Mitchell: Many happy returns for Bob Willey
June 24, 2014
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Rumors started to swirl around the starting line of the Strawberry Shortcut on Sunday morning.
Nobody knew or sure if Bob Willey was going to make it to the 37th running of the race, which would have been understandable. After all, he had a viable excuse not to be there being less than a month removed from a stroke and less than three months removed from his diagnosis of lung cancer.
But rumors swirled anyway, mostly because the thought of the 66-year-old Willey not being at the Shortcut was almost unthinkable. The man had only missed one of the previous 36 races, so he wouldn't let something like cancer or a stroke get in his way, right?
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"I was actually pretty worried," Shortcut race director Kevin White said. "I didn't hear there was a chance he wouldn't come until about 20 minutes before he got here. And when I saw their car, I was pretty happy."
He wasn't the only one. Willey's family, including his wife Michele and daughters Betsy and Cassidy, were greeted by dozens of well-wishers who came to say hi to Bob at the starting line of the 5K, where he served as an honorary starter.
It's a far cry from where he was last year, when he ran right along side the hundreds of people who bolt up Grand Avenue every year. On Sunday, Willey was in a wheelchair without the use of his right arm, watching the race from the same spot where he'd started it as recently as one year ago.
That didn't matter to anyone who came to see Willey on Sunday, though. No one saw that. No one cared. And when he showed up at the race, no one was surprised.
"I bought this hat yesterday for Bob," said White, who was donning a baseball cap that read "Never Stop" on the front and "Us vs. Them" on the back. "His level of commitment to this community is undying."
He showed selflessness through the years of serving as an announcer for the Shortcut while running the race, taking the time to study up on the racers who were going to be there so, when he finished a race, he could announce the name and hometown of the person crossing the finish line because, well, he figured it would mean a lot to them.
All of the well-wishers were well aware of what Willey had done for the Glenwood Springs community, and not just for the Shortcut. He'd worked with performing arts groups at Glenwood Springs High School, was a counselor at the school and, even after his cancer diagnosis in April, still coached his recreational slowpitch softball team.
He never stopped. Something had to stop him.
It did, but only momentarily. And everyone at the race on Sunday noticed.
"There were so many people who came up to me and would ask me, 'Are you Bob's daughter? Thank you for sharing him with the community and my family,'" Betsy Willey said. "That's great to see."
Willey would have been present even if he hadn't been present. Race organizers made a poster with a picture of Willey running from his younger days at the Shortcut, and it was signed by hundreds of people from the community. White also ordered 800 round stickers that simply read "Bob," and all of them were distributed by the time the 5K had ended.
It was Willey's call to make it to the Shortcut, and it was Willey's call to stick around a little longer, too.
"After he started the race, we asked him if he wanted to go to the finish line or if he wanted to go back to Carbondale," said Betsy, referring to where Willey is receiving care at Heritage Park Care Center.
"He looked at us and said, 'finish line,'" Betsy continued, mimicking her father's defiant tone before laughing. "It's almost like he was saying, 'How dare you even ask that!'"
Willey admitted Sunday that he never even considered missing the Shortcut, saying that all of the good wishes he received made him feel "real good."
Apparently, it really is true that what goes around, comes around.
Jon Mitchell is the sports editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. He can be reached at 384-9123, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JonMitchellPI.