Every March, Dave Suttell returns to the beating heart of the Shamrock Run. At 84, a decade past the end of his own running days, Suttell still signs up for the race, mainly for the chance to stop at Doris Bouquard's place in Buffalo's Old First Ward.
To Suttell, Doris is a living symbol of what sets the event apart. When he first entered the race more than 25 years ago, runners would register in the basement of the old Our Lady of Perpetual Help elementary school on Vandalia Street. Then they would stand in line on the sidewalk across the street, waiting to pick up their T-shirts in the Bouquard living room.
The late Cyril Bouquard was a crane operator and president of the Old First Ward Community Center. Before the race, Cyril and Doris always opened the doors of their own home. The couple and their children would offer coffee or beer to dozens of complete strangers, waiting for their shirts.
Eventually, a glittering new community center went up in the ward. While race activities shifted into that building, Suttell sticks with the original routine. Theresa Bouquard, one of the daughters, brings his number and gear to the house. That gives Suttell a chance to shoot the breeze with Doris, now 91.
"They know me," Suttell said of his old friends.
Like thousands of others every March, that feeling brings him back.
The Shamrock Run turns 40 this Saturday. While the route has changed several times since its inception, it still follows an 8-kilometer course, or roughly 5 miles. The race was celebrating the industrial soul of the old First Ward, the grain elevators and ancient bridges and scent of Cheerios, long before the new burst of commercial awareness along the city's waterfront.
"This is a little peek into the glue that holds this community together," said Sara Heidinger, chairwoman of the community center and a First Ward merchant whose Undergrounds Coffee House operates out of an old funeral parlor. "It's opening our world to everyone else for a day."
Dr. David O'Keeffe, a primary care and sports medicine physician, won the race four times during his racing heyday. He sees the Shamrock Run as the informal beginning to Buffalo's true racing season, with the Turkey Trot closing it out in November.
While both races involve plenty of serious runners and a boatload of characters – such as the 15-person green centipede known as "Grandits' Bandits" – O'Keeffe said he loved the Shamrock Run for one compelling reason, after each hard winter.
"It was kind of nice to feel like you could go fast for the first time," he said.
The founders had modest aspirations. Earl Wells, a then-city police officer, and Mike Malaney, community center director in the late 1970s, were looking for a financial boost for youth sports and other programs at the center. At the time, road races were hardly as common as today.
"It was just a little idea, a small thing to get the community involved," Malaney said. Soon, many others from the neighborhood, notably Donna Carroll, had joined them in organizing the race. The first one attracted maybe 200 runners, each paying a $2 entry fee. While Mayor Jimmy Griffin often served as official starter in the early years, no one could envision the event as the festival that it is today.
Some 5,500 runners and walkers will push up to Saturday's starting line, "and there'll be at least 10,000 people on site," Malaney said. Throughout the ward, in anticipation, residents decorate their homes with a creativity and passion reminiscent of a green Christmas.
Carroll wants credit to go where it is due. She can recite from memory the family names of many volunteers who died after playing a major role in establishing the race: Conway. Masterson. Diggins. Casey. Regan. Hennigan. McCarthy. Zabawa. Cassidy.
And, of course, she offers warm praise to the Bouquards, whose members note their name – however it might be pronounced in France – has evolved into good old "Bogart" in the ward.
As for Wells, he's responsible for one of the most alluring parts of the Shamrock Run tradition. He's the guy who hunts down bargains on the unusually swank jackets, pullovers and other Shamrock gear that is a legendary magnet for registration.
Buffalo firefighter Jack Regan, as he has since the beginning, will lead a crew of firefighting colleagues who serve as bartenders in the beer tent, where the demand is so intense that Regan and his buddies use a homemade system of plastic tubing to fill multiple cups at once.
Indeed, the beer tent used to be set up at mile four of the 5-mile race. In those days, times were kept by chips you attached to a shoelace, and each lost chip cost the race $5. The loss of so many chips became a mysterious and troubling expense, until Wells and Malaney had a revelation.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of runners were dropping out early to hit the beer tent. Organizers began using buckets to collect chips at the entrance to the tent, and they also moved the taps to the end of the course, beyond the finish line.
"I think it's really become the start of the St. Patrick's season in Buffalo," said Bill Conway, a retired state trooper who ran the first race, and now serves as race coordinator. He can tell you about the year when the wind knocked over a transformer, and they had to abruptly shorten the distance to the finish line – and he said the race will start Saturday, snowstorm or not.
A similar tenacity animates the dozen or so old friends who handle registrations and packet pickup in the week before the race at the community center. Maryann Schuta, a cousin to the Bouquards, worked side by side this week with Colleen Conway Allman, a longtime friend and Bill Conway's sister.
At 17, Schuta volunteered to help at the first race, when the tables were set up in the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help's now-demolished school. She was still volunteering during her career at the West Seneca Developmental Center, when the event became such a passion that she and her friends would annually grab a week's vacation, just before the race.
Forty years after Schuta helped out as a high school kid, she's a retiree who often brings in meals for her fellow volunteers. That includes Margaret Krug, another Bouquard daughter, who remembers when her toddling children used to nap in empty T-shirt boxes while their mom signed up runners.
Among the entrants this year is a group of women studying to become nurses in downtown Buffalo, a group organized by Ashleigh Myers, 26, a native of Gowanda. Her grandfather, born in South Buffalo, began entering the race decades ago, and turned it into a family passion.
"I run a lot of races, and this is my favorite," Myers said. "It's so old-school, and people are so excited, and it really takes us back to Buffalo."
For the 40th anniversary, organizers chose the entire Bouquard family to serve as official starters, which Suttell sees as deeply appropriate. He was an athlete, but never a runner, before he needed heart bypass surgery at 53. On a friend's advice, he took up distance running.
More than 30 years later, he believes that passion not only extended his life, but gave it greater meaning. The physical benefits were obvious. But he also discovered a community within the sport that he can best sum up with three words.
The Shamrock Run.
"I go back," Suttell said, "because it's just a damn good time."