Growing up on a farm in Miami County, he said he did what his mother – “a Type A personality,” he noted – told him to do.
“I was a pretty obedient kid,” Bob Welbaum said the other day as he sat in the living room of his Centerville home. “I never challenged my mother.”
He said that even though the scene around him said otherwise.
The story begins in 1966 at the old Darke County’s League’s annual track meet. Welbaum was scheduled to run the mile relay for the fledgling Newton High School team that day. His mom, Ruth, was in the stands.
“They had the two-mile race before that and, as I remember it, a kid from Bradford led the whole way until he collapsed about 100 yards from the end,” Welbaum said. “He never did finish.
“My mom was so traumatized from watching that that she sent my younger brother down to find me and tell me to scratch from the relay. She thought it would be too much for me, that my health would be in danger.”
So, did he listen?
“No,” he said quietly.
Then again, you kind of figured that out just by looking around his home.
In the dining room were two racks holding scores of race medals on long ribbons. He’s won them running marathons in places like Tokyo, Kenya, Beijing, Bhutan and Berlin, as well as Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Boston.
In the kitchen the front of his refrigerator was papered with the ace bibs from those and several other marathons.
Hanging on the wall were framed mementos ,including the olive branch someone gave him as he was running the Athens Marathon in Greece.
From a small box, he took out a special pin that a Japanese man had given him at a marathon in Honolulu.
A magazine on a nearby table featured a big story on him and 11 other 1970 U.S. Air Force Academy grads – all similar in age to Welbaum who’ll be 71 this week – who teamed up to form the Winded Warriors and run the 199-mile Hood to Coast Relay in Oregon last August.
Called “The Mother of All Relays,” it took them from the timberline of Mount Hood, along a rugged path to Seaside, Oregon on the Pacific Coast. Run in 36 stages, the race took Welbaum and his fellow Warriors 35 hours to complete.
When he ran his first marathon in the early ‘80s, Welbaum said his mother wrote him a letter that she said was on the behalf of herself and his dad:
“She said, ‘We know it’s important to you, but we think it’s too far to run.’”
Later, when his mother was aging and having cognitive issues, he said her tune became more adamant: “She said, ‘No more marathons.’”
He shrugged: “So I just didn’t tell her about them anymore.”
Then again, he had plenty of other things he was doing to talk to her about.
After being named the valedictorian of his Newton High class, he graduated from the Air Force Academy and began a 20-year career that included serving as a flight line maintenance officer for U.S. planes at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War, getting his master’s degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson AFB and then working in procurement, getting engines for the B-1 bomber.
After retirement from the service, he began to pursue a wide variety of interests. He worked in magazine editing and has written a pair of children’s books: “The Boy Who Could Wiggle His Ears” and “The Cactus Who Wanted to Be a Christmas Tree.”
He began a grassroots campaign to raise funds for the education of the Maasai girls in Kenya, a cause he discovered when running the Amazing Maasai Marathon.
He’s an aficionado of all things Disney and is involved in the Dayton Disneyana Foundation whose gala weekend convention is June 8 and 9 at the Hope Hotel and Richard C. Holbrooke Conference Center.
And for the past 14 years – after going to the University of Dayton in his mid-50s to get a teaching certificate – he’s been a substitute teacher in Franklin, Kettering and now Centerville schools.
Running, he said, has taught him some lessons that have opened his entire world: “I learned don’t limit yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can do if you put your mind to it.“
And so, after running the 26.2 mile race in Kenya last year – where he said an armed guard was on the course “just in case wildlife showed up,” similar to the time a herd of elephants joined the run – he then scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Later in the year he ran the Dragon Challenge Marathon in China – which included parts of the rugged race being run on the Great Wall of China – and then eight days after that he ran the Thunder Dragon Marathon in the Himalayas of Bhutan.
That’s the event where, the day before the race – which he said is run at 7,000 to 9000 feet – he trekked some 12 miles through a tropical rain forest and ended up with a blood -drenched sock thanks to a leech attached to the main vein in his ankle.
While the running gets him to exotic locales and regularly provides a sense of accomplishment, there is an even better reason for his running. He’s found it’s a way for him to stay mentally on point.
