When the Old Geezers Club hit its Peak
By Bill Donnelly
When people think of the Belle Watling AC today, they think “OLD!” I do not mean they think “Cripes, that club has been around forever!” No, they think “OLD!” People think: “Average Age between 87 and OLD!”; “I sure hope I can even walk when I’m that OLD!”; “I wonder if any of them knew Grover Cleveland!” I’m still one of the “Babies” of the club at 56 years of age, and I suppose I help keep their average age under the century mark.
When I first joined the Belle Watlings in 1975, I thought “OLD!” Most Watlings were in their forties, with a couple in their late thirties, and Dave Bogdan, Fred Gordon and I were the youngsters at 27. But the Watlings were one of the top running clubs in the area, and we used to bring home the team trophies when we traveled all over the state to run races. You see, there were not many races around in those days, in fact we were lucky to find one a month, and that usually took some traveling. Many of the races back in those days also had team competitions, and this led to the growth of the running clubs such as Checkers, Greater Buffalo, the Philharmonic, and
. You see, the competitive spirit and friendship that existed among the runners led to the team concept, which led to running clubs. Yeah, right, much the same as the competitive spirit and friendship among the nation’s leaders led to World War I. Nickel City
Anyway, the runners back in the Day were a very competitive lot, as were the teams, and this led to some very good PRs. We were mostly runners who used the occasional short race as training for the Big Show, the marathon. That was what mattered, and of course, the Boston Marathon was the Main Event. I believe that at the 1978
, the Belle Watlings put together perhaps the best effort ever by any Boston running club that competed in the Main Event. Buffalo
Some people feel that 1978 was perhaps among the best Bostons in its own right, as 2047 men (out of 3872) and 29 women (out of 186) broke 3 hours, and 32 broke . By comparison, in the 2001
, which I can attest to as having been the same, weather-wise, 840 men (of 8592) and 45 women (of 4814) broke 3 hours, with just 19 breaking . There were no Kenyans there in 1978 either, as 9 Kenyans broke in 2001. I am using gun times for the 2001 Boston , as that is all we had back in 1978. Boston
The picture accompanying this article is of most of the Belle Watlings at their water tower in Hopkinton in 1978. The gathering at the tower before the race is a Watling tradition started when The Founder, Dick Sullivan, discovered in one of his earliest
’s that the tower is named after a Sullivan, saw that as a sign, and so he adopted it as the “Belle Watling Water Tower”. The rest is history, although I do wonder what The Founder was doing rooting around over by the water tower in the first place. Perhaps a lack of enough facilities is the answer, or maybe he was having a secret meeting with Kathy Switzer before the race. (Now come on, he would only be giving her pointers.) (I mean running tips!) Boston
In listing the PRs of the Watlings, I rounded down to the minute to simplify things. Also, if I listed actual times, mine would be while that of Bill Donnelly’s brother Tom Donnelly would be , a difference of a mere 15 seconds. Needless to say, compared to gives me a full minute on him. Is this fair, you ask? I’m the one writing this, so HA HA Tom. Know too that all the PRs listed above were not run on this fine day of
April 17, 1978. The Belle Watling A team did have some fantastic results, however.
Only the top three runners for a team counted in the team scoring, and our team came in third out of 71 teams. In those days they gave each team member a place number for where he came in among just those on teams, and then added them up. First place was the Greater Boston Track Club, who, with the overall winner Bill Rodgers, fifth place finisher John Thomas, and twentieth finisher Tim Donovan, ended up with just 10 points. In second place with 66 points was the Washington DC Running Club, followed by the Belle Watlings with 67 points. One point behind us was the Atlanta Track Club, which was gratifying to us since our Club is named after the Gone with the Wind character that ran her house of ill-repute in
The three top runners for the Belle Watlings? They were Ralph Zimmerman, who finished 28th in , John Pfeil, who finished 56th in , and Fred Gordon, who finished 76th in . Now-a-days, instead of doing points,
just adds up the times of the top three finishers. Doing it that way, the 1978 Watlings had a combined time of . The winning team in 2001, the Lehigh Valley Road Runners, had a team time of . Looking at the records, the 1978 Watlings would have easily won any of the last five Bostons. Boston
Not only was Zimmerman the fastest Belle Watling, he was the fastest runner from the state of
. He was 40 seconds and five places behind the 1972 Olympic Marathon gold medal winner, Frank Shorter. At 30 years old, Shorter was seven years younger than Ralph, and that day, Zimmerman set the New York age group record for those 35 to 39. Not bad for a guy on the brink of OLD! US
I was the fourth guy on the Belle Watling A team. I finished 320th, but my time of even (I’m not rounding down here to impress Tom, my time was , period) was well over ten minutes behind Fred Gordon’s time, our third man. Fred always could kick my butt. One of the few times I ever beat him was that same year in the Lockport 10 Miler, which you all know is in the lovely month of February. That day Fred ran to
from his home near Lockport , a distance of 20 miles (while climbing over snow banks), then ran the race, and even took a wrong turn during it. I beat him by four places. HA HA Fred, I beat you. I’m not making this up. Delaware Park
I was darn happy with my time in
though, as I may have gone out a bit too fast. I kept a running journal that year; unfortunately, it was the only year I did so back in the Day. I’ve kept one ever since 1990, but boy, do I wish I had kept one for all the years I ran in the 1970s. Listen to the voice of wisdom kids, or at least listen to me, and keep a journal. It makes fascinating reading all these years later. Boston
Anyway, in my entry for that day, I have it that I hit ten miles in 55 minutes. YOW! I go on to say that my legs tightened up on the hills and I had to slow down. I’ll bet I did. That was my style, the old going out like a bat out of hell routine and then hanging on. Hey, it is down hill at first, and I sure liked to use that to my advantage. Now-a-days that whole course just eats me up.
Besides the Belle Watlings, other Buffalonians did well that day, some unattached, and some representing the Buffalo Philharmonic AC and Checkers AC. Some would be future members of Checkers, including Zimmerman and myself. Leading the way for Checkers was Jim Herzog, who ran a , followed by Paul Allaire () and James Harrington (). Allaire was a real baby, being just 19. The Philharmonic was led by Peter Mathias in 2:50:55, followed by such OLD-TIMERS as 47 year old Jesse Kregal, in 2:59:48, 44 year old John Peradotto in 3:09:25, and 43 year old Russ Miller in 3:10:01. I also must mention my good friend and my dentist, the Late, Great Allen Gross, who at age 50 hit a . Running unattached and doing well was Mike Miesczak in , and his fiancée, Nancy Dragoo, who ran a . Nancy Miesczak would go on to set many records at all distances across the state and elsewhere.
Among the Belle Watlings, Dave Bogdan, John Richardson, Bob Herzog, Tom Donnelly, Pat Janiga, and Paul Schwandt all broke 3 hours that day. The Founder, 49 year old Dick Sullivan, stayed back to make sure no one got lost, and he finished in . I should mention that Tom Donnelly ran a that day. Actually, I think I’ll round that up to , or better still, I’ll round it up to the nearest hour. HA HA Tom, you ran a 3 hour
that day. Boston
And I used to think some of those guys in the Belle Watlings were OLD. I tell you, I wish I could hit some of the times now that they used to do. I’m still a Belle Watling, and proud of it. I’m still one of the “Babies”, but the OLD guys keep bringing home the hardware. They even still do some traveling to find races with team competition so they can clean up in the OLD categories. And they do, and I hope I can still come close to what they are doing when I’m OLD! But I’ll still just be one of the “Babies”, and I’ll still be chasing the times they are doing now.