We are all here today because Blake Norwood has touched our lives and developed a connection to us in some way. For some it was through his work with the NC Dept. of Transportation, where he began in 1972 in the Thoroughfare Planning Unit eventually becoming the Branch Manager of Statewide Planning. He had graduated from NC State University in 1969 with a Bachelors degree in Civil Engineering. While working at DOT he returned to State and obtained his Masters degree in Civil Engineering and subsequently became a Registered Professional Engineer. Here is a direct quote from Blake: "At the TPU, I met and made 2 lifelong friends: Tom Newnam and Jerry Dudeck. We were to have many adventures outside of our work at DOT. We ran at lunch most every day for 20 years. During these runs, I met another lifelong friend, Charlie Barnes, who was to share many of these adventures with Tom, Jerry and myself." Blake retired from DOT after a long and successful career, meeting and befriending many along the way.
Some of you know Blake because of his military service. He was very proud to have served his country and talked often of his military experiences. He was in the ROTC at NC State where he was a member of the Pershing Rifles Military Society and was the fancy rifle drill individual champion in the Southeast in 1967 and 1968. After college, he joined the Army and served 3 years active duty, 2 of those stationed in Germany. He also served over 20 years in the Army Reserves and retired with the rank of Colonel. He said he met and served with some great soldiers that remain his friends and mentioned 4 by name. Please forgive me if I don't get the pronunciation exactly right: Chuck Riske, Jim Montemorano, Tony Leketa and Jerry Potamis. Thank you so much for being here today. Even though they were spread out over the country, Blake, Chuck, Jim, Tony and Jerry continued to get together each year to fellowship and play Hearts. I understand that you allowed Blake to win some of the time.
Others of you know Blake as a neighbor, some through your relationship with his wife Myra, or his daughter Laurel. Still others know Blake because of your association with him at The Umstead 100 mile Endurance Run. Blake, Tom and Jerry are the founders of the race and Blake served as the Race Director from its beginning in 1995 until this year. At the end of the 2014 race, Blake officially retired as the Race Director but not until he was sure it was in the capable hands of Rhonda Hampton who he has mentored for the position for the past few years. Under Blake's direction the race has become one of the premier 100 mile races in the United States, filling up within minutes after registration is opened. Blake's goal has always been that the primary purpose of the race be to allow runners to successfully complete a 100 mile race without getting lost or having to deal with extreme weather or terrain. Looking after the race was one of the joys of his life. Over the years he spent hundreds, probably thousands of hours working and planning to make the race a success. He was always so proud of the many first time finishers of the race. He was so grateful for the many volunteers that returned year after year to help with the race. We did it because of our love and respect for Blake. Thank you for your dedication to him and the race. He has been such a positive influence on the running community.
I met Blake in early 1984 at the Salvation Army Center on Wake Forest Road near downtown Raleigh. We both used our lunch breaks to go there and run. Some days I would see Blake and 2 of his coworkers, Tom Newnam and Jerry Dudeck. We would say hello to each other and I eventually asked if I could run with them. They seemed reluctant at first but eventually I was allowed to run, but only with Tom. I barely survived the intense 4 mile run with Tom and decided I really didn't want to run with them after all. I found out later that Tom was the better runner at that time and that my run with him was a test to see if I was "worthy" of joining them. The next time I saw the 3 of them, they were laughing at the joke they had played on me and assured me that they normally ran a slower pace and I was welcome to run with them any time. That was the beginning of a friendship that grew stronger and deeper over the next 30 years that led to many adventures that bonded us like brothers. As the years went by and I got to know Blake better, I found out that he was quite an athlete. While at Southern High School in Durham, he played on the baseball team and ran the mile as a member of the track team. He told me that he held the school record in the mile run for a couple of years. As a student at North Carolina State University he was the captain of the intramural fast pitch softball team that won the Big Four Championship in 1967 and 1968. He continued to play softball for several years. I think it might have been Tom that lured him back to running.
As we continued to run and train together we began to venture into the ultra running world. Myra, do you remember the first JFK 50 mile race that we did in 1990? We were a pathetic looking group when we went to dinner that night after the race. Blake and I were in much worse shape than Tom and Jerry. My legs were so sore that I could hardly walk. Blake was hungry and ordered a big meal but didn't have the energy to eat. He kept putting his head on the table and Myra had to keep moving his plate so he wouldn't get food on his face. I think he finally was able to eat some ice cream but only because he didn't have to expend any energy chewing. We all said we were done with ultra running but I guess it must be something like child bearing. Over time you forget the pain and decide to do it again. Blake went on to complete 10 JFK 50 mile races (and received the sweat shirt to prove he is a member of their 500 mile club). He also completed several Uwharrie Trail Adventure 40 mile races and at least 10 different one hundred mile races, including Western States which was the highlight of his ultra races. After many years of competing in these ultra distance races, his knees decided that Blake should retire from running. Most people would have become discouraged and given up on exercise, but not Blake. He became an avid bicyclist riding thousands of miles over the next several years. After he retired, he and Myra were able to take some long trips together as he rode across the United States (in typical Blake fashion because he loved a challenge he chose the harder east to west route). He also rode from the border of Mexico to Canada. Myra was his support crew.
I want to take a few minutes to highlight some of the experiences that Blake, Tom, Jerry and I have had over the last 30 years. We ran several races together and later made many biking trips together. It wasn't the races that meant the most, but the training for them that was the most fun. As Blake expressed it, the comradery of friends was the most important thing. You, as his friends were very important to him and you have your own stories and memories of Blake. Here are just a few of my memories:
Night training runs at Umstead State Park, hiding in the woods if the ranger came by. (Can't you just picture 4 grown men peeking out from behind the trees?)