Several years ago when he was stationed in California, he said he applied to be a Big Brother to help kids in need.
“They gave me a battery of tests, including a psychological test, and they came back to me and said ‘This shows you are depressed and it would be good to get some professional help.’
“I thought it was just my personality – I tend to be insular – but I did it and found out how insidious these things can be. I became conscious of my moods and knew what I needed to do
“I found as long as I’m running, I’m fine.”
He now runs 12 miles every other day, completes a 20-mile run on the weekend and also works regularly with local personal fitness trainer Rio Light.
As the oval sticker on the front of his refrigerator puts it:
“Running is Cheaper than Therapy.”
With that in mind, he smiled: “I know I have some of my best thoughts when I‘m running.”
A return to running
Welbaum ran five marathons in the early and mid-1980s, but his efforts were hampered by a series of physical ailments. He developed a chronic hip problem and soon his calf muscles would regularly lock up.
He quit distance running for some two decades, but said he finally decided: “You’re not supposed to die with a mint condition body.”
Determined to return to the sport he liked, he entered the 2007 Chicago Marathon.
“It was 92 degrees that day and I hadn’t realized how much I’d lost,” he said. “At the 22-mile mark they said the event was officially cancelled and that you should walk in. I ran and walked and finished in 4 hours and something.”
He followed that with the Flying Pig in Cincinnati and a marathon in Philadelphia before running New York in 2010.
“I held a little point-and-shoot camera and made a video as I ran,” he smiled. “Can you imagine running down First Avenue in Manhattan with people three-deep cheering you?”
He had a great effort at the U.S Marine Corps Marathon the following year, then struggled some in the races in Athens and at Walt Disney World and in Las Vegas.
But then, at age 67, had a superb effort – 3 hours, 58 minutes – in Berlin.
After adding Tokyo, he finds himself missing only London in what he said are “the six major marathons in the world.
“One of them is the equivalent of the Super Bowl and by accident, I’ve run five of the six.”
The race that seems to have moved him the most was the Amazing Maasai Marathon, which is more than just a sporting effort. It’s run to raise funds and awareness to send Maasai girls to secondary school.
And the connection between the runners and the people there can be quite hands-on, he said.
“At one point I had three kids hanging with me running,” he said. “The race is run on a dirt airstrip and I was pretty well dragging at the end.
“That’s when I remember somebody yelled my name and for the last 300 yards, two girls came out and assisted me to the finish line.”
Making a difference
Welbaum offered the Maasai girls some assistance of his own thanks to a lesson he learned with the Boy Scouts when he was growing up.
“We were taught to always leave our campsite a little better than the way we found it,” he said. “I know a lot of people go to Africa, but how many try to make it better than before?
“I saw what the girls were up against at their school. Electricity came from a solar panel and there was a huge water tank next to the school. Their bathrooms were halfway down a hill in a small building with two sides and just two holes in the floor.”
Back home, Welbaum took some of the wildlife photos he had taken and had them made them into calendars which he sold to raise funds for the Amazing Maasai Girls Project.
When he and his Academy classmates ran the relay, they set a race record, raising nearly $60,000 in donations for cancer research.
On June 23 Welbaum plans to run the Rio de Janeiro Marathon, after which he’ll be left with just two continents – Australia and Antarctica – to compete on in order to be able to join the Seven Continents Club.
He’s also intrigued by marathons run on Easter Island and in Madagascar, as well as the Petra Desert Marathon in Jordan that passes the ancient ruins, runs through the Wadi Rum desert and goes along the Dead Sea.
And while his mom might not have embraced such efforts, he’s come across other people who certainly do.
As he was riding a subway train with his Boston Strong T-shirt at the Boston Marathon, he was moved when some stranger looked at him and earnestly said, “Thank you for running.”
In Bhutan, he got another surprise.
“When the race ended I was questioning my sanity,” he admitted. “It was my second marathon in eight days. But that’s when a local official walked up and said, ‘I am so proud of you.”
“I thought that was a pretty nice thing to say to a stranger. It made me feel good.”
Sometimes disobedience does pay some wonderful dividends.
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