In 2012, I took up running again at age 58. It was the hardest time of my life. I was trying to recover from my divorce and the Wing Luke fundraising campaign. I was also trying to manage the daily pressures of being a single parent to Cian and Kino, both of whom had burst into adolescence.
After school, Cian and Kino came home with a pack of kids from the neighborhood, and I cooked mounds of ngook beng, chow mein, broccoli and fung cheng to feed them all. After helping my kids with homework and scooting them off to bed, there was little time for anything else.
Two years earlier—on September 27, 2010—I started a new job as director of the International Community Health Services (ICHS) Foundation. I was back in fundraising. Teresita Batayola, CEO at ICHS, was shoring up the agency during a very tough economic time. She pleaded with me to return to community work and help her. She explained that ICHS might lose most of its state funding, raising the possibility that the ID clinic would have to shut down. She was persuasive.
In addition to being Nancy Lim’s best friend and Maria Batayola’s older sister, I knew Teresita as an exceptionally dynamic leader. She was as tiny as her mentor Ruth Woo, but when she spoke, her words had weight and purpose. Teresita was the only leader I felt I could work for if I returned to the nonprofit sector. Teresita joined ICHS in 2005 after a brief stint as chief of staff to David Della, who was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2003.
When she approached me about joining ICHS, I was already well acquainted with the agency’s vital services. In its early years, the clinic provided low-cost health care to the waiters at the Hong Kong Restaurant and garment workers like my mother.
I remembered when it opened on November 3, 1975, in a one-room storefront at 416 Maynard Avenue South, next door to the Kokusai eater. Bruce Miyahara was the clinic’s first director. He was a Sansei with thick, long hair, a walrus mustache, big tinted glasses and platform shoes. Sister Heide Parreño, a young Catholic nun, worked as the clinic’s first nurse practitioner. I interviewed the two—and Uncle Bob, the clinic’s most ardent political ally—for Examiner stories during the agency’s early fights for public funding. I hung out there with Susie Chin and Donnie Chin.
After my mother retired—and ICHS moved into the ID Village Square—I took my mother to the clinic to check her blood pressure. She went several times a week. The staff took time to explain the many government forms and bills she stuffed in her handbag. In my mother’s final months, Dr. Kimo Hirayama, a doctor who treated many of the Chinese patients, prescribed medication to lessen her suffering. The compassion of “Dr. Kimo”—and his skill with end-of-life situations—eased the enormous burden on me and my siblings.
I knew many of the employees at ICHS. Maxine Chan was the marketing and events specialist. Aleta Eng’s mother, Linda Eng, was eligibility coordinator. May Sheung Chan, the mother of Wing Luke staffer Vivian Chan, greeted and checked in patients at ICHS’s Holly Park clinic. I knew Kuei Lan Lin, an ICHS pharmacy cashier, from our days at the Hong Kong Restaurant. She worked as a bar waitress when I was a busboy.
After I joined ICHS, I began to doubt my decision. I didn’t know how skillfully I could balance my new job responsibilities with an equally demanding personal life. I wasn’t fully confident I could re-stoke a passion for fundraising.
Although both my parents had been gone for years, my heart still ached. The house at 1919 South College Street was sold. When I drove past College Street on my way to work, I’d think about checking on my mother. But then I’d remember that she was gone. It was an impulse I couldn’t shake.
To quiet the cacophony in my head, I returned to running. I hadn’t jogged in nearly 20 years. I bought a pair of cheap gray sweatpants and sneakers from JCPenney. At 4:30 a.m., I ventured out, gingerly navigating over the potholed sidewalks on Beacon Avenue South. At first, I couldn’t go more than a block without stopping and gasping for air. It gradually got easier. Each time, I came back feeling better than when I left.
I thought about a scene from the movie Forrest Gump when Forrest explains why he had just spent the last three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours on an epic, long run: “My mama always said, ‘You’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.’ And I think that’s what my run was all about.”
