Editor's note: This story was updated on Monday, Feb. 17, to include the death of 18-year-old Kolby Crum, who passed away on Saturday, Feb. 15.
CLAREMORE — When news of a tragedy involving track runners surfaced last Monday, one question kept coming back to Claremore track coach Eric Wiens.
‘What happened?’ he pondered.
It was a gruesome and heart-wrenching scene after Max Leroy Townsend, 57, accelerated to nearly 80 mph in a 25-mph speed zone and struck a group of Moore High School track runners with his pickup truck on a sidewalk near the school, according to a police investigation.
Townsend, who was reportedly intoxicated during the incident, killed senior Rachel Freeman, 17, sophomore Yuridia Martinez, 16, and senior Kolby Crum, 18.
He has since been charged with two counts of first-degree manslaughter and could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. Townsend also faces two counts of leaving the scene of an accident involving a fatality, five counts of leaving the scene of an accident involving injury and four counts of driving under the influence.
According to a court affidavit, the driver “did not appear to apply any brakes or slow the vehicle” before coming into contact with the runners.
The effects of the tragedy have spread nearly 150 miles northeast to Claremore.
“I feel terrible for the kids; you never want to see that,” Wiens said. “In a situation like that where somebody comes out of nowhere travelling 80 mph in a 25-mph zone, that’s just extremely unfortunate. I feel horrible for the families and everybody involved.”
“In this case, once I heard more and more details about him driving up on the curb, I don’t know if there’s a cure for anything like that. That’s not just putting people who are out running in danger, that’s putting drivers in danger, and that’s putting people in buildings in danger. If you lose control of the vehicle like that, you’re maybe going through a building and killing people.”
Although these are trying times for many around the state, especially runners, Wiens ensures that his student-athletes practice safe running techniques when jogging through the streets of Claremore.
Being aware of one’s surroundings is essential to any runner, and Wiens consistently preaches that message to cross-country and track participants.
His code for street running includes no running with headphones or earbuds and crossing roads only in the absence of traffic.
“You’ve really gotta focus when you’re crossing the road just to make sure you know what’s going on,” Wiens said. “That’s the big one.”
Wiens also receives updates from the multiple coaches and trainers he places throughout the nearby neighborhoods and the course at Claremore Lake. This constant-contact approach increases and maintains runner safety even when not in an intimate setting like pre-workout warmups.
However, the status quo must be challenged to some extent when tragedy strikes, especially when children are involved.
Although he is comfortable with the current safety precautions, Wiens said he plans to implement slight updates throughout the season.
“One thing I let the kids do is when there’s an opening in traffic, they can cross the road,” Wiens said. “I think what we’ll end up doing is making them cross at the crosswalk, even if there might be a longer wait. We run at the lake, which is about as protected as you can get, and we run at the soccer fields. Those are our two main areas where we run, so I feel really safe with our kids where we’re at, and Claremore is a great community.”
Aside from an isolated dog nipping a few years ago, the Claremore cross-country and track programs have been fortunate to avoid any catastrophes.
Of course, not all accidents and heinous crimes against humanity can be avoided. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and Claremore runners Laynie Nichols and Emily Wofford recognize that.
The Lady Zebras didn’t know Freeman and Martinez personally, but the impact of their deaths is far-reaching.
“The thing that happened at Moore, that’s athletes’ and coaches’ worst nightmare,” Nichols said. “It was very unfortunate and very sad what happened.”
Hearing about death in the news or on social media is one thing, but it can hit much harder when it involves those with relatable lives.
Nichols is a senior in high school who plans to run cross-country and track in college. She signed with Drury University in Springfield, Mo., in December.
Freeman, also a senior, was set to sign with Ouachita Baptist University on Wednesday, Feb. 5 — only one day after passing away from injuries suffered in the incident.
Nichols said though Wiens and assistant coach Lance Bennett have engrained in her the rules of street running, she now realizes she is not immune from such an occurrence.
Claremore coaches always encourage their runners to run against traffic, giving them the ability to monitor approaching cars and quickly move to a safer place if a vehicle is driving too fast or exits the roadway unexpectedly.
That only goes so far in the presence of a madman, though.
“It can happen,” Nichols said. “You don’t think about stuff like that happening all the time. You want to think about it, but sometimes you just run down the street like it’s a normal day for track or cross-country. That really hits you and makes you think you really have to pay attention when you’re running down the street. It makes you more aware.”
Like Wofford, Martinez was an enthusiastic sophomore who was eager to try new things and discover unique and exciting interests.
Her young life, along with Freeman’s, was cut much too short.
“It kind of put me in shock,” Wofford said of her initial reaction to the devastating news. “You don’t really think that can happen to you until you hear a story about it happening to someone. It was heartbreaking to read that on the news and hear it from everyone. It breaks my heart for all the families and the team that was affected.
“It obviously can happen to me, so it definitely makes me more aware while we’re running.”
Unfortunately, we can’t control when something bad will happen to us. Freeman and Martinez didn’t wake up the morning of Monday, Feb. 3, expecting to be killed by a crazed motorist.
Track and cross-country runners might find themselves closer to danger because of proximity to vehicles and roadways, but all they can do is prepare and trust that local drivers will look out for them.
Despite the risks associated with it, Wiens refuses to deny his athletes access to the streets.
He has taken every precautionary measure to keep them safe, and he plans to continue doing so, regardless of where that might be.
“Could it have been prevented? That’s hard to say,” Wiens said. “Hindsight is 20/20, and if you think about stuff like that, do you want to be so safe and live your life in such a cocoon that you can’t enjoy your life? That’s what it always comes down to for me. There’s always going to be risk, no matter what you do. It’s how you manage the risk.”
As Moore moves on to a time of recovery and healing, we can only hope that acts of terrorism like this are few and far between.
That, too, is Wofford’s wish.
“I just pray to God that it doesn’t happen again.”