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Little Falls couple stays (very) active together

She is a record-setting runner, and he plans to bike 5,000 miles this year 

By Bill Vossler

Wanda and Buddy Gau of Little Falls in a photo taken recently. Contributed photo

Buddy Gau of Little Falls figures to bike 5,000 miles this year. “Last year I did 4,600 miles, riding through the winter. This year because of a good start, I only need to average 13.7 miles per day to hit 5,000.”

His wife, Wanda, is a runner. And a fast one. This year, she will continue her mastery as one of the fastest marathon runners in her age group in the world.

Their commitment to exercise and competition is unique... but maybe what is more unique is the fact that they didn’t start being serious about competing until their 40s.

Buddy, 64, played three sports at Little Falls Community High School. “The big one was basketball, because I’m six-foot seven.” He also ran cross country and track, and football for a while.

After playing basketball for two years at St. Cloud State University, he transferred to Duluth, which changed his life in a huge way.

Wanda, 61, didn’t run at all in high school. “I was the manager for sports at Apollo High School, but felt I had no athletic ability. I married and began teaching, but when our adult children were gone, well, the metabolism went down and the weight up, so I had to do something to manage my health better.”

Buddy Gau running in the Denver Marathon, before he had his serious heart event. Contributed photos

That meant a health club. “Some friends were running 5ks (five kilometer races) and they encouraged me to join them. At first I said ‘No.’”

Buddy had started running. So she agreed to run in a 5k with him. “I wanted to beat my husband,” she laughed, “and ran much better than I thought I could. I remember finishing the race, and when I did, it was such an adrenaline rush, even though it hurt.”

“She beat me,” Buddy said, “and figured this would be a good start to a competitive running career.”

About this time in their early 40s, they entered a pair of triathlons. “The swim was the hardest,” Buddy said. “I‘m not good at swimming. We can run marathons, but we aren‘t good at swimming. In the triathlon, we don’t do the crawl, like most swimmers. Wanda backstrokes, and I sidestroke, so we‘re the last ones out of the water. After two triathlons, we decided to stay with just running.”

Buddy’s Near-Death Experience

While attending the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1981, Buddy was involved in a life-changing incident. 

“One night I was chasing a friend because of something he did to me, and tripped and fell on the road,” he said.

When he fell down, a drunk driver drove over him. 

“She dragged me under her car for a block. My friend pounded on her car window to get her to stop. By that time I was bleeding out. All my ribs were broken, and there were holes all over my body. When the ambulance came, all I remember was being asked if I was allergic to anything, and I said ‘penicillin.’”

Wanda and Buddy Gau of Little Falls take a break from a bike ride in front of “The Bean” during a recent visit to Chicago. Since their 40s, the couple has been very active. Wanda is one of the fastest marathon runners in her age group in the world and owns 60 state records. Buddy has run in many races, and also bikes. He plans to bike 5,000 miles this year, and his goal is to bike in all the lower 48 states. Contributed photo

In the emergency room Buddy was laid out with both lungs punctured. 

“They reinflated them, and I was in a coma for four days. After I woke up, they were sticking needles in me, and asked if I could feel them. I couldn‘t talk due to a breathing tube down my throat. All I remember was I hoped to God I would feel those things.”

Which he did. But he had to learn how to walk all over. After a month in the hospital losing 40 pounds, Buddy went home. He worked as a groundskeeper for the Little Falls Schools. “I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ They said ‘Come back tomorrow,’ and I did, and got stronger and stronger each day. But after the accident, I had no desire to run or bike.”

That changed when he was 42. “The kids were older, and I started thinking about running. So I happily ran on a treadmill at the health club. One day somebody said, ‘Why don’t you run with us? Ten miles.’ So I did. After that I started running regularly. In 2004 our Little Falls running group ran our first marathon, Grandma’s in Duluth.”

Wanda -- One of The World’s Best

After beating Buddy in that 5K, Wanda finally said “yes” to a couple of runs with her health club women. “After that I enjoyed running competitively.”

That meant 44 full 26.2-mile marathons. She said, “I ran my fastest marathon in 2018 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, winning my age group with a personal record of three hours and three minutes.”

At a USA Track and Field 10k race in Minneapolis, Wanda is focused at winning her age group. Contributed photos

Then she wondered if she could break the three-hour mark. “But my body doesn’t like running more than two or three marathons a year, or I get injured. Taking time off frustrates me. Then I heard about Fuhrman Institute’s Three Day plan, which helped me improve with fewer injuries. I would love to run every day, but the plan says three times a week: one for speed, second for distance, and third for tempo. Off days I bike, do plyometrics and weights.”

