Apr 24, 2007

Kinesiology professor Dr. David Horton encourages students to feel the burn

by Kari Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
Walking into the office of Dr. David Horton was like walking into a museum dedicated to a famous athlete. His bookshelf was a library of running material. Some of the titles sitting on the shelf that caught my attention were “Fixing Your Feet,” “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” and “More Than a Run.”
This baby boomer doesn’t just read about running – it’s a way of life. 

I stood staring at the photos and plaques and posters as if I were in an art gallery, with every piece being a treasure picked up during his journey. He has autographs with notes of encouragement from fellow runners. He has maps with pins marking the paths of various races. He has a poster that says, “Run for fun,” a motto that would make non-runners raise their eyebrows.

But that’s what Horton does – he runs for fun. The professor of kinesiology at Liberty University often shares with his class the importance of attitude. It’s not about having to run, but rather getting to run. This is Horton’s passion. “I have to run. I want to run. I get to run,” he said with conviction. The license plate of his red Toyota Sentra, which reads, “I LV2 RUN,” reiterates his passion.

Annie Lively, a student in his kinesiology classes, said, “It always amazes me with the passion and excitement he has in getting people to exercise. It is so inspiring, and he is a great professor who practices what he preaches to his students, encouraging us to apply what we learn in the classroom to our own lives so that we can encourage others in the same way in our field of study.”

He said he wishes he could transfer to the minds of his students all the breathtaking moments that have made running so fulfilling. He also wants them to feel the pain he’s felt on the toughest of runs. “I wish I could plug straight into you, ‘WOW WEE,’ is what you would say to what I’ve seen, but then, ‘OW,’ to all the pain I’ve felt,” he said. Horton likened the experience to Christ’s crucifixion. Though painful, the beauty and outcome of the experience make it worthwhile.

This could not only apply to races that Horton has run, but also to his life journey, which began in Marshall, Ark. He is one of three children, born to Ezra and Lois Horton. As a child, he was athletic and competitive. He remains that way today, at the age of 57. In 1971, he married Nancy Paladino. Together, they have two children in their 30s.

At one point in my interview with Horton, the phone rang. It was a loved one calling to wish him a happy birthday. Ironically, it was also my birthday. Though 35 years separated the two of us, his youthful zeal bridged the gap. “I never grew up,” he admitted, laughing.  

When Horton went off to college, he earned himself the nickname of “Wild Man.” He attended the University of Central Arkansas, receiving his bachelor’s in 1972 and his master’s in 1973. He majored in math and physical education. Before coming to Liberty, he had been an eighth grade math teacher in Arkansas. He said he loves math, but he enjoyed physical education more.

In 1978, he attended the University of Arkansas and received his doctorate by the age of 28. Shortly after, he ended up at Liberty University after attending a convention and speaking with representatives who were looking for Christian professors to teach at their university. It was a transition for Horton that would require him to leave his home and friends. After nearly 30 years, he is still a professor at Liberty.

God has played a significant role in Horton’s life. He became a Christian when he was a sophomore in college when he worked at a service station. A youth minister who had been traveling stopped by the station one night at 2 a.m. and led him to the Lord. Horton looked at me with a look of amazement and asked, “What if he had never done that? Where would I be?” The sincerity in his voice led me to believe that the only thing he is more passionate about than running is his walk with the Lord.

“God has given me this talent,” he said of his running ability.

“When I think of someone who is determined, committed and is one who goes after something they really want no matter what the circumstances may hold, Dr. Horton immediately comes to my mind. It’s so inspiring how Dr. Horton has and continues to use his gift of running to bring all the glory to Jesus Christ, impacting so many lives along the way,” Lively said.

That is not the only reason Horton has found running so fulfilling. He also wants to take care of his body, the reason he began running originally. He began running consistently in grad school to lose body fat and it became an addiction. Now his hobby has him standing at a lean six feet.

His hard work and dedication over the years have paid off, earning him well-deserved recognition. “I like to beat everyone,” he said, his competitive nature clearly shining through. He showed me the plaque he received after running his first ultra marathon. He ran the JFK 50-miler and placed 24th out of 405 with a time of 7:43:16. He has run the race 17 times total.

One of his major races was the North American Transcontinental Crossing, a nearly 3,000-mile race in which he completed in 64 days with the third fastest time ever. “That race was the hardest on the body,” he said. 

Another major finish was Pacific Crest, which he completed with the fastest time ever. There is a DVD entitled “The Runner” which documents his journey. “That race was the hardest (mentally),” he said.

In addition, Horton is one of only six people to ever finish the Barkley 100-miler. “It is the hardest race in the world to finish,” said Horton, distinguishing Barkley from the transcontinental and the Pacific Crest. The time limit to complete the race was 60 hours, and he ran the race in 58. There are no aides to guide runners along, only books sitting at various posts. The runners are instructed to rip out pages of the book to confirm that they had passed that post along the Tennessee trail.

Horton opens up a plastic bag and shows me all his torn pages. He laughs at the books they came from –“Always Running,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Escape” and “Limits of Pain,” as well as others.

Horton holds various other records and achievements. He has the third fastest time ever on the Appalachian Trail with a time of 52:09:42. The race required him to start on a mountain in Georgia and end on a mountain in Maine over 2,000 miles away. He has the third fastest time ever on the Long Trail and has run the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run five times, placing in the top three each time.

The running enthusiast is the director of four ultra marathons — Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Trial Race, Holiday Lake 50 K Race, Promise Land and Hellgate 100 K.  
In total, Horton has about 150 starts, 141 finishes and 40 wins. His total mileage is about 104,000, which is equivalent to four times around the earth, a feat both incredible and inspiring to his students.

Jimmy Reaves, a 2004 Liberty graduate, took Horton’s beginning running class for fun his senior year.

I am in his beginning running class now. It’s been three years and Reaves still remembers Horton’s intensity. “Wait until he takes you guys on a mud run.”

“Oh, we’ve already been warned,” I replied with a smile. He told us to watch out for the day he doesn’t wear his glasses – we’re going on a mud run.

Horton is still a “wild man,” but this is why his students love him. His passion and excitement for life and running pushes students to accomplish things they never thought possible.
“I would have never thought of running the Mountain Masochist when I first started,” said Reaves, who completed the 50-mile race in 2006.  

“Anybody can do it,” Horton said. “Consistency of training.”

Horton has pushed Lively, as well, beyond what she thought she could accomplish. “I remember when I first heard of Dr. Horton’s running class. My reaction was, ‘There’s no way I could run as far as they run. No way! I’m all for the short distance stuff, but distance running is a whole different game,’” she said.

“Honestly, my intention at the beginning of taking this class was to stay in shape and learn how to run distances, and I have found that all of the things I have learned about in this class will carry over into life. I’ve learned about commitment, perseverance and having discipline, as well as pressing on toward the goal while I’m running and in my walk with Christ.”

Horton preaches perseverance above all. “Don’t stop. I hope I have a great run on the day I die,” he said.

Additional research and contributions by Katelyn Fletcher. Contact Katelyn Fletcher at kgfletcher@liberty.edu.

Contact Kari Mitchell at kdmitchell2@liberty.edu.
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