As I became better, I signed up for a few 5Ks. My first was a Halloween race at Seward Park. There were several hundred participants. Many wore ghoulish costumes and painted their faces. I saw several super-skinny elite runners at the front. They wore singlets, compression tights and feather-light racing flats. They zoomed out of sight with a few giant spider strides. I was glad I didn’t see anyone I knew. I feared that I might drive myself too hard and collapse near the edge of the road, waking to the smell of the half-digested mapo tofu I had unwisely eaten an hour earlier.
I replaced my worn sneakers with a new pair from the clearance rack at Big 5. I snagged a red Adidas waterproof training jacket for less than a dollar at Goodwill Outlet.
In 2011, ICHS launched a capital campaign to raise money for a new medical-dental clinic along Aurora Avenue North in the city of Shoreline, just north of Seattle. It would be the first nonprofit clinic there. Teresita asked me to head up the effort.
In the middle of one morning run, I thought to myself:
What if I commit to running at least a mile each day until I finish the fundraising? That would push me to work harder and finish earlier. A mile isn’t that far. I had read about “streakers” who sustained far more ambitious running streaks than mine, lasting for decades. My goal seemed doable.
I began to count down the days. On January 2, 2013, I wrote a humorous piece for the Examiner about my rediscovered interest in running. The article mentioned my pledge to run every day until I completed the $12.8 million fundraising campaign for the Shoreline clinic, scheduled to open in 2014. I had already run over 300 days in a row.
In early 2013, Teresita and I began to discuss naming the new Shoreline clinic in honor of Ben and Ruth Woo, our two favorite unsung heroes. Over the years, they eschewed recognition. Ben passed away in 2008. He requested that there be no memorial service and that his ashes be spread over Lake Washington. Shortly after his death, Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute, proposed naming a housing project in South Lake Union in Ben’s honor. Ruth curtly told her, “No. The only thing you can name after Ben is a mushroom.”
Undeterred, Kip Tokuda and I conspired with Jennifer Belcher, former Washington State Public Commissioner of Lands and a close friend of Ruth, to try to talk Ruth into agreeing to the idea. I asked Ruth if the three of us could come over to her house to strategize about a state appropriation for the Shoreline clinic. I didn’t mention the real reason for our visit. Ruth listened stoically while we explained how using her name and Ben’s would aid the fundraising. Ruth pushed back with a stern, “Over my dead body.”
After this meeting, I spotted Kip eating dim sum alone at Four Seas Restaurant. I stopped at his table. “Hey, Ron,” he said. “Was that you I saw running up on Beacon Hill the other day? What were you doing out so early? Are you crazy or something?” He made a face. We both laughed. “Crazy?” I responded. “Yes, Kip. Guilty as charged.” I explained my plan to run every day until I finished raising money for the Shoreline clinic. “You should be out there with me,” I insisted. He smirked. “No way, Ron,” he said. “I’d rather eat my greasy dim sum meal.” We again brainstormed about how to get Ruth to lend her name to the Shoreline clinic. We discussed the urgency of taping an interview with her and celebrating her legacy while she was still alive.
Several weeks later, I was horrified to learn from his cousin Ann Fujii that Kip had died of a heart attack on a fishing trip at Deer Lake on Whidbey Island. He was only 66.
In July 2014, I signed up for the Skagit Flats half-marathon in Burlington. I had never raced that distance. It was scheduled for September 7. The opening date of the clinic was September 15, 2014.
The race was billed as “very flat.” I reasoned that without having to navigate hills, I could conclude my streak without subjecting my weary joints to any further indignities.
Two weeks before this race, my streak almost ended prematurely. During a training run in the morning darkness, a car’s headlights blinded me. I ran smack into a thick tree trunk. I tumbled to the ground. My fall was cushioned by grass, but the impact bent the frame of my glasses and left me with a bloody nose. My left knee ballooned, turning blue and purple. I limped home. When my doctor at Group Health examined me the next day, she told me the injury wasn’t quite as bad as it looked. The tissue above my patella had been damaged, but not the knee itself. If I was careful, I could go ahead with the half-marathon. I was relieved. I continued to train.
