My Running Influences


October 3, 2020 – I began running in 2002. I’ve actually been running longer than that, but the act of running for the sake of just running began in 2002. I go into greater detail about this in the introduction of my book. For today’s post, I want to talk about my greatest running influences. I suppose you could call these individuals my “early influencers” since their impact on me was felt within the first few years after I started running in 2002. These are not ranked, however, I do begin with who I would consider the person who had the greatest influence on me. I would also point out that there have been so many others who I have come to know and respect within the running community. I wanted to write about everyone, but I thought I’d go with the individuals from the beginning because there are far too many people who have inspired and influenced me through the years.

Tom Marshall
When I think back to 2002, I see it as a pivotal moment in my life. I was at a crossroads. At the age of 31 I was losing my youthful self and beginning the next phase of life. I do know that I wasn’t happy with how I was feeling and knew that if I didn’t make changes I was destined to transform into what I did not want to be. I longed for fitness and feeling good about myself. That’s when I decided to start going back to the gym. A good friend of mine and fellow Conemaugh Valley Blue Jay football coach Tom Marshall was a regular at the YMCA during those days. We would find ourselves at the gym around 5:30 a.m. (Tom was always earlier) and as I began to get more fit I still felt that something was missing. Tom was a runner and was in the kind of shape I wanted to be in. He had run the 100th Boston Marathon. One day after I began hitting the upstairs indoor track for a few laps, Tom made a comment to me that would change the course of the next 18 years that still sits with me today. He said, “there is nothing like running to lose weight and stay in shape.” Over the course of the next few months I realized how right he was. So running became part of my life and has remained so ever since. Sure, I go through ups and downs like anybody else but since hearing that remark I have run more than 14,000 miles, done 11 marathons including Boston, and have been able to maintain a weight that stays between 15-25 pounds less than I was in 2002. Tom is first on this list because he was the greatest influence on me when it comes to running. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also share that he was a major influence on me generally after we ended up coaching the varsity football team together for several years after our days at the YMCA. I’m not sure he’ll read this but thanks Big Tom!

George Hancock and Keith Neff

On July 6, 2002 I entered and participated in my very first road race. It was a 5-mile run through the streets of Windber, Pennsylvania known as the J. Irving Whalley Memorial Run. I can’t be 100% certain but I’m fairly sure I met George Hancock at this race. I searched high and wide for some record of the race online but for some reason I could only find 2001. Still, the fact remains that over the course of the next several years and for nearly a decade I became acquainted with George. He and I would often cross paths at many of the road races in and around my hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Often, I would also see a friend of his, Keith Neff, who became a friend of mine. Ironically, I had worked with Keith’s wife during my college years at Arbutus Park Retirement Community. I looked forward to races knowing that I could catch up with George and Keith and talk about running and racing and life in general. Keith and I also shared the same affinity for writing and he has published several columns on the subject of running. I’ve included one here.

Needles to say, both George and Keith had a profound impact on me as I worked on the craft of running. I remember many days I had decided to run a local race, and when waking up saw that the weather was not conducive to running. I often thought about bailing on the event but knew that I would not want to let those guys down. I’ve often said that the running community is truly one of the best communities and this is a fabulous example of that. Even though I haven’t talked to either of these gentlemen in years, I still think of them when I’m heading to a race or when I stumble across an article online, like the one above. Thank you both.

Mick Bernabo

I met Mick when I began going to the YMCA during those early mornings beginning in 2002, but I had seen him and felt I knew him almost my entire life. Mick was the crazy guy you’d always see running when driving around Johnstown. I’d even seen him in Somerset and wondered if he’d run the nearly 30 miles from Johnstown to Somerset. Turns out, his girlfriend lived in Somerset, so on weekends he’d run there. I just so happen to be dating my wife Becky and we spent a lot of weekends in Somerset. That explained seeing him in both places. Needless to say, when I finally met him I learned how quirky he was, but overall a good guy. And a runner. The more I was surrounded by runners during that time, the more I felt like I had the proper motivation to keep running, and Mick fit the bill. He would ask me about races I’d run and would talk about his running exploits which help me acclimate to the culture of running and being a runner. I don’t often get back to my old stomping grounds (maybe a few times a year), but invariably, I see Mick still running the roads in and around Johnstown and Somerset. Oh, and one of the best stories he ever told me was the one where he actually did run from Johnstown to Somerset. During that run the temperatures suddenly dropped and it began to sleet and snow. When he arrived at his girlfriend’s house she wasn’t home and he nearly froze to death on her porch. Mick taught me to always monitor the weather forecast before a run. Thanks Mick.

Mike Hodak

Here is a picture me with Mike and his wife on April 17, 2011, the day before the Boston Marathon. Mike and I were (and still are) members of the Indiana Road Runners Club in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Mike is 10 years my elder, but no less of a runner. In fact, the only day I was able to best him was on a cold Somerset, PA morning when we ran a lightly attended Knights of Columbus 5k race. That day was one of only three 1st place overall finishes I’ve ever had and was the first time I won a race outright. Even though there were only 29 runners that day, Mike finished a close 2nd. That was the day I believe we became close friends and the day I knew he was a force to be reckoned with in the running community. I vaguely recall what it feels like to be chased and pushed harder than you’ve ever been pushed to seal an overall victory, but I recall that day vividly. Beyond that, I learned what a great person Mike is and that he was rooting for me as much as anyone else on that weekend in Boston. Likewise, I was rooting for him. The mutual respect that exists in the running community is always amazing to me, and just like the others I’ve mentioned here, we may not speak much or at all for years, but we have that bond that will never be broken. Thanks Mike!

Boston Marathon Eve, 2011

In no way do I want to minimize this last person as an afterthought. The original purpose of this post was to go back to the beginnings of my running career and speak to those “early influences.” But as I wrote this piece and reminisced about who those influences are, I couldn’t help but think that I should mention my biggest current influence – my wife, Becky. She hasn’t been a runner as long as I have, and didn’t participate much in those early days (early 2000’s), but she has become my constant. In truth, I struggled with my running for a few years after the Boston Marathon and then found a new purpose when my dad was dying. That prompted me to go full force again and run the Marine Corps Marathon. The momentum lasted for another year until I ran the New York Marathon in 2017. But once again, I found myself struggling to stay motivated. That is where Becky’s influence on me has been the greatest.

Becky and Me

I began running with her on weekend long runs, and eventually we ran together during all of our runs. We still do, but she has struggled for the past few years on and off with injuries. From a year-long (or longer) bout with plantar fasciitis, to knee and ankle injuries, she’s still there fighting to stay on the roads with me. It has kept me motivated to know that she’s there trying to battle through the miles. We don’t often run together side by side but we do go out at the same time and I try to route myself in ways that allow us to remain close during our runs. I feel helpless at times not being able to help her, and I don’t tell her enough how much she means to me and in this case, to my running. I know she’s a regular reader and will see this, so I want to say how much I love and appreciate her. Her influence on me outweighs anyone I could ever consider to put on a list such as this. Thank you Becky. I love you.

Run on…

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