March 11, 2023 5 min read 4 Comments
Robert Qualls winning a 12k last fall on his hot streak. Photo courtesy Jason Timochko.
"Everything is connected to everything else."
__Barry Commoner, a biologist on Ecology
By Ray Glier
Robert Qualls’ 5k run in Atlanta had the hush of the wilderness. The cops had stopped the traffic all around the runners as they approached CNN Center. There were no jackhammers on a Saturday morning and the nearest hospital ER was across town.
The lack of clatter perturbed a woman running next to Qualls. “It’s soooo quiet,” she muttered.
Fortunately for her, she was moving alongside the human version of the Northern Mockingbird, which is a notorious talker. This one had no feathers.
“I’m a chatterbox,” said Qualls. “I like to talk during races.”
He’s also an Ecologist, a retired Phd from the University of Nevada-Reno.
Right on que, Qualls pointed out to her, “Look, there’s a Mockingbird." The man is as enthusiastic about nature as he is about running.
The thing about Qualls, now that he’s 70 and aged up to 70-74, you better quickly take in his ecological sightseeing expertise because he’s going to be leaving you behind. He’s on fire.
Robert won gold in the 70-74 cohort at the USA Track & Field 5k National Championships in Atlanta on Feb. 25 in 20:08.6, his fifth straight win and 15h victory in his 19 events since turning 70. The year is young, but he so far has the second fastest time in the world in his age group.
One of those wins was colossal. Qualls turned 70 in May of 2022, then went and won the 6K Cross Country world title at the World Masters in Finland.
A few weeks later, he took gold in four events (800, 5000, 10000 and 4x800) at the USATF Masters Outdoors Championships in Lexington. He had to pass on a chance for a fifth gold in the 1500 because he woke up with Covid the next day.
Qualls is delighted to have aged up, which is not what most of us say with each birthday.
“I was languishing at 69 (years old),” Robert said. “I was doing the same times, but competing with a different crowd. It feels great to win again.”
But it is not just being young again—relatively—that has propelled Qualls back to the top of running. He is a scientist and he studies a scientist, the running sage Jack Daniels of Cortland, N.Y. who declares, “Impose the least stress that produces the maximum benefit.”
The training by Daniels is pragmatic and rational and Qualls has taught himself to be a steward of steady pace. There is a stillness to his pace it, no gyrations. He does not spar with other runners over the lead. He does his thing.
On one lap on a track, Qualls can run to his targeted pace within a second. Others can do it, but do they have the discipline all of the time not to get drawn into a dash?
“I differ from lots of other people because I have some kind of inner clock that tells me to run at exactly the same pace the whole race,” Qualls said. “And part of that comes from training on the track. So I can run around the track and I can hit my mark within one second.
“If you're trying to expend an equal amount of energy the whole race, that's the most efficient way to run. And that's what I do. I don't do anything like go out fast, or out-kick somebody else.”
Jack Daniels, a physiologist, exposes the seams in running, and opens them, which means it allows us to look into the inner sanctum of ourselves, the way we breath, and how we function as we run. Qualls follows the teachings strictly, especially with VO2 max. It is a scientist talking back to a scientist.
Qualls adds another layer, which is the environment around him. It’s all connected, an eco-system if you will, and Qualls is very connected and soaks it in as he runs.
It feels natural to Qualls to be a cross country runner because, he says, "I am a Professor of Ecology, which is inherently an outdoors science."
He is also very driven and comes from an athletically/academically-driven family. His father, Spencer, was a Gold Glove boxer in Charlotte, N.C. His uncle was a gymnastics champion in the Atlantic Coast Conference. His father taught Math. His mother was a teacher.
Qualls was driven to an undergraduate degree at one of the top public universities in the country, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received the Phd from the University of Georgia and earned tenure at Nevada-Reno.
Qualls' research projects included time on a mountain watershed in the Appalachians, getting dropped from a helicopter into the middle of the Everglades, trekking Mount Shasta in six feet of snow, and spending days in the Mojave Desert at the Nuclear Test Site.
The world title in Finland meant something to him and Qualls won’t hide it. He seems demure, soft-spoken, but inside he rumbles.
On the last lap of the title race, which was three laps outside along a mix of surfaces, Qualls was even with the Australian Yassine Belaabed. But because of his superior pace Robert didn’t have to muster a kick the last 100 meters.
“I could hear him breathing heavily and I thought ‘I’m going to win this,” he said.
Qualls finished in 21:59 to Belaabed’s 22:12.
Even in the heat of the race, Qualls did not forget about the world around him. He marveled over the European Dipper he came across.
For all his competitiveness, Qualls does not sit in a stew of anxiety about whether he can win, or not. For one thing, he is very much into poetry, an ethereal pursuit that pairs well with his patient race pace. Qualls also has a realistic view of how good he is when matched against certain runners.
“All of the people that are doing this are performance driven,” Qualls said after his Atlanta win, “and I know when I'm not the best, fully aware of it. I don't mind coming in third, so I'm never disappointed in having somebody like Nolan Shaheed beat me. I’ve just always accepted there are faster guys.”
That’s not science from the scientist. That’s human from the scientist.
“You can never see a plant grow, but it does.”
___an Ecologist, somewhere.
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