Twelve years ago, the Lanier Running Club was running on fumes.
It was resigned to about three to four members making it out to the meetings every month. Thankfully, those days are long gone. The Lanier Running Club is now a nationally-recognized organization and that scant original group has grown to nearly 100. The turnaround is thanks in large part to 68-year-old Wes Wessley who has been the driving force behind this running club’s second wind.
It all started when Wessley was in line to pick up his daughter from middle school along with another dad who was a teacher at Chestatee High. He told Wessley that they needed someone real bad over at Chestatee to work with the distance runners. Wessley reached out to Mike Hughes, Chestatee’s coach at the time, and was told that they’d love to have him, so he took all the online courses to become a certified volunteer coach.
Wessley brought 40 years of running experience to the table. He’s done about 60 marathons. He’s run in Finland, Germany, won a national championship in Anchorage, Alaska and has competed in all the major marathons in the United States — including the Boston and New York.
“I’ve had national exposure, and I’m able to bring it to the local level,” Wessley said. “Hopefully I know something about the sport from my own experience.
“I’m basically self-taught because there was one book on running when I become serious. Just train hard and try to train smart and you learn a lot of that later on.”
He didn’t start running until he was about 30 years old. He started working with Delta when he was 19 and then got drafted, went to Vietnam and became a platoon leader. He came back and started gaining weight as he neared his 30s, so he started jogging.
“In Atlanta, running became a boom,” Wessley said. “In 1976-77, Peachtree started to explode. I kind of exploded with it.”
He started to train harder and became a national-class runner. He won the Atlanta Marathon in 1980 and 1988, the latter when he was almost 40. After a runner reaches 40, they go to a national master’s circuit. Wessley won a few national championships on that circuit as he was running 100-plus mile weeks for 10 years.
Wessley has parlayed his wisdom on many local runners over the years. He helped mentor North Hall’s Ty McCormack, who won the 5K Junior Olympics National Championship in Sacramento and a Cross-Country Junior Olympics National Championship in Reno, Nevada in the snow. He has also helped Nick Long in the 800 and 1500-meter races en route to winning a state championship and running track at the University of Georgia.
North Hall graduates Morgan VanGorder and Luis Gonzalez ran cross-country for the University of Georgia and Truett-McConnell University respectively thanks, in part, to the wisdom portrayed upon them by Wessley. Another University of Georgia signee Paul Malquist was able to make a name for himself by winning the Junior Olympics Pole Vault National Championship as part of the Lanier Running Club, as well as South Forsyth’s Savannah Carnahan who has recently signed to run cross-country at Furman.
Most recently, Erika Rucker, a Flowery Branch graduate and pupil of Wessley, competed in the 1600-meter relay for the University of South Carolina, helping the Gamecocks to a third-place finish in NCAA track and field championships. Wessley coached Rucker at the 2010 Junior Olympics.
“Erika is a phenomenal person,” said Wessley. “She’s very coachable. I said ‘Erika, your seeded five in this race, but all five runners aren’t going to run like they’re supposed to’ and we talked about it and I said ‘At 200, you’ll be in fifth place, but at the finish line, you’ll be in third’ and that’s what she did.
“She ran real smart. 400 (meter) runners go out to fast for 200 (meters) and they hang on. You see it all the time. (Rucker) followed the protocol and it paid off.”
According to Wessley, the South Carolina coach came up to her after the race and said “You want to go to South Carolina? You in.”
Wessley splits his time between the Lanier Running Club and the Chestatee High cross country squads. During the summer, the focus is on the running club and preparing for the Junior Olympics, but once fall rolls around, it’s all in for Chestatee.
“(Wessley) has been a driving force behind the distance running program,” Chestatee boys and girls cross country coach Stacey Merck said. “It’s not just the coaching. He’s got a deep wealth of knowledge he can share with me and the kids, but past that, I mean he brings bananas, he’ll bring Gatorade.
“He wants to take care of the kids and he does it out of love for the kids and love for the running community.”
One of the kids Wessley coaches is Chestatee senior Ivan Martin. Martin will talk about how Wessley has helped him pace his running, but his mother, Gracie Martin, a math teacher at Chestatee High talks about the family atmosphere that Wessley has promoted within the running community.
“It’s been Ivan and myself my whole life,” Ivan’s mother said. “I’ve been a single mom since Ivan was born so any male, any awesome male role model for Ivan would be like a dad and I think coach makes up for very much of that.”
It’s a lot more than running for Wessley. He would prefer to brag about how most of the Chestatee runners have GPAs over 4.0, than talk about his own accomplishments as a runner, and there are many and maybe more to come.
Wesley has had a torn meniscus in his knee for the last six years that just fixed itself last month. He says, something shifted and now it doesn’t hurt anymore, so Wessley is preparing to gear up to get back on the 70-year-old national masters circuit.
Starting up his running career again would not impact his volunteer work, however, as he has run before while still volunteering. The national masters circuit runs on weekends and he would coach during the week. That doesn’t mean the thought of retirement hasn’t crossed his mind.
“I’ll have to leave that open,” Wessley said. “It’s not a day-to-day thing, but when you’re 68 years old, you have to think in different roles and try to do a little more stuff.”