By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
The Central New York running community is mourning the death of its patriarch. Last Thursday morning, Charlie Hackenheimer lost his battle with cancer at the age of 91. He will be laid to rest this morning at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Charlie did not start running until the age of 72, when emphysema threatened to shorten his life. In 1978, while waiting for his son to finish a race at Fort Stanwix, a stranger asked him: "why don't you run?" "I have emphysema," he replied. "Well, there is a guy who's got emphysema and he is running," said the stranger, pointing to the starting line. That evening, Charlie borrowed his son's shoes, and went on his first run.
The first few runs were hard. He walked a lot and ran a little, but gradually built up to running several miles. He regained the competitive spirit of his teenage skating years, and he entered a few road races. Within a year, Charlie was winning his age group in many local races. It was not long before he made his impact on the national scene, winning numerous championships and setting many national and world records.
Charlie joined the Syracuse Chargers Track Club, and competed on the team that won the national masters 15K cross country championship in Van Cortlandt Park in 1981. The gold medal that he won for finishing first in the 75-79 age group was one of his proudest racing moments.
Nate White was a member of that Chargers team in 1981. He remembers Charlie as one of our most natural athletes. However, many fellow runners and motorists remember Charlie running along the double yellow lines in the middle of Route 37 in his hometown of Central Square. He avoided the slant of the road on the shoulders, that gave his shoes uneven wear.
Charlie dominated the national racing scene for a decade during the eighties. He set a dozen national and world single-age and age-group records, and tens of nationally ranked performances. These records included 10 miles in 76:16 at age 75, 10K in 46:42 at age 76, 8K in 36:58 at age 77, 25K in 2:22:32 at age 78, 15K in 77:41 at age 79, 5K in 29:48 at age 83, and 15K in 1:51:16 at age 84.
At age 78, Charlie finished ahead of 1,070 runners in the Utica Boilermaker, many of them generations younger than him. That year, Charlie's young running career almost ended, when his body was afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. Unable to run for 2 years, he became a spectator at many road races.
Charlie's determination had one more laugh. He returned to running and competing at 81. He was featured in the Human Race section of Runner's World, and Central Square honored him with the creation of the Hackenheimer Haul cross country race. Charlie competed for a few more years, setting age group records and winning national championships.
Vicky Mannion often competed against Charlie. A young career woman in her thirties, Vicky ran for fitness and stress relief. She entered a few 5K races, and always finished behind Charlie. She trained consistently with the goal of beating Charlie. In the 1990 American General 5K, Vicky led Charlie for 3 miles. She entered the home stretch to the deafening cheers of the crowds. With less than 50 meters to go, Vicky learned too late that the cheers were not for her, as Charlie passed her for a 2- second victory.
Shortly after that race, knee surgery forced Charlie into retirement, denying Vicky and hundreds of runners the satisfaction of beating him. In many races, the words "Charlie's ahead of you" had become the spectators favorite cheer for the back of the pack runners.
After his retirement from racing, Charlie continued to attend races and to cheer on his son Charles Jr. and his grandson Charles III. Last summer, we celebrated Charlie's 90th birthday with a chute-side song at the Cazenovia July 4th races. Today, we celebrate his life, a testament to the power of running. Charlie believed that running gave him victory over disease and added many years to his life.
Kamal Jabbour misses Charlie's ice blue eyes and warm friendly smile, as he crossed many finish lines waving to his fans.