Written by Kevin Ryan Friday, 18 November 2011 00:00
Barney Williams knows pain.
He felt it on September 11, 2001, when his brother’s oldest son was killed at the age of 24. He felt it in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home. He felt it last year, when his father succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
And he feels it right now, only this is a different type of pain, the kind that manifests in the muscles in his legs and shoots up along his spine.
At age 55, Massapequa resident Barney Williams ran the ING New York City Marathon for the third time, his eleventh marathon overall. And this year, for the first time ever, he ran for charity. The ten runners on his team—Williams is both the oldest member and the only one who has previously participated in a marathon—came together through Williams’ downtown law firm and a nearby bar and grill, Beckett’s, on Pearl Street. Together, the team has raised nearly $20,000 for a variety of causes, including several important to Williams for very personal reasons.
Training for the race has been a seven-month process for Williams, beginning with some shorter runs this past April and developing into series of five to six weekly runs during the summer months. Overall, the regimen ranged from 1.5-mile bursts on the treadmill to 21-mile tests of endurance that stretched from Battery Park to the northern crown of Manhattan and back.
Williams’ favorite runs, though, are the ones like those he used to do with his father, Roger: 10 or 12 miles along the town bike path, beginning in the Massapequa Preserve and looping around Bethpage State Park. The route invokes memories of the Sunday mornings when he and his father used to meet at Brady Park and set off together, talking and bonding along the way.
Roger Williams passed away in December 2010 after a year-and-a-half-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Williams, a man with a strong work ethic and an admirable stubbornness, ran until the final months of his life. “He used to walk 20 blocks to work every day, even in his 70s,” says Barney’s son Roger, 23, who is named after his grandfather. “And if you tried to drive him, he’d have a conniption.”
Team Hope, one of five charities championed by Williams’ team, is dedicated to funding for pancreatic cancer research.
A 1974 graduate of Massapequa High School, Barney Williams attended law school at Loyola University (LA) before settling down in New Orleans. He practiced law there for 25 years. Then, in 2005, he was forced to flee as Hurricane Katrina made its way landward; his house, which sat on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, was destroyed in the flooding. With no home left to return to, he headed back towards his family’s home base of New York with his children Roger and Bailey, 24, and found new work as an attorney.
Bits of the time he spent in New Orleans are still embedded in Williams: his welcoming demeanor, his penchant for lively storytelling, and the undeniable trace of a Southern drawl that hangs onto his vowels.
Thin, long-legged and white-haired, it’s not far-fetched to conclude that he looks like a distance runner, one on the tail end of his career.
Which he is, technically. But this career didn’t get its legs until 15 years ago, when his father Roger, then 65, convinced him and another son, Danny, to join him in running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. And Williams ran it well, finishing in 3:35—his lifetime best to date.
Following the race, the trio made a tradition of running two marathons a year. Williams met his father and brother in various areas of the country each spring and fall—in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and New York.
Then, in 2001, Kevin, the son of another Williams brother, Mike, was killed on 9/11. Kevin was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center when the planes struck. He died three months before his wedding date.
But from the ashes of disaster rose the inception of a great cause, the Kevin Williams Memorial Foundation, which Mike and his wife, Pat, created in honor of their late son. Kevin, a star shortstop and team captain during his time at Shoreham-Wading River High School, was a baseball fanatic, so the couple saw fitting that the foundation follow the theme.
Within a year, there were enough funds to renovate the baseball field at Kevin’s former high school, complete with the same red dirt used at his beloved Yankee Stadium. And with donations received since then, the foundation has paid the way to baseball and softball camps for more than 500 children who otherwise could not have afforded it. Part of the funds raised by Williams’ charity team will go towards the Kevin Williams Foundation.
When race day comes, Williams runs the most difficult marathon of his life. As he crosses the finish line, he wraps himself in a foil sheet and makes his way, along with the sea of finishers, up towards the awaiting buses on 77th Street. He then ducks into a friend’s apartment, showers, changes into jeans and a warm mock turtleneck, and doesn’t ice. He heads to the Seahorse Tavern, an Upper East Side bar owned by a friend of his, who has volunteered the establishment as the home base for the team members and their families. He greets his loved ones. He and some teammates devour a plate of appetizers, then devour two more.
He checks his finishing time on his phone. It comes in at 5:01, his worst ever.
But he isn’t concerned. “The time isn’t important,” he says. “This,” he adds, nodding towards his two children, his fellow runners and their families, “is what’s important.”
Williams doesn’t feel all that bad right now, but he knows the anguish will come in the morning. “This was the most painful one I’ve ever run,” he says. His back still hurts, and his legs are well on their way to stiffening up. “But don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “As difficult as this was, it was an absolutely fantastic experience.”
As for future running plans, nothing is set in stone yet, but Williams has an old college friend with a charity in Chicago who has already started recruiting runners for the marathon there next October.
“I’ve got this whole team signed up,” he says, motioning towards his fellow runners as they eat dinner with their families.
He grins, only slightly, and something about it suggests he’s not joking.