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Lake Bloomington run
Charlie Grotevant will be among runners like these on Saturday during the 30th annual Lake Run at Lake Bloomington. (Pantagraph file photo)

PONTIAC -- Charlie Grotevant wasn't what you'd call an athlete growing up.

He tried cross country one year when the coach made the sport mandatory for boys like him on the basketball team.

A few years later, he was forced to run in basic training for the U.S. Army.

"I was the farthest thing from a runner," recalled Grotevant.

He's come a long, long way since then. At 69, the semi-retired farmer has 16 marathons to his credit, including six finishes at the prestigious Boston Marathon, where his fastest time was 3 hours, 12 minutes, 20 seconds.

He's run 1,000 races of various distances, from 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) to half marathons stretching 13.1 miles. His latest challenge was the Champaign Half Marathon on Saturday. He also ran the Springfield Half Marathon on April 2 and took part in the Illinois River-to-River 80-mile race on April 16. The longtime member of the Bloomington-based Lake Run Club will run the long 7.45-mile course during the 30th annual running of the Lake Run at Lake Bloomington on Saturday.

His feats are even more impressive because only one of his races occurred before his large intestine was removed to relieve ulcerative colitis in 1983. Today, he's a volunteer spokesman for the United Ostomy Associations of America.

In 2002, Grotevant won the Great Comebacks Award sponsored by the UOAA, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, the Intestinal Disease Education and Awareness Society, Youth Rally, and Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurses Society. The program to raise awareness about living with Crohn's Disease, ulcerative colitis, colorectal cancer and other diseases that can lead to ostomy surgery and life with an ostomy celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2009.

After his earliest experiences with running, Grotevant didn't start the sport again until the early 1980s. He hoped the exercise might make surgery unnecessary to relieve excruciating pain he experienced from time to time for a decade. He couldn't run 100 yards at first, and he ran only when and where people couldn't see him. But as he improved, he ran his first race, a 10-kilometer, 6.2-mile event during Labor Day weekend a couple of months before the operation.

"I thought if I could run it in less than an hour, then I'd be Superman," he said.

He did. But he wasn't.

The pain returned worse than ever. Ever-increasing doses of steroids were not easing the problem. A side effect of the drug was to make him short-tempered.

"I wasn't a nice person to live with at all," he said.

Still, Grotevant thought he'd rather be dead than to have his large intestine removed and wear a bag to collect his waste. The feeling persisted until he heard about a professional football player who lived an active life after having the surgery done. His doctor also supplied the names of local people who had the operation.

"They said I didn't have to put up with it. Have the surgery."

He was able to return to active farming on land about 25 miles northeast of Pontiac in Livingston County.

"At first you don't want to live, then you go through the surgery, then the ostomy becomes something you don't even think about unless you have to do a little management with it," he said.

Friends encouraged him to get involved with the Vermilion Valley Striders, based in Fairbury. He eventually joined the Lake Run Club, the Kankakee River Running Club and Starved Rock Runners.

"How it led to this, I don't know," he said, laughing.

But he's glad his path did lead to this. When he had a follow-up procedure a few weeks after his first-ever marathon in Chicago, Grotevant's fitness allowed him to return to work far sooner than doctors predicted.

He continues to run both in Central Illinois and in Florida, where he and his wife, Joyce, spend winters. He runs four times a week for a total of about 30 miles. One of the runs usually is an organized race.

He also took up cycling about 11 years ago. He was 2010 co-chair of the annual Agriculture in the Classroom bike ride, where bicyclists ride through a portion of Illinois for several days to visit schools along the way and talk about farming and agri-business.

"That has been something else that has been a passion," he said.

Grotevant also talks about ostomy with people facing the decision whether to have one. About 700,000 people in the U.S. have an ostomy for urine or bowel function. Cancer is the most common cause, followed by the inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, birth defects, accidents and war wounds. About 140,000 new ostomy surgeries are performed each year.

Running is a way for Grotevant to show life goes on after ostomy -- a very good life. Problems have occurred, sure. The large intestine is the place where fluids are absorbed. Those fluids include the electrolytes lost through sweat and must be replaced during periods of exercise lasting a long time.

"It's been trial and error," he said. "I bonked big time, finished the Boston Marathon staggering and wound up in the medical tent with an IV. I've had a few adventures. We are pushing the line and it's a razor thin line which separates mental toughness from stupidity. I've been on both sides.

"For me, running has been a celebration of being healthy 27 years after the surgery."


Lake Run

What: The 30th annual running of the Lake Run

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

Where: Lake Bloomington

Courses: Choose a 4.37-mile course on the inner loop or a 7.45-mile course around Lake Bloomington. A non-competitive 1.5-mile walk is also offered.

Pre-registration: Pre-register and pick up race packets at Often Running/Vitesse Cycle at 206 S. Linden St., Normal. Race-day registration and packet pick-up is also available on Saturday from 7 to 8:15 a.m.

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