By Savanah Bandy 

In our neck of the woods, Henri Coeme may best be known as the president of the Board of Directors of the Joplin Roadrunners. There’s also a good chance you have seen Henri pounding the pavement with his “trainer and running-partner” – an Australian Shepherd named Miles. 

“Miles makes sure I never stay home, no matter the weather, rain, sleet, sweltering hot or bone-chilling cold,” Henri said with a laugh. “He is always ready to push me out of the door and run with me.” 

Henri and Miles have been fixtures in the local running scene for years. What you may not know is Henri’s fascinating background as a runner. Born in 1953 in Belgium, Henri’s first experiences as a runner were unusual – though perhaps less unusual in the 1950s. 

“My running career started because both my parents were chain smokers. Each time they needed a pack of cigarettes, they sent me, their six-year-old son, to the bookshop about a quarter mile away to buy cigarettes. They told me to hurry, so I ran five times a day as hard as I could to the bookshop for another pack of smokes. Great wonder I never took up smoking!”

When he got older, his high school didn’t have a track team, but they did have one hour of gym each week. One day, the gym teacher told the class to run one mile in the park, and he discovered he was one of the slowest in the class. 

“I was 15 and, without telling any of my friends, I joined the local running club. A few months later, the gym teacher asked us to run around the city block, about a two-mile run. When I arrived all by myself a few minutes later, I was punished for cheating. Boy, you really can’t win! … The next week, he asked us to run around the courtyard so he could keep an eye on me. After that run, I was never punished again.”

In college, Henri continued to create his own opportunities. 

“There was no running club at our university. With a few friends, we came to run from one university town in Belgium to the next, about a 50K distance,” he said. “Six of us took off on a rainy September evening after a long, cold train ride to the starting line. All of us got lost along the way; we also lost one another in the labyrinth of city streets. When I finally got to the finish line past midnight … I had missed the last bus home and had to run the extra six miles to my student room.”

This is just the beginning of Henri’s tales as a runner. For many years, his work took him all over the world and he participated in races in London, Brussels, New York, and Sri Lanka to name a few. 

“One weekend I ended up in New York for an assignment and found out it was the weekend of the New York City Marathon. I worked my way into the packet pickup hall and told the registration table that I had come all the way from Belgium to run this race and asked why they couldn’t find my bib registration. Half an hour later, I had a bib. The next day I ran New York; my first official marathon, completely unprepared and unregistered.” 

On another occasion, Henri found himself in Sri Lanka on an assignment and signed up for a local marathon. 

“I was prepared for the 90+ tropical temperature and high humidity, but I was not prepared to run during what now had turned into a local civil war. There was no starting official, so the race organizers found a soldier who was willing to fire a live round right over our heads!” 

Henri’s work eventually brought him, his wife Christina, and his children, Sally and Sebastian, to Southwest Missouri. He quickly got involved in local running groups and went on to set about 40 Missouri age records in almost all distances between the mile and the 100K. He has won in his age group in nearly all of the 300+ races he has participated in the last 10 years. 

Henri joined the Joplin Roadrunners Board of Directors four years ago and has served as President for the last two. He has played a pivotal role in bringing runners back into the fold following the pandemic and organizing and co-organizing events such as the Pumpkin Run, Run With the Wind, Frosty Trail 5K run, Maple Tree 1-2-3, Kids Classic, and Neosho Dogwood run. 

Henri shows no sign of slowing down. He will compete in the Boston Marathon next April, and will be proudly representing Southwest Missouri in the 70+ category. 

“I have two remaining running ambitions,” Henri said. “Increasing the range and membership of the Joplin Roadrunners and charities it supports, and to run as long as I live.”

See more photos win the November 2022 print or digital edition.