Cookies and donuts and Things That Matter
by Jeff Henderson
published in Slowtwitch.com
If you do a triathlon in New England this summer, you're bound to come across Bruce Kurtz. In his brilliant yellow shorts and neon orange socks, he is an anomaly, a curiosity, and a complex tapestry of humanity all rolled into one. Make sure to say hello.
Last year Bruce Kurtz competed in a combination of 69 triathlons, running races, swim meets, and bike races. This was down from 82 events in 2001, mostly due to chronic knee pain. He hasn't missed a Springfield Forest Park Saturday Winter Series 5k run in seven seasons, a total of 70 races. The Tuesday evening Community Gardens streak is entering its 4th season with 82 consecutive races. He completed 12 triathlons, including the entire Vermont Sun Series. Although he refers to swim meets as "boring" because they involve more sitting than racing, he managed to endure 15 of them in 2002, up four from last year. He enters the maximum number of events and they invariably include the 1000 free, 200 fly, and 400 IM. His string of 59 consecutive races at the Harriers Summer Sizzler continues unabated on Wednesday evenings from April to September. He can feel himself slowing down as the years pass; he can feel the toll these stresses place on his 66-year-old body. "I won't stop until I'm dead," he declares. But that's just Bruce.
Last Thursday Bruce showed up for Winter Series race #70, as always intent on beating his fellow 65+ers - his "peers," as he calls them. Then he met a woman who was doing her very first race, all bundled up against the cold and visibly nervous about what lay ahead. Bruce ran with her the entire way, stride for stride and against inclinations to instead battle the stopwatch. She insisted he cross the finish line before her, saving Bruce from last place. Bruce asked for her finishing order popsicle stick and told her he would pick up her time sticker. He swapped the sticks and gave himself last place, then clipped the newspaper results and sent them to her. But that's just Bruce.
On December 13th of 1998, at 1:42 in the afternoon, time stopped for Bruce Kurtz. After a protracted struggle against the horrors of first a stroke and then cancer, his wife of 38 years died in his arms in their home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. If ever there were two people meant for each other, "my Marian" was meant for Bruce and he for her. Four years later the tears still come and few sentences pass from Bruce's lips without mention of her life, their time together, and cancer's eventual pain and destruction. He still keeps a calendar and a clock on a shelf in the room where she died, the calendar open to December 13th and the clock motionless at 1:42 pm. But that's just Bruce.
Four Mays have passed since I first met Bruce Kurtz. He was the host of my friend, Matt Nuffort, and I as we undertook a trip across the country by bicycle during 60 blessed days of the summer of 1999. A month before setting out from Boston we had found Bruce's name tucked within "The Touring Cyclist's Hospitality Directory," a listing we had obtained by signing ourselves up to likewise host cyclists as they passed through town. We wrote to him and got some emails in return; each one caused us to wonder what we were getting ourselves into.
The emails we received were an intriguing mixture of warmth, social commentary, a methodical recounting of athletic accomplishments, and elegaic memories of his beloved Marian that we eventually came to know as characteristic Bruce. Correspondence began unfailingly with a strictly formatted date on the subject line and then it was straight into the meat of the matter, still on the subject line until it could hold no further words. Thus:
"3:06 pm May 17th 1998 Longmeadow Time well boys I am happily anticipating your arrival, I have purchased sirloin steaks and ..."
Bruce promised to "take care of us as a mother would take care of her sons," and that he did. As evening fell on the first day of our journey, a neighborhood kid on his bike intercepted Matt and I at the corner of Bruce's street. He had been dispatched by Bruce to guide us in, for we were late and Bruce was worried sick (we had severely underestimated the mileage). After some stern questioning, all was forgiven and a tour of the refrigerator commenced - in anticipation of our arrival, Bruce had purchased $52 worth of sirloin steaks, two apple pies, gallons of orange juice and soy milk, and enough salad material to make even the small American farmer think his plight worthwhile.
In the morning he was gone at 4 am. He was off to a triathlon and, as is his habit, he wanted to get a good parking spot and help set up the transition area. Bruce is typically the first to arrive and the last to leave races. He enjoys socializing and helping just as much as racing - in the past he carpooled to triathlons with teammates, but this year he'll go alone because they always want to leave once the race has finished. "I like to stick around for the socializing - the young guys talk to the old people no matter how slow you are - and the cookies and donuts."
Bruce Kurtz finds meaning in details, to the point of obsession. He sends his annual personal newsletter to more and more people each year - this year's version went to 280 friends and each name was painstakingly recorded on a single sheet of notebook paper, in script so small he doesn't need to go onto the back. He sends the newsletter in individual emails, one at a time and copied to himself so he can tell if any of the images didn't make it and he has to re-send. Three years ago he began tracking times and placings for the scores of events he participates in; these are also recorded in minute script on sparing leaves of notebook paper. He's done his own taxes since 1953, itemized deductions and all, and do not make the mistake of telling him he lives in East Longmeadow. It is simply LONGMEADOW, my friend.
