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Cancer survivor running Bluegrass 10K as a tribute to his father

Bill Olrich Jr. will run in Lexington's Bluegrass 10,000 on Monday. His father, Bill Olrich, who died of cancer in 2003, was a nationally acclaimed distance runner. Bill Olrich Jr. had a bout with Leukemia, but it is in remission. He plans to run in the 10K as a tribute to his father.
Bill Olrich Jr. will run in Lexington's Bluegrass 10,000 on Monday. His father, Bill Olrich, who died of cancer in 2003, was a nationally acclaimed distance runner. Bill Olrich Jr. had a bout with Leukemia, but it is in remission. He plans to run in the 10K as a tribute to his father.

For years, Bill Olrich Jr. was a dominant marathon runner in his age division. Winning races came easy to him, and often.

But when he runs in the Bluegrass 10,000 in Lexington on Monday, winning will be the last thing on his mind.

After being diagnosed with leukemia in January of last year, he didn't even think he'd run again.

He said Monday's race will be a celebration of life, because he nearly lost his.

"I thought I was going to die," Olrich said. "When you have death knocking at your door, and you're sitting there getting chemo, it's almost surreal."

Olrich was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia — a type of cancer that affects the blood cells and bone marrow. It's treatable, but not curable.

The 52-year-old Olrich will have to live with it the rest of his life.

Monday's race will be the first for Olrich since 2005. That's when the series of setbacks began that kept him away from running.

He injured a patellar tendon in 2006, then had surgery to repair a microfracture in his right knee.

Things didn't get easier for Olrich four years later when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Nine months into his chemotherapy, he developed pneumonia, and his chemotherapy was halted for three weeks.

But beneath the injuries he suffered years ago was a deeper reason he stopped running.

It was a hobby he picked up from his father, Bill Olrich, who was a decorated runner in his own right. He held several records in his age division before he too developed cancer.

Olrich Sr. was diagnosed with glioblastoma — regarded as one of the most aggressive and most prevalent forms of brain tumors. Olrich Jr. described it as a "death sentence" and said people don't usually get a second chance with that type of cancer.

Olrich Sr. died in 2003 at age 67, just six months after being diagnosed.

Olrich Jr. had lost his father, his running partner and, most of all, his "buddy."

"The next two or three years were pretty hard," Olrich Jr. said. "It was a struggle emotionally. I was running the pain away.

"I didn't think I could do it anymore. I kept running, but it seemed to just be running in vain."

So he stopped. He said he needed to clear his mind, to take it off running for a while.

Olrich Jr. and his father were extremely close. He fought back tears as he recalled the two of them frequenting horse tracks to watch races on weekends, then spending time during the week to work on their running.

Olrich Jr. resides in Louisville now but lived in Lexington for most of the 1980s and '90s.

He exceled in numerous races around Central Kentucky, winning the Memorial Day Remembrance Run 5K in Lexington in 1988, the Festival of the Horse 10K in Georgetown in 1989, and the Covered Bridge 12K in Frankfort in 1990 and 1991. He's run the Bluegrass 10,000 seven times, with a best finish of sixth in 1991.

Each Wednesday, he and his father would go to the track on the University of Kentucky's campus to do "speed work," followed with a trip to Lynagh's Irish Pub for a pitcher of beer.

Each year after the Bluegrass 10,000, the Olriches and a group of friends held a party at Calumet Farm.

Running was a central part of their relationship, and that's what made it unique, Olrich Jr.'s mother, Linda Olrich, said.

"They were so unique in the fact that they were different," she said. Olrich Jr. was the oldest of six children but the only one who picked up running. "Running probably kept them closer than a lot of fathers and sons would be."

Olrich Jr., a painting contractor, spent most of his time away from running by working. But, he said, eventually the desire to run became overwhelming.

"I would dream about it all the time," he said. "It's a gift I got from my father — the genes to be a natural runner — and it's also a gift from God. I don't want to waste it."

Most of all, he said he watched how his father persevered as long as he could and ran as long as he could. Remembering that gave him the motivation he needed to fight his cancer.

"Watching what my dad went through — being the champion that he was with the strong faith — helped me get through mine with no problem," he said. "I never questioned 'why me' and never felt sorry for myself.

"The way dad trained and the discipline he had carried over to what I dealt with with my cancer. He never complained or anything."

Olrich Jr. said his father is still with him in everything he does and said he'll be with him in Monday's race.

He said he keeps his father "close to his heart" by wearing a necklace when he runs that his father wore during his running days. The medallion features a runner crossing a finish line with his hands in the air.

It serves as a reminder to him of his father and the race that he's winning against leukemia.

"I'm almost reborn again. It's almost like a second chance," he said. "On Monday, it will be a run to celebrate life. I'm just starting all over again until I can't run anymore."

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