“Road Runners Can Be Trailblazers Too: A Profile of Kris Jacoby”

by Matt Brophy

Kris Jacoby lives in Exeter–her hometown since 2nd grade–with her husband, Steven. She is a mother of three (Andy, Dan, and Abel) and a two-time cancer survivor. She works for Lacey Electric, and when she’s not running, she enjoys solving puzzles, gardening, and reading.

Thanks to Sue Jackson, who recruited her, she’s also a relatively new member of the Pagoda Pacers. (This is her 2nd year in the club.) And thanks to Tom Chobot, who gave me a great lead, you’re about to learn her somewhat secret history as an elite, trailblazing distance runner.

Jacoby (who was “Kristen Bankes” at the time) first started running in high school. She played the sports her sister played (hockey, basketball, track), but she laments the fact that women’s sports weren’t taken seriously by many at the time.

Despite the lack of institutional support, Jacoby and her track teammates qualified for the district and state championship meets. The year was 1974, and it was the first time that girls were allowed to compete at this level. At the time, however, Jacoby admits that her own interest was elsewhere. She preferred team sports. “Track seemed like running without a purpose.” She also confessed to a persistent battle with nerves: “I threw up before every race.”

It was at Penn State that Jacoby truly began to fall in love with running. After dabbling in field hockey, she joined the cross country team with a friend. It was the first year that Penn State had a women’s cross country team, which consisted of seven pioneering athletes and a new coach.

The more rigorous training and higher mileage led to more success. She was also able to shorten and quicken her stride. But many challenges remained, such as finding competition. Since no other colleges in the region had a women’s cross country team, Jacoby and her teammates had to compete against high school girls on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) clubs.

During her sophomore year, Penn State actually recruited three new state championship runners. (The original 7 had all been walk-ons.) Jacoby was encouraged to find that she could hold her own against these highly talented new recruits. During her sophomore, junior, and senior year, she was competing in Nationals, along with her teammates, in both cross country and track.

Jacoby formed a close friendship with her teammates, including Nationals champion Kathy Mills (now Kathy Parker), during college. While Mills often received more attention, Jacoby actually preferred avoiding the spotlight, and she admired how friendly and humble Mills remained. Jacoby remains friends with many of her college teammates, and they get together every three years for a reunion. 

After college, Jacoby returned to Berks and found herself a new coach: Jim Sutton. “Doc” (as he was known) encouraged her to shift her focus to road racing and to run longer distances. Sutton, Jacoby, and Beth Guerin often trained and raced together during these years. “We were almost akin to a team,” Jacoby reminisced. After a win and a couple other top-5 finishes in 10k races throughout PA, Jacoby ran her first marathon, along with Guerin, in March of 1979–the Prevention Marathon (now St. Luke’s) in Trexlertown–which she won, with a 2:58. The following year, she ran the race again (with Sutton this time), and she won again, shaving ten minutes off her previous time for what would end up being her personal best: a stunning 2:48:48. And this was done under adverse conditions: Jacoby remembers running parts of the race with numb feet after splashing through giant puddles of melted snow. 

Jacoby fondly remembers training and competing during those years. “I would meet Mr. Sutton at the Berkshire Mall after work and run. He would tell me what races to run, and I’d race almost every weekend. Beth and I were almost like sisters, often traveling together for races around the world.”

That went on for about five years, during which Jacoby won nine 10k’s in addition to her two marathon victories and wins at various other distances. She also competed in the national and international Avon races, organized by activist-runner Katherine Switzer, famous for her defiant Boston Marathon run in 1967. Switzer organized this race series to prove that women runners could compete at elite levels. 

In 1979, Jacoby won a 10-mile qualifying race in the Avon series in Newark, Delaware (58:42). She went on to finish second at the national Avon championship, in Springdale, Ohio (a 30k race, which she ran in 1:54:16), which enabled her to compete at the international championship in Germany. In 1980, she ran the series again, and again she made it to the international stage, competing in London this time, where she ran a 2:52 marathon. Not only did she have a great race, but she was also able to take a month’s leave from work, allowing her to tour England, Scotland, and Wales before returning to Pennsylvania. “Usually, when I traveled for a race, I’d have to go back right after,” she explained. “But this time I had time to explore. It was the trip of my life!” The only thing that compared was drinking her first margarita with Katherine Switzer after an Avon race in Pasadena and discovering it was the perfect post-race beverage (“Salt! Yes!”)

Just a couple months earlier that same year (1980), Jacoby had competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Impressed, yet? Jacoby modestly downplayed the accomplishment: “It was a fake event,” she explained. The Olympics had not yet recognized women’s running events beyond 1,500 meters, so her winning 10k time (33:45) wasn’t actually going to qualify her for anything. (Not mention the fact that the U.S. boycotted the Soviet-hosted Games that year due to Cold War politics.)

One of the most unusual events that Jacoby competed in (and won) was a 5k at Belmont Park in Long Island, where the Belmont Stakes is held. Running on a track designed for horseracing was a new experience. “The surface was lumpy,” she reminisced, “and we had to jump over haystacks.” Didn’t slow her down much: 18:06.

What finally did slow her down was settling down. After marrying and having kids, she found it hard to find the time to train regularly. “I still ran, but not as fast,” she told me, but then added, “Well, there was the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987. I ran that after having my second son.” And she ran it in 2:50. 

Now, Jacoby’s running priorities are to “just stay healthy and not do anything dumb.” But she’s still pretty competitive. When I asked her if there were races she would do just for the experience, she shook her head. If she’s going to race, she’s going to race.

And now, the next time she zooms by, you’ll know you’re being passed by a world-class athlete. 

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