HURLEY — Ricky Kelly of Hurley has spent a lot of the past 20 years helping people at the Paavo Nurmi Marathon.
It was her turn last Saturday to cross the finish line after, of course, helping to make sure Wisconsin’s oldest marathon started without a hitch in Upson, Wis. Then, more than five-and-a-half hours later, she crossed the finish line to a sea of waiting volunteers, especially those from the Hurley Lioness.
First she smiled. The tears rolled in right away.
“That overwhelmed me and brought me to tears that everyone was there,” Kelly said. “I was just really glad to see the finish line. Every reason why I wanted to get to the finish line got to me and then to see all those faces of my friends and volunteers of my friends, just, oh my God. Then I cried like a fricken baby.”
Kelly has lost 90 pounds since starting a doctor-supervised weight-loss program in November.
Part of losing weight has been walking. Her initial problems with that came from piriformis syndrome, a problem shared by Candice Schneider. Schneider’s hip problem didn’t keep her from winning her third straight Paavo last week.
And it didn’t keep Kelly from walking.
She had the syndrome in her 20s and didn’t do the proper exercises. It takes a long time to heal and it was one of the triggers to her fibromyalgia.
She started heading to the gym on Jan. 1, and one particular machine “made me feel like a whole new person,” Kelly said.
Walking started slowly because of icy roads and sidewalks. But instead of dragging one leg behind her while walking, she could walk pretty fast after using the machine.
The final leg of the five-person relay is the longest at the Paavo at 6.2 miles, but it has the best reward, crossing the finish line. That’s what Kelly did.
“I actually thought about it this spring when I knew I was going to come close to my 100-pound goal for 26 weeks,” Kelly said. “I’ve always thought of crossing the Paavo finish line. That’s always been a dream of mine. That’s always been the race I’ve joked I help run every year, but I never run in it.”
Kelly has a lot of Paavo history.
She watched her grandfather light the torch way back in 1971; the race started in 1969. She was 11. He was a track coach at Notre Dame and had a big interest in running that Kelly didn’t share. (It needs a purpose, she said then, like running around the bases in softball or chasing down a volleyball; why just run to run?)
Then when she got the director position at the Hurley Area Chamber of Commerce, that meant also being the Paavo race director. That was the 25th anniversary, 1993, and she brought her grandpa a 25th Paavo shirt; he died a year later.
She was race director on and off again for 12 years, mostly as a Lioness volunteer from 2001-’08, like Rita Franzoi has been for the last five years.
“Then it became I met so many wonderful people,” Kelly said, explaining why she loves the Paavo now. “Volunteers who had been at aid stations forever, runners who had run it forever. There are still some who had been there my first year. Then over the years, I met more.
“I feel closer to the area. That’s my club (Lioness). It’s our major fund-raiser.”
Kelly has continued to volunteer as a member of the Lioness.
Kelly walked the 6.2 miles in 1:32:11.4 as the relay team finished in 5:36:10.6. It was 13th out of 13 in the women’s five-person but that wasn’t what it was all about.
“Her dream came true,” said fellow Lioness Pat Kangas, who greeted her at the finish line. “She’s been so involved since her grandfather and family. It was so emotional. I think it meant the world to her. The tears were rolling down.
“It meant so much to all of us, the Lioness out there. She’s the one who started our group.”
The five-person relay team’s name was Ricky’s Paavo Babes, her nickname for years as race director.
When her husband, Chris Kelly, said the team name over the speakers, it was quite a sound for Ricky as she came down Silver Street.
Other members of the relay team included her daughters, Reggie Kelly and Erica Mason, and Marcia Pozzani and Connie Loden, whom the starting line is named after.
Walking may not mean this much again.
“I cried because it was the Paavo finish line,” Kelly said. “I may again walk six miles. I won’t ever do that 6.2 miles. It was very hard to do that and be involved in the morning race. It was nerve-wracking. The Paavo is nerve-wracking enough.
“I really wanted to cross the finish line, especially this year with the weight loss. It meant a lot with it being the 20-year involvement. It meant a lot.”