Celebrated Southern Indiana distance coach Chuck Crowley hasn’t missed a day of running in more than 11 years
Story by Grant Vance | Photos by Danny Alexander
For the past 11 and a half years– that’s 4,179 days and counting, to be exact– Chuck Crowley has not skipped a day of running.
“Every day is a great day to run,” he’ll tell you.
And he’s not joking around. Despite his keen sense of humor, he truly believes any opportunity to run is a great opportunity.
As impressive as a 4,719-day streak may seem, Crowley’s romance with running goes much farther than eleven and a half years. This is just his latest numerical accomplishment. Also included are four Boston Marathons, four New York Marathons and 24 years of coaching at Holy Family and Providence High School.
Numbers are always an obstacle to defy for a distance runner. And every race has a starting line.
When Crowley was approached as a freshman by the cross country coach at Holy Cross High School in his hometown of Flushing, N.Y, he turned him down. “I can’t. I’m really, really, really slow. (I was) five-feet tall and weighed 90 pounds,” he said. “Just slow as molasses.”
But, as fate would have it, Crowley decided to run anyway. “(The coach) dragged every little skinny kid out for cross country,” he said. “There were 20 freshmen on the team, and I worked my way up to 10th best freshman.”
He didn’t stop there. “(Our class has a Facebook page) and some kid posted a picture of the seven best freshman on the A-team,” he said. “I just wanted to laugh. If you asked anyone which of these kids, which one of these seven best freshman was the fifth best runner in school history, ran for (Indiana University) and ran the Boston Marathon four times, …it’s none. It’s the kid who couldn’t make that team.”
What Crowley discovered is what inspires many distance runners, especially at the high school age. You may be competing against a slew of other runners, but the true nature of distance running is challenging and pushing yourself on an individual level. Innate talent can only go so far; it’s the work you put in that makes it count.
“I just kept working and working even though I wasn’t near their talent,” he said. “The next year, I ended up passing them and becoming the number one sophomore.”
Coming in as a “talentless” freshman and graduating in the top 25 seniors in New York City, Crowley proved himself not as a “good” runner (in his eyes, at least), but as a hard worker.
“I was still slow as molasses. I just ran a lot,” he said. “I found this was a sport I don’t have to have talent for. If I work harder than everyone else, I will beat them.”
Once Crowley graduated Holy Cross in New York, he found himself in Bloomington walking on the cross country team at Indiana University.
“I always tell people I ran 4:20 in the mile at IU and came in last,” he laughs. “15:34 in the 5k, still in the back.”
Despite his work ethic, this was an especially difficult time in Crowley’s running career. Metaphorical shin splints, if you will. “I ran two years at IU and never got a letter. It was just too much, all the work,” he said. “I did all the hard work and was sorta going nowhere.
“Between my sophomore and junior year at IU, I stayed in Bloomington. I had a job in Bloomington and I was really going to work hard all summer, make varsity the next year. About halfway through the summer, I got mono and it just sort of wiped me out. I couldn’t run, I just wanted to sleep. … It just wasn’t going to happen.”
A tragedy of timing, mono took its hold and prompted hiatus at a pivotal point in Crowley’s running career. He continued on through school, graduating in 1982. Shortly after, he married his wife.
“I didn’t start running again until 1984 when my daughter was born,” he said. “I gained weight. I gained 30 pounds, and this guy was like, ‘You used to run, want to run?’ So we started running again, and ever since then I’ve been running and just kept building and building.”
The building didn’t start and end with Crowely’s own development. Instead, it led into the next logical step in his career as an accomplished runner: coaching. He started coaching in 1992 at Holy Family—the first and only Southern Indiana Deanery school to have a team, thanks to Crowley. This lasted eight years before making the step up to high school cross country at Providence.
“Some of my (runners) were freshmen at Providence, and their moms were calling me, like, you know, ‘This guy (the former coach) smokes; he can’t run with the kids like you can’,” he said. “That was 17 years ago. I’ve been at Providence 17 years.”
Crowley coached cross country and long distance for most of his tenure at Providence, eventually taking over as head track coach. With a lifetime of experience and strong dedication, he took the job with ease.
“(During my interview for head coach I told them) I can time anyone, anytime. I pulled up my wrist and had four watches on. This one does 100 people,” he laughed.
“(The principal of Providence) Dr. Melinda Ernstberger said, ‘You really are nuts, aren’t you?’
“I said yes, thank you.”
Getting the chance to run with the kids he is mentoring is one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching for Crowley. He continues to keep in touch with his team once they are graduates, inviting them to continue to run with him and his team for as long as they’re willing.
Former runner Murphy Sheets, for example, is now a friend of Crowley.
“Murphy and I still keep in touch,” Crowley said. “I’ll meet him down in Jeff, and we’ll run for 10 miles or more.”
“Chuck was a good coach because he kept things low key and mellow, but also got down to business,” Sheets said. “He taught us the value of hard work doesn’t mean thinking too hard. To let the results of hard work speak for itself.”
Letting hard work speak for itself is something Crowley has always prioritized. He expresses this clearly in his upbringing, but also through his coaching. Although getting to run with like-minded individuals is especially meaningful, the most rewarding aspect of coaching for him is finding someone who would never believe they were capable of it and making them a star.
“Spencer Mitchell as a freshman could not run an 800 in four minutes. He was manager his freshman year,” he said. “And then Spencer his senior year made it to semi-state. He ran in college. He holds the steeple chase record at Spalding. He’s a ridiculously good runner. … It changed his life.”
“Out of anyone in high school (Crowley) influenced me the most,” Mitchell said. “He kept me organized, he would help pay for my gas so I could make it to school and practice. … He was there for me more than anyone.”
Out of all the different students Crowley coached over 17 years, Mitchell is one of his favorite stories. Vanessa Covarrubias is another.
“Stephany Covarrubias drug her sister Vanessa out to (a summer workout). … She was not athletic at all. She was a book person,” Crowley said. “So (Stephany) drags her out there, and she can’t jog a mile and she’s struggling to do each lap of alternating 400s; she just hated it. But she kept coming. She liked the people.
“She runs her whole junior year and she does alright, but she finds she likes to run. She just likes to jog, doesn’t like to do any of the workouts. One day we were doing a workout, and she just kept jogging, she jogged 10miles. And you know what happens if you run 10 miles by yourself and you just keep working and working? When she was a senior, she passed up Stephany. … She was our number one runner her senior year. … Now she’s at Ball State, first or second on her club team. That’s why you do it.”
Despite his love for coaching, Crowley announced his retirement at this past year’s cross country banquet. He cited discretions with administration for space to run and how its prioritized as one of his biggest grievances.
“I’m just over the paperwork and nonsense,” Crowley said.
It goes without saying Crowley holds running close to his heart. He’s run 14 marathons throughout Boston, New York, Columbus, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Louisville. He’s won Fred G’s Southern Indiana Runner of the Year 10 times, including Grand Master for 50-plus this year, not to mention he’s directed the Run for the Berries since 2003, raising $5,000 for charity each year.
Crowley does not look at running just as a cathartic exercise—it’s a potentially life-changing way of life. A lifestyle celebrating every day as a great day to run.
“Some of you will understand this and some of you won’t. You ask, ‘Why do I run every day?’ People in sports look at running as a punishment. For me, I get to run every day. I don’t have to run. I get to run. I want to run. It makes me feel better. It keeps me in shape. It’s a life-changing thing— it’s not a sport. It’s inside me to want to run.”