Thursday, March 24, 2016

Judy Ikenberry

(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from December 1999.)

LIVING HISTORY. Running seminars work the same way as study in school. Learning isn’t confined to the lecture halls but continues in the hallways, at meals and on the streets outside.

I attended a race directors’ conference in Portland this fall, sitting on a couple of panels. As usually happens at events like this, I learned more than I taught – and heard the weekend’s best story outside the classroom. It had both a shocking start and a happy end.

Judy Ikenberry sat beside me for one of the panel discussions. My thought while glancing over at her: She looks too young and lively to be a monument to women’s running history.

As Judy Shapiro she began running in the late 1950s and ran as far as the officials at the time would let her. This was little more than a mile.

Later she married her coach, Dennis Ikenberry, and graduated up in distances as the slowly relaxing rules allowed. In 1974 she won the first U.S. women’s marathon title, setting a PR of 2:54 while beating better-known runners such as first official Boston champion Nina Kuscsik.

Later still, the Ikenberrys set up a race-scoring business called Race Central, based in southern California. This was Judy’s reason for being on the Portland panel, since her company scores the Portland Marathon along with dozens of other events each year.

After the talk we walked back to our separate hotels together. Judy said then what she hadn’t mentioned in her talk.

“We’re thinking of cutting back on our business. Dennis is 65 and starting to talk about retirement. I’m only 57, but I haven’t been well the past year and need to slow down.”

She looked as energetic as I’d seen her in any of our annual visits. I asked what had gone wrong. She gave a grim story the lightest possible telling.

“I’m happy just to be here,” she said. “I died in June.” There’s a line to capture attention.

Judy explained that she’d felt symptoms while riding her bicycle and knew what might be happening. “I have a terrible family history of heart disease and high cholesterol,” she said.

During examination for her condition, Judy’s heart stopped and was electrically jolted back to life. She required immediate bypass surgery, from which she recovered in time for her daughter’s wedding. “She would never have forgiven me if I hadn’t been there,” said Judy.

Tracing a line from lower stomach to upper chest, she said, “I now have a nice little scar to remind me to take better care of myself.”

She added, “I know I need to stay far away from gambling casinos. I’ve already used up all of my good luck.”

At lunch that Saturday in Portland, Judy had taken charge of getting get-well cards signed for race director Les Smith’s wife. Nadine had fallen the night before and broken an arm. No one at the conference knew better than Judy Ikenberry how good getting better could feel.

UPDATE. More than 40 U.S. women’s marathon titles have been awarded since 1974. The record is more than a half-hour faster than Judy Ikenberry set originally. But no one else can ever say she was the first to win this race.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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