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Beloved coach gets his life back on track



Everyone in the local running community knows Dick Bessel. For half a century, Bessel has been as much a fixture at the road races as the water stations and finish lines. He was a high school track star at Hutch Tech and a college Hall of Famer at Buffalo State.

Bessel was the first boys cross country coach at Grand Island High School. He started the girls' cross country and track programs at Grand Island. He has been a top coach and official at the Empire State Games. For many years, he ran a summer track club that attracted aspiring young runners from all over the area.

During the sport's boom in the late 1970s, the Bessels were Buffalo's first family of running. All four of his children competed. Marjorie, the eldest, was the state cross country champion. Dick's wife, Pat, who took up running at 38 to be closer with her family, became the best of all. Three years after taking up the sport, she was a national master's champion.

Dick turned out countless champions. Even more important, he passed on a love of running to every kid who crossed his path. After retiring from Grand Island in 1992, he remained active in racing, working behind the scenes at the local races. He did so much for one race - the Independence Day Run - they renamed it in his honor.

But you couldn't find Bessel on the Western New York finish line crews during this past running season. His beloved Pat died unexpectedly last St. Patrick's Day at age 68. Dick couldn't bear going to the races. He wanted to be alone.

"I just wanted to stay away," Bessel, 68, said Tuesday at his home on Grand Island. "It was hard. It's still hard."

It has been nearly seven months since his wife's death. But almost every day, there are moments when he forgets, when he finds himself waiting for Pat to walk through the front door and light up his world the way she did for 44 years.

"She was more than my wife," Bessel said. "She did so much for me. She helped me coach. She volunteered when I started the girls' team at Grand Island."

Bessel's teams won 90 percent of the time at Grand Island. But he was never interested in personal glory, in championships and publicity. His greatest satisfaction came in watching some young runner strive to reach his potential - regardless of his ability - and to honor the sport in the process.

"He never lost sight of the fact that it wasn't about him," said Chris O'Brien, who ran at Bessel's track club in the late '70s. "It was about the idea of running and the growth of the individual. His runners came to emulate him. He's made thousands of lives better."

It was Bessel, in fact, who inspired
O'Brien to organize an annual "Pace Race." Bessel came up with the idea in the late 1970s. You would run a three- or five-mile race and try to predict what your exact time would be. The person who comes the closest to his prediction is the winner. No watches are allowed. You get one split early in the race and that's all.

Bessel held his "Pace-A-Thons" to teach young runners the importance of proper pacing. He wanted them to understand the risk of going out too fast. It's much easier to lose a race in the first half-mile than to win it. He also wanted to pound home the old adage that the race doesn't always go to the swiftest.

O'Brien has invited Bessel to help out with this year's Pace Race, which begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Christopher's School in Town of Tonawanda. Bessel will be there. He's ready to return to racing. True to his nature, he's pacing himself.

"I'm not jumping in," he said. "I'm going kind of slowly."

It'll be good for Bessel to get back to work at the finish line. Family and road racing have been the two great loves of his life. No one could ever comprehend how much he misses Pat. But he should know there's a community of runners out there that misses him, too.