SAYING HELLO — Mohawk Valley Hill Striders president and member of the Go the Distance training program Joe Wilczynski, 58, of Marcy, waves to friends and loved ones as he runs his 40th Utica Boilermaker Road Race on July 9. (Photo submitted)

Elite 10 celebrate 40 years of Boilermaker history and triumph

Published Jul 16, 2017 at 9:00am

“I’m blessed to have had 40 years.”

“Coach” Joe Wilczynski has been at the start and finish lines since the very beginning. He’s one of 10.

He’s been part of the Utica Boilermaker Road Race since it was first organized and drew just under 900 participants. And as president of Mohawk Valley Hill Striders and through his involvement with the Go the Distance program over the last 21 years, he has helped numerous novice runners participate in what is known today as the world’s best 15K.

Despite surgeries to both knees and his back, Wilczynski has pushed through the injuries and obstacles over the years to continue doing what he loves. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

On Sunday, at age 58, Joe completed his 40th Boilermaker in 1 hour, 30 minutes and 50 seconds. Since Joe says he no longer keeps track of his Boilermaker times, his daughter informed him he beat last year’s time by 3-4 minutes.

Wilczynski started running right after high school, and he eventually joined the Steuben Striders and ran with his friend Earle Reed, who would become founder of the Boilermaker.

“We’d do routine runs five times a week,” Wilczynski said, recalling when Reed came up with the idea of organizing a five-mile race that would be held at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday.

“It was unbelievably hot that day,” he said. “We went to his (Reed’s) dad for some funding and at that time, running was not popular. We would normally get 50 to 100 runners for a race. We thought on a Sunday, when people had other things prioritized, that maybe we’d get 200, but instead we got 850 people registered for the race. Later it was with Bill Rodgers back in 1984-85, who won four Boston Marathons, that the Boilermaker became world-renowned. It’s a race that just took off.”

Joe said “as you well know” and indeed I do, the Boilermaker course is a challenging one with considerable hills and inclines throughout. Which is why if you haven’t run it, he advises runners to drive it to get the feel.

“Whenever you run a race I like to, if possible, drive or run the course first. As I stood in line for the bathroom before the Boilermaker, people were asking me if it’s hilly,” he said. Coach gently warned them there may be a few challenges ahead.

“The Boilermaker offers the country the best 15K,” Wilczynski said. “People think I’m privileged to run 40 Boilermakers because life does throw you challenges, and I plan on running the Boilermaker as long as I can. I hope I never miss it.”

“I say a prayer before every race at the starting line, and at the end, I say a prayer for everyone to finish,” coach said. “Not everyone finishes a race or finishes life. I think of all the races I’ve run all over the country, and this is the best spectator-lined course besides the New York City Marathon — there’s encouragement to finish whether you’re a novice or you’ve run every Boilermaker.”

Whether it be another Boilermaker, 10K or half marathon, Joe plans to continue training and helping others achieve their goals in the sport he loves.

“People ask if I have a goal, and I say I completed my goal and I’m working on the next road race,” said Wilczynski, adding that he has great pride for his work with the Go the Distance program as well.

He said, “It’s been 21 years since that started, and it’s one of my favorite programs because we bring in novice people who’ve never run the Boilermaker to train, and that’s exciting for me to witness them crossing the finish line.”

Like anyone else, Wilczynski doesn’t have a crystal ball, so he can’t say whether he’ll be at the starting line for the 41st Boilermaker just yet, although that’s the plan. He has fond memories of his wife Sue coming to spectate and volunteer at the Boilermaker finish line, minus the year their daughter was born.

Joe’s dad was also an avid fan. He attended every Boilermaker to cheer on his son, until 2003 when he passed away just four days before. Looking philosophically on his life, Wilczynski said the Boilermaker would be the “perfect way to go.”

When it is his time, “I want people to remember me for the person I am, not for running 40 Boilermakers,” Joe said. “I want people to remember how I helped others train for the best 15K road race.”

Wilczynski is a member of an elite team of 10 runners who have participated in every Boilermaker Road Race — nine men and one woman.

The runners with their times from this year’s race:

• Sheila M. Burth, 53, of New Hartford, 2 hours 11 minutes and 51 seconds.

• Robert A. Bluey, 67, of Yorkville, 1 hour 41 minutes 17 seconds.

• Gordon Custodero, 70, of New Hartford, 2 hours 19 minutes 44 seconds.

• Daniel H. Defrees, 62, of Chittenango, 1 hour 22 minutes 10 seconds.

• Lawrence P. DiCesare, 62, of Sauquoit, 1 hour 44 minutes 26 seconds.

• Donald L. Harvey, 73, of Utica, 2 hours 6 minutes 48 seconds.

• Paul A. Huening, 70, of Utica, 1 hour 53 minutes 12 seconds.

• Edward J. Newman, 55, of Ontario, NY, 1 hour 16 minutes 55 seconds.

• Richard J. Watkajtys, 69, of New Hartford, 1 hour 54 minutes 46 seconds

• Joseph R. Wilczynski, 58, of Marcy, 1 hour 30 minutes 50 seconds.