River Bank Run veterans reflect on 40 years of races

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Ken Stebbins’ father, who was a Golden Gloves boxer in the 1940s, always wanted him to be tough.

His father wanted Ken to be tough like him, but as Ken says, he wanted to be a runner.

“I’ve run more than 80,000 miles in my lifetime. I started in high school. If I’m able to run in the 50th River Bank Run, I should hit 100,000 miles that year,” Stebbins explained.

Many of the miles he has logged have been when he was training and running in the Fifth Third River Bank Run. He hasn’t missed a single race since it started in 1978.

>>River Bank Run coverage: What you need to know | Navigating the race | Race day forecast

Stebbins is one of 11 men with the same streak, and enjoys seeing the rest of the group each year.

“I love the encouragement that we give each other. We really understand each other so well from this one bond of running this race together for 40 years,” Stebbins said.

Although he never became the tough guy his dad hoped for, Stebbins’ father was proud of his son. His father eventually became a runner himself and ran the River Bank Run with Ken three years in a row.

“I was so happy he did that. He became a runner to do this with me out of his love. Then he died in 1998. I remember that first year running it with the memory of him and the times he ran this race with me, it gave me incentive,” Stebbins recalled the year after his father passed.

Greg Pfent, a former school teacher, also remembers one year more than the other 39 because of a special person who was on his mind.

A fellow teacher, who was diagnosed with diabetes, decided to get in better shape, lose weight and run in the River Bank Run.

“I said, ‘Geez, that’s a long way!’ But we ran the race together that year and it was fun with him because we talked the whole time,” said Pfent.

Two weeks after the race, his friend died in a motorcycle crash. Pfent ran alone the next year.

“I had that on my mind,” Pfent recalls. “I thought about a lot of it, almost the whole time.”

George Dykstra is part of this elite group of men who won’t let anything get in the way of making it 15.5 miles to the finish line every year.

Although many of the runners signed up the first year because of racing greats like Bill Rodgers and Greg Meyer, Dysktra simply wanted to run farther than he ever had before.

“I had run as much as seven miles before that. I thought if I get seven or eight miles in, I’ll just 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 watching you, cheering you on. It was quite the experience,” Dykstra described.

Adrenaline kept him going that year, which as he says, you can get away with in your 20’s but he doesn’t recommend the tactic for most runners.

Dysktra, like the others, isn’t trying to be the last man standing, and doesn’t want to see any of the men he has come to call friends stop doing the race.

“We’re all in this together. I don’t think we feel that we want to be the last one, although maybe somebody does. But it’s not going to be me, I know that,” Dysktra said.