Gary Tuttle answers the phone behind the counter of his ramshackle Ventura running-shoe store. Listening to the caller's problem, he furrows his brow.
"Hmmmm," Tuttle says. "Normal running is not going to cause you to hyperventilate. Maybe you have asthma."
The second-place finisher in the 1985 Boston Marathon and a former national record-holder in three events, Tuttle is one of the area's leading authorities on distance running and has turned his knowledge into a cottage industry. His small shop serves as the hub for his running-related activities, which range from operating a long-established summer camp for runners to staging 15 to 20 distance races a year.
What Tuttle does relatively little of these days, however, is run. For the last few years, his wife has been the only marathoner in the family as nagging leg injuries reduced his running to short-course biathlons and political races. A Ventura city councilman, the 44-year-old Tuttle says he is now at the crossroads of his athletic and political career.
"I've got to set my goals for the next 40 years," he says earnestly. "I don't want to be a Jack-of-all-trades. I've always tried to be the best in everything I did. If I can shake my calf problem, I have the potential to be one of the best over-40 biathletes in the country."
But if his leg doesn't improve? "I may want to be the best coach in the country for distance runners," he says. "Or a household political name."
Hmmmm. Congressman Tuttle? Senator Tuttle? Presi . . . He shifted into another mode. "I've worked hard all my life," he says. "Maybe I'll be a world-class retiree."
Hardly likely. "Every time I see him, he's either going to ride his bike or run or something," says Ventura Mayor Greg Carson, adding that Tuttle "shows the same type of determination and dedication as a councilman as he shows as an athlete."
It's difficult to imagine the energetic Tuttle taking it easy, especially because he's been a hard-core athlete all his life. Literally raised with a basketball in his crib, Tuttle was shooting baskets as a baby. His late father Bob was the Ventura High basketball coach for more than 20 years, winning two Southern Section championships, and made sure his son was involved in the sport.
As a youngster, Tuttle was something of a local basketball phenom.
"I won all the skills contests basically because I had such a head start on everybody," he says.
But by high school, others had caught up and Tuttle's athletic interests began to expand. In his freshman year at Buena, his running ability came to the attention of cross-country Coach Jim Hunt, who recruited him for the team.
A few years later, Tuttle returned the favor.
After his freshman year at Humboldt State, Tuttle learned that the college was looking for a new track coach and he recommended Hunt for the job.
"It was a case of an athlete recruiting a coach," says Tuttle, who was a three-time small-college All-American in the steeplechase and two-time All-American in cross-country.
After college, Tuttle began entering marathons and other distance races, rising to elite status. Running the marathon and/or 10,000 meters, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in 1972, '76, '80 and '84. The closest he came to making the team was in '76, finishing a scant .002 behind the qualifiers.
At 36, he set a national age-group record of 28 minutes 26 seconds to qualify for the '84 trials in the 10K.
Unfortunately for Tuttle, his best event was somewhere in between a marathon and a 10K. "If they had an Olympic event that would take an hour, I probably would have been the best in the world," he says.
Although Tuttle was the top American and placed seventh overall in the 1976 World Cross-Country Championships, he is best remembered for the '85 Boston Marathon, and he finds that a little mystifying.
"I had a lot better races that I got no credit for," he says. "Like that seventh-place in the worlds."
Coming in the "twilight" of his career, his performance in the Boston Marathon was "surprising," he says. He entered the race on a whim, having promised his then-girlfriend Ruth Vomund that he would accompany her to Boston after she qualified for the event. Twenty miles into the marathon, leader Geoff Smith was suffering with leg cramps but hung on and Tuttle finished more than five minutes behind at 2:19:11.
Despite his marathon success (he placed fifth in the first L.A. Marathon), he insists he was never suited for the event.
"I couldn't do marathons and hated not doing them well," he says. "They were frustrating. Physically, I'm not a marathoner. I'm too thin (he's 5-10, 138). I have no extra body fat reserves to burn."
Today, Tuttle is content doing volunteer coaching for the California Special Olympics (he was the organization's amateur athlete of the year in 1989) and coaching Vomund, whom he married in 1990. She ran in the marathon in the recent Olympic track and field trials in New Orleans, finishing 20th, and Tuttle was there to cheer her on.
It was the first time he had ever been a spectator in the trials. In 1988, he stayed away. "I felt I should still be there competing," he says. "There was no way I could watch it and be happy."
In New Orleans, however, he watched all the track events, sitting with other former competitors. "I knew more people per square foot than I probably know in Ventura," he says. "From old track buddies to shoe salesmen."
Tuttle and his friends were at the track early to watch the decathlon and couldn't believe that Dan O'Brien passed on easy heights in the pole vault. Calling O'Brien's decision "crazy and stupid," Tuttle also was philosophic about the changing of the guard in track and field--many former medalists didn't make the team.
"In sports," he says, "you can't be Peter Pan forever."