Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Marathon man

Bill Diehl-Jones decided to run for his life eight years and 23 races ago, and he's got the bibs to prove it

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 YOU’RE fat. You have high blood pressure. You will die."

That was the news Bill Diehl-Jones received eight years ago, after he told his doctor that he intended to run the Manitoba Marathon for the first time.

"She was right," says Diehl-Jones, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba. "At the time, I was 42 years old, and weighed 50 pounds more than I do today. I used to be a competitive cyclist, but after a couple of bad bike accidents, I stopped riding, and got in terrible shape."

Here's hoping Diehl-Jones' doctor is in the crowd tomorrow, watching and waving, when her patient runs his eighth consecutive Manitoba Marathon -- and his 23rd marathon in total -- since that dire diagnosis.

And later this week, after he catches his breath, Diehl-Jones will take tomorrow's numbered bib and add it to a collection of marathon bibs that is on permanent display in his U of M office.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit...

Eight years ago, a fellow professor asked Diehl-Jones if he wanted to join a faculty relay team for the annual Father's Day marathon. Although Diehl-Jones hadn't run more than a bath in recent years, he said, "Why not?" (See first line of story for reason why not.)

When race day rolled around, Diehl-Jones was seated in the stands at University Stadium, feeling like a slug, saying to himself, "This is awful -- I have to do something to get back in shape."

A week later, Diehl-Jones set his alarm clock for 3 a.m. "I didn't want anybody to see me, so I decided I'd start running at night," he says.

The first time out, Diehl-Jones barely made it to the end of the block before he started to wheeze. But after about a month, the father of four was able to last a full kilometre before needing a rest. So Diehl-Jones set a goal for himself: If he could make it all the way to the Bridge Drive-In on Jubilee Avenue -- a distance of about five km from his Fort Garry home -- he would reward himself with a milkshake. Except when he achieved his target three months later, Diehl-Jones was so excited by his accomplishment that he ran right past the ice cream stand without giving it a second thought.

Diehl-Jones had never run further than 15 km when he lined up for the 2003 Manitoba Marathon. Despite that fact, he finished the 26-mile, 385-yard route in 41st place. Even better: his time of three hours and 15 minutes ranked him among the top 50 marathoners in the province, and qualified him for the 2004 Boston Marathon. (Next spring, Diehl-Jones will run his sixth Boston Marathon.)

"I don't put them up for anybody else but me," Diehl-Jones says, referring to his bibs, which are attached to a pole near his desk. "I started keeping them because I thought, 'You know, there's a lot of sweat and hard work associated with those pieces of paper.' To me, they're a reminder that I'm an athlete again. And that I have to take care of myself -- not just for me, but for my four kids."

"I understand your query, but we have not had this question come up previously," says Jack Fleming, a spokesperson for the Boston Marathon, after being asked whether people collect bibs belonging to world-class marathoners the same way they do game-worn hockey jerseys. "I'm aware of people interested in obtaining a bib pre-race for the purpose of running the race, but not pre/post race for the purpose of collecting," he says.

"No -- it's not like baseball or football," Diehl-Jones says. "I wouldn't want (U.S. Olympian) Ryan Hall's bib, because I'm not Ryan Hall... It's no good if somebody else wore it."

To date, Diehl-Jones has run marathons in New York, Nashville, Tucson and Lisbon. After tomorrow's race, he and his 14-member running group -- the Forks Marathon Club -- will set their sights on the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, scheduled for Oct. 10. And while he has a hit-list of marathons he intends to enter before he hangs up his Asics, his 12-year-old son, Liam, has the final say on where Diehl-Jones will be running in 2016.

"Liam ran in the relay last year, and we have a deal in place stating that when he's 18, he gets to run his first full Manitoba Marathon. The plan is I'll run it with him, and if he beats me, he can choose any marathon in the world and I'll fly the two of us there to take part."

And does Diehl-Jones intend to take it easy on his own flesh and blood?

"Hell, no. He's going to have to earn it," Diehl-Jones says with a laugh. "But he's OK with that -- he's already saying, 'Dad, I'm going to kick your ass.'"

'What a great day

it was'


WHILE Bill Diehl-Jones hangs onto every marathon bib he's ever sported, he's not as particular about the medals he's won along the way.

"I give my medals away to important people in my life," he says. Earlier this year, for example, Diehl-Jones gave his Boston Marathon medal to his friend, Gunnar Valdimarsson, who was battling cancer.

"Gunnar used to run with us, and last fall he said, 'Dammit, I'm sick and tired of being the guy with cancer. I want to remember what it's like to be out there, running.'"

So Diehl-Jones turned to the Internet, and found out there was a marathon in Ashland, Wis. in October.

"We drove down, a bunch of us, and Gunnar ran the entire half-marathon, even though he was undergoing chemo at the time," Diehl-Jones says, smiling proudly.

"I have Gunnar's finisher photo on my desk at work. And at his funeral in May, we had that picture blown up so everyone could see what a great day it was."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2010 F3

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