The Seeds of the First Running Boom
by Bill Donnelly
The year 1969 was a year chock full of momentous events in our nation’s history. Richard Nixon was sworn in as President, and the Viet Nam War was continuing on its nightmarish course. In the world of sports, the Joe Namath Jets and the Miracle Mets both won championships. We put a man on the moon, and Ted Kennedy put his car in the drink at Chappaquiddick. While Liberals went to see “Alice’s Restaurant”, “Easy Rider”, “Midnight Cowboy”, and “Bambi meets Godzilla”, Tricky Dick’s newly named Silent Majority watched “True Grit” starring John Wayne. The Chicago Seven were found not guilty, and Charles Manson and his cult went on a killing spree.
showed the world that Flower Power could work, but then Woodstock Altamont showed the world that it didn’t work.
Lost in all this was a little noted event that took place in
, and was perhaps the most momentous event of the whole year. I am of course talking about the founding of one of the early running clubs in Buffalo, New York , the Belle Watlings. Yes, 1969 was the year “The Founder”, Richard Sullivan, his brother Ted, and one Norm Wagner, were sitting at the bar at The Place, which is still located across from the Food Co-op on Buffalo Lexington Ave., and they decided to run a race, since they had recently started running to get in shape. Even after sobering up, they still decided to go through with it. And so they went to and, starting at the fire hydrant next to the expressway, they had a race that went twice around the meadow. Dick Sullivan won, and back they went to the Place for the Sports Drink of the day, Boilermakers (not named after the race in Delaware Park – that wasn’t around yet). Utica
While discussing the idea of starting an actual running club, they decided they needed a name for it. Sitting nearby was one Charlie Lesselles, a non-runner, who suggested the name Belle Watling. Seeing the quizzical looks on Sully and his pal’s faces, he explained that Belle was the red haired madam with the heart of gold who was Rhett Butler’s confidant in the book “Gone With the Wind.” The name was perfect, and thus the Place may be the place where the first seeds of the Running Boom were born in
I think of these roots of the Belle Watlings at this time because I recently ran in the 28th annual running of the Founders Day Race, held in honor of that fateful day in 1969 when Sully and friends ran twice around the park. The race still starts and ends at the Belle Watling Fire Hydrant, and some people consider it the top race of the year in the
Eastern United States. Some people feel should have gotten the Long Distance Running Hall of Fame because of this race, instead of Buffalo . Some people consider this the only true Runner of the Year race. Of course by some people, I mean Dick Sullivan and his brother Ted. Utica
The highlight of The Founders Day Race is the awarding of The Founders Day Trophy, which has been won by the likes of Jack Meegan, Dave Bogdan, Fran Emerling, Jack O’Sullivan, Diane McGuire, and Yours Truly. It is a much sought after honor, and it was rumored that even the Buffalo Bills thought of entering the Founders Day Race in 1995 in order to win this trophy, since they couldn’t win the Super Bowl.
Part of the purpose for writing a monthly column for the Checkers Chatter is to give the reader a taste of what running was like back in the seventies. Therefore I am going to reprint a story I wrote about the running of the third annual Founders Day Race, which was held on
Thursday, June 15, 1978. During the late seventies, one of my good running buddies was Jim Caher, who was Deputy Corporation Council for the city of , and a member in good standing of Checkers. His wife, Sharon, was Editor of The North Buffalo Rocket, a fine neighborhood weekly paper, with a circulation of 18,000, and probably actually read by three of those people who got the paper thrown on their doorsteps for free. Being that Sharon and Jim both ran, the Rocket became a place that running related articles could appear. Bob Atanasio, a local runner who practically lived at Buffalo , wrote a weekly column called “Delaware Park Beat” in which he would write of what was going on with the running community, or express his opinions about the world, from morality to hedonism. It was quite a column. Delaware Park
I also wrote articles now and again, which were usually along the lines of a runners society column about races and events, and believe it or not, written with a humorous bent. The following was one such story, and should give the reader an idea of some of the runners from 1978, and what they were capable of. You will note that Joe Jordan is mentioned, and for those who do not know, he is the owner of Checkers Bar on
Hertel Ave., and the founder of the Checkers AC. The story was under the headline “Prestigious and well known ‘Bounders Day Race’ was a huge Success”, and can be found on page six of the June 21, 1978 issue of the North Buffalo Rocket. Jim Caher, being a lawyer, would read my articles first, just to be certain no one could be sued for libel. So read on, and hopefully enjoy.
