WHEELING - They might have to reach a little deeper than they did in 1977, and perhaps endure a few more aches and pains, but the 12 Ironmen preparing to run the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic for the 37th time believe there's plenty left in the tank.
In fact, 75-year-old Mitch Toto Sr., the elder statesman of the Ironmen - those who have run Wheeling's premier distance race each year since its inception - hopes to keep his streak going at least until the race turns 50. He would be 88.
"It's a way of life," said Toto, who will turn 76 just three days after this year's race. "I ran this race the first time when I was 40 years old. It's a way of keeping young and a way to keep doing the things I do as long as I can."
Toto said he's "getting slower" with age, but for him it's no longer a race against the clock, but one against his own body.
"It's just a matter of hanging in there," he said. "It isn't competition anymore. Each one of us wants to see the others cross the finish line. ... We'll see how long I can make it last."
This year's Ogden Half Marathon Classic is set for Friday and Saturday on the streets of Wheeling.
Along with Toto, the remaining Ironmen are David Claypool, Tim Cogan, Pat Cronin, Paul Exley, Dave Fiorilli, Steve Habursky, Dr. John Holloway, Larry Jones, Joe Kubik, Mike LeMasters and Ted Rouse, the youngest of the group. Rouse ran the inaugural event at age 16 and has never looked back.
Last year the group was 13 members strong, but Bruce Kirby is no longer a member of the group because he required assistance from a golf cart - albeit briefly - in order to finish. His bib number will be retired, Race Director R. "Scat" Scatterday said.
Cronin, 59, acknowledged the training regimen necessary to prepare one's body for the rigors of running 13.1 miles gets a little more difficult with each passing year.
"You get the aches and pains, and age takes its toll, but on the other hand you want to get in shape so you're not struggling to finish," he said.
For the Ironmen, an extraordinary level of mental toughness takes the place of what age may have taken away. But that can be a double-edged sword, noted Cronin.
"Your mind still thinks you can do things and your body doesn't cooperate," he said.
Many of the Ironmen agree that the blistering hot weather during last year's race put it among the most challenging they've run.
"I really struggled last year," Claypool said. "I don't think Wheeling Hill's ever been as tough as it was last year."
When Rouse got home after the race, he said, "I sat on my kitchen floor for two hours. I didn't move."
Scatterday said he has a great deal of admiration for the Ironmen and their endurance.
"You guys are a bit of sports history," he told the group during a recent gathering. "There's not a race in this country that's been as many years as ours that have had people in every one. And that makes you guys unique. ... There's something in each one of you that isn't in regular human beings."
Race events get started Friday with the Veterans Torch Relay at 4 p.m. Following a brief ceremony at the conclusion of the relay, the weekend's youngest runners will take to the street for the Ogden Tiny Tot Trot for children 5 years old and younger at 6:45 p.m., near the half marathon finish line. The non-competitive, mile-long Ogden Fun Run for ages 12 and younger gets under way from the top of Wheeling Hill at 7:15 p.m., followed by the Ogden Mile at 7:30 p.m.
On Saturday, the action begins at 7:30 a.m. with the start of the Half Marathon Walk, followed by the Half Marathon Run and Run Relay at 8 a.m. and the 5K Run/Walk for Health at 8:15 a.m. Announcements of race results will be at the Heritage Port Amphitheater at about 11:30 a.m. There will be food vendors available at the waterfront for spectators throughout the day.