Going to Butner and running on country roads mile after mile after mile after mile during the day and into the night.
The almost 60 mile training run at the Outer Banks along highway 12 from Cape Hatteras to Kitty Hawk. We used a pickup truck as the aid station and the 4 of us would take turns driving the truck one mile further up the road and then run back to meet the other 3. Each of us began to really look forward to when it would be our turn to move the truck so at least we would get a couple minutes break.
The Uwharrie Trail 40 mile run was my favorite race because we always stayed together for the entire race. We would only run as fast as the slowest runner, encouraging and supporting each other. The goal was to finish before dark because the trail was so rough in some places. It was held the first Saturday in February so you never knew exactly what kind of weather to expect. We have run it in the rain, mud, unseasonal heat and freezing cold but we persevered. One year when it was hotter than it should be in February, Blake and I were really struggling with the heat. Every time we would cross a creek, Blake would take his hat and my hat and dip them in the water to help cool us off.
One time we did a night training run on the greenway trails around and close by Shelly Lake. We would periodically stop at our cars in the parking lot for food and drink. During one stop in the early hours of the morning a car full of rowdy fellows came through and began to circle the parking lot harassing and shouting at us. I thought, oh great, as tired as we are and now we may have to try to defend ourselves. All of a sudden, I heard the clear distinct sound of a pistol being locked and loaded. Blake had calmly walked to his vehicle without saying a word and retrieved his gun. After that all you could hear was squealing tires and see tail lights getting smaller as the car sped away, not to be seen again. Thanks to Blake being always prepared we were able to finish our run in peace.
The time that Blake, Tom and I stashed our bikes at the top of the Creeper Trail in Virginia, drove to Damascus, night hiked the 18 miles to our bikes and then rode the 18 miles back by the light of our headlamps. It was a wild ride down the trail, trying to keep up with Blake without running off the mountain or into the river. About halfway down, Tom's headlamp burned out and added to the excitement as he and I had to ride close enough together for both of us to be able see the trail. It didn't seem to faze Blake as he didn't bother to slow down. We made it to the car without accident or injury due to the grace of God and not our good sense.
Our bike trip from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC. We boxed up our bikes and flew to Pittsburgh, only taking with us what we could carry on our bike. Once we got our bikes reassembled, we left the airport with Blake leading the way. Our first couple of miles was on the freeway. Unfortunately for us, they had the shoulder closed and barricaded so we had to ride on the edge of the freeway. That was one of the most frightening times of my life as vehicles zipped by at 65 – 70 miles per hour, only inches away from us. My mantra as I fervently prayed for our safety was "hold your line, hold your line, do not swerve". The few minutes it took for us to ride this stretch seemed like an eternity but we were able to finally leave the freeway and continue our trip in safety. With all of the riding experience that Blake had, he couldn't understand why I was so nervous. We rode 6 straight days, averaging over 60 miles a day until we reached Washington where we caught the train back to Raleigh. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing a mountain lion on the trail in Pennsylvania. Thank goodness he was heading away from us instead of toward us.
There are many other stories that I could tell you but there are other things I need to say about Blake.
Under that sometimes rough exterior was a gentle, generous soul. If you were Blake's friend he would do anything for you. I am convinced that I could have called him any time of the day or night with a need and he would have responded immediately. On occasion when he would reveal some way he had helped someone out, I would say, "Blake, you're a good man" and he would respond, "Don't let that get out because it might ruin my reputation." He spent countless hours along with Joe Lugiano, Bryant Dukes, Jerry, Mike and others repairing cabins at Umstead State Park.
Blake never got lost. He had an uncanny ability to take new roads or trails and still get to where we needed to be. I think it was because he also loved to explore and see new places. It was frustrating on our trips to the mountains because he would never take the same route twice. It took me years to learn my way.
Blake never met a stop sign that he liked. If you have ever ridden with him, you know what I mean. They were meant for others but not him. He would slow down but only stop if necessary. In spite of that, he was a safe driver.
Blake was an organizer. One of the great things about taking a trip with him was all that you had to do was go. He plotted out the route, knew where the hotels were and made reservations if necessary. He knew when and where to eat and could find a convenience store or fast food restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
Blake was a leader. Some of this was a result of serving as an officer in the active Army and then in the Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of Colonel. His leadership skills were enhanced by his career with NC DOT. A standing joke for Tom, Jerry and I at the Umstead 100 Race was to not let the Colonel catch you goofing off because he would sure find something for you to do. Some of you can relate to that. The good thing is that Blake was not afraid to lead by example and get his hands dirty in the work.
The most important thing I need to say today is that Blake has an immense and never ending love for his wife, Myra. Every husband should love their wife the way Blake loves Myra. They were introduced in 1967 and married in 1968. A quote from Blake, underlined and in bold print is "Myra is the best thing that has happened to me in my life." He goes on to say, "It has been a gift beyond measure to walk down life's path with her. Myra is the one person in life that I could always count on no matter how tough the situation. I love her without reservation." He said many times that he did not deserve her. His whole demeanor and tone of voice changed when he talked to her or about her. One of the stories he told me was about the Christmas they shared in Germany in 1970 while he was in the Army and said it was perhaps the best Christmas ever. Myra gave him a Buck Stockman knife and he still has it today. He once backtracked 70 miles to find the knife where he had dropped it changing a tire on their old 1962 Mercedes sedan. They traveled over much of Europe while he was stationed in Germany and truly enjoyed the experience. It has been obvious to me that Blake and Myra's love for each other is something that will endure forever.