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October 15, 2019

In memory of Reggie Oeltjen
Reggie Oeltjen with his daughter, Natalie Droessler, at the 2016 Ag Days 6k in Spring Valley.
Reggie Oeltjen with his daughter, Natalie Droessler, at the 2016 Ag Days 6k in Spring Valley.
By David Phillips
RTC president

Reggie Oeltjen's life was full of adventures. His final one - the Border to Border at 65 run cut short due to his death - was the adventure of a lifetime.

I met Oeltjen, a rural Stewartville resident who is related to the Oeltjen family in Spring Valley, a few years ago during one of the Rochester Track Club's Saturday morning marathon training runs. One thing about distance training runs is that you don't necessarily choose your friends. Your speed chooses friends for you. Since Oeltjen and I ran at about the same speed, more back of the pack, we often ran together.

Another thing about distance training is that it gives people time to reveal much about their lives as conversation helps pass the miles. Oeltjen and I weren't constant running buddies, but we ran together enough that I came to know about his many adventures.

Soon after we met, I discovered even his first distance race turned out to be an adventure when he told me about his half marathon in Indiana several years ago.

I can't recall the exact details, but I remember his story sounded like a real adventure as there were many obstacles to overcome. I may be a journalist by profession, but I give that up when I'm running so I have no notes from our many conversations. Besides, in my wildest dreams - make that nightmares - I never envisioned writing this story.

Oeltjen was also a regular at the Ragnar Great River Relay and I heard many stories about his team running from Winona to Minneapolis. He invited me to join in the adventure, but the event is usually the same weekend as a 6k run I organize in Spring Valley.

Last year, with five Saturdays in August, the two events didn't conflict for once, but I still turned him down because I figured I would be too busy organizing my run since Ragnar took place the weekend before my race.

Oeltjen also set up a team to run Ragnar in Nevada in November last year. Again, I declined because it was too close to a late marathon I was running with my brother from Texas.

Even Oeltjen's training runs seemed like adventures. He lived far enough from Stewartville that at times he would either get let off in town or run to a restaurant to join his wife for breakfast. Along the way, he had arranged with farmers to stock water perpetually so whenever the inspiration to run took hold, he would have hydration aid.

A big supporter of the Rochester Track Cub, his numerous volunteer assignments became adventures, too, as he didn't just show up to work, he often brought his gator to make it easier to navigate the trails in preparation for a race. One year, he drove his camper to northern Minnesota to provide unofficial support at a marathon run by numerous Rochester area participants who made the journey to memorialize a fellow runner who died at the marathon the year before.

Last year when Ragnar didn't conflict with my Spring Valley race, he and his daughter, Natalie Droessler from Wisconsin, chose to run the Ag Days 6k in Spring Valley. He could have run the much larger Healthy Human Race in Rochester the same day, but chose to come to Spring Valley to support a friend.

Well before that August 2016 race, he started talking about his Border to Border at 65 run. He planned to run across Minnesota from the South Dakota border to the Mississippi River once he turned 65.

He had made arrangements with farmers and others in western Minnesota to park a camper at stopping points along the route. Natalie was going to tag along, mostly on bicycle, but also running, in this family adventure. He had made business cards and T-shirts. He also created a blog to chronicle the event.

I had hoped to join him at some point, but May is the busiest month of the year for a community newspaper and this year I had extra challenges due to some significant changes in our operation. Besides, like his other adventures, I figured I could live through his ultimate adventure vicariously on the run either at the Med City Half Marathon, which he planned to incorporate as part of his route, or on later training runs.

However, Oeltjen died in his sleep midway through his border run so my only experience of his adventure is on his blog, which he kept updated until his death. It is a poor substitute for the warmth and humor Oeltjen brought to his descriptions while on the run.

Sunday, I ran the Med City Half Marathon alone, thinking of Oeltjen the entire way. It's still hard to comprehend his absence and a few tears mixed in with my sweat along the 13.1-mile journey.

His daughter also ran the half marathon with the support of several Team RED members, particularly Tom O'Leary, who guided her through the race to meet her goal of under two hours. I'm sure her father was also on her mind the entire way as the two had planned to run it together.

She reported his death on the blog, noting he "passed away peacefully in his sleep." The cause won't be known for several weeks, but she added "his runs were going really well and he seemed to be feeling great when he went to bed. If you were reading his blog, you already know that he was having a fantastic time! He was as happy as he could have been."

The photos on the blog supported her words. He had that smile he flashed so often while on the run in and around Rochester.

"While this is unexpected and very difficult for us, it probably couldn't have been a better way to pass," concluded Droessler.

Those are comforting words.

Still, his death has left me with a lot of soul-searching as I contemplate our fate. I can't answer the big questions about life, but I have worked through a couple issues in my grief to come up with two principles to guide me:

• Never pass up an adventure no matter how many excuses you can come up with because at some point the regret of missed opportunities may overshadow the memory of the so-called important things you had to do instead.

• Cherish your friendships while you can because it's not a given that there will be a next time for someone to wander into your life again for another chance to share in your journey on earth.

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