“To have a friend is to be a friend”

My mother’s famous line was ” to have a friend is to be a friend.” No one could embody that statement more than Hot Harry Kirsch. All of us in the North Park Running and Cycling community lost a friend tonight when we heard the news that Hot Harry had ” run his last mile at 8:30 PM.” With his family around him, he passed quietly and peacefully.

Hot Harry was an icon in the running scene in Pittsburgh. As a marine, and a retired trolley/bus driver, Harry began running in earnest in his 50s and over the course of his life he ran over 50 marathons including his beloved Marine Corps Marathon. Organizing bus trips to Washington D.C for years, Harry supported the Marines by bringing hundreds of runners together to hear the Marine at the top of the hill shouting,” Pain is fleeting, pride is forever.” Harry ran countless Boston Marathons , one of which in 1987, I was fortunate enough to be his room mate. Harry was always supportive to first time marathoners with his cheery disposition and friendly ways. He encouraged veteran runners as well in advance of events and in the glow of the finish line.

For years, runners who parked at Stone Field in North Park finished their runs seeing the familiar open trunk on Harry’s car filled with bottles of drinks and cups that Harry would provide not only on race days but every day of running in the park. He had a way of gathering people and generating enthusiasm and even started the first running club in the park -Hot Harry’s North Park Runners. At events nationwide, runners would often see the singlet of the club at events and inquire about Hot Harry. The North Park runners were only too happy to oblige in telling the tales of the retired bus driver who attracted so many runners to his fold.

Harry loved the ladies and ran often with a group of accomplished women runners many of whom were national class. They loved Harry and made a point to run with him whenever they could.

Harry also attracted the characters. Doc Chuck, Merz, and a host of others whom he named. Big nose Bill, Sad Bill, Bushy Debbie, 10 Mile Bill, the Pretty Boys,and many, many more who all claimed Harry as their fearless leader. He would invite all the runners and their families to picnics at his farm in Evans City and we all would see Harry giving the kids tractor rides tirelessly into the evening. Harry loved the Park and enjoyed every moment meeting new people and welcoming them and encouraging them to join in his community. He drank a lot of coffee. Boy did he like coffee!!

Hot Harry was truly a friend to all of us in the North Park running community. He made the effort to be there for all of us and not only in the fun times of after work running and the weekend races, but there for us in sad times as well. Harry valued the friendships and made an effort to contact people who were hurting and people who were injured, sick, or just having a bad day. When you saw that smile and his familiar,” Heyyyyyyyyy” , you know that no matter what was going on in your life, Harry would make you smile and make you feel that things were better in your world.

Second Corinthians 5 says that we all will abandon our earthly bodies and take on the new bodies that we will have for eternity in heaven. I believe that Harry willingly left this world and his earthly body behind, with all of its mileage and marathons, and strapped on a new pair of celestial NIKE shoes and streaked toward the finish line at the pearly gates. There he was welcomed with the statement” well done my good and faithful servant.” Thanks for everything Harry. We will miss you.

Boston Marathon- Part II

photo I was sitting in my hotel room ironically in Oklahoma City on Monday when I saw the news of the devastating bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I thought of the horrible tragedy that happened several years before in Oklahoma City and how that event rocked this city of which I was a guest. I thought of all the people in Boston on Monday who were injured and especially the Richard family who lost their little boy, and the debilitating injuries to his mother and sister. It makes you appreciate your loved ones and how quickly life can change in the blink of an eye. Hug your mom, your wife, your husband, your family members. Life is so fragile that it can never be taken for granted.

This post is dedicated to those who were injured and lost their lives. But it is also dedicated to the people of Boston and the runners whose spirit of comraderie and common goal can never be taken away by a senseless act of violence. I think about the girls from Wellesley College whom you can hear from several miles away cheering on the runners as they pass through the campus. It is a tradition there and they spend hours waving and cheering at the top of their lungs. When you leave Wellesley, you feel like you have wings. But Sad Bill slowed me down as we continued to pursue the goal. As you run through the little towns along the way and through the Newton Hills and eventually Heartbreak Hill, you are buoyed by the gracious spectators who volunteer their time at the aid stations only too glad to help all the runners along the way. Folks line the course and take pride in their marathon. They are the soul and spirit of the day just as much as the competitors.

As you make way over Heartbreak Hill, you hear the P.A. system announcing the finish of the wheelchair competitors and eventually the world class men and women. If you want to be inspired, watch the wheelchair competitors who are athletes in every sense of the word and train and work to achieve their goals just like anyone else. They have overcome great odds to get here and are an inspiration to all along the routes of any marathon. The world class runners are indeed impressive as they seem to float along in their sub 5 minute miles. The Kenyans, the Ethiopians, the Americans, runners from all over the world compete in this event. But the backbone of the event are the people who train all year and make personal sacrifices to run and to travel to Boston. They are husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, all running together with a common bond not to compete against each other, but to collectively achieve a common goal.

Finally you make your way towards the Citgo sign at Fenway Park and you have 1 mile to go. Usually the first 20 miles are physical but the last 10K is mental. You press on towards the goal. The faithful Bostonians who are celebrating the marathon, line Commonwealth Avenue and their energy blows you towards the finish line where you are greeted by the wonderful volunteers and presented your finishers medal and a mylar blanket to keep you warm as you make your way to friends and family. Forget that the power was out at the hotel and the elevators were not working. Forget that there was no hot water to take a shower. Forget that I had to walk backwards down stairs because my quads hurt too much from the pounding after Heartbreak Hill. Today as I look back, I think of all those Bostonians who ran, volunteered, cheered on the competitors along the way. Patriots Day is their day and the Boston Marathon is their race.

