Running Mates

Don and Tammy Slusser

Like a pair of fugitives from justice, Don and Tammy Slusser are still on the run.

At an age when their contemporaries typically embrace more sedentary pursuits, these former IUP All-Americans—Don graduated in 1973, Tammy in 1987—continue searching as diligently as Diogenes for the next race to run, the next challenge to undertake.

Their devotion to distance running is such that they went for a nine-mile run on their first date and competed in the Butler 10K on the day they were married. It was only fitting, since they’re wed to running as much as each other.

“It’s our lifestyle,” says Don, a health and physical education teacher in the Woodland Hills School District in suburban Pittsburgh. “I mean, everything we do is geared around running, even our social life. We have an understanding between us that there’s running and then you work out the other details.”

Their passion for pounding the pavement is reflected in the following figures:

  • The Slussers calculate they’ve run some 225,000 miles—the equivalent of nine trips around the world—since the start of their college careers.
  • They’ve competed in a combined 150 marathons, those grueling 26.2-mile ordeals that can leave even the fittest athletes howling in agony.
  • Don did not miss a single day of running in a span of twenty-seven years, abandoning his Ripken-like streak only when a knee injury forced him to the sidelines.
  • Tammy has competed in a total of twenty nations, her global odyssey taking her to all six inhabited continents.

They are running mates in the truest sense. Why, the Slussers couldn’t resist the siren song of the race schedule even on their wedding day. Their walk down the aisle followed a run through Butler, accompanied by nearly the entire bridal party.

Don and Tammy Slusser

“A lot of people can’t believe we did that,” says Tammy, a teller at PNC Bank in Monroeville, where the Slussers reside. “What was nice, it was something different and it made the day memorable for everyone. And, we were on television. During our reception, somebody turned on the news, and one of the stations had a little blurb about it. Then, a couple of national cable stations picked up the story.”

As the Slussers learned when they competed in the Virginia Beach Firecracker 5K on their honeymoon. A fellow runner remarked on “these crazy people in Pennsylvania who raced the morning they got married,” never suspecting the newlyweds were in his midst.

Crazy is a word some apply good-naturedly to the Slussers and their fanatical devotion to distance running. Don understands completely. After all, he used to go for two runs each day, the first at 6 a.m. “I was a sickie,” he admits. As proof, Slusser ran every single day from January 3, 1972, to June 10, 1999, shrugging off ailments and illnesses and the kind of wintry blasts that would’ve kept Admiral Peary indoors. Knee surgery finally brought an end to his remarkable run of runs.

“It was twenty-seven years, five months, and eight days—if you want it in days, it’s 10,024,” he says, rattling off the figures as casually as others might their telephone number. “During that time I ran 137,329 miles, averaging 5,006 miles a year, 95.9 miles a week, and 13.7 miles a day.”

Anyone that fixated on mileage was a natural for the marathon. In his prime, Slusser ranked among the best in the nation. He finished ninth in the prestigious Boston Marathon in 1976, won the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, Ohio, on three occasions, and in 1980 clocked a 2:17:43 at the U.S. Olympic trials, a personal best by nearly four minutes.

Slusser ran his first marathon while an IUP sophomore. His coach, Lou Sutton, drove him to Boston in 1971 and watched the start from a perch in a tree. Slusser finished fifty-first in a field of 887 with a time of two hours, thirty-seven minutes, forty-six seconds. He became the track and field program’s first running All-American a year later by placing sixth in the marathon at the NAIA meet in Montana, then duplicated his finish and All-America honor as a senior.

Tammy took up marathoning after leaving IUP, where she was a five-time All-American in cross country and track and field. As Tammy Donnelly, she won the 10,000-meter event at the 1986 NCAA Division II meet in Los Angeles to become the first IUP runner, male or female, to claim a national championship. But she yearned to tackle even longer distances. So in 1989, Tammy joined Don at the starting line of the Pittsburgh Marathon, a race she has since won twice. That day, however, her inexperience was as conspicuous as Sylvester’s lisp.

“I just wasn’t ready for it,” Slusser says. “My training wasn’t all that great, my mileage really wasn’t where it should have been, and I was ten pounds overweight. I never drank water in a race before, so after the first water stop, when water went up my nose, I didn’t drink any more. I went out way too fast—I didn’t know how to pace a marathon because I’d never run one. At the twenty-mile mark, reality set in. Oh, man, did I hit the wall. People were passing me left and right.”

She finished in thirtieth place, in 3:05:35. Embarrassed, Slusser trained assiduously for her next marathon, in Chicago. She knocked more than twenty minutes off her Pittsburgh time (2:43:03) to finish in fourteenth place and collect prize money. Victories soon followed in Virginia Beach, in Morocco, in Bermuda, and, in 1994, in Pittsburgh, where Slusser had so inauspiciously launched her marathon career.

“That was definitely the highlight of my whole running career, that and winning nationals in college my junior year,” she says. “If I had to pick one, Pittsburgh would be it. It was my hometown race, my personal record (2:37:14), and my whole family was watching.”

In contrast to many of her races, which take place in distant lands. Like a female Phileas Fogg, Slusser has circled the globe, competing in exotic locales like Australia, Japan, Thailand, Tahiti, Turkey, Trinidad, Barbados, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Spain, and France. She invariably returns home with pricey mementos and priceless memories.

“One day I went running in this circular, grassy area near the Colosseum,” says Slusser, recalling a trip to Italy for the Rome Marathon. “I found out later it used to be the Circus Maximus, where the Romans held chariot races. I was running where people once raced in chariots.”

A sense of wonder fills her voice, as if it’s inconceivable just how far running far has taken her—has taken them both, in fact. At an age when others are slowing down, the Slussers continue to pound the pavement, their sights fixed on lofty goals. Tammy is hoping to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials for a fourth time and to add more stamps to her passport. Don will run his 100th marathon, at Pittsburgh, in 2004; even past the age of fifty, he hums along like a BMW. Having piled up some 162,000 miles, he’s looking to the day his personal odometer hits 200,000.

The Slussers, like fugitives on the lam from the law, live their lives on the run. Who knew, this long after leaving IUP, that they would continue to enter races, to compete in marathons, to test the limits of their endurance?  They certainly didn’t.

“Back in college, I couldn’t have imagined I would still be competing thirty years later,” Don says. “And Tammy probably never dreamed that running would take her around the world. It’s kind of amazing where running has taken us.”