It is with this same diligence that Bruce approaches the call to serve others. When his Marian was confined to a nursing home after her stroke, Bruce would walk with her through the halls, hour after hour and into the night. He would talk with the others in their wheelchairs and encourage them to keep on, a duty he continues today. "Every day I don't visit I feel guilty," he says. "I try to spoil Lottie and Diane with cookies and serve also as a lightning rod for them to be able to voice their concerns." He pays for the Springfield College (his alma mater) men's track and field assistant coach, equipment for the men's and women's swim teams, and rock climbing equipment for the St. Olaf College Outdoor Recreation Program, where Marian went to school. He funds two scholarships of $300 and $500 each for West Springfield students. And two years ago he encouraged a friend to help him organize a memorial run in honor of Marian and his friend's mother, also lost to cancer. The Dwyer/Kurtz Memorial 4-Miler will occur again this 4th of May for its 3rd consecutive year.
Curiously, Bruce doesn't shy away from acknowledging - even announcing - these acts of benevolence. Common modesty dictates that they be performed in stoic silence, with bowed head and a sense of duty for one's fellow man. But Bruce will tell anyone willing to listen - it is a blessing to be able to do for others, and it is his hope that this spirit will be contagious.
Bruce Kurtz doesn't gently encroach on the popular perception of retired persons; he takes a bulldozer through it, then throws the machine into reverse and steamrolls it again. When did you take up mountain biking? It was age 66 for Bruce. "I couldn't make many of either the steep downhills or uphills with 4-foot drops, stumps, roots, and those ROCKS so I dismounted a lot and walked much," he tells of the Hopkinton Hop N' Rock Triathlon. "But I never fell off my bike, which was an accomplishment." In his 11th year of competing in the Massachusetts Senior Olympics, Bruce revisited horseshoes for the first time since 1949, augmenting his traditional slate of swimming, road racing, and track. "I found out the rules have changed - the scoring used to be 5-3-1, with 5 for a ringer, but now it's 3-2-1." While most seniors fear computers and don't want anything to do with them, Bruce has fully embraced the Information Age. He spends a few hours each day engaged in his unique brand of email and countless others investigating Microsoft Word's capabilities. His latest conquest: image text wrapping.
This year, as it has for the past several years, the count begins anew with event #1, a Wednesday run in Forest Park at 10 am on New Year's Day. By the time you read this, he may have participated in more events than you will do all spring. He will travel to swim meets, visit the nursing home more than ever but still less than his heart tells him he should, and try to stave off the 40-minute 5k for one more year. He busies himself with the construction of his own memorial, a giant 5-foot tall collage of photos, certificates, ribbons, and memories. He's not ready to die just yet, mind you, but he's going to be ready when it happens. "I've already got the funeral parlor booked for the whole day - I don't want people to feel rushed to leave."
Every now and then Bruce tells me that our first visit to his house "restored my faith in the young people of this country." I want to tell him that I've done nothing to merit this, rather that it is he, in his awkward and gentle ways, who has awakened a catharsis in me. I want to tell him that he has inspired me to embrace life, to acknowledge my shortcomings and trumpet my triumphs, and to help other people in whatever ways I can, as much as I can, until I no longer can... but I can't.
For Bruce is out running.
The following is taken from my talk with Bruce on December 30, 2002, in response to my question, "Tell me why you race so much - what's your motivation? What keeps you going?"
Two reasons - I'm trying to verbalize the most important one - it's somewhere along the way we've been talking... it is, to experience the positives of all the different sports, and unfortunately bike racing really didn't do it for me anymore. When I got into triathlons and found that I was lacking in the running, I started doing more running to try to improve and I found out how joyous it is - all the different facets of running just like it used to be in biking... you get the commuting and the touring, which are all really good, but the racing, you don't get all the positives that you get from triathlons and the running, all the cookies and the donuts, all the people supporting you and all the younger people talking to you and nobody doubting your stem or the wheels or the bike or what color clothing that you have on...
In 1990 I started doing triathlons. I saw these running races going on Tuesdays at Smith College - after ten years I stopped doing the biking stuff and started doing the running with them. And they were nice! Geez they were nice. There were cookies and donuts, and no matter how slow I was. I had to sit out the 10k's because I was afraid of them... I started off doing 40-something in the 5k's and they always waited for me, always said 'oh nice going.' Well, at any rate, all that was just the same thing I was always ingratiating my kids with - how you do it for the sport, you do it for the advantages gained, you do it for trying to realize your potential and all that, and that is what running has done for me.
The second reason, I never really verbalized to too many people. When I lost my wife in my arms, and my wife and I had always been talking about this heretofore: how we didn't want to have an open casket when we died.
It blew my mind when I went to my father's funeral... he had one of the first artificial hearts, titanium or something. It was working fine but he died of a blood clot. And so I went to his funeral, and there he was in an open casket, and I'll never forget that, seeing him lying there - 'and next is you.' So and then my wife died in my arms... we'd always talked after my father and her father died, how we wanted to die doing things. We've been to nursing homes and seen the people stacked up in wheelchairs, two hours before it's time to eat, how the people treat them like it's a factory, like they are inanimate objects. And so we both have this engrained feeling, how we don't want to die in a nursing home, we don't want to die doing nothing, and my wife never achieved that. I'm sorta trying to do that - is the word 'suicidal?' Maybe. But for those reasons, when I go I want to go running, biking, and swimming. I'm not going to stop... I've told people lots of times, if I can't run anymore, I'll get a $1500 racing wheelchair and I'll go into wheelchair racing. They hardly ever have any people in the smaller races...