Tuesday, November 10, 2009


(Photos: Honoree Bill Rataczak and Thorpe Running Inspiration award founder and presenter Tony Schiller.)

By Tony Schiller

The 2009 Thorpe Running Inspiration Award recipient is a pioneer in Minnesota racing and multi-sport, Bill Rataczak.

If you don’t know Bill, this is an opportunity to learn about a person whose life has touched and inspired so many and now it’s our turn to say, “Thank You”, and to offer a little encouragement and inspiration back to the guy that’s been cheering us on for so long.

From Bill’s earliest memory he had only one life dream. It was to fly airplanes for a living. For 34 years he achieved that dream, flying jumbo jets around the world for Northwest Airlines. If you ever flew on one of Bill’s flights, you were in good hands.

He was the guy you wanted flying your plane if you had a heart attack and needed someone to perform CPR to save your life.

He was the guy you wanted flying your plane if you got hijacked. That’s right. He was the co-pilot of the infamous DB Cooper hijacking in 1981. You might recall Cooper as the businessman who got on board with a backpack full of dynamite, cleared the plane of all but the crew and demanded parachutes and $200,000. Once in possession of the loot, he demanded they fly to Mexico keeping the plane under 10,000 feet and 175 mph, the minimum speed needed to keep the 727 airborne. Soon thereafter, he opened the tailgate, lowered the steps and leapt into a nighttime blizzard in the Cascade Mountains, never to be seen or heard from again.

Bill’s convinced the jump killed him, but tales of Cooper sightings continue to this day as the folklore about his existence only grows. The hijacking changed much about air travel as we know it today. It was the beginning of airport security being ramped up in the US and soon thereafter Boeing changed the 727, making it virtually impossible to jump out of.

And Bill was also the guy you wanted flying your plane if you were a runner and wanted a runner partner to show you the best routes after flying to far away places like London, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Singapore. When the rest of the crew got off the plane and hit the bars, he was the one who hit the streets to log his miles. He did this from the early ‘70s, when running was a lonely pursuit, especially in other parts of the world, but he loved it. It was the best way to see a city and he had marathons to train for.

He ran early versions of Grandma’s, Nike OTC, New York City and the City of Lakes Marathon which was the precursor to the Twin Cities Marathon. And if you ran in any of the first 13 TCM’s it was Bill who called your name over the PA at the finish as he was the voice of the race through 1994.

He was the voice of other races too, notably, a popular 10k he brought to Annandale and directed for many years before he helped change it to a triathlon in 1987. Though that first edition saw half the field stopped at a railroad crossing by a passing train, the race drew raves and the next year sold out as the first Heart of the Lakes Triathlon using the same course used today, sans railroad tracks. A Bill innovation was using a young upstart artist’s nature drawings for race T-Shirts. The popular designs later became among the most desired race awards around… the framed posters still penned to this day by Bill’s son, the award winning nature artist, Jim Rataczak.

For nearly a decade Bill called the finish line at Annandale before finally doing the race himself. He trained hard, finished a strong swim and was riding well when he heard one of his son’s high school buddies call out, “Hey Mr. Rataczak”. Bill instinctively held up his hand and the two landed a high-speed high 5, only the kid forgot to let go. It caused the perfect whifferdale as Bill’s body came to a screeching midair halt and his bike kept going as he crashed hard to the ground while still holding the kid’s hand. Relying on his old pilot training – never let the passengers see your duress – the shirtless Bill got up, smiled and assured the panicking boy he was alright. He fetched his bike, rode off with a wave, and only when up the hill and out of sight did he let out a howling, “OWWWW”.

He finished the ride and limped painfully around the lake repeating to himself, “I’m going back to announcing.” It was his first – and last – triathlon. He remained a staple at every Heart of the Lakes Triathlon, as the official starter and all-around cheerleader congratulating as many finishers as he could shake hands with. He took great joy in seeing all the visitors come to Annandale and was always a great ambassador for the race and city.

It took a lot to cause Bill to finally miss a HOLT in 2005. In the prior February he was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer which was spreading rapidly through his body. He had surgery and went through 6 weeks of intense chemo where he was placed into a painful mask that was locked to a table for his treatments. The treatments worked and killed the cancer but he lost much of his voice and had to feed through a stomach tube as his weight fell from 154 to 127 lbs. Through it all Bill remained positive, promising all who would listen that he’d soon be back to his loves… playing hockey, running, cycling, flying his plane and cheering all of us on at the Annandale triathlon.

He was. He did all those things within a year of starting treatment and was back in a frail state as race starter in 2006. He returned in 2007 looking and feeling much stronger and like his old self again. The next morning, (Monday, July 23rd) he awoke feeling motivated by all the racers and jumped on his bike fore the first of his 4 weekly rides. Nearing the ride’s end, he had a fact to bumper meeting with a 10 ton gravel truck. The truck won. Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet – it was all that saved him – but it was a horrific accident. His forehead was ripped open and peeled back to his skull exposing his brain to gravel and dirt. The impact broke the second cervical vertebrae in his neck and fractured too many other bones in his body to mention here.

He was airlifted to St. Cloud where the battle to save his life ensued as he remained in critical condition for over a week and wound up hospitalized for over 2 months. He was fitted for a bird cage to stabilize his broken neck and began the long, slow and painful road to recovery. Throughout it all, friends and family marveled at Bill’s strength as he stayed positive and kept telling everyone he was doing fine and would soon be back to normal.

He was a good faker but those who knew him best saw that, after the cancer, this second whammy was almost too much for even Bill to handle. It was going to be the struggle of his lifetime to find the courage to hang in there and come back again.

He did just that. If you raced in the 2008 HOLT, you might recall one of the highlight moments of the day. When Bill walked under his own power down to the beach to once again handle his duties as race starter, it was called a medical miracle, but to those who know him, it was what you’d expect from Bill Rataczak. Since his leg strength and body balance is still in question, he hasn’t yet retaken to the roads on his bike or gotten back on the ice for senior hockey. But he is training hard on his Revmaster and has been back in the cockpit of his plane for more than the past year, doing what he was born to do, fly.

The Thorpe Running Inspirational is named as a 2-way award. It serves not just to show appreciation to the recipient for how they role model for us strength and courage against incredible adversity. It’s also about the racing community coming together to say, “Keep on fighting my good friend… there’s still many races for you to run in life and we want you out there with us for many more years.”

And that’s just what Bill Rataczak intends to do. He was really touched by this award and thanks the entire multi-sport community for all the support and well wishes along the way. He invites all of you to attend the Heart of the Lakes Triathlon in 2010 and looks forward to sending off your wave and cheering you home at the finish line. - TS