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Sean Kirst: Amid grief for selfless coach, Western New Yorker wins 'monumental' race

Typically, Elliott Martynkiewicz keeps his attention locked onto a race. The 23-year-old from East Aurora was battling for the lead Sunday in the 39th annual Mountain Goat Run in Syracuse, a race that climbs steep hills not far from the geographical midpoint of the state, when he noticed the new statue rising above a high place on the course:

A mountain goat, with the green hills of the Onondaga Valley behind it.

It was stunning enough that even Martynkiewicz, for an instant, allowed himself to contemplate the vista. "I kind of looked up, at that point, and saw it sitting at the top of hill," he said. Almost immediately, the course began a steep descent. He used that quick transition to live out the meaning of the statue: He bore down and shifted gears.

For Martynkiewicz, an elite runner who was second in the 2015 Turkey Trot, that surge helped him pull ahead and win the 10-mile race in 51:17. What he couldn’t know is how a statue created to symbolize resilience in a tough Upstate race had suddenly taken on a new level of meaning, how the artist who envisioned it saw its purpose elevated ….

By the loss of an extraordinary coach named Brendan Jackson.

As sculptor Sharon BuMann perceives it:

The monument turns into a reminder of how you do your best, until you finish.

Elliott Martynkiewicz of East Aurora, top finisher in Sunday's emotional Mountain Goat run in Syracuse. (Photo courtesy Mountain Goat Run)

The statue went up at a roundtop in Onondaga Park, on the edge of the valley. BuMann, a celebrated artist from Oswego County, spent a few years envisioning and shaping that goat. She earned her fame with civic monuments of such legends as Libba Cotten, the great left-handed folk singer.

For the mountain goat statue, BuMann traveled to Yellowstone National Park to watch the animals in the wild, to better capture in stone the raw and combative spirit she associates with running. She turned to her son George, a wildlife educator and artist, for insight and advice. Her daughter Amy is a Buffalo nurse with four children, including triplet boys. Amy's oldest son, as a baby, was there when BuMann competed in her first triathlon. She often shared the progress of the goat sculpture with her grandchildren.

Last week, BuMann drove to Baltimore, where workers at a foundry put the finished statue in a trailer. She brought it back to Syracuse, parked the trailer near the place where the goat would be anchored in the park, then waited for the crews that would raise it up. Beneath gray skies she called Ed Griffin, director of the race, to tell him the statue had finally arrived.

His response was not the joy that she expected. “He was reeling,” BuMann said.

That’s when she learned of Jackson's sudden death.

It seemed impossible. Jackson, 58, was a Syracuse runner, a guy in fantastic shape. He had been BuMann’s mentor seven years ago, when she competed in that first triathlon – and the person who first asked if she could sculpt a mountain goat. Jackson was a coach at Fleet Feet Sports in Syracuse, a triathlete who shifted from a career as a counselor for men and women battling addictions into a chance to work with thousands of aspiring Upstate triathletes and distance runners.

Brendan Jackson, legendary fitness coach who died suddenly, while running. (Image courtesy Fleet Feet Sports Syracuse)

BuMann saw running as a corollary for her art. Sculpting can be difficult, physical work. “One thing I was very aware of (was that) as I aged, I had to make myself become more fit,” BuMann said. She trained with Nancy Skye, who is legally blind. Jackson was relentlessly upbeat with them both, a coach with the gift of making everyone - of wildly varied abilities or experience - feel comfortable. In all their workouts together, BuMann never heard him say a critical word about another human being.

“In my mind,” BuMann said, “I started out as an old klutz.” Jackson gently taught her not to see her training in that manner, how the real question for any runner is the way you define your larger purpose. “He had a positive energy” that seemed to sweep across any room he entered, BuMann said: “He was always reinforcing the idea that you don’t need to win it, you just want to be in it.”

The Mountain Goat Run is a kind of Upstate spirit race. It is built to confront, not avoid, the region’s turbulent climate and hilly topography. Jackson used to chalk his slogans on an especially steep slope in the race, then wait there for runners who were struggling. He’d spend the entire race running at their side, encouraging them, as they fought their way up the hill – then he'd sprint down to help another runner.

Barely a week ago, Jackson competed in the Seneca7, a relay race in the Finger Lakes. Erika Leah of Rome, N.Y., was nearing the finish line of a leg in the relay, “tired, hungry and cold,” and beginning to wear out, when Jackson appeared at her side. For eight days, she's replayed the moment in her mind: They had never met. He sensed her fatigue and touched her shoulder, urging her on. He told her, “Good job. Keep it up. You’re almost there.”

