Checkers-The Runners Roost Where Everyone Knows Your Name
The summer of 1974 was a time when most runners in
Western New York got their daily workouts in by running around . You could show up at the meadow on any given day, at any given time, and expect to join up with several runners circling the golf course in a large, fast moving gaggle of guys. Rarely in those days would we be joined by females, as there were very few of that breed running then. I tell you, we old-timers had it rough back then. Did I ever mention how I had to walk seven miles through mountains of snow just to get to school? Delaware Park
We usually had no training plan to follow, no planned speed workouts or tempo runs. Just running together, shooting the breeze so to speak, our competitive juices flowing, we would usually end up flying around the Park in better than a seven minute per mile pace. This would go on for lap after lap, as most of us were marathoners, and we all got in at least 80 to 100+ miles per week. As I recall, it was hot and thirsty work doing those long-ago runs.
One hot and humid Thursday afternoon that summer, I was flying around the Park with a few Belle Watlings. As I recall, they included Dick Sullivan, Norm Schwendler, and Joe Haroney, among others. Someone, I’m not sure who, suggested we go to The Schuper House on Niagara St. after the workout and partake in some re-hydrating activity involving barley-malt beverages, the sports drink of choice in those days (vodka gimlets were not everyone’s cup of tea). And so a tradition was born, The Thursday Beer Runs, which became a part of the
summer’s running scene for the next several years. Buffalo
That first summer, we would head over to The Schuper House, a dark and dingy bar that was noted for its’ large, heavy goblets of dark German brew. Being the pack-rat that I am, I still have one of those Schuper mugs proudly on display among my trophies. In those early days, I was the only Philharmonic AC member among the Belle Watlings who braved the dank darkness of this grog-shop in order to replenish our electrolytes (a word we did not know nor use at the time) and bemoan the lack of female runners at the park. Well, maybe not so much that topic, but sharing tales of past feats of glory was usually on the agenda.
A runner always there on Thursday was one Joe Haroney, a Belle Watling of Lebanese dissent, and already a legend in the running community. Quite a character, he had qualified for the 1973 Boston Marathon by running a fast enough Around the Bay Race at
, three weeks before the Hamilton, Ontario Marathon. That was the last year you could qualify running something less than a marathon. Well, 1973 was the first year many of the Belle Watlings ran and the first of 28 in a row for Dick Sullivan, but the last for Joe Haroney. It was a hot running that Patriots Day and Joe didn’t quite make it. The close-up picture of him collapsing just before the finish line, with the whites of his eyes showing as they rolled up in his head, made the sports page of most papers in the nation, including in Boston . Buffalo
About a week before I ran the 1974 New York City Marathon (you can read my account of said race in the November issue of Running Times – a shameless promotion I know), while at a Thursday evening Beer Run, Joe kept us in stitches, regaling us with his memories of his Boston finish. After being helped across the finish line (and thus disqualified) he was taken to the medical tent where he lay quite a while. When he finally had some whits about him, he asked a doctor if his heart was about to give out. The doc laughed and told him his heart was the only thing he had going for him. He was given some stew and sent on his way.
When I passed out in
days later, and woke up in the emergency room of the hospital, I vaguely remembered Joe’s story. I do not know if the “vaguely” part was because my mind was still fried, or because of the effect of hearing said story after a few too many barley-malt beverages. Perhaps a bit of both. Anyway, my mind knew there was a connection to what Joe had told me about his New York experience, and what I was going through now. Unfortunately, my refried brain could only remember Joe’s concern about his heart, so I decided that my heart must be about to give out also. I honestly remember lying there looking at the ceiling and thinking: “what an ugly view to be looking at as the last thing I would ever see.” Apparently, my heart was in much better shape than my mind, for it is still working strong, which is more than I can say for my mind. Boston
During the summer of 1975, we continued to hang out at the Schuper House after our Thursday runs, although the dank darkness was not very inviting. It was during this summer that my then girlfriend, Eleanor, stole a Schuper mug for me. She was not a runner, as there were very few running couples back then (few women runners, remember?) but she would hang out with us after runs and races. Eleanor is fondly remembered among Belle Watlings for getting the very first and very prestigious Beaver Pin Award, which was given her by Dick Sullivan at the Elliott Lounge in
right after the 1979 Boston Marathon. It is rumored that said pin was never removed from Sully’s body, as he had no proctologist in those days. Boston
In the summer of 1976, the Beer runs may have disappeared had not a new running club, Checkers AC, come along. The depressing darkness of the Schuper House was too much, but Checkers, which was started by Joe Jordan and friends the year before, had their own clubhouse, Joe’s bar called Checkers on
Hertel Ave. next to Parker. The bar opened in 1972, and in 1976, Joe and his partner made Checkers the second bar in Buffalo to add an outdoor area where one could sit in the bright sun and enjoy a cool one.
