George Gluppe was born in the small city of Hawkesbury, Ontario, in 1933. His father worked in the local paper mill—when he could. It was the Depression and times were tough. The family home had no indoor plumbing and George told me they were sometimes reduced to eating “butter-eye” for breakfast; a bowl of flour with a small lump of butter in the middle.
As a kid, George wasn’t aware of the family’s being poor. For him, life took place out of doors. He always loved to run and play other sports, including football and hockey. He said he never noticed the cold during those frigid winters in the Ottawa Valley.
Although he got no formal coaching, George’s running prowess was his ticket out of Hawkesbury and a future of working in the paper mill. He and his brother Don (one year younger) both won track scholarships to the University of Michigan. In the fall of 1953, they hitchhiked to Ann Arbor and began their studies, George in Physical Education and Don in Engineering. They worked numerous jobs to support themselves because their scholarships didn’t cover everything. They worked as busboys, cleaned skates at the campus rink, and started their own (illegal) business selling homemade cider at the big football games.
They also competed every weekend for Michigan. George lamented to me that he never had a coach who understood anything about how to train sprinters. They were forbidden to do weight training and almost every workout consisted of running six 200s all-out. George still managed to be a star athlete. He narrowly missed making the Canadian team for the 1956 Olympics. He caught a bad case of the mumps shortly before the trials and had to see rivals whom he had consistently beaten qualify for the team.
Achieving his athletic potential
George began his teaching career in Montreal, where he coached both track and wrestling. In Montreal he finally got a good coach and ran a PB in the 400m when he was in his late twenties. Although George’s best events were the 200m and the 400m, he also excelled in the 100m and the long jump. He demonstrated his versatility as an athlete by becoming Canadian Decathlon Champion in 1961.
Experimenting with the limits of human performance
In the 1960s he returned to Michigan to complete a masters degree in exercise physiology, a subject in which he was keenly interested. During these years at Michigan, George made a whole new set of friends on the track team. Several of them remained life-long friends.
George always wanted to explore the limits of human performance. One of his key attributes as a coach was his constant thirst to learn about the newest research in exercise physiology and training methods. He then incorporated his findings into training plans and specific workouts for runners.
Sometimes George pushed the limits too far. In his early forties, as a stellar masters competitor, his quest for superhuman speed led to a bout of temporary insanity and a serious setback to his running career. He decided to improve his speed by putting on a harness and tying himself to a car. The driver was instructed to drive at a certain speed, and George was supposed to signal when he could no longer keep up the pace. However, the driver misinterpreted George’s signals and went faster when he was supposed to stop; George ended up getting dragged along the pavement. He suffered a broken collarbone and a badly torn hamstring muscle that never completely healed.
George’s running fanaticism also proved to be a barrier to a successful marriage. He was married for about five years but could not accept his wife Carol’s inability to share his obsession with training and coaching. Possessing charisma, good looks, generosity, warmth, a great sense of humour, and an old-fashioned natural courtesy with women, George had many girlfriends over the years. They were typically excellent athletes who were much younger than him. Most of them maintained enduring ties of affection and friendship with George.
Coaching: the glory days at George S. Henry S.S.
I remember seeing George limping around my high school on crutches after his car “accident,” but I didn’t meet him until my second year of high school, when my gym teacher recommended I join the school’s cross country running team. That was in the fall of 1975. I was sixteen, a bookworm and non-athlete who showed some talent when forced to run in gym class.
George was the driving force behind the unbeatable George S. Henry running teams. Due to his coaching expertise and enthusiasm, at least a third of the school’s 1,600 students were involved in cross-country, track or both. George lit a fire under his fellow teachers’ butts too.
Phil Jackson, who taught French and German, was an excellent boys’ cross-country coach who knew how to appeal to young men’s masculine egos and toughness. George got all the other gym teachers on board and developed a brutal fitness regimen for the phys ed program that was probably unmatched anywhere. George also started the Henry Triathlon, a school-only competition that attracted a huge percentage of the school’s students and teachers. The event consisted of a 1k swim in the school pool, 40 laps of cycling (10 miles) on the rough gravel track, and a grueling 10k run that took runners down a huge hill to rough trails in the wooded ravine. The last part of the triathlon was the run’s steep climb back up to the finish line on the track.
During his many years at George S. Henry, George’s (and Phil’s) teams won every North York track and cross country championship. He also produced teams and individuals who won gold at the Ontario High School Championships. Our girls’ cross-country team won OFSAA cross-country three years in a row, from 1976 to 1978.