The third annual Belle Watling Founders Day Race was held Thursday at the
Meadow. Starting at the famous Belle Watling fire hydrant, the race wound twice around the golf course for 3.6 miles Delaware Park
The official starter of the race was Dick Sullivan. Dick is the Founder of the Belle Watling A.C., the premier running club of
Western New York and . The club, named after Belle Watling of “Gone With the Wind” fame, holds the race each year in honor of Mr. Sullivan’s first race in 1969. Canada
Well over 100 runners participated and somewhere under 100,000 spectators lined the route to cheer on the athletes. Mike “Rabbit” Donnelly took the lead early in the race before fading after a quarter mile. Lonny Doan then took over the lead and held on to win in 18 minutes. Lanny, better known to his friends as Larry, surprised everyone by coming off a rather delicate operation a short time ago to win the race.
Because of his victory in this all important race, Lanny is said to be in negotiations with General Mills to replace Bruce Jenner on the Wheaties box.
Placing close behind Loony was Roger Hauck, once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Roger’s time was . In third place, with a time of , was Fred Gordon, who probably took time out from a 30 mile run to partake in this event.
Next came the ever dynamic and anemic Kim Wettlaufer, who set the course record a year ago when he won in . Not bad. This year he was only able to do a . Quite a come down. Right behind Kim was Dave Bogdan in .
Within the Founders Day Race was the contest among members of the Belle Watlings to win the Founders Day Trophy (named after the Polish bowling great, Bronslaws Trophy.) All Belle Watlings were handicapped, and the lovely trophy was won by Tom Donnelly, who for some reason was given a two minute handicap. Tom’s real time was 19:55, well behind the 19:19 run by his brother, Bill.
Jim “Jim” Herzog also ran an excellent race, placing seventh just ahead of Randy Halm, and totally humiliating his brother Bob. Dick “Roller Skates”
Kendall proved to all, especially John Richardson, that he is well on the comeback trail. Dick ran a splendid .
The main feature of the race, a grudge match between Orky Brown and Dick Sullivan (the two grand old men of running), never took place. This was because, as Sullivan said, “I do not believe in humiliating the old boy again, and so soon after the last time.”
Linda Rodgers was the first woman finisher, running in a time of . Not far behind her was Sharon Caher, editor of the
Rocket. Sharon’s time of 16:30 would have been a course record, unfortunately, she still had a lap to run. Buffalo
Pat Janiga, who also ran, asked me to mention his name in this article. He wants to cut it out and put it in his running scrapbook he’s been keeping for ten years. With this article, Pat can finish filling in the first page.
Notable runners made conspicuous by their absence from the race were Ralph Zimmerman, Dick Berkle, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Bob Atanasio. All sent their apologies to the Founder. It was even rumored that the former great Olympian Paavo Nurmi would have liked to run the race, but the fact that he died 20 years ago prevented him from doing so.
After the race there was beer and watermelon for all. Joe Jordan’s performance in delivering the beer was excellent, which is more than can be said of his race performance. Bottles of fine wine were given out as prizes to many of the runners.
Most runners remained at the park an hour or two after the race, just getting back to nature, and getting slightly zonkered. The beer finally ran out, so we helped the Founder to his feet and dusted him off. Most people meandered home.
The Belle Watlings headed for their official club house, which the Founder saw fit to name after his chief rival running club, Checkers. And so the park was once again empty, except for Dave Bogdan, finishing his workout.