More than 3,000 runners are expected to start the 35th annual Bluegrass 10,000 on Monday, including Lexington's Zack Haffler, who has never run a race before, didn't start running until last month and still doesn't consider himself a runner.
But Haffler, who just turned 18, is a young man on a mission.
He is running the race to prove himself and to honor the memory of another young man who barely managed to finish the Bluegrass 10,000 in 1986.
Haffler's decision came after receiving the Joe Bieschke Memorial Award when he graduated from Lexington Catholic High School in May. The award is presented each year to a Lexington Catholic senior who strives for perfection in all things.
Its namesake was a member of the Lexington Catholic cross-country team who died in 1986 at age 16 after battling cancer. One of Joe's final acts was completing the 1986 Bluegrass 10,000, even though he was too sick to run the race and could only limp along the 6.2-mile course. He fell once but got up and continued to the finish. Joe died that October after medical treatments failed.
His story has inspired many since then, and now, it's inspiring Haffler.
Haffler says that until he received the award last month, he didn't know much about Joe. So he did some research, learned Joe's story and, in a way, began to wonder whether he was worthy of the honor he'd just received.
"I found an article online about what he did, and I was kind of touched by how someone in that much pain and struggle could do something so great," Haffler said. "I just looked at him and at myself, and it seemed as though I had never done anything that great. And so I felt like I ought to do something."
One morning a few days later, Haffler got up early, laced on some running shoes, hit the streets and began to run. And he's been running just about every morning since then, building his strength and endurance to run this year's 10K and pay homage to Joe and what Joe accomplished so long ago.
"I just felt like I needed to do something to prove to myself, or to Lexington Catholic, that I deserved an award like that," he said.
Haffler's father, Larry Haffler, said family members were surprised when Zack revealed his plan.
"He actually first told my wife, Donna, that he was going to run in the Bluegrass 10,000," Larry Haffler said. "I think she was not shocked but surprised because he's absolutely never run a race before.
"In fact, he's never really run before for any distance."
Zack Haffler played on an Ultimate Frisbee team at Lexington Catholic but had never run track or cross-country. Not surprisingly, his first few days of training for the race were tough.
"My legs hurt a lot," he said. "But it soon got better."
Now Haffler runs 5 miles a few times a week and hopes that will be enough to carry him through the Bluegrass 10K.
His father and mother, and maybe his younger sister Maggie, plan to be at the race to cheer him. His older brother and sister will be out of town.
After the race, Haffler plans to write Joe's parents, who now live in California, to let them know that he ran the race and that their son's story still inspires 25 years after his death.
"I think it's kind of neat that these two kids, who obviously never met, are in some sense bonded together because of this award," Larry Haffler said.
Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.