Well, the Belle Watlings, the club to which I now belonged, decided to adopt said outside café as our official clubhouse, at least on Thursdays after our run. Pretty soon more and more runners from other clubs began joining us, and sweaty, thirsty runners crowded the porch as we often stuck around long enough to watch the sun go down. There was a restaurant down the street that had no regular liquor license, but you could bring your own wine. Needless to say, more than once a few of us would retire to said restaurant with a couple gallon jugs of fine wine, just purchased from the liquor store across the street from Checkers. For some reason our Friday runs were never quite as zippy as our Thursday workouts.
Not long after this, the original Runners Roost opened up right next door to Checkers. They had a machine for resoling your running shoes. Mind you, we would wear our shoes for six months before we felt the need to resole them, so now you know why so many of us runners from the seventies have no running legs left. Runners would drop off their shoes, and in order to avoid being hit by pieces of rubber being spit all over the place by the resoling machine, they would come next door to Checkers to join fellow runners in re-hydrating. Thus, along with the explosion in running, we were getting some big crowds at Checkers.
Checkers soon became the place to go after races. After the St. Patty’s Day Race in
South Buffalo (this was before there was a Shamrock Run), we would head to Checkers for corned beef and cabbage and other Irish refreshment. That race was in the morning, and we would not leave until well into the evening. My main memory of those parties is of Dick Kendall always showing up wearing orange, just because.
After the Turkey Day Race in the seventies, the Belle Watlings always went to the House of Quinn (now Brinks) on
Chippewa St. and toast Belle with several Red Eyes (a shot of tomato juice in beer). This was long before Chippewa was anything like it is today, and it was lonely and empty down there. Once Checkers came along, it and the House of Quinn were the only bars open on Thanksgiving, and after a couple Red Eyes, the Belle Watlings were only too happy to join other runners on Hertel Ave. The place would be hopping.
Any excuse for a running get-together, and we would be at Checkers. The really big party was always in late October, right after the Skylon Marathon. Running clubs usually had suites at hotels in
for showering and enjoying a cold one or two, and then there was always a pretty good post-race party and dinner at Skylon. However, the real party did not start until we all got to Checkers. Niagara Falls
The place would be jammed with runners, both local and those from all over the
and US . These parties would last well into the night, usually way past . Some of the stories from these nights are the stuff of legend, and maybe I will write them someday, but first I must wait till certain people with good names to protect are no longer with us. Come to think of it, that might include me too. Canada
When I moved away from
in the late seventies, Checkers was the happening place, a place you could go and talk and drink with other runners. I came back to run the 100th running of Turkey Day in 1995, and Chippewa was where everyone was. A few of us old-timers did go over to Checkers for old time’s sake, but it was not the same. Now that I live in Buffalo , I like to stop at Checkers for at least a cold one after Turkey Day, and if you go in on a Saturday or Sunday, you might catch Joe Jordan serving up the suds. He’ll tell you what it was like back then. Buffalo
Maybe next summer I’ll pick a Thursday for a Beer Run and whoever wants can join me at the old Clubhouse. We can sit in the sun, sip on some beer, and talk of past feats of glory, and marvel in the fact that there are so many female runners joining us for this event.