Ex-runner’s flag carries meaning

4/28/2013
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Tom Falvey holds a U.S. flag as the national anthem is played before the start of the 2012 Glass City Marathon.
Tom Falvey holds a U.S. flag as the national anthem is played before the start of the 2012 Glass City Marathon.

Tom Falvey ran in 68 marathons, from Boston to Los Angeles and dozens of stops in-between. But he is 76-years-old now and the last time he went the distance at 26.2 miles, he finished in 5 hours, 40 minutes and his legs hurt so badly, somebody had to wheel him up to the front door of his Sylvania home.

That would not necessarily have ended it for Falvey, but it was enough for his wife, Alice, and as this old boxer likes to say, when they go toe to toe these days, Alice doesn’t lose many rounds.

That doesn’t mean Falvey won’t be at today’s Medical Mutual Glass City Marathon. Heck, he’ll arrive before the sun does.

Falvey
Falvey

This lifelong sportsman and man-about-town who has never met a stranger will be there at the start and he’ll be there at the finish, welcoming in the final runners even after race organizers have started tearing down the finish line.

“I respect those runners who are out there for six, heck, sometimes close to seven hours and sort of stagger in all alone,” he said. “I think they appreciate somebody being there. Do I empathize with them? Heck, in my last couple years I was them.”

It is at the start of the race, though, that Falvey will take front and center, officially or unofficially, whether he means to or not.

There was a picture in The Blade a few days back of the start of last year’s Glass City. There were thousands of runners poised to leave the line and one gentleman standing in front of them, to the side, waving a small American flag. That was Tom Falvey.

The tiny gesture will be gigantic today.

We don’t need to rehash all of what happened 13 days ago in Boston. You know about the bombs. Lives were lost. Lives were shattered. The act was despicable; the carnage was unspeakably tragic.

Falvey, as we mentioned, was a Golden Gloves boxer who later headed up that association. He started as a teen in the early 1950s, sparred into his 40s, and refereed the sport until the late 1990s. Two fighters he knew pretty well died after bouts.

“The feeling I had when those things happened is the same feeling I had watching the Boston race,” he said. “I was almost physically ill. How can somebody be that … well, I don’t want to say crazy because that gives them an excuse. How can there be such evil?”

It touched all of us, for certain. But this terror happened at the Boston Marathon, maybe the greatest foot race of them all, and you had better believe runners took it personally.

Today, in Toledo, they will remember. Upward of 7,000 of them will run. And Falvey will wave his little flag in a very large way.

“It will mean more to me than ever,” the DeVilbiss High School grad and retired Rogers High teacher said. “And I know it will mean more than usual to the runners.”

Like many of them, Falvey was never much of a team sports guy despite rooming with the great basketball player Dave DeBusschere at the University of Detroit after two years in the service.

“I started out at the University of Toledo, but I wasn’t doing so well, so I ducked into a bar one day and had a few to get enough courage to enlist in the Army,” he said.

Along the way he pursued boxing, always as an amateur, and between his career as a fighter and the many years as a referee, Tom got to know some of the greats of a once-great sport. He has a picture from 1955 of Archie Moore, the light-heavyweight champion, being introduced to the crowd at Toledo’s old Civic Auditorium between semifinals of the Golden Gloves championships. The boxer sitting in one corner, waiting for his fight to start? That’s Falvey.

“I won more than I lost, but it was close,” he said, laughing.

At some point, he was hitting less and getting hit more and enough was enough. A friend encouraged him to start distance running.

“He said I should train to run a marathon,” Falvey recalled. “I said, ‘That 26-mile thing? Are you crazy?’”

But he got into it and he was hooked. He loved the challenge, the conditioning, the solitude. He understood the pain. He was 41 when he ran the Glass City for the first time in 1978 and he beat four hours and “was on a runner’s high for days. I was slow, but I finished that sucker.”

Falvey’s best time ever was 3 hours, 15 minutes and soon he was running in marathons all over the United States. Locally, he founded and directed the 24-hour run at Olander Park.

Those days are behind him, but there is still 26.2 miles ahead. For the thousands who run it today, or for those competing in the half-marathon, Tom Falvey waving the flag at the start will mean more than ever before.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.