After running decent times in marathons, 3:04 through 3:08, she thought Father Time had caught up with her. “I was close to breaking three hours, but never got there. After Covid I figured it wasn’t going to happen, and I was okay with that. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

In Minnesota’s circuit of races she noted how other runners her age were doing compared to her. At one she was told of the Big Bear Revel Marathon in California. “I hadn’t traveled for a while, and I thought it would be easier to be away from teaching, so I signed up to see how it would go. I had no intention of breaking three hours.”

Big Bear starts at the top of Big Bear Mountain, and goes downhill. “My running friends said it is easier to run downhill. I didn’t train especially for it. One tip was to run the many switchbacks tight so you weren’t adding extra distance. They said the first nine miles were the toughest, and mile thirteen on down was a steep grade, so I would be flying.”

At the 13 and 14 mile markers, she did sub-six-minute miles. “At mile 20 the downhill was so steep that my quad muscles were killing me. Finally I realized I had to walk a minute every mile to give my quads a break. At the last mile, without knowing my time, I decided I was going to run every step of that last mile. So I did. I thought if at 2:59:59, I would have reached my under-three-hour goal. When I crossed the finish line and looked up and saw 2:56:09, I couldn’t believe it! My husband and I had quite an emotional hug, tears pouring down our faces, because I’d had that goal for my whole life.”

At that time, their research said there were only two other women in the world who have run a faster marathon time at this age.

“Whenever she runs,” Buddy said, “she always wins her age group and sets a new record. She beats almost everyone, male and female, in the forty-and-older group, and has been Minnesota Runner of the Year for her age group seven consecutive years, with over sixty state records. It’s amazing. She has run sub-twenty-minute 5ks, which is unusual for someone her age.” He laughed. “People think I coach her, but she’s her own coach.”

She said, “Sometimes I’ve wondered how my career would have gone had I been running years ago, but that’s in the past. And I think because I started running later in life, I still have fresh legs.

Buddy out for one of his daily bicycle trips as he works on reaching the 5,000 mile mark for 2024.

Buddy Almost Dies, No. 2

Buddy and Wanda are polar opposites in training. She has a mentor, sticks with three-day-a-week running, and follows running tips from the St. Cloud River Runners club, plus how to eat and avoid injuries.

Buddy’s goal has always been to finish. “With no training regimen, I never had any sense of what I should do. I went out and ran, and if I ran too fast, I got tired, and died at the end.

Competition for me was to get done. I finished every single race I started, including fifty-three marathons--where Wanda has crushed me in every one she ran. I have run about thirty half marathons, and many 5ks and 10ks. I figured I had a second chance to live, and I took advantage of it by staying in shape running. It kept my weight down, but my diet was terrible, too much fast food.”

One February day in 2020 he almost died when a heart event sent him to the hospital for 17 days. “Wanda slept in my hospital room for fifteen of those days. That kind of support is incredible.”

Ever since, Buddy decided to be healthy. “I watch my sodium intake, and eat much healthier. I only bike, as my heart and energy are good. My personal goal is to bike in all the lower 48 states. I started this last year, and last summer I biked in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. In the last few weeks I started swimming 4-5 times a week at the St. Francis pool.”

One difficult aspect with purposefully running and biking is finding the time. Wanda still teaches, though Buddy retired recently. “One of our great strengths,” Buddy said, “is how we cooperate and support each other on our choices of exercise.”

Wanda is doing hill training on the Seven Deadly Hills around Little Birch Lake to help in her running.

Thoughts On Exercising

When the Gaus bike or run, people would be surprised to find out what is going through their minds. For Buddy, it’s thinking about how fortunate he is to still be alive. “I think about all the things I still want to do and that I’m just lucky to be alive. I am so happy and grateful that I can do this with a supporting wife. Biking is my motivator. I feel good, and have a new knee. If I can do this, anybody in the world can do it.”

He will also think about runners he knew from races. “The slowest third in a marathon were great people. We ran together and talked, and afterwards ate together. I miss that.”

Both are Catholic, and when Wanda runs she uses her faith. “When I train, I pray the rosary, and in any race, including a marathon, each mile I dedicate in prayer for a specific intention which makes the miles fly by. It’s a nice way to pray in a purposeful way.”

Wanda said running feels good overall. “I move my body, it clears my mind, and if I’m troubled I am able to think of ideas to help solve problems.”

Buddy said it’s important to stay active. “Now that we’re seniors, it’s even more important. I’ve done so much abuse in working out, so it’s important to move and exercise on my bike. It’s good for my soul and health.” 

Wanda’s advice to people who want to exercise involves trying it. “You can start at any age, and don’t have to do anything hard core. Make a goal and try to reach it. Or change the goal. Do what is good for  your soul and body.” 

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