Randy Brownlee’s running story borders on the preposterous.
The Appleton (Niagara County) resident wore a brace on his leg as a child due to a disease affecting his hip. He was told that he’d be in a wheelchair at the age of 30.
He was still standing on his own power at the age of 43, but he was overweight and a heavy smoker – and had never run a race.
Now at the age of 45, Brownlee just completed a calendar year in which he ran 151 races. Even the runner himself looks back on that number with a equal parts wonder, accomplishment, and, yes, weariness.
“This has been hard physically, financially and psychologically,” he said about his attempt to see just how many races he could do in 365 days. “You are setting yourself up for failure. If you have a bad day and ask what happened, maybe it was just a tough hill. You can’t beat yourself up. If you do really good, you can’t be too cocky.”
The overture to the story was heard more than 30 years ago. Doctors had to pull the ball in his hip out of the socket, and grind the bone down. The brace was part of his daily wardrobe in sixth and seventh grades.
“You get picked on,” Brownlee said. “I never thought I’d be a runner.”
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. Brownlee, who grew up on a dairy farm, was working at Singer Farms in Appleton when he took stock of his physical condition.
“I was out of shape; it was a typical story,” he said. “I started walking the halls of the school as part of adult education program. I was too big to run, so I walked, but walking wasn’t doing it.
“I needed to start running. A girl I went to school with started running, and she said, ‘Come out and do a 5K with me.’ I said, why not? What’s the worst that could happen to me?”
Brownlee ran that first race in 2011, and then ran another one and another one. He liked it – liked it enough to give up a old, bad habit.
“I was a smoker for 27 years,” he said. “Literally I was smoking my way to a race, then having a cigarette after the race. I said, ‘Wow, what am I doing? I’m so stupid.’ I’d still be smoking if I hadn’t started running.”
Brownlee kept at it into 2012. Part of the attraction was that he started to recognize faces at races, who soon became his friends. Then Brownlee found out from one of those friends, Tammy Messmer, that buffalorunners.com kept track of what runners were the most active racers. He was shocked to find that he was 15th.
“That year I ran 90 more races; I ran 107,” Brownlee said. “I wanted to see how high I could get on the list. How many can I do in one year?”
A handicap in that quest was the location of his home; Appleton is just east of Olcott Beach in Niagara County. Most races weren’t exactly right out the front door.
So Brownlee drove to every race he could – Buffalo, Rochester, Olean, Erie. Expenses started to mount up.
“We never kept track. We don’t want to know,” he said. “It’s not just the registration fees. Sometimes I had to stay in a hotel nearby the night before.
“My wife was very supportive of all of this. She knew what I wanted to do. I spent every holiday at this. On Easter Sunday, I was off running somewhere.”
Brownlee ran four races in one day, and ran three marathons in a year. He even served as a race director at a race, the Niagara Celtic run in September. Brownlee hit 150 in December at the Freezer Run, added one more a week later, and finished at 151. What’s more, he placed in his age-group in 87 of those races, a remarkable percentage.
Brownlee was definitely the area’s most active racer in 2013, but as far as repeating goes, that itch has been scratched.
“I was having fun, but I was ‘having to go’ instead of ‘wanting to go,’ ” he said. “I don’t ‘have’ to go to any of them now. I can go through the entire schedule, and check off which ones I want to do.”
He likes the idea of running in longer races and completing personal challenges. Brownlee ran a 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon at Disney World on consecutive days last week. “The Dopey Challenge” – named after one of the Seven Dwarfs, just to be clear – certainly qualified as one such test.
In the meantime, Brownlee looks back in amazement to what has happened in the past year.
“I wasn’t a college athlete. I never knew this world existed,” he said.
• Penguin Run, 5K, 2425 Niagara Falls Blvd. in Amherst, 11 a.m. on Jan. 26, 549-6307 x201.
• Ice Man 2-Miler, Parkside Lodge in Delaware Park in Buffalo, 10 a.m. on Feb. 1.
• Mr. Ed’s Super Bowl Warm-up, 5K, Middleport Fire Hall in Middleport, 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 2, (585) 798-3283.
email: bbailey @buffnews.com