For those who missed this article in the New York Times (10/29/13), it is a must read story about the volunteer work of Bill Staab (Liberia 1963-65). Thanks to Marnie Mueller ( Ecuador 1963-65) for a ‘heads up.’ Marnie is a runner, by the way, and married to the famous German runner, Fritz Mueller. Bill Staab is an old running friend of Fritz, and Marnie and Fritz have watched Bill over the years as he developed the NYC West Side Runners, a club of primarily working class, hard-laboring immigrants, who after arduous jobs, run long daily workouts in Central and Prospect Parks in preparation for the New York City Marathon. Be prepared to be incredibly moved by this story. Again, thanks to Marnie for letting me know about this article and about the work that Bill Staab has done.
Marathon as Melting Pot
By LINDSAY CROUSE
On a recent foggy Sunday in Central Park, a group of runners lingered near the finish line of a half-marathon, recounting their efforts in Spanish. They had finished the 13.1-mile course before many entrants reached the halfway point.
Julio Sauce, a 41-year-old New Yorker from Ecuador, clutched a glass plaque he had earned for finishing first in his age group. Having averaged better than six minutes a mile on the hilly course, Sauce said he was tired – but not just from the race.
From 2:30 p.m. Saturday to 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Sauce had worked as a cook at 44 & X Hells Kitchen, a Midtown restaurant. After the train ride home to Coney Island, he had only three hours of sleep before returning to Manhattan for the early race. Undeterred, he pronounced himself ready for his next big event: the New York City Marathon on Sunday.
“Living here is hard work,” he said. “But we are used to hard work. Marathons are just more of it.”
Sauce belongs to West Side Runners, one of New York City’s oldest and fastest running teams. It is also the city’s most diverse: nearly all of its 300 members were born outside the United States. Converging here from five continents, runners from places as far away as Colombia and Gambia, Japan and Brazil, all regularly toe the starting line at weekend road races in matching red-and-white WSX singlets.
The team’s Ethiopian runners are world-class. But most West Side Runners are working class, part of New York’s often marginalized Latino community. Members of this close-knit crew rarely win anything more than the reward of crossing the finish line a little faster than the time before. And yet they remain some of the city’s most devoted and talented runners, finishing at the front of the pack and making casual runners look positively lethargic.
They are busboys, dishwashers, construction workers. They are on their feet at enervating jobs all day and often all night. Many do not have health insurance. Most find it difficult to afford the increasingly hefty fees New York Road Runners charges for its races, especially the marathon, which now costs at least $227.
For Sauce, that is half a week’s paycheck.
Another West Side Runner is Luis Cesareo, a 32-year-old from Mexico. Cesareo works as a livery dispatcher from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. and sleeps during the day.
This will be his second marathon. He is hoping to finish in around 2 hours 40 minutes, which should land him close to the top 100 male finishers in the 47,000-runner field.
Racing is a powerful motivator for him.
“I love the New York marathon,” Cesareo said. “My teammates, and the Mexican people, are all around. When I run so hard, it feels almost like I’m dying. That’s when I feel most alive.”
Bill Staab, the president of West Side Runners, said: “They work unbelievably hard at their jobs, but few of these guys have major successes financially. Whereas success in running is available to everyone. They know if you put in the work, you’ll see payoff.”
Hispanic immigrants were drawn to West Side Runners the same way they flocked to various cities around the country: through word of mouth. The Colombian government sent three runners to the New York City Marathon in 1980. (One, a former bullfighter from Bogotá, started running to build his speed in the ring.) After they became top athletes for the newly founded West Side Runners, other local Colombians joined in scores. Then came Ecuadoreans and Mexicans, often migrating from soccer. The club had found its backbone.
In the United States, competitive distance running has long been a sport of the relatively affluent and the white.
“Back then, other teams would laugh at us because we were mostly Latino,” Staab said, referring to the 1980s. “There was stigma.”
The team’s fast white runners were snatched up by sponsored competitors, Staab said, while the comparably talented Latinos were left behind. Then something changed.
“We began to beat them,” Staab said. “We became one of the best running teams in New York City.”
As the volunteer head of his team, Staab is part administrator, part benefactor and occasional innkeeper. He helps arrange athletic visas. He pays race entry fees for many members who cannot afford them. He has gone to court with runners caught in the mix-ups that plague people in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar rules and unfamiliar languages. Staab usually has several Ethiopian runners staying at his two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side for weeks or even months at a time.
“It’s not a big place,” he said wryly. “But they’re thin; they fit just fine.”
Staab is fiercely protective of his runners and approaches his role with a zeal that feels diplomatic and missionary.
“I try to show them that in America, you help other people,” he said.
A Peace Corps veteran and former steel importer-exporter, Staab, 74, lives on Social Security and a pension. He travels to out-of-town races on discount bus lines and does not have a cellphone. He says that leading the club has become a focus in his life.
“I tell these guys, you’re lucky I don’t have a family, or none of this would exist,” Staab said.
In many ways, his runners’ lives adhere to the patterns characteristic of the city’s striving class; unstable jobs and transient living situations can upset training regimens.
Despite the obstacles, the marathon-bound cadre of West Side Runners has been training ferociously. Most of them will be in the “local competitive” section of the marathon, just below their front-running Ethiopian teammates. For several, this will be their second or third marathon of the year.
Felipe Vergara, 49, starts his first of two daily workouts at 4:30 a.m., running 8 to 10 miles in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Then he heads to his job as a plumber with a small construction firm at 7 a.m.
“As long as I’m at work on time, they don’t ask questions,” Vergara said of his bosses. “But they’re not very interested in the races.”
He runs 10 miles in the evening, often with his teammate Angel Confesor, a 2:50 marathoner who is not running Sunday.
They have been roommates for eight years in a Sunset Park, Brooklyn, apartment whose occupants now include Confesor’s wife and three young daughters. Vergara supports his four children, who live in Mexico, and talks to them every night.
On the day of the half-marathon in Central Park, Vergara had been running for only a week after taking two months off for a back injury. He has no health insurance. He sometimes spends $150 to see a chiropractor, but mostly he manages the pain by stretching.
Not all runners have been able to cope with the pressures that can complicate an immigrant’s experience here. Some run out of money, others have died of AIDS. One of the team’s fastest runners, who was supporting five sisters and his mother in Colombia, committed suicide in 1990.
Staab said that some of his faster runners had moved to Mexico, where they have a better chance of winning prize money. (Some of the Ethiopians have moved there for the same reason.) But Staab seems hopeful about New York’s prospects for maintaining its athletic talent.
“The running community in New York City is stronger now than it’s ever been,” he said. “No other city is as competitive. And a big part of that is that no other city has this caliber of immigrants.”
Staab said the diversity of his team was the key to its success.
“Minorities seem to keep running longer here,” he said of his low-income runners. “They’re not getting into triathlons or buying a house in the suburbs.”
The prestige also helps. Rolando Vizhnay, 71, is now an American citizen, but he still proudly lists his country as Ecuador when he runs the New York City Marathon because his hometown newspaper in Quito prints the names of all finishers from his home country.
For Sauce, the cook, the sport offers something tangible to pass on to his children.
“Sometimes when I wake up after getting home late, I say I’m tired and I don’t want to run,” said Sauce, who has run 11 New York City Marathons. “But I always get up. It’s an example.”
His wife, a housekeeper, and child cheer him on at races. Now his 10-year-old son, Ricky, has also started to run.
“Now, my son tells me, ‘When I grow up, I want to win the New York Marathon,’ ” Sauce said. “I guess it’s sort of an American dream.”