Golden Harper’s family owns a prominent running store in Utah and all of his family members hold various running records. He graduated with a degree in exercise science and went on to change the way we look at running by creating the world’s first foot-shaped, cushioned Zero Drop athletic shoes, founding “Altra Footwear.”
Today, Golden does footwear & biomechanics consulting as a running coach, a foot health specialist, and a professional speaker.
“Golden remains an expert of proper biomechanics and is passionate about his commitment to helping people run better,” said Michelle Graves, race director of the St. George Marathon. “We love and look forward to welcoming him as our keynote speaker at the St. George Marathon & Half Marathon EXPO.”
Harper has been at this for a while, setting American and World records for his marathon running before he was a teenager, influenced by a father who realized there was a better way to attack distance running.
Following in his father’s footsteps
Golden’s running career traces back to his father, Hawk Harper, the first of the Harper family to win the St. George Marathon in 1984.
In his 20s, Hawk was a 240-pound college baseball and football athlete who had been set to play pro baseball for the Angels. Unfortunately, he was drafted to fight in Vietnam and later blew his knee out playing football while at Dixie College (now Utah Tech University). He was told by doctors he would never run again, or even walk normally.
Hawk and one of his roommates were challenged to run the Las Vegas marathon — and they never backed down from a challenge. Hawk limped excruciatingly across the finish line as one of the last finishers and vowed to become good at marathoning.
His first six tries had him still finishing near the back of the pack, including laying in a gutter begging for a Coke in one, and crawling across the finish line in another. His breakthrough came when he taught himself to run like the elite Kenyan runners.
“Most of us crash down the road … those guys float,” thought Hawk. Seven years later, after becoming a technician of efficient, low-impact running technique, Hawk had lost 130 pounds and won the 1984 St. George Marathon in 2:22. Hawk attributes much of his running success to natural, low-impact running technique, and has been teaching it to runners everywhere since.
“Neither of my parents come from athletic families; there was no knowledge of any running talent, so they had to learn to run smarter than other more talented runners. My mom, Cheryl, has won St. George twice, been second six times, and been to five Olympic trials,” said Golden.
Running the St. George Marathon at age 10
At 8 years old, Golden begged his parents to run the St. George Marathon and they said, “Absolutely not.” After Golden’s relentless begging to run, his dad finally said, “If you run to the top of Mount Timpanogos and back, you run rim to rim in the Grand Canyon, and do these other things, I’ll let you run the marathon.” By this time, Golden was 9. He not only embraced his dad’s challenges, but he excelled at meeting them.
“I ran rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. I ran from Hope Campground to Hobble Creek and then I did Mount Timpanogos. I more or less forced my parents to let me sign up for the marathon,” said Golden.
“I turned 10 before the race, and it turns out when you train doing things that are harder than the race, the race goes pretty well. That first year, I ran 3:08:05, which is still the St. George Marathon record and the state record for a 10-year-old, and about seven minutes a mile. To me, it was just fun.”
Golden wanted to come back the next year, and he ran 2:57, which is still the fastest anyone in America has ever run a marathon at age 11. Then, he came back the next year and ran a world-best 2:45:34 at age 12. He ran St. George a couple more times but had to gear up for high school cross country and figure out how to go from being a 26-mile runner to a 3-mile runner, which he did.
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It’s easier to go from being a short-distance runner to a long-distance runner, explained Golden, but it’s really hard to go the other way.
“You rarely see a pro go down in distance — you usually see them start as a miler, become a 5K runner, maybe 10K and a half marathon, and then as they get older, they push into a marathon. You don’t see people start at a marathon and work their way down because our bodies just don’t respond well to that. Basically, we’re good at adding distance; we’re not good at taking distance away and adding speed, and that’s what I had to do.”
Golden went to the national championship race which ended up being the fastest race in the history of high school cross country — with he and nine other runners breaking the previous national record. Golden could have received a full-ride scholarship anywhere in the country.
After working at the family running shop for nearly a decade, Golden decided to take the “running injury and foot health major” to be able to best help the customers of the shop: “Most people come in the door because something hurts, and I wanted to be better at being able to help people.”
Golden’s studies led him to see how the elevated heels and tapered toe boxes of all the running shoes he had been selling caused people to run with an inefficient, unnatural running technique, so he decided to start modifying shoes with the goal to reduce his customers’ running injuries by helping them to move more naturally.
What started in the Harper basement with Golden cooking shoes in a toaster oven to remove the heavy, elevated heel from his favorite running shoes, eventually became what Altra is today. According to Golden, 73 percent of Americans report foot pain, and much of it is due to the tapered toe box shape and elevated heels of modern shoes deforming people’s feet over time.
“I designed prototypes that had the same amount of cushioning from heel to forefoot, and the cushioning simulated running on a natural surface like grass or dirt. Additionally, these shoes were actually shaped like feet, so the toes could spread out and the feet could remain in a barefoot position while in a shoe.”
Today, Golden lives in Colorado, although he visits St. George several times a year. He describes himself as a trail runner who prefers to climb mountains and bomb down them.
“In Colorado, one of the big things is fourteeners, or 14,000-foot mountains, and I like to run down them as fast as possible. It’s a contact sport. It’s like the X Games meets mountain running.”
What does Golden think about the St. George Marathon?
“I’ve been to a lot of big marathons around the country, and spent many a year at Boston, but I still love St. George — the beauty, the volunteer-to-runner ratio, and how well it’s run. I think the world of the St. George Marathon, and it’s also the closest thing you can get to trail running while running a road marathon.”
Golden will be speaking at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday, Sep. 30, at the St. George Marathon and Half Marathon EXPO. The event is free and open to the public.
This article was published with permission from the City of St. George.