The Great Race: Streak still on for 'perfect' racers

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Perfection and perseverance are perhaps two of the most admirable and unattainable ideals in sports. To do something without fault for a long time has been tried by many and accomplished by few. The same goes for working through all challenges, regardless of how imposing they might be.

But for 26 area runners, the two attributes go hand-in-hand -- they have persevered, and for that, they are perfect.

Sunday's installment of the Great Race is the 35th in the event's history, and 26 of its participants -- dubbed "perfect Great Racers" -- will have been there for each one, lining up to the same starting spot in September every year since 1977.

For Ken Balkey, who finished 35th in the inaugural Great Race and keeps scrapbooks from the races, it's hard to believe both that the race has gone on for this long and that he and the others have yet to miss one.

"When I look back on that, to me, I can't believe that 35 years have gone by," Balkey said. "It brings back such wonderful memories of what the event means, not to just me, but to everyone that's engaged in it."

When the Great Race was established in 1977, it came at the height of a running boom in the United States and many of the perfect racers were already joggers looking to participate in whatever events they could. They just could not have imagined they would still be running in the race three and a half decades later.

In many cases, what lives now as an admirable achievement of 34 consecutive Great Races, came close to falling apart for many racers. Carl Hatfield, the race's first winner, said he has almost missed it a couple times and many racers have to travel hours to compete.

Nobody, however, faced a greater threat to the streak than Balkey. In 1998, he went in to cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital, where he had to be revived by paddles in order to save his life.

He was cleared by his cardiologist to exercise two weeks before the Great Race and didn't register for the race until the day before. A runner dating to his days at North Catholic and Pitt, jogging -- and the Great Race -- became an integral part in Balkey's path back to life after being moments from death.

"Doing that Great Race in '98 was part of my recovery and since then, I've really lived for that race," Balkey said. "It's a milestone to be able and go out and do that again."

Over those 35 years have come a series of memories for the perfect racers, ones that they fondly and easily recall. Rob Ruck, a history professor at Pitt, recalls being a seeded racer for the first time, allowing him the opportunity to line up next to elite Kenyan runners who "ran like gazelles." For others, like Hatfield and race director Mike Radley, the races have produced so many special moments that it's hard to single out even a handful.

What the races have done for these 26 men is developed a special bond between people who have been a part of each other's lives for a long time, even if it's just for one day a year.

"There has developed a camaraderie," Hatfield said. "We've gotten to the point where we kind of challenge each other to show up at the starting line each year and to take good care of ourselves."

Radley has a particular affinity for the perfect racers.

"The perfect racers are one great group of guys," he said. "In a word, they're just so adorable to be able to be running for 35 years every year in September."

With it being a special anniversary for the race and another milestone for the perfect racers, it allows the group to reflect on their years in the race and what their futures might hold.

While, admittedly, nobody can run forever, the racers have pushed each other over the years to keep their cherished streak alive. In order to make it 35 years without missing a single race, the odds have been defied many times, meaning, for this group, the future is decidedly bright.

"Look, sooner or later, it's going to happen to all 26 of us -- you're going to break a leg, there's going to be a funeral, something strange is going to happen," Ruck said. "On the other hand, I think all 26 of us are committed to seeing this through as long as we can. Nothing would make me and the other 25 guys happier than if we make it to 50 together."

sportsother - outdoors

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer.


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