There’ll be an empty space at the starting line of today’s 36th annual Buckshot Run.
For sure, he will be there in spirit.
That, of course, would be Dan Conway.
He was there last year, for the 32nd time. He was there for the first 20 before being sidelined by an illness. By his own count, he missed only three of them.
That’s only extraordinary in the fact that he didn’t come a few minutes from across town. He had to get up practically in the middle of the night to make the trip from Chetek earlier and in later years 150 miles from his home in Superior.
He didn’t have to. After all, he was a world champion.
But in his book, “Carry On Regardless,” published shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in May, he devoted a chapter to the run and how he enjoyed meeting friends and being a part of it.
And the main reason he made the sacrifice:
“I’m happy to run for Special Olympics,” he would say. “It’s a great cause.”
It was not just a hollow line.
“Besides his entry fee, he would slip me a check for Special Olympics beyond that,” said Bob Lesniewski, the race founder and Special Olympics director in the early years who remains involved.
Conway was a top Masters runner in 1983 when Lesniewski and the organizers planned the first run for Saturday of Labor Day weekend.
To help lend credence to the event, he was asked to run as a headliner. He said he would be glad to.
He won that one, calling it a tune-up for bigger races.
It must’ve worked well. Weeks later, he won the U.S. qualifying race and just over a month after appearing here, he was at the starting line of the World 10K Masters championship in Perpignan, France, toeing the line with the best in the world wearing his Indianhead Track Club shirt.
Conway was back for the second Buckshot a year later, placing second to world caliber marathoner Dick Beardsley. And he came back to win again in the third race.
When top UW-Eau Claire and other college runners joined the race, Conway, nearing 50, slipped back down the list.
It never hurt his pride. He continued to show up year after year to meet his friends with a smile on his face and his “I’m hoping for a same-day finish” line. He simply had a good time with Special Olympics the benefactor.
In fact, he surprised by showing up last September at age 78. With little fanfare, the way he liked it, he ran with road partner Kathi Madden of Duluth. They finished together. His time was 38 minutes, 26 seconds — good 63rd place among more than 400 runners. Yes, at age 78. And, as usual, he had a good time.
It would be his last Buckshot. His job for Special Olympics was over.
But never to be forgotten.
For sure not by his home area running friends. Madden and 15 others from the Duluth area will be here today to run the 5-mile in honor of Conway.
It is appropriate in that race organizers have decided to name one of his favorite runs “The Dan Conway 5-mile” and they can be among the first to enjoy the privilege.
It salutes Conway’s dedication and loyalty to a cause. He earned it.
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Another who will be missing for the first time is popular Special Olympian Billy Noss, a fixture at numerous city athletic events. He proudly served the race with traffic management and parking. And any other ways he could contribute. He was very active in the program’s activities, including running and softball until he died earlier this year at the age of 78.
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And from the early years, race veterans may recall Jeff Schnabel, who finished the 2-mile in around 24 minutes, passing many down the stretch. On crutches. All the way. And with a smile on his face. He was proud of his accomplishment, failing to let Cerebral palsy get the best of him. He died earlier this year at age 54.
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And another who has been gone for many years is Mouse — as in Greg Bement. As in Mousetrap. He was the sponsor of the first race, and the post-race food and drink parties at the establishment on Barstow Street are legendary. Josh Prock, current owner of the popular sports bar, continues to support the race in his way and welcomes all runners throughout the weekend.