When Mark Fite traveled to Philadelphia for a new race in 1978, he had no way of knowing he was about to embark on a 500-mile trip through five decades.
After all, the Philadelphia Distance Run, a 13.1-mile jaunt along the streets of the City of Brotherly Love, was just off a local YMCA’s drawing board and not even sure if it would be back for 1979.
But back it was and so was Fite.
The Bucks County native would go on to enjoy some of his greatest success in this race, once finishing in a brilliant one hour, 12 minutes.
Through injuries and illness, he ran it every year. The event grew, attracting countless runners. The name changed to Rock ‘n Roll but those runners like Fite, Newtown’s Larry Waldman and Richboro’s Mary Pat Ezzo continued to show up as the pages fell from the yearly calendar.
Now, less than 20 runners out of hundreds of thousands, are about to compete in the 42nd annual classic this Sunday.
Fite, however, won’t be one of them.
Due to some balky knees, he’s decided to end his streak and he says he has no regrets.
“Mother Nature pretty much said it for me,’’ Fite said. “It’s just becoming so painful to run that it wasn’t fun anymore. I just couldn’t see the point in continuing.’’
Coincidentally, Waldman is also thinking about ending his streak this year. A foot injury combined with a Sunday forecast in the high 80s has him “95 percent’’ sure he’s sitting this one out.
At press time, Ezzo said she planned to continue her streak.
Fite has taken to bike riding as his primary form of exercise. He takes part in group rides with the Central Bucks Cycling Club among other two-wheel activities.
No doubt this time of year he’s been thinking about all those memories he accrued on the byways of Philadelphia.
He points out that the “streak’’ really wasn’t about “hey, look what I’ve done.’’
“It’s more about me doing it rather than what anybody else thought about it,’’ Fite said. “I enjoyed doing the race and as long as I enjoyed it I would keep on doing it.’’
A number of years back, Fite wrote an essay about the race.
“For me, the Distance Run has become more than just an annual event,’’ he offered. “It was given me the opportunity to experience not only the repetition of doing it but also the excitement of exploration.
“I have been a savage competitor and a gentle participant. I have had tremendous successes and agonizing disappointments. But through it all, I have always finished and, without exception, so have the many runners who have participated in this Distance Run of life.’’
One of the most emotional moments for the Bucks trio came at the 2001 race, just days after the horrific 9/11 tragedy.
There had been talk of calling off the race (and even the New York City Marathon in November). But the American runners, near and far, insisted the event had to go on.
Before the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, there was a moment of silence and during that, people could be heard openly weeping.
It was a dramatic scene and one that Fite won’t forget.
“In the week before the race,’’ he said, “the director was seeking input (from runners) whether the it should go on and the response was an overwhelming ‘yes.’
“It was an emotional time, a wide-open wound that day.’’
Meanwhile, Waldman has feelings similar to Fite’s about the streak.
On one hand, he would hate to see it end. On the other, it keeps getting tougher to train for this demanding distance.
Both men are in their 60s and the usual aches and pains make it difficult to put in long miles of preparation.
“I knew it would end sometime, just not this year,’’ said Waldman. “I don’t want to jeopardize my running as I want to run as many years as I’m able; just no more half-marathons.
“I would be happy to extend the streak but I’ve had a good run starting with the first race in 1978.’’
Waldman’s best performance was a sparkling 1:20 in 1982.
“Everything just fell into place,’’ he said.
These two gentlemen are to be commended for something that is so rare in sports – consistency and persistence.
If the powers-that-be ever create a Philadelphia Half-Marathon Hall of Fame, Fite and Waldman should be two of the first inductees.
>Garden of Reflection 9/11 5K coming up
The 16th annual Garden of Reflection 5K will be held this Sunday. The race supports the 9/11 Memorial in Memorial Park in Lower Makefield. The Memorial is the Official Pennsylvania Memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
So far, the event has raised more than $190,000 toward the effort.
Registration opens at 7:30 a.m., The race begins at 9 a.m.
Officially, it’s a race but it’s also an opportunity to honor those 2,973 who lost their lives in the attacks, including 18 citizens of Bucks County, nine of those from Lower Makefield.
Keeping the legacy alive is the clear mission statement.
“We’re still here and we still remember,’’ race organizer Gregory Tarallo told us before last year’s event. “Folks who participate year after year also remember.
“People who register for the race want to honor those who perished. The slogan for the Memorial is ‘remember, honor and support.’ The endowment is to preserve the integrity of the Memorial in perpetuity so that future generations can honor those that were taken from us, not only Bucks County but anywhere.’’
16th annual Garden of Reflection 5K, 9 a.m., Lower Makefield. Contact www.gor5k.org