40 years after 1st River Bank Run, runners reflect on streak

Three men who have run every Fifth Third River Bank Run since the race started share their memories.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Of the thousands of runners who will take part in the Fifth Third River Bank Run Saturday, 11 of them are more familiar with the course than anyone else. That’s because they have run it every year since 1978.

“I remember in the Grand Rapids Press there was a little story in there that Bill Rodgers and Greg Meyer were coming to this new race, and Bill had just won the Boston Marathon that month before. So the chance for a young person like me to be in a race with the best marathoner in the world and with our own Greg Meyer who was so famous… that was very exciting,” said Kenneth Stebbins, who now lives in Midland.

Stebbins has run more than 80,000 miles in his life. He says that he will hit the 100,000 mile mark if he can compete in the 50th River Bank Run.

Stebbins says his dad was a Golden Gloves boxer who wanted him to be “tough.” Stebbins chose to be a runner. Eventually his dad became a runner as well so he could race alongside his son, which he did three times.

“He died in 1998 and I remember that first year (after) running it. Just the memory of him, it gave me incentive to do (the Fifth Third River Bank Run) in memory of my dad,” said Stebbins.

Greg Pfent, another 40-year runner who was a longtime teacher, often reflects on the year he ran with a fellow teacher from school.

His friend was overweight and wanted to get in shape, so he decided to take part in the Fifth Third River Bank Run.

Pfent thought it was a long way to go for a first run, but encouraged him to do it.

His friend dropped the weight and they raced together that year. Two weeks later, his friend was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Greg ran the race alone the following year.

“I thought about it almost the whole time throughout the run because it was fun with him,” Pfent said.

“But the next year, it was, well I had that on my mind quite a bit,” he added.

Pfent is 68 years old now and focusing on family, who will also be toeing the line Saturday.

“I’m glad I made it, knock on wood. My children and in-laws and my son-in-law (are) going to run again this year, and my two daughters have done it. My one daughter will be in the 10K, so we’ve had a lot of fun making it a family thing,” he said.

River Bank Run loyalist George Dykstra clearly remembers the inaugural event because that was the first race of his life.

He was a teacher in Coopersville at the time and wanted to try and run farther than he ever had. He figured he’d make it about 7 or 8 miles and then stop.

“Once I started doing it, I realized it’s not the kind of run where you just stop. You keep going and the amazing thing was there were people there watching you, cheering. So it was quite an experience,” he said of finishing that race.

Dykstra says he trained very little beforehand so the adrenaline kept him going – a tactic that worked in his 20s, but doesn’t anymore.

A race that used to be competitive between his friends has also become more about family for Dykstra.

“Those days are behind (me). Every once in a while I like to do better than I did the year before, but this year I’m doing it just to do it. I’m going to be running with my daughter, son, and daughter-in-law,” he said.

Whatever first brought them to the start line, all three runners agree they have been blessed with good health and are ready for the 40th annual Fifth Third River Bank Run this Saturday.

Fifth Third River Bank Run