It’s almost time to say goodbye to one of the legendary figures in Buffalo’s running history.
Don Mitchell, a member of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame for his work behind the scenes over the years, will soon be leaving the area. He’s decided to move back to Hawaii.
“I’m genuinely sorry to leave here,” he said. “I’ve lived here since 1974. That’s almost 40 years. … If I was going someplace new, I’d feel bad about leaving. But I’m going back to my childhood home, going back to some place I know.”
That place is the Big Island, Hawaii, where Mitchell grew up. He’ll be moving to the Hilo area as he completes a circle.
“I was there from zero to college,” he said. “As a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out. Everything was better outside of a small town. We didn’t even have TV until 1953. But now that I’m older, I’m perfectly happy to go back to a small town in the middle of an ocean.”
For someone associated with running, it took quite a while for him to take his first step in haste. Mitchell didn’t even take up the sport until he was 30.
“I am very sorry I didn’t run in high school. I was too cool, and so damn dumb,” he said. “I didn’t want to do teen sports.”
Mitchell went to Stanford as an undergraduate for anthropology and creative writing. He earned a Ph.D. at Harvard in anthropology and fell in with some runners while doing field work in the South Pacific. He discovered he liked it.
After he began a professional career at Buffalo State, Mitchell joined the running community … eventually.
“When I got to Buffalo, I eventually discovered Delaware Park. But it took a year,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know any runners when I first got here, and finally I met someone who said to go to Delaware Park. I went over there one time, and Dick Sullivan was having a race. I’d never seen such a thing. I said, ‘This is a race?’ Someone said, ‘It’s over, but you can run next year.’ ”
Before he knew it, Mitchell was breaking 17 minutes for 5-kilometers and was under three hours for the marathon during the 1970s. That prompted a ‘what if?’ game with Pat Leone, who followed in Mitchell’s footsteps later as a race timer.
“I sat around with Pat talking about it, and we decided the odds favored me running a 4:15 mile in college. That’s probably what I could have been,” he said.
Mitchell eventually slowed down like all of us do, but in the early 1980s he became a pioneer nationally when it came to timing races. By 1984, Mitchell could handle races that had 10,000 competitors. As technology marched forward, race timing marched with it.
“I started in ’81, and there probably were not more than a half-dozen races with bar codes. It caught on pretty quickly,” he said. “By the late 1990s, the presence of the Internet had made a real difference. … We can get entries online, complicated results online very quickly.
“Pat can do searches on results now that are spectacular — a total leveraging of the Internet. … you can … see splits on the Internet instantly.”
Speaking of the word “spectacular,” that’s the one Mitchell uses when describing the Western New York running scene.
“The level of racing itself, the number of races, the way they are put on — I’ve never been in a place that can equal it,” he said. “It’s always been like that. Back in the ’70s, there was always at least a race a month and that was highly unusual. You might have had to travel a little, but if you wanted to race, you could.
“And racers always cared about results. … If I ran a race, I’d get in the mail a printed copy of the results from many races. I wouldn’t have gotten the idea of timing races without the tradition in Buffalo. It seemed like a natural. This running community is amazing.”
As you’d expect, someone with such a diverse set of interests won’t be resting much during “retirement.” For instance, Mitchell has just had a book of fiction published. It’s a collection of short stories on South Pacific rainforest cultivators called “A Red Woman Was Crying.”
Mitchell isn’t sure when he’ll be leaving the area (“The damn house hasn’t sold”). He will be on hand for next week’s WNY Running Hall of Fame induction ceremony and may stay through late October depending on the real estate market. After that, he’ll be in Hawaii for good — except for frequent visits.
“I’ve got a lot of friends here. … We’ll be back,” Mitchell said.
• Run for Row, 5K, Como Park, Lancaster, 9 a.m. today, 891-3941.
• Kids Run, 5K & 10K, Hazzard Street, Frewsburg, 9:30 a.m. today, 397-2519.
• The Eden 5K, 8289 Main St., Eden, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 984-7503.
• Checkers A.C. Mueller Mile, 1 mile, 11 Main St., Tonawanda, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 867-1713.
• Celtic Challenge, 4 Mile Run, 200 Ohio St., Buffalo, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 875-0282.
• Tops 5K & 10K Run, 6363 Main St., Williamsville, 9:30 a.m. Saturday, 635-5221.
• KIA Memorial Road March, 10K trail, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 11 a.m. Saturday, 392-7256.
• Tomato Trot, 5K, Evangola State Park, Irving, 9 a.m. Aug. 25, 861-8041.
• Our Lady of Czestochowa 5K, Oliver Street, North Tonawanda, 11:15 a.m. Aug. 25, 622-6609.