A Runner’s Lament: Roadside Disasters

As someone who walks a pretty good walk, I appreciate those who run the distance over our roadways.

I never fail to catch a marathon and marvel at the way these distance runners can cover those 26 miles while averaging less than 5 minutes a mile. Okay, so they’re from Kenya and train under high altitude conditions, but that doesn’t preclude their athleticism. If anything, they’re enhanced by it.

When my eldest son was running cross-country in high school, my wife and I made it a point to attend every meet. Being a sports reporter, I made it my beat to supply coverage, even after he spent his four years as a harrier.

Truth is, these runners get very little press while the more major sports usually grab the headlines. They certainly put in their time and energy—and deserve every ounce of respect.

That said, today’s piece is about three extraordinary distance runners who remained true to the roads, until they were betrayed.

The first was a Polish guy in my neighborhood named Sigmund Podlozny. He could run from here to China if you let him.

Siggy was a fixture at road races. He had only one arm and a hook on the other. What’s more, there was never one tired bone in his body. He ran six miles back and forth to work daily at Western Electric, and never missed a day in 30 years. Rain. Ice. Snow. It didn’t matter to this Haverhill running machine. Come weekends, he often ran two to three races, the longer the better.

Fate caught up with Siggy. One day while en route, he got struck down by an errant driver. You kind of knew that was the way Siggy wanted to go.

What bothered me tremendously was the aftermath. A day after his funeral, every trophy the guy owned was put out to trash. Good thing I came along when I did. Into my car they all went and down to the Handicapped Bowling League where they were eventually recycled. Siggy would have been proud knowing a piece of him went to the less fortunate. That was about two decades ago but his memory has never waned.

If you were ever at an Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Olympics back in the 1980’s, you would have seen some of these best distance duals between Mike Walukevich, a former Haverhill High star and police officer, and his Worcester counterpart Rich Ovian.

Walukevich succumbed a decade or so ago in a jet ski accident off Plum Island while Ovian met tragedy four months ago. He had just completed a run and was coming out of a pizza shop across from his home when he was struck by some callous driver speeding around the corner.

Whether or not Ovian ever runs again remains to be seen. After weeks and months of therapy, he’s paying the price. Last I heard, he’s facing a year’s rehab time with a slogan etched in his mind from his college running days—“no pain, no gain.”

There was no finer runner in his day at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H., than Mark Kimball during the 1970’s. He broke just about every distance record going. Some of them still stand.

I recall covering a 10K road race (6.2 miles) in which Kimball obliterated the field and came across minutes ahead of everyone else. Instead of halting at the tape, he continued running. The run was nothing more than a training session for the gazelle.

“What about your trophy?’ an official yelled out.

“Give it to the first kid who finishes,” he shouted back.

Kimball also met an untimely destiny recently. He was running along the shoulder of a road when a driver struck him down. Headlines the very next day made me cringe. The guy was flirting with death but looks like he’s cheated it.

What his running future beholds is tenuous. In any event, the accident certainly brought solace to the running community.

I’m not writing about this to send shockwaves to joggers but to pay homage to them all. True, we can all be like Ovian and get plummeted while crossing the street. It’s not something we think about as fitness buffs.

If we did, the safest place in the world would be under your bed.

A good person usually dies when someone else goes wrong. As for running accidents, they seem to occur under the most peculiar circumstances. The next time we see a roadrunner from an automobile, please exercise caution. They have rights, too.


Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.

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