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Mieszczak led the way for women

When efforts to start a Western New York Running Hall of Fame began to come together in the past year, Nancy Mieszczak's name immediately came up. As an outstanding runner for almost two decades, few would be better qualified to judge possible inductees.

But she had other ideas.

"They asked me to be on the committee. I declined. I didn't want to be on that committee," Mieszczak said.

Since committee members didn't figure to be eligible for selection, the veteran runner had a hunch that she might be better off sitting on the sidelines. Sure enough, that call came back in May when she was told she was one of the first 10 members of the Hall.

Mieszczak will be honored on September 2 right after the first annual Western New York Running Hall of Fame 5-Kilometer race. It will be held at Elmwood Ave. and Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo.

The others who will be honored are David O'Keeffe, Jennifer Colgrove-Martin, Ralph Zimmerman, John Tuttle, Mark Finucane, John Beishline, Don Mitchell, Bob Ivory and the late Emery Fisher. Many of them -- or in the case of Fisher, his relatives -- plan to attend the event.

Mieszczak was something of a pioneer in running. The sport was just starting to open itself up to women in 1977, as amazing as that sounds today in a world where more women run for recreational purposes than men. The then 28-year-old Mieszczak didn't see herself as a trailblazer; she had a simple goal.

"I wanted to lose weight," she said. "I was not one to ask for help from someone else, like in tennis where it takes two people."

Her first race was the 1977 Turkey Trot, and she may have surprised herself a bit when she won. Mieszczak kept on winning, even when she didn't receive a great deal of respect.

"One time I wanted to leave a race early before the awards ceremony," she said. "I went up to the race director and said, 'I want to pick up my trophy, I'm leaving town.' He said, 'You didn't win.' I said, 'I was the first woman.'

"He said, 'Yeah?' "

Mieszczak, who grew up in Malone (east of Potsdam near the Canadian border), remembers that she'd look at other women runners and judge their talent simply by whether they were wearing expensive clothes. As for shoes, well

"We didn't have women's running shoes," she said. "I remember New Balance had some running shoes out, and we had to find out which men's shoes might fit us."

Mieszczak went on to win 143 races in her career. She still has some of those trophies.

"The ones that were unique, that were totally different, I kept most of those," the current Grand Island resident said. "I donated the others to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. I've still got a trophy that's four feet tall. I mean, when I finished tenth in the Boston Marathon, I got a medal the size of a quarter."

Mieszczak did pretty well at the 26.2-mile distance in other places, winning the Skylon Marathon locally as well as events in Milwaukee and Charlotte. Eventually, as running grew in popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s, Mieszczak started to cash in to the tune of a total of $26,000. It didn't make her rich, but it was something of a reward.

"Fortunately, I was one year younger than Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter," she said. "The Masters division got attention, and there was prize money."

Fittingly, Mieszczak won her last race, taking the Masters title in the 1995 Turkey Trot. Now, with her running days over, she's quite relaxed. Her basketball statistics at high school games are the closest she gets to competition, but she's said to be very good at that too.

"I retired seven years ago from teaching," she said. "I do whatever I damn please."

For information on the upcoming Hall of Fame race, visit wnyrunninghof.com.

> Race calendar

Run for Row 5K, Como Park in Lancaster, 9 a.m. today, 891-3896.

Hitting the Pavement to Cure Blood Cancer, 5K, 4999 McKinley Parkway in Hamburg, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 359-5947.

Checkers Athletic Club Mueller Mile, 1 mile, Main and Broad in Tonawanda, 7 p.m. Thursday, (617) 312-3457.

Tops 5K and 10K Run, 6363 Main St. in Williamsville, 9:30 a.m. Saturday, 635-5221.

Tomato Trot 5K, Evangola State Park in Angola, 9 a.m. on Aug. 28, 549-1802.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

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