We stood there toeing the starting line at Veterans Park, like we had dozens of times before. But something was different. Someone was missing.
Jim Hegedus was the reason we were all there, in June 2006, wearing Steinert cross-country jerseys long after our scholastic careers had wrapped up, long after any semblance of running shape had vanished for many of us. We were there to remember Jim, a 2002 Steinert High graduate who had died just weeks earlier.
It had been a trying stretch. On May 6, 2006—two days after his 22nd birthday—Jim crashed his car on his way back from visiting college friends at the University of Maine. He spent a week in the Intensive Care Unit at Helene Fuld Medical Center. On May 13, he died from his injuries.
The day he died, his parents already had started talking about organizing a run in his honor. It was a natural choice considering how much Jim loved to run. He would say he did his best thinking while running, and he must have needed plenty of time to think considering how much he ran.
He started running at Steinert High School before moving on to the University of Maine, where he graduated a year early, in 2005. In April 2006, Jim completed his first marathon, in a time that qualified him for the Boston Marathon, which had been his dream.
Jim had been someone who achieved goals merely by putting one foot in front of the other. His parents adopted that mentality when they tackled the seemingly impossible task of pulling off a new 5K in a couple weeks, with no race-planning experience. But they made it a reality, which was inspiring but, knowing them, not surprising.
The weather could have ruined the first race before it even started. It poured that day, a storm so fierce the race had to be delayed. But, one by one, we realized, “Jim would have run in this.” So we did, too.
Nine years have passed and plenty has changed since then, but we still return to the park every June to honor Jim. The 10th annual Jim Hegedus Memorial 5K Run will take place 10 a.m. June 20, starting near the volleyball courts at Veterans Park’s Kuser Road entrance. It’s on a fairly flat, paved course, certified by the U.S. Track and Field Association. The race itself is managed impeccably, which is probably why it has grown since 2006 and now includes many people who didn’t know Jim.
But for those who did know him, the event continues to serve as a reunion, not only with each other but with Jim.
“It may sound a little crazy, but every year come race time, I get a little anxious,” said his sister, Amy Hegedus. “It’s as though it’s one day out of the year I will get to be with him again, like he will be there with us all, and we can do one last run together.”
People come from near and far for the chance. They are people like Adam Goode, a friend, roommate and track teammate of Jim’s at the University of Maine.
Goode, 31, has plenty going on in his life. He works as a social worker, the head coach of the Bangor High School cross-country team and as a member of the Maine House of Representatives. But he’ll be in Hamilton June 20, along with four more of Jim’s Maine teammates.
“I think we are all closer because we knew Jim,” Goode said. “I wouldn’t want to do the race without being with people who cared about him.”
And, really, that’s why anyone who knew Jim runs this race. It’s the only day we have to run with dozens of Jim’s loved ones—and, by extension, Jim. It’s why at least a decade’s worth of Steinert distance runners know to save the Saturday before Father’s Day. And though we’re all in or approaching our 30s now, we allow ourselves that day to return to high school, to the times we spent with Jim.
During the race, some of us will stop or shout or point at a tree on the course, between the playground and the wooden bridge on the Klockner Road end of Veterans Park. We haven’t gone mad. We call this “Jim’s tree,” and it’s in a spot Jim’s Steinert teams ran by every day. It’s planted at a point halfway through the race course, and every year, the pace of the race picks up just a bit near that tree. There are a few theories floating around about why that is. But no matter your take, there’s no doubt that—one way or another—Jim is to thank.
Because without him, many of us wouldn’t be running. Definitely not in that race, and most likely not at all, ever. But, though I struggle to find the motivation to run for myself, I never have trouble mustering the drive to run for Jim.
Starting every April, I’ll begin seeing reminders of race day: hundreds of light blue lawn signs advertising the race around town, the giant banners at the Steinert High track and by the tennis courts at Veterans Park, the email asking for something small to be put in the Post. It’s all the work of Jim’s family, which devotes itself to this race yearround. It’s a labor of love, and I thank them for it.
Because to keep this race alive is to keep Jim alive, too.
For more information, go online to jimhegedus5krun.com.