That person next to you could be marathon world record holder Grete Waitz.
Or her brother.
The cover photo of “A Runner’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections” shows author Tom Bulger finishing the 1982 New York City Marathon. He had dreams of staying with Waitz, settled for the memory of watching her blast away from him and, upon reflection, finds it amusing that her brother made his way into that photo, finishing just behind Bulger.
“You talk about the serendipity of it all,” Bulger said with a laugh on Friday.
A retired professor of English literature at Siena College who also coached track and cross country there, the Troy native came late to the distance running scene, at the age of 28, but nevertheless has compiled a wealth of stories that depict the wide variety of characters and races he’s encountered.
Some of the material in “A Runner’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections” is new, and much of it is culled from essays he wrote for The Pace Setter, the Hudson-Mohawk Road Runners Club magazine, and work he did as the running columnist for the Troy Record.
It adds up to a rich tapestry of experiences and people representative of a sport that often is solitary while still providing a profound sense of community.
“The way I look at it is, that period of time when I wrote most of those articles was like the Golden Age of distance running, around here and across the country,” he said. “I just thought it would bring back a lot of good memories to the people who ran during those times.”
In a weird way, Bulger has the pandemic to thank for getting this project done.
He found himself with more time on his hands last year than planned, so suddenly there was time for a compilation of his articles, with some fresh stuff, too.
Among Bulger’s favorite memories is that 1982 New York City Marathon.
He and Waitz shared a racing rhythm for about eight miles, until she got down to business and eventually won her fourth of nine New Yorks.
“I ran a lot of the race with Grete Waitz. But the thing is, the guy who’s right behind me, 686, I looked it up, turned out he was Grete Waitz’s brother,” Bulger said.
“It was fascinating to run next to her. It was like watching a car engine in total sync. Like, the pistons going up and down. She was just so smooth. It was really cool, I ran up First Avenue with her, and the cheering, I was getting goosebumps. I didn’t go looking for it, it’s just that her pace and mine, at the time, were the same. And I did try to stay with her, and that’s the difference between a world-class athlete and a stumblebum like myself.”
In the chapter about New York, Bulger writes, “Even Grete, in the post-race press conference, confessed her astonishment at the crowd reaction. On this day at least, New Yorkers shed their aloofness, indifference, and reserve.”
He also describes how Gary Fanelli, a national-class marathoner, ran the race dressed as Elwood Blues, even belting out a tune on the harmonica at the two-mile mark.
The Incredible Hulk ran that day.
Some gorillas. Chickens.
Running in a Siena singlet, more than once Bulger was greeted with “Bella, Siena!” in an Italian accent. His finish time of 2:29:58 was a marathon PR.
Closer to home, he chronicles some of the biggest races — and the people who ran them — in the Capital Region.
The book also includes a chapter titled “Presidential Columns” that he wrote for The Pace Setter magazine as president of the Hudson-Mohawk Road Runners Club from November 2002 to October 2003.
“I hate to say it, but the primary reason for doing the book was the pandemic,” he said. “All of a sudden, all my social events were canceled, and I had always wanted to put together some of my old articles. When the pandemic hit, the first thing I did was there were three or four stories about running that I had never written. So I sat down and wrote them and thought, ‘Hey, what can I do with these?’
“I talked a lot about the values of running [in the President columns], like courtesy and honesty. There’s just a couple topics in it. There’s another time I compared when Funny Cide was running and did a thing about teamwork and used the Funny Cide example, how everybody values everybody else. And that’s what the club is doing and should do.”
Bulger started running at the age of 28 to stay in shape for basketball while recovering from a rotator cuff injury. He discovered that he was better at running than basketball, and stuck with it, becoming a national-caliber masters runner who teamed up with others in his class in the area.
“As I said in the introduction, my two running heroes, when I first started getting involved in running, were Pat Glover and Bill Robinson,” Bulger said. “I had written a couple articles about each of them, and I start the book off with when Pat went in the [HMRRC] Hall of Fame, I called it ‘The Golden Glover.’
“I know, pretty cheesy, but I had written a lot of articles when people got selected to the HMRRC Hall of Fame. So I put in a lot of those.”
Sadly, I was compelled to call Tom back this weekend, after news that Robinson had died.
“A Runner’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” published by the Troy Book Makers, includes a chapter titled “Strolling Along with Bill Robinson,” and describes an epic duel between Bulger and Robinson in the Watervliet Arsenal 5k.
It stands to reason that Bulger will get ample opportunity to talk more about Robinson at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, when The Pace Setter executive editor John Caher holds a virtual interview through the Troy Public Library. The public is welcome to watch the Zoom interview and can register for it through the library website.
“One of the things I wanted to accomplish with this book was I don’t think a lot of the younger runners realize just how good these people were,” Bulger said. “If nothing else, it’s to celebrate that Golden Age mid-70s to early 90s.
“It was just so competitive back then. One of the things that blows my mind is, in 1981, I ran the Boston Marathon in 2:39:59, and the place I finished was 787th. Now, that would get me close to the top 100, with that same time. That shows you how competitive it was. And the people who ran during that time liked that, because we all pulled each other along.
“You didn’t want to get left behind.”
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