In 1996, two strangers — local runner Chris Busbee and Mike Kloepfer of San Francisco — were among the nearly 30,000 runners in that year’s New York City marathon, each participating in their first 26.2-mile race. Running through the city’s five boroughs, crowds cheering, muscles burning, the two were hooked.
“I said, ‘I’m going to come back here every year for the rest of my life for as long as I can run,” recalled Kloepfer.
A couple of years later, the two runners were both running for a charity team called “Fred’s Team,” using their races as a way to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. An organizer from the charity called the two athletes — who by then had met — and asked if they’d consider pacing a doctor who was attempting to run the marathon under a certain time to raise a large sum of money for the cause. The two agreed, and a lifelong friendship was born.
Fast-forward to the year 2020, and the two seasoned runners have raced in marathons all over the world together, including above the Arctic Circle under a midnight sun and through European capitals, not to mention over 20 consecutive New York City marathons.
In fact, the two have a high stakes bet going, with Busbee currently totaling 22 and Kloepfer just ahead at 23: whoever reaches 25 consecutive NYC marathons first will buy the other one dinner at his choice of restaurant anywhere in the world. But this year, of course, there was a pandemic to contend with, which cancelled major races worldwide including the TCS New York City marathon due to virus-related public health concerns.
Busbee and Kloepfer weren’t about to let that stop them, and next Sunday the two will meet in Aspen to run this year’s Virtual TCS New York City marathon together. The virtual version of the iconic marathon takes place from Oct. 17 to Nov. 1, with tens of thousands of runners from all over the world participating simply by registering and running a 26.2 mile course of their choice.
“We have to keep the streak alive,” said Busbee.
It’s not just about the running, the bet, or the chance to get together for the two friends, either — their efforts to raise funds for pediatric cancer research through Fred’s Team will continue this year. Over two-and-a-half decades of running for Fred’s Team, the friends estimate the funds they’ve raised for cancer research totals over half a million dollars. Last year alone, their team of 13 runners raised $200,000 for the cause.
“I was an investment banker in New York for over 15 years,” recalled Busbee of the early days, with a note of wry laughter in his voice. “And like most investment bankers, I was a jerk. In 1997 I got the note in the mail from Fred’s team — you know, pediatric cancer research — and I went ‘Well, your life is spinning out of control, you may as well try to do something beneficial for the planet.’ And just on a whim, I just started asking people for money, and raised quite a bit, to my surprise.”
The cancer research funded by Fred’s Team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City has made sweeping advances through research that has saved the lives of countless children. One aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer, neuroblastoma, had a survival rate in 1997 of less than 20 percent, Busbee said. Now the survival rate has soared to over 90 percent, thanks to research and advancing treatments.
“We’ve gotten to meet a lot of the kids in the pediatric cancer ward, and it humbles you,” Busbee reflected. “It really makes you think how fortunate you are and how much good there is to do in this world.”
Every year during the marathon, on First Avenue, the kids at the center — those who are able — come outside to watch the race, dispensing good cheer and high fives to the passing marathoners.
“It’s done nothing short of changing my life,” Busbee said.
While the pair look forward to getting back to New York for the marathon in the future, for now Kloepfer and Busbee will keep their running and fundraising going by participating in the virtual race. With a well placed “aid station” at the Woody Creek Tavern halfway along their planned route, the two will give each other a run for their money, complete with the requisite ribbing of longtime friends.
“I’m looking forward to hearing Mike complain the whole way,” Busbee joked, noting Kloepfer’s penchant for clocking Boston-qualifying times year after year.
When it comes to the bet, though Kloepfer is one race closer to the goal of 25 consecutive NYC marathons, it’s not a done deal, Kloepfer said.
“Well, there’s the fact that I’m nine years older than he is,” quipped Kloepfer. “So you take the age thing, I could collapse any day. That kind of evens things out.”
For those who wish to contribute to the friends’ fundraising efforts, visit hmskcc.convio.net/goto/MikeKloepfer. To learn more about running the TCS Virtual New York City Marathon, visit the New York Road Runners website at nyrr.org.