Though he may not have realized it at the time, Jay Kuehner picked a prime time and place to re-immerse himself into running.
Kuehner, 44, moved to Seattle more than 20 years ago, following a decade-long hiatus from the sport he had enjoyed since he was a kid. But soon after arriving in Seattle, Kuehner found himself inspired not only by the stunning terrain of the Pacific Northwest, but also by a growing community of elite runners pioneering the sport in Seattle, including the likes of Scott Jurek, Krissy Moehl and Scott McCoubrey.
“I found myself doing training runs in the mountains with the same runners who would help popularize the sport,” Kuehner says. “They were functioning at a different capacity than I was, and yet, on a weekly basis we would go out and run together. What was a long run for me was an easy training run for them, but there was just this spirit of camaraderie, of competitive cooperation.”
The group's usual meeting point was the Seattle Running Company in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The store is now an outpost of the Fleet Feet Sports franchise, but back then, way before the word “ultra” became part of the lexicon in running circles, it was an iconic hub in the burgeoning movement toward longer distances.
For Kuehner, there was something refreshing about those early days and their long wilderness outings: no runner tracking, Instagram photos or elaborate support teams -- just a handful of dedicated and relatively anonymous (at that point, anyway) athletes going for a long run around places like Cougar or Tiger mountain.
“Contrary to say, running Boston or other large races, this was something that just took place under the forest canopy, and it was for the sheer love of it, in the absence of any kind of spectatorship,” Kuehner recalls. “The rewards were just a warm ride back in a car and some snacks. That was the way these people celebrated epic runs, and there was something so determined and passionate about it that it rubbed off on me. These people became my unwitting mentors with what they were doing.”
Since then, Kuehner has run more than 100 races of varying paces, terrains and distances, from fundraiser 5Ks to marathons. As a freelance writer and film critic, Kuehner also travels regularly for his work; his sneakers are always in his suitcase so he can take advantage of seeing exotic places like Peru via running.
“I love this idea of traveling and taking your shoes and finding a great run,” he says. “I love looking at a map and saying, ‘How can I explore a landscape on foot?’”
Originally from Arizona, Kuehner started running at an early age, inspired by “watching those late 1970s races and great athletes like Steve Prefontaine,” he says. “I was obsessed, and they seemed to convey this idea that you could be cool and athletic at the same time.”
Kuehner ran track and cross country in high school, but after attending college on the East Coast and then moving to San Francisco in 1989, he took a break from running. During that stretch, Kuehner adopted a “bohemian lifestyle, where I disavowed the jock in me and got used to urban living … that was more about going to concerts, and studying music and literature,” he says.
But following his move to Seattle in 1992, he found himself itching to lace up his shoes again.
“I would go on these long hikes, but I always felt like there was something missing – I just wanted to be running,” he says. “Soon the hikes turned into short runs, and then 10-mile runs, and then 20-mile runs. At some point, I realized I was born as a runner, because I really, really loved it.”
Kuehner eventually worked his way up to marathons, completing an average of about three per year. Among his most memorable were the San Francisco Marathon, which he covertly completed before catching a same-day flight to Portland to officiate a friend’s wedding (“If I’d told him ahead of time I was planning to run it on the same day, he wouldn’t have let me do it,” he recalls with a laugh); and the Portland Marathon, which he completed wearing the race number of a close friend and running partner who had to bow out of the event because he was undergoing chemotherapy.
“We joke to this day that I qualified him for Boston, but there was something about being able to run with his bib that was such an honor,” he says. “For me, running is just a reminder that I’m healthy. I love the feeling of being blessed with a capable body, of stepping out my door most every day and putting one foot in front of the other.”
After finishing more than a dozen 26.2's – with sub-three-hour times in all but Portland – Kuehner has shifted back to the trails. The more relaxed vibe is a welcome change, following his marathoning days of focusing on the clock. “Not training for speed has been a relief,” he says.
"I'm starting to frame running in a relative perspective," he says. "There will always be races, and I will be faster and slower historically, but I will always want to be out on the run. It's a great feeling."