On June 2, 1986, Central Michigan graduate Jeff Drenth rose out of bed in his southwest Eugene, Ore. home.
He went off for his 10-mile morning run.
By his standards, he ran poorly at the Bruce Jenner Track and Field Classic in San Jose, Calif. two days before.
After the run, Jeff wrote in his log book, “Ran 10 miles in the a.m., Achilles felt a little sore, but otherwise felt great. Have put Jenner meet behind me and am looking ahead.”
He showered and made breakfast, then headed for the Athletics West office, which Jeff ran for professionally. He joked with staff members about his performance at the meet and received a massage.
Minutes later, the fourth-ever CMU cross-country All-American was found curled on the bathroom floor, with his right hand clasped to his chest. He died exactly four weeks before his 25th birthday.
Jeff, who was from Charlevoix, came to CMU after graduating from Charlevoix High School in 1979. He majored in biology, which deepened his love of hunting and fishing. Even though he was a high school all-state cross-country runner, Jeff knew he had to work on his 4:42 mile to become a runner worth his salt.
During his time at CMU, he became a two-time Mid-American Conference champion, in ‘82 and ‘83. He also was a two-time first team all-MAC in those years. Jeff was inducted into the CMU Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.
In fact, his memory still lives on with the CMU cross-country team.
“He’s one of our best runners,” said CMU assistant cross-country coach Matt Kaczor.
Kaczor also said a recent design of their uniform had a picture of Jeff on it.
“There may be one guy on this team that could rival Jeff Drenth,” Kaczor said.
But his life went beyond running.
Greg Lautenslager, a longtime friend of Jeff and fellow Athletics West teammate, said in an essay, “Jeff was excellent at running, but his running was a mere extension of his life.”
In cruel irony, Jeff died in the same city at the same age as phenom University of Oregon middle and long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who was a gold medal winner at the 1971 Pan American Games. Prefontaine died in a car accident May 30, 1975. Both died at age 24, in Eugene.
“His whole college career was reminiscent of him running like Stephan Prefontaine,” said Jeff’s track and field coach Bob Sevene in a June 7, 1986 article by the Eugene Register-Guard. “The guy went to the front and hammered people … Their personalities are very similar, and Jeff may be tougher, because he had to be — he didn’t have the physical tools that Prefontaine had.”
Jeff’s older brother Walt Drenth, currently the cross-country coach at Michigan State University, said he watched Jeff’s career transform at CMU.
“I saw him go from being a decent runner to a great runner,” he said.
Not long after Jeff’s death, Walt said he was in his track and field office in Finch Fieldhouse when then-CMU track and field coach Jim Knapp proposed the idea of the Jeff Drenth Memorial run. CMU has held the run each year since his death, having gone from an event that a few friends ran, into one college cross-country teams run annually, including CMU. The most recent was Sept. 2.
Jeff’s time of 28:41.71 in the 10,000-meter event is still a CMU record.
Doug Drenth, Jeff’s younger brother, said Jeff’s humor and honesty started in their childhood.
“I remember him telling me to go to bed and get up on the other side of the bed, because I’d wake up on the wrong side,” Doug said.
After Jeff graduated from CMU in 1984, he ran professionally for Nike-sponsored Athletics West in Eugene until the day of his death. Jeff also ran with the U.S. cross-country team and competed in world competitions.
At the 1986 World Cross Country Championships in Switzerland, Jeff passed his teammate and friend Alan Scharsu. He patted Scharsu on the back and said, “Let’s go, Alan. Tuck in behind me. Just hang on and we’ll get these guys. Let’s go for it.”
Matt Peterson, a teacher at East Jordan Middle School, near Charlevoix, had grown close with Jeff.
“I get teared up even thinking about him,” he said. “I knew Jeff. I met him my freshman year of high school — he saw me run at Elk Rapids. He sought me out after the race, and told me I ran well. It was just a huge turning point in my life.”
Mystery still surrounds Jeff’s sudden death. Dr. Edward Wilson, the Lane County medical examiner at the time, ruled Jeff’s death as a heart rhythm disturbance, supported by Jeff’s prior history of arrhythmia, commonly known as an irregular heartbeat. However, Jeff’s cause of death remains unknown. His death certificate only states Jeff died of “natural causes.”
An article in the June 16, 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated said, “an autopsy showed that Jeff’s brain, lungs and heart were in perfect health. His heart was large and had been capable of sustaining 215 beats per minute, remarkable even among distance runners. Its stark absence of damage seemed to suggest an electrical malfunction, which leaves no telltale clot or ruptured vessel.”
In Sept. 1985, Jeff was a part of the U.S. track and field team. In Japan, according to the Register-Guard article, Jeff ran the 10,000-meter event in 28:45.18, about five seconds slower than his personal best. Even in reportedly poor conditions, Jeff’s last mile was clocked at 4:16. He finished in second place and helped the U.S. defeat the Soviet Union. Sevene said in that article by 1988, Jeff would have been a contender for an Olympic berth.
Peterson maintained contact with Jeff through mail and occasional phone conversations — he still looks at letters he’d saved. He said the impact Jeff had on him was indelible.
When Peterson was still in high school, Jeff came back during the off-season to run with the high school track and field and cross-country teams.
“During a training run, he’d look behind at me and point to the ground beside him as he’s running, and say ‘Get up here. Get up here,’” Peterson said. “He could influence you and pass on a good, positive message without lecturing. And we listened to him.”
That, Peterson said, was one of the many ways Jeff showed leadership. Peterson noticed how Jeff was a quiet but powerful influence.
Besides letters, Jeff sometimes brought a tape recorder on his morning runs. He made small talk with the recorder as if in conversation. He mailed the tapes out to friends and family.
Peterson said if Jeff mailed someone, he expected a letter back. When Jeff once wrote Peterson a letter that went unanswered, Jeff wrote another one.
“He wrote me this long letter that said how he’d gotten a career-ending injury and couldn’t run anymore and that he’d gained 60 pounds,” Peterson said. “I called him up immediately, and he was laughing.”
Beyond Jeff’s sense of humor, Peterson is sure what his fate would have been if Jeff had not been in his life.
“I can honestly say on a personal level, that without his influence, I might not have gone to college,” Peterson said.
Peterson went on to say that other people have felt the same way.
Peterson was in New York City visiting his sister when Jeff’s dad, the late Bob Drenth, called him on the day of Jeff’s death with the news. Peterson flew back the next day and attended the funeral in the Charlevoix High School gymnasium with about 1,200 other people.
Jeff was buried in his red, white and blue uniform he wore when he beat the Soviet Union in Tokyo.
At the funeral, Jeff’s former teammates from high school, college and professional teams attended. After the service, they all went for a run together. People shared stories about Jeff during the run — things he did and said to people. Peterson said he vividly remembers how people of various ages came to the same general conclusion about Jeff.
“Besides your parents, there are few people who make an impact in your life,” Peterson said. “He was one of those people.”