By Bill Plock
Deb Conley started running for the first time the summer before attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. She ran just to run with a new boyfriend. Like three miles. A couple of months later she walked on to CU’s cross country team and has been running ever since.
And just recently, she was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame. Wow. She never played sports growing up, never ran, never did anything but work and go to school.
In this video interview, Deb expresses a surprised happiness after being selected for the Colorado Running Hall of Fame. But she also shares something vulnerable; how running in college was the first time she ever experienced feeling truly happy. Whats not really discussed, is the rocky and almost impossible path she took to get here.
And now for the rest of the story.
If you knew Deb in high school you probably would never have foreseen her making the Colorado Running H.O.A. But like 99% of her classmates, I had no idea how hard her life was until we reconvened about this honor almost 40 years later.
My high school experience differed greatly from Deb’s even though we both went to Wheat Ridge and graduated in 1983. I played sports, didn’t work, had a car, stayed busy with practices and homework and hanging out with friends. Admittedly, I led the “Leave it Beaver” lifestyle (yes I’m dating myself), like a good chunk of my fellow “Farmers” (our mascot).
Deb, living just a few miles away lived in poverty. Her mom forged her birth certificate when she was 13 so she could work. Her bed was an old army cot. They had no refrigerator and the house was in disrepair. Her parents didn’t want her to go to college but rather help with the other kids. There was no modeling of “success” or “ambition” in her home. Yet she excelled at school and knew she had to figure out a way to go to college. She admittedly didn’t understand true happiness and felt lonely.
Her friend and fellow classmate, Chris Tomlinson, one of the few who knew of Deb’s tough childhood said, “she was very smart, but seemed anxious and isolated. It seemed touch and go for her.”
She pushed through it, emancipated herself after graduation to help get Pell grants, was accepted to CU and enrolled for the fall semester in 1983. Freedom maybe at last? Happiness maybe or at least an opportunity to pursue it?
Then, she began to run. Like Forest Gump she broke free of her shackles of shame and living in a place she hated, a place she couldn’t have friends over, a place where she didn’t feel appreciated, maybe not even loved. She found joy and happiness from just moving how she chose to move and when and where she wanted to go.
She ran and she ran some more.
She then met some women on the cross country team and the coach and they encouraged her to come practice with them. They saw talent, raw talent. They encouraged her to try out for the cross country team. She made it, as a freshman—simply incredible. For the first time she did something in life that others recognized as outward success. That elusive feeling of belonging, of being part of a greater success—a team. To feel empowered. To feel in control. Finally.
Now fast forward four years and her team having won the first ever conference title for the school in women’s cross country. A tough division one conference with power houses such as Iowa State. Oh, and along the way she decided to give triathlon a try and finished fourth in nationals. Safe to say Deb found her sport, but more importantly she found her life, her happiness.
She never looked back. In fact, she kept running, hoping to make the Olympic trials as a marathoner. She narrowly missed recording a 2:46 marathon, but she kept running as an elite masters and still does to this day.
Soon though she found the gift of giving others a chance to thrive and began leading blind runners and changing lives. Lives with their own extraordinary challenges. Who better to help motivate others and to help them “see” their best selves and find happiness in running?
For the last three decades Deb has led countless blind runners and set up an organization to help others guide. She tirelessly has made strides in the visual impaired community and even has developed the official tether for blind athletes.
So between her own success running and her relentless pursuit of sharing the joy with others, she was inducted into a very exclusive place—the Colorado Running Hall of Fame.
The walls of Wheat Ridge High School are lined with photos of athletes who excelled in sports. They are revered. Some like Cherry Creek Football Coach and former pro football player Dave Logan, have certainly gone on to great success. But many faded into the everyday.
Deb’s picture is not on those walls but should be based on her athletic achievements alone, let alone her impact on others. Wheat Ridge students who don’t play sports should know of someone who left those halls with no idea what success was and went on to greatness. Maybe they will honor her someday like the running community has and some youth, feeling alone among a hallway of student athletes might be inspired by Deb.
Her friend, Chris, who himself as seen major despair as a journalist covering nine wars, now a well read author and Houston Chronicle columnist said, “for someone so extremely fragile and under such adversity to have become such a respected athlete and to give back so much to so many athletes is an extraordinary transformation I completely admire and respect, it’s mind blowing.”
Indeed it’s not only mind blowing, it’s worthy of the Hall of Fame—any hall of fame. Congratulations Deb.