Have baby, will jog: one father tests another's invention

A new child. A new invention. A new career. That's been the story of Phil Baechler's life ever since the birth of his son, Travis, intersected an avid love of running and an already busy life as a copy editor and outdoor writer for the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic.

The Baby Jogger, Mr. Baechler's solution to the dilemma of runners grounded by parental responsibilities, joins the ranks of such innovations as microwave ovens, food processors, and VCRs - all of which have helped ease the modern couple's transition from ``DINC'' (double-income, no children) to new-parent status.

As a bike racer in the early '70s, Baechler noticed fellow cyclists towing their youngsters behind them in little carts. Ten years later, the birth of his first child triggered a realization, ``If you can tow your kid behind a bike, you ought to be able to run with him, too.''

Baechler played around with some pipe cleaners and cardboard wheels in making the preliminary designs. Drawing on the mechanical expertise developed while managing a bike shop in Arizona, he put together a two-wheel version with some bicycle tires and a piece of pipe. He soon found a third wheel was needed for steering.

Four prototypes later, the kinks were sufficiently worked out for Baechler to test his rig (complete with hand brake) with six-month-old Travis at a local ``fun-run.'' The post-race inquiries that poured in then and in succeeding races convinced him there might be a market for his invention.

A June 1984 article in People magazine brought a surge of interest, as did an article in Self. Things got so busy, in fact, that Baechler began to wonder if the burden of running a business in addition to his regular job was really worthwhile. He was about to pack it in when his wife, Mary, who had shouldered much of the operation all along, volunteered to run the show.

A hectic year ensued during which they saw very little of each other. Baechler worked at his copy desk from 3 p.m. often till the early morning hours, while his wife spent all day at the office. Even though Baechler left his job with the paper, she remains president of the company; he is marketing director.

Today, 4 years after Baechler entered that fateful fun-run with Travis, Racing Strollers has 11 employees, a glossy brochure, and demand beyond productive capacity.

A growing line of products includes Walkabout, a collapsible model with smaller wheels for use by urban dwellers, and Twinner, an adaptation of the Jogger made necessary by the arrivals of Travis's brother, Oscar, now 2, and sister, Marilyn, now 1. Still in development is a heavier unit for transporting the handicapped.

The pace of expansion can be taxing at times. ``Now, instead of five days with crazy hours,'' Baechler confesses, ``I have six or seven.'' But there's always the reward of getting hundreds of letters and baby pictures from grateful runners.

Another gratifying development is the growing number of races that include a ``stroller division,'' in addition to the more prevalent wheelchair category.

It's developments like these that help offset one of the ironies of Baechler's newfound prosperity. The popularity of an invention that enables people to keep up their running has made scheduling those 10-mile rambles through the apple country surrounding his home more problematic. One way or another, however, he wants to break 40 minutes for 10 kilometers by the time he's 40. Once a runner, always a runner.

Outside my window, a warm late-autumn sun plays beckoningly on the leaves of the maple. I try to concentrate on some reading for a graduate course. Compounding my frustration is the fact that for two days now I haven't had time to get out for my customary run. Suddenly, a piercing cry heralds the end of my five-month-old daughter's afternoon nap and an all-too-brief interlude of study.

I glance at my watch: over an hour till her mother gets home from errands. Ordinarily, this would be a recipe for frustration, but now I have an ace in the hole. Scooping up my child, we hurry downstairs and out into a blue-and-gold Indian summer day.

After plopping her down in the canvas sling of her new chariot and snapping the seat belt, we're off for a 20-minute scamper. It isn't much, but it's enough. At least I haven't missed out completely.

Once a runner, always a runner.

For more information, contact Racing Strollers Inc., 516 N. 20th Ave., Yakima, WA 98902.

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