As we learn more each day of the tragic events of the bombings at the finish line, we also see stories of the resiliency of the victim’s families, the injured spectators and runners, and the Bostonians. The same blood that ran through the patriots at Concord and Lexington runs through their descendents today. They are proud, they are tough, and they will prevail against all odds. Thomas Grilk, the Executive Director of the Boston Marathon said it best this week when he stated that,” Boston is strong, Boston is resilient, and Boston is our home. And Boston has made us enormously proud.” The runners will continue to train, and those who were robbed of their opportunity this year will be back with even greater resolve. No terrorists or deranged individuals can defeat the spirit that is the Boston Marathon. The 118th running of the 2014 Boston Marathon will be held with pride. The Richards would want it that way. Thanks for reading and God Bless America!

The Boston Marathon- part 1.

images On the third Monday in April, the citizens of Boston have a day off for Patriot’s Day. There is usually a home game for the Red Sox at Fenway, the ballpark is packed and the streets are starting to fill with spectators for one of the most storied events in all of sport- The Boston Marathon. Now my connection to the event starts with telling you a little more about Hot Harry Kirsch. Harry is an ex Marine who started to run in his 50s. Today Harry is 89 years old and has run over 50+ marathons in his life. He is most proud of his association with the Marine Corps Marathon for obvious reasons and always had several buses from North Park filled with marathoners competing in the event. Harry always told me about the Marine who stands at attention on top of one of the hills citing the phrase,” pain is fleeting, pride is forever.” Tradition in marathoning is embodied in Harry’s life and I am proud to know him.

In years past I have cut into my ski time a little bit to run. I found myself training for the Boston Marathon and actually did my required 20 miler on a day that I should have been skiing. It was snowing heavily as I ran four times around North Park Lake. I felt good and made arrangements to travel with Hot Harry, Les Brodie, and Carl Trimbur. Les is a few years older than me and Harry and Carl were the senior citizens of the group. They were amazing athletes for their age and we all crammed into a hotel room together. Now with the excitement of the race and the chainsaw snoring that drove Les into the closet to sleep, I didn’t get much rest the night before the event, but I was ready. Harry was ready too. He traveled to the event on the plane with his running singlet and running shorts and shoes. He had a little giveaway bag from the Great Race that had another singlet, another pair of shorts,……..and a toothbrush! These Marines travel light.

One of the cool things about the marathon was the expo. Here you get to see all the running gear booths along with the superstars of the sport. You can also buy all the Boston Marathon paraphanelia. I was presumptious enough that I was going to finish the event that I bought a sweatshirt, a jacket, a hat and if they would have had Boston Marathon boxer shorts, I probably would have bought those too. In typical 7 degrees of separation for Pat McCloskey instead of Kevin Bacon, I had a soulmate in the Nike booth. Joan Benoit Samuelson was the innaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon Champion from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She was in the Nike booth and she was a goddess at this event. But you would never meet a more unassuming individual in your life as I came to meet her at the autograph table. I couldn’t wait to tell her hello from her old ski coach from the University of New Hampshire, Jace Pasquale. Jace is my friend who runs the ski race program at Seven Springs Resort here in Westen Pa. Joan was thrilled to talk and inquire about Jace and our whole conversation was catching her up with news of her old coach. Nothing about Joan Benoit Samuelson the Olympic champion, but the humble and happy conversation of someone who was reconnecting with an old friend through me. The people in line were getting antsy so I bid the Olympic Champion goodbye and moved on to talk to Frank Shorter, another Olympic champion. We had a 7 degrees of separation moment too in that I had met him several years earlier in Taos, New Mexico where he was living and training at altitude. The resort at the time was pretty empty and Ernie Blake, the owner of Taos, ate breakfast with our ski group every morning as was his custom with weekly guests. Frank Shorter would join us and we would have many conversations about training and the Olympics during the trip. Now as expected, at the booth, he didn’t know me from a cake of soap, but I told the story and we talked about his years in Taos. I was so pumped after my visit to the Nike booth with all of my purchased schwagg. I felt like I could run right out the door and start the Marathon.

I met Sad Bill Schillinger at the bus stop in downtown Boston and loaded a school bus for the 26.2 mile trip to the startline in Hopkinton Green, Mass. As I sat on the bus, I heard a little knawing voice in my head that said,” I hope you make it man.” The distance of the marathon dictates that anything can happen and you always hope that your training was enough and that nothing happened with your health on race day. Sad Bill was a dedicated marathoner from North Park and was kind enough to give me some pointers about the course seeing that this was my maiden voyage for Boston. Why Harry calls him Sad Bill is a mystery. He is a serious fellow but anything but sad and a wonderful running partner as it turned out. As we approached the start line and found our place, the adrenaline and excitement shot through me like a loaded howitzer as the gun went off. The wheelchair racers were on the course and the crowd noise was deafening. The hair stood up on my arms as we were underway. It took Bill and I three minutes to get to the start line because of the depth of the field and I started my watch as soon as we crossed the start line. I eased into a relaxed shuffle as we made our way through the crowd finally settling into a nice pace that we shared with several other runners. I was running in the storied Boston Marathon and the history of the event filled my senses as I made my way through little towns like Framingham and Natick. Bill kept telling me to run within myself as Boston can be demanding in the end. I listened and we conversed and ran comfortably until we started to hear a roar in the distance that sounded like a Penn State Football Game after a touchdown for the Nittany Lions. I had heard of the girls from Wellesley College but had never thought that the noise could be heard from miles away. What happened next as we approached Wellesley will have to wait until the next post. Stay tuned and thanks for reading. The story has only just begun.