We had literally herds of superb distance runners at George S. Henry in the late ’70s. George set up a demanding training program for us that included double workouts from Monday to Friday for the truly fanatical. In the mornings we usually did a 5-mile course on a golf course below the school. Every run ended with a steep climb of about 800m back up to the school track. George did most of these runs with the best of us; he could usually stay with the pace until the bottom of the final hill. I remember doing one of those runs with him when I was in my final year of high school. That day, he gave everything to try to stay with me on the hill, but had to admit defeat. After the workout, he said to me, “If you don’t win OFSAA [the Ontario high school cross country championship] I’ll eat my hat.” Well, he got to have steak—in fact he treated our whole gold-medal girls’ team to a dinner out.
George also coached track and field at York University for many years. He formed the York University Track Club, an open club separate from the university team. I became part of this club in 1977. Within a few years, we joined forces with the bigger Scarborough Optimists club to form the Phoenix Track Club. The main sprint coach was Charlie Francis, coach of Ben Johnson and many other famous (and infamous) sprinters.
Despite his extensive coaching, George continued following his own strict training regimen and competing in masters track. He was an active participant in the Canadian Masters Association, and he travelled around the world during his summer vacations to compete in World Championships for masters athletes.
During his late 40s and 50s he focused on the masters pentathlon, which included the 1,500m, an event he dreaded. At the time, I had little appreciation for how exceptional it was for a 50-something sprinter to be able to run under 5 minutes for 1,500m. Even more amazing for a sprinter, George ran several 10K road races and could run 38-something for 10k when he was in his late forties.
Top athletes coached by George
George coached many outstanding high school, open and masters athletes over the years. Below are some highlights:
High school: It was too long ago for me to remember most of the details about performances, but I want to name some of my friends and teammates. All of these young runners were inspired by George to achieve at a high level and improve their personal bests: Roger Ebanks, Rob Castle, Tim Park, Andy Buckstein, Lindsay Whillans, Kathie Knox, Lisa Van Lammers, Ann Naluzny, Steve Pimentel, Holly and Laura Blefgen, George Jennings, Paul Tenn, Rob Freeman, Ed Willmott, Margot Wallace, Karen Merrick—and many, many more.
Olympians: I raced the 10,000m at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. George also coached Anne Marie Malone, one of my main training partners. Anne Marie qualified for the Olympic Team in 1984 and ran 2:37 in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon.
World Cross Country: Anne Marie Malone, Joseph Kibur and I all ran multiple times with Canadian teams at World Cross Country Championships. Joseph and I were both National Champions in cross country.
Triathlon: Our close friend Beth Primrose, also coached by George, was a national-level 10K and marathon runner in the 1980s and a top international triathlon competitor.
Masters runners: More recently, George coached masters runners Dave Reed, Kim Ross and Warren McCulloch to excellent performances over distances ranging from 100m (Kim), 800m (Warren) and 1,500m/5,000m (Dave). Warren placed 5th last year in the 800m at the World Masters Championships in Sacramento. Sadly, George’s mobility was already too restricted for him to travel to this meet with Warren. However, we had a blast on our trip to Spokane in 2008, when George drove Dave, Kim, Warren and I to the U.S. Track & Field Championships.
George continued to be active in the running community in many ways after his knee arthritis forced him to retire from training and competition. In addition to coaching with the Phoenix Running Club, George set up his own timing company and timed many local road races. George’s love of learning and innovation led him to teach himself everything he knew about computers. Unlike many seniors, he embraced new technologies and was always experimenting with new methods of timing.
As his mobility decreased, George spent many hours each day on his computer. He took photos at races and workouts and created countless slide shows and videos of his favourite athletes. He set up a club blog where he posted videos, photos and articles about training. George was also a member of the B.C. Masters committee for many years. He was a great supporter of masters running and a keen promoter of age-grading masters’ results to recognize excellence at any age.
Our Phoenix club’s age-graded 5K “Chase Runs” have included many club members as well as “guest” runners over the past 15 years. The last Phoenix workout George attended was our Chase Run on March 31st of this year. George produced the finish line video and age-graded results for this run as usual.
George’s last couple of years were frustrating because of advanced hip arthritis that steadily reduced his mobility. At the same time, he had heart disease that was gradually weakening him. However, George always stayed as active as he could. He was going to the gym with me three times a week up until a couple of weeks before his death. His many friends at the gym both admired him and shared my sadness at his obvious deterioration.
George is survived by his brothers Don and Milton, his nieces and nephews Ingrid, Troy, Kris and Maya, and his “substitute grandson” Abebe Tinari. He will be remembered by countless friends, former teammates and former students and athletes from all over Canada, the United States and beyond.