race like this,” Well said. “There’s a kind of mental attitude that’s necessary in this.”

They actually enjoy running for 12 hours, she emphasized.

“It’s a fun day,” Wells said. “I know that seems weird to say for people who don’t run like this.”

Just as Wells is joined by her husband and kids when she runs races elsewhere, she “purposely centers [the Hawthorn Half-Day] around family.” The competitors log their miles by running a 5K (or 3.1-mile) loop through the east-side Vigo County park. It features a stocked aid station midway through the loop, where runners can get food and drinks such as water, Gatorade and even coffee beverages through Impressed Coffee Co. Proper hydration and food intake matters through such exertion. Runners can rest in chairs and use the park’s restrooms. Friends and family members often set up chairs and tents along the route, so participants see familiar faces repeatedly. Family members are invited to run a loop around the course with their runner.

A baked potato bar and pie from Grand Traverse Pie Co. await the runners at the finish.

The atmosphere has drawn entrants this year from Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and, of course, Indiana and Illinois. Wells hopes the outside visitors get a taste of Terre Haute’s parks and amenities in the process.

Of the 150 runners who’d entered as of Wednesday, 93 are running solo — 35 in the six-hour race and 58 in the 12-hour race. They run mind-boggling distances. Stephanie Bartley logged 76.9 miles in 12 hours as the women’s winner in 2013. Troy Shellhamer went 81.5 miles to win the 2014 men’s race.

Kackley is aiming for 54 miles. “I just want to get 54 miles. That’ll be the record,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

That distance is about two football fields farther than the current race record of 53.7 miles for runners 60 to 69. It sounds like a mere fragment compared to the total mileage, but Kackley understands how long that can be.

In his first Hawthorn Half-Day Ultra solo race, he remembers coming to an abrupt stop when the 12-hour time expired. He sat on the ground. A longtime runner encouraged him to run just another half-mile to a gathering point.

“I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not moving,’” Kackley said, grinning at the memory. He phoned his daughter, who picked him up there and drove him home.

His body has held up well through 14 years of competitive running. He dealt with a stress fracture in his ankle. Two hernia surgeries a couple years ago left Kackley unable to run at all. He’s recovered well. A few months ago, he cut sugar from his diet completely and is now 13 pounds lighter.

“It’s helped with speed. Anytime you lose a pound, your speed goes up,” Kackley said.

Age matters, too. Kackley readily admits, “I’ve slowed way down,” since setting the Hawthorn Half-Day record as a 53-year-old in 2014. He also doesn’t intend to go for the 70-and-older Ultra race record someday.

But he won’t quit. “I’m going to keep running,” Kackley said.