The new Mountain Goat Run monument, Syracuse: Upstate tribute to running, resilience – and, now, Brendan Jackson. The Carrier Dome is visible across the Onondaga Valley, in the background. (Sean Kirst/Submitted image)

"Literally, we were seconds away, yards away from the finish," said Leah, who oversees a residential program for deaf children in Rome.

A moment later, Jackson saw Ed Griffin-Nolan, a close friend and a runner Jackson coached through the Boston Marathon. Griffin-Nolan  was cheering from the sidelines. "Go, Brendan, go!" he called. Jackson caught his eye. He smiled.

Then he collapsed and died.

Sunday, his absence changed everything about the Mountain Goat, giving it an aura of fierce solemnity. Ed Griffin, a close friend who is no relation to Ed Griffin-Nolan, has organized the race for years, and he made sure Jackson's memory had a deep resonance on race day. Hundreds of entrants wore shirts in Jackson's honor. Martynkiewicz, the eventual winner, hadn’t heard the tale until he stood at the downtown starting line. He’d spent the winter in Texas and came home to face an Upstate race “on grueling hills,” but he did not anticipate such electricity in the cool May air.

On a course renowned for both its sensory peaks and its moments of sheer pain, Martynkiewicz was first among more than 1,700 runners. The feeling of reverence was equally powerful at the other end of the pack, a bonding force with men and women who never believed they could run a rise-and-fall 10 miles until Jackson convinced them they could do it. The cause of his death has yet to be publicly announced, but none of them could shake the cosmic madness of it all:

A guy who extended countless lives, who forged belief and gently led people away from self-destructive lifestyles, had died in the peak of physical condition, leaving behind his wife, Jenny, and their son, Seth.

It explains why dozens of his friends showed up at dawn to chalk messages in his honor on those high Syracuse hills. It explains why Donna Sparkes, 57, wept as she finished her first Mountain Goat hand-in-hand with her husband, Bill. He has been a runner for years, and Donna grew tired of being what she calls a "coat rack” at races. She took running classes at Fleet Feet, where Jackson sometimes served as her coach.

“He was so inspirational,” she said. Husband and wife spoke of his sheer presence, how he gave every runner his full attention and respect. Sunday, Donna felt a sweep of emotion as she saw the goat statue against the sky. She began crying during the race as she toiled up a hill, past the messages written in Jackson’s honor. She was one of the final handful of finishers, coming in beneath a cold rain just as organizers began taking down the barriers.

Yet she knew, in Jackson's eyes, it would have been a champion performance.

Ann Maroney, whom Sparkes never met, was waiting to applaud those last runners in the race. She’d bought two “Team Brendan” T-shirts from Fleet Feet, with proceeds going to Jackson’s family. Ann wore one and put the other one on her dog Charlie. She rolled out at dawn to write messages on a hill, then went to the finish line – in the rain – to make sure someone was there for the final, exhausted competitors.

Jackson coached her through her first triathlon, “after I signed up and I was terrified and I asked myself: 'What am I doing with these people?' ” His gift was the way “he could get you to believe about yourself what he believed about you,” said Ann, who recalled how her mother, Mary Kay Maroney, was inspired by watching her daughter finish a triathlon.

Mary Kay was in her 70s. She’d had open heart surgery and two hip replacements. She’d never been a competitive athlete.

She talked to Brendan. He changed her life. In 2015, he was at the finish line, waiting to embrace her, when she completed her own triathlon.

Coaches Sarah Bettinger and Brendan Jackson embrace Mary Kay Maroney, who'd had open heart surgery and two hip replacements, after she completed her first triathlon in 2015 at Oneida Shores Park. (Maroney family photo)

“He had a way of getting into your soul,” said Ed Griffin, who co-owns Fleet Feet Syracuse with his wife, Ellen. Griffin pictured the goat monument as both a "hall of fame" for the race, inscribed with memorable names, and as a symbol for Upstate runners – the ones who go all year, despite the fury of Great Lakes winters. To make it count, Griffin needed the right artist, and it was Jackson who told him:

He'd coached this renowned sculptor, named Sharon.

So BuMann choked up during last week’s dedication ceremonies. Never in her career had such a thing happened, that the person who brought her the idea for a statue died just before the dream came to be. All BuMann could hope was that many runners would do exactly what they did, that amid their exhaustion her mountain goat would somehow lift them up, that they would touch the base of the statue in awe and appreciation as they ran by ...

And that it would mean just as much to the person running last as it did to the person running first.

In that way, it could pass the one test that she feels matters:

“I just hope Brendan likes it,” BuMann said.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Read more of his work in this archive. You can leave a comment below or contact Kirst at

Mike Morgan: Like many runners, he doubled back for photographs with the iconic Mountain Goat statue, a tribute to Upstate running, after finishing the steep hills of Sunday's race. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

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