Local runner Ron Gross is 76 years old and one of Nevada County’s best athletes, said former Nevada Union cross country coach Clyde Lehman.
The decorated cross country coach of 36 years is not wrong.
Gross concluded 2013 as an All-American runner, posting the top time in the nation in his age group in the 10K (49 minutes, 24.09 seconds) and finishing second in the nation in his age group in the 5K (24:28.02).
Gross has also won the 70-and-older age group in the Gold Country Grand Prix multiple times, including the last two years.
Not bad for a man who had a hip replacement in 2002 and had been out of running for 40 years prior to to the hip replacement.
But to understand how Gross became the runner he is today, you have to start from the beginning.
It all started 63 years ago with two young boys racing the bus home after school let out.
“We lived about two miles from the school, which was up the hill, and my brother and I, he was a year younger, would run home from the school and try to beat the bus,” Gross said. “We would take the bus up to school then race it home, and that’s kind of the first time I started running something on a consistent basis. It was kind of a challenge.”
It was in his freshmen year at Richmond Union High School that his daily races with the bus paid off and landed him a spot on the high school track team.
“The first P.E. period the coach said ‘let’s run a quarter mile,’ and I ran it in 60 seconds, which was good, and he told me to come out for track and I did,” Gross said. “Four years later, I had got better and better and we had a pretty strong team at Richmond High.”
Growing up in Richmond, Gross was part of a working- class family like many of the kids he went to school with. He had a paper route at 10 and worked his way through high school as an usher at the local theater. Gross admits that he didn’t even consider college an option in high school.
“Being from a working- class family, I never considered going to college,” he said. “We couldn’t afford it.”
But, by the time Gross was a senior, he was one of the best runners in the section. Gross finished second in the league championships by a nose and was fifth in the section meet. And while Gross never saw racing as anything other than a simple competition, his production on the track grabbed the eye of Bud Winter, then the head coach of the San Jose State track team.
“In my senior year I got a call from Bud Winter,” Gross recalled. “He had heard of my records. I got fifth in the section, not particularly good. I got boxed out that day, but he said ‘Ron, why don’t you come run for San Jose State.’”
At first Gross wasn’t sure what to think.
“I said ‘well gee, coach, I never even thought about going to college, what do I need to do?’ He said ‘Go to junior college, make up your credits and get down here.’ I was sold. I wanted to run.”
Gross attended Contra Costa Junior College, where he competed in track and cross country, eventually claiming the league title in cross country.
After finishing up the credits needed to transfer, Gross headed to San Jose State. While a member of the Spartan track team, Gross ran the half mile, garnering some good outings along the way. By then Gross was more interested in his studies but never forgot who and what changed his life forever.
“That experience with Bud Winter, who later became an Olympic coach, was really thee thing that made me grow up and become a person that worked toward a goal and wanted to do something in the world. My dad was a welder and my mother raised us. We just got by. There were no toys to speak of, so we had to earn it.
“But that time with Bud changed it from go where the world puts you, to make your own mark.”
When Gross first arrived at San Jose State, he took an “interest test” to determine what would be a good educational direction for him.
“It said I should either be a forest ranger or an engineer,” he said.
“I said ‘OK.’ I didn’t understand what either was, but as it turned out, engineers make more than forest rangers, so I did that.”
In 1960, at the age of 22, Gross, who four years earlier had no college aspirations, graduated from San Jose State with a degree in engineering. It didn’t take long for Gross to find work.
“I got an offer from Hewlett Packard,” he said. “They hired 90 new engineers that year, and they were all mechanical and electrical except me. I was an industrial engineer. The guy who hired me said ‘what’s an industrial engineer?’ Well it was a production engineer, but they didn’t have names for it then. The bottom line was basically I was a methods engineer. They wanted me to go around and figure out how to do things better. And that’s what I did.”
It was around this time that Gross stopped running long distances and started playing soccer in the Peninsula Soccer League in the Bay Area. Gross would play soccer for the next 30 years of his life, competing in more than 700 games during that time.
Over the years Gross got married to his now wife of 52-years, Laurel, and they had four daughters.
The Grosses eventually moved to Nevada County, and about 10 years ago, Ron discovered the Sierra Trail Blazers running group.
Now, Gross is a member of an elite group of runners over the age of 50 that Lehman has deemed “The Stallions.”
“They wanted to be called the Old Farts and I said ‘no, i’m going to call you Stallions,’” Lehman said.
Gross and Lehman have been working together for about eight months, and it was during that time that Ron set his national championship time.
“Ron has a hip replacement and is arguably one of the best athletes in Nevada County,” Lehman said. “He’s another one of my heroes.”
Gross praised Lehman, calling him one of the best trainers he’s ever had.
“Clyde has very high goals and objectives, and he’s a very capable coach,” Gross said.
“Compared to any other training people I’ve had, he’s outstanding. His philosophy is if you think you’ve failed, then I’ve failed as a coach. It works, it really does.”
Lehman has also endeared himself to his running team with cookies and smoothies.
Today, Gross is a national champion runner in his age group, a full-time caregiver for his wife and has accumulated so many accolades he barely remembers most of them. But when asked if he’s planning on stopping anytime soon, he responded, “Not as long as I keep winning.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“...that time with Bud changed it from go where the world puts you, to make your own mark.”
— Ron Gross