The following week, I tweaked my left knee again. I was helping the staff at the Examiner move file cabinets, chairs and tables from their old office on South Washington Street into a new, smaller office on the second floor of the Bush Hotel. The knee swelled after I went home. Icing my leg daily, I continued to run—slowly and warily. I kept my mileage to a minimum, tapering as race day approached.
The race was grueling. As promised, the course was flat. But the weather was hot. It got more sultry after the sun burned away the clouds. Waves of heat rose from the paved and gravel roads. There were no trees. I faded to an anemic slog during the last three miles. I was surprised that I finished third among the 60- to 64-year-olds. My time was just under 1 hour and 45 minutes. I received a medal and posted a picture on Facebook.
I was jubilant. I could now take a break from running. Earning my first black toenail made me feel like a real runner. The following week, the sparkling new three-story, brick-clad Shoreline clinic opened for business just north of 165th Street on the busy Aurora Avenue North corridor.
In December 2014, I met a tall, angular Chinese American runner at a holiday race in Kent. He was bespectacled like me. His hair was neatly combed straight back. His cheeks were flushed from a warm-up; his expression was intense. Terry Wong was his name. He had been running seriously since age 49, when he began training for the Seattle marathon for his 50th birthday. He had a dental practice in the old Main Street School Annex on Sixth Avenue South, next door to the building where Dr. Ernest Ching had his office.
Terry’s parents owned the American Noodle Manufacturing Company at 675 South Weller Street. His father sometimes delivered fortune cookies, noodles, wonton and egg roll wrappers to the Hong Kong Restaurant. “Small world, huh?” I said to Terry.
At the 2015 Seafair Torchlight run in downtown Seattle, I met another Chinese American peer, Sherwin Eng. We were in the same class at Mercer Junior High. He worked for Evan Pilchik, the photography company hired for the event. Three days before the July 26 race, Donnie Chin was murdered. Sherwin was still in shock. We consoled each other. His voice broke and he sobbed. I gently embraced him. His grandparents’ home was at 611 Eighth Avenue South, just inches away from the spot where Donnie’s car crashed after he was shot.
I dedicated my run to Donnie. Sherwin wished me luck. I told him I had been thinking about launching a Lunar New Year run to support ICHS. “Ron, if you need a photographer, you just tell me where and when,” he said. “I’ll be there. It’ll be for Donnie.” True to his word, Sherwin has donated his photo services for all three Lunar New Year 5Ks, the first in Bellevue in 2016 and two in Shoreline in 2017 and 2019, raising over $90,000 for charity care for needy patients.
I’ve kept up my devotion to running. Every morning, I look forward to going out alone for an hour or two on Beacon Hill. This ritual helps me stay sane and healthy.
I coordinate my racing schedule with my sister Linda. She started running two years after me. Linda and I discovered that we’re part of a larger community. In 2009, Jerry and Betty Dietrich, a couple from Gig Harbor, formed the Silver Striders, a support group for senior runners in Washington state. They publish an online magazine with weekly race reports and results, highlighting top finishers in five-year age categories from 50 to 95. Linda and I often see our names on the list. Terry Wong’s name is there, too. At Silver Strider races, we enjoy chatting with our amicable running foes and vying with them for ribbons.
In 2016, the Silver Striders sponsored the inaugural ICHS Lunar New Year 5K run as part of its year-long Grand Prix competition. The event took place on Sunday, February 7, at Mercer Slough Nature Park in Bellevue on a windy but clear day. The majority of runners were over 50.
As I set up the registration table, Bruce Fisher, official photographer for the Silver Striders and husband of Judy Fisher, a perennial top finisher in her age group, tapped me on the arm. “Hey, Ron,” Bruce said, scowling. “How come you’re not suited up?” I explained that I was too busy overseeing the event to participate.
In the distance, I saw several other Silver Strider aficionados approaching to pick up their race bibs. I also saw Al Sugiyama, in the midst of his uphill battle with cancer, arriving with a small circle of friends, eager to support the ICHS cause.
I felt a startling moment of bliss. My two separate worlds had converged.
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