By Scott Etkin
In the entryway of Bill Staab’s apartment in the West 70s is a sturdy wooden table full of running trophies. They’re not his, he’s quick to point out — though he has run hundreds of races over the past 50 years — rather they belong to the many foreign-born athletes that are part of his running club, West Side Runners.
West Side Runners (or “WSX” as it’s known by the insignia on the club’s red singlets) is open to anyone, but especially attracts elite, foreign-born athletes. As president of the club, Staab, 84, has helped hundreds of immigrants from Africa, South America, and Central America pay for the cost of racing and travel, and to navigate the visa process. His Upper West Side apartment has also served as ad-hoc lodging for runners the night before big races in New York City.
“I’ve paid entry fees for runners well over a million dollars over the years,” Staab told West Side Rag. The support comes out-of-pocket from his career as an executive in the steel industry in the U.S. and abroad. “That’s not all that much money when you add up the fact that I’ve been doing it since 1980.”
WSX was born out of Staab’s volunteer work at the West Side YMCA in the 1970s. When the Y no longer supported sports clubs, Staab and some friends spun out West Side Runners (replacing the Y with an X).
WSX’s connection to foreign-born athletes began when it helped two runners from Colombia gain entry into the New York City Marathon. At the time, the New York City Marathon – with just a few dozen runners doing laps around Central Park – was unrecognizable from what it is today.
“I like the idea that America embraces foreigners, and many people try to help them grab a foothold,” Staab said.
Today, about a hundred athletes are part of WSX and the network grows by word of mouth. That’s how Staab got connected with Alberto Mena, a runner who was born in Ecuador but moved when he was three years old with his family to Washington Heights, where he still lives.
Over the past few years, Staab has helped Mena enter into races as an elite athlete. “He’s the most generous and thoughtful person that you could think of,” Mena said.
This weekend, Mena — who runs 100 miles per week, up, down, and around the West Side of Manhattan — will compete in the biggest race of his life: On Saturday, February 3rd, he’ll be one of 214 American men to compete in the marathon at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.*
An Underdog in Orlando
Mena has several go-to routes along the West Side: the West Side Highway is for long runs (he’ll go all the way down to Battery Park and back); Central Park is where he meets up with other runners to train together; and the outdoor track at Riverbank State Park on 135th Street is where he does speed sessions.
When the pack of runners toe the line in Orlando, Florida, to race for a chance to represent the U.S. in the Summer Games in Paris, Mena will be one of the underdogs. He qualified for the race by running 2:17:06 – that’s 5:14 per mile for 26.2 miles – at a marathon in the Hudson Valley this past October, but in the last Olympic cycle the winner ran eight minutes faster than Mena’s time. Only the top three finishers make the marathon team.
Many marathoners don’t peak until their 30s, however, meaning that Mena, 25, still has about a decade to maximize his potential. So he’s treating the US Team Trials as a learning experience.
“I’m trying to soak it all in and learn even the smallest of things, like how the logistics work,” he said. “I’m not necessarily hoping to qualify for the Olympic Team, although that would be amazing. I’m going in with a mindset of, ‘How many people can I beat on that day?’”
For most of the top competitors at the Team Trials, running is their full-time job. They have sponsorships that support their training and racing. Mena, on the other hand, has a day job doing administration and marketing at a private psychology office. He typically runs twice a day, once around lunchtime and then again at night after work.
Mena majored in psychology at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he “walked onto the track team.” He said psychology plays an important role in his success as a runner.
“I’ve always had the mentality of ‘Why not me? What’s stopping me from achieving what I want to achieve?,’” he said. “If I don’t get what I want, then it makes no difference because then I’d be in the same place had I not tried at all. So for me, it’s just always been a matter of pushing myself to see how far I can get.”
In the build up to the Team Trials, Mena said that his most notable workout wasn’t one with the fastest time, but one that tested his mental fortitude the most. It was a freezing, snowy night in January, and Mena ran two miles four times at his marathon pace on the track at Riverbank State Park, where wind whips off the Hudson River.
“I was like, ‘I’m tough. There’s no one out here,’” he said. “When you’re running a marathon, you’re battling your thoughts. Although it wasn’t the best in terms of paces, in terms of how I mentally felt and how resilient I felt after that workout, I think that was what really made me feel ready for this race.”
Mena is a “remarkable fellow,” in Staab’s words, and the first WSX runner to make the U.S. Team Trials in the marathon. Staab believes that Mena, a dual citizen, will have another chance at making the Olympics for either Ecuador or the U.S. in four years, if he stays uninjured.
“Every good runner has a story,” he said. “And immigrants have even more of a story, in my opinion.”
*The marathon will be available to watch live on Peacock, the streaming service, on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It will also be broadcast on NBC (taped delay) from 12:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
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