GLENWOOD SPRINGS — There are plenty of memories that go hand in hand with Bob Willey and the annual Strawberry Shortcut.
There are the times he ran the race, which accounted for all but one of the 36 previous runnings. There were the times he sprinted straight from the race course to the microphone to announce the names of runners as they came across the finish line.
Then there were the times — the finishing times of all the race winners and, for that matter, many of the participants who have run in either the 10K or 5K over the past three-plus decades that he kept in a personal scrapbook.
“He’s always been great with numbers,” his daughter, 26-year-old Cassidy Willey, said. “We were playing blackjack the other night, and he was still counting cards and winning.”
The tenacity that the 66-year-old Willey has shown in recent weeks has been inspiring for a family that has watched him become a mainstay part of Glenwood’s most cherished race. And that same tenacity is making a world of difference for Willey, who is recovering from a stroke he suffered in late May after he was diagnosed with lung cancer April 18.
“The support that we’ve gotten has been amazing,” said Michele Willey, Bob’s wife. “There’s been people who have brought us meals, taken our dog for a walk, cleaned our house ...”
“And given us private concerts,” added Eric Lamb, Cassidy’s husband who spoke in reference to people who knew Bob through his work with local performing arts groups. “We had some people who came into Valley View [Hospital] and sang.”
Bob Willey has run in 35 of the previous 36 Strawberry Shortcuts since the race began in 1978 as only a 10K race. He ran with the late Paul Driskill, a local running icon who also made the Shortcut an annual event until his death in December 2010. There have also been years when he would run the 10K and catch his breath before stepping up to the microphone to announce the remaining runners crossing the finish line. Then he’d run the 5K, finish it and, without hesitation, repeat the cycle and announce those race finishers.
“And then he would do the awards ceremony afterward,” Michele said with a smile. “He had a full plate.”
“He never really slowed down,” Cassidy added. “He was just always going for it.”
Bob Willey had been going for it even until his lung-cancer diagnosis in April. His annual goal was to run an average of 100 miles a month — 1,200 miles a year — to keep with the running routine he’d maintained for close to four decades.
That began to change in the months before his diagnosis. Michele said he’d been losing weight and had some burning in his chest. Doctors at Valley View Hospital did an X-ray and an MRI to discover the cancer, which put Willey into treatment immediately.
Doctors administered radiation treatment, Michele said, prior to beginning a three-week chemotherapy regimen. Meanwhile, he continued to maintain his running routine while serving as a coach — but not playing — for his rec league slowpitch softball team.
“It was certainly a blow to hear that,” Michele said. “But he was going to fight it. He always had a strong desire to get better. And he still does.”
The battle became more difficult when Bob’s stroke happened following his return home from his team’s softball game before the weekend of May 31. It was substantial, Michele said, taking away movement in his right arm and severely limiting movement in his right leg. It’s also limited his speech, which has progressed to primarily one- to three-word answers to conversations he’s able to comprehend and follow.
The second round of Willey’s chemotherapy treatment was put on hold because of the stroke. He’s made plenty of progress since then, however, relearning how to stand, regaining the ability to eat regular food and redeveloping the ability to recognize people.
As for the Strawberry Shortcut, he has no problem recognizing that.
“We were talking about the Shortcut today,” Michele said on Thursday. “I asked him how many Shortcuts had he missed, and he said ‘Two.’”
“Then we asked him how many Shortcuts there had been, and he said, ‘Thirty-seven,’” Lamb said. “This one is 37.”
There’s a chance, however, that he won’t miss Sunday’s race.
Strawberry Shortcut race director Kevin White said on Thursday there are preliminary plans for Willey to serve as the official starter for Sunday morning’s 5K race, though his overall well-being will take precedence over an appearance at the start line next to Centennial Park near the corner of Ninth Street and Grand Avenue in Glenwood Springs.
White also said members of the race staff will take donations Sunday morning at the Shortcut’s finish line near the corner of Ninth Street and Colorado Avenue. He added that approximately 800 stickers that simply read the name “Bob” will be distributed to all participants as a show of support for Willey. Also planned is a July 20 benefit run called the “Willey Coyote 5K,” a fun run that will start and end at Glenwood Springs Middle School, head up Donegan Road to Mitchell Creek Road toward the fish hatchery before circling back. It’s a course very similar to the one Willey logged 1,200 miles per year on for decades.
Then again, he’s also spent decades at the Shortcut building countless memories. And on Sunday, the race will give back to him.
“It’s so great to see things come together,” Cassidy said. “He spent his whole life being there for other people, and for people to come together like this for him is just so huge for us, and for him.”