Joseph Huber likes to tell the story of how a casual offer to run a few miles turned a middle-aged, weekend athlete into an obsessive marathoner.
A marathoner who’s about to run his 100th marathon.
Now a resident of Pine Brook, N.J., and a longtime Jewish communal professional, he was visiting some relatives in East Hampton, L.I., in 1985. He was 35, out of shape; he played some pick-up-game basketball games but had gained 30 pounds since he quit smoking. Then his sister-in-law challenged him to run three miles with her on the roads of her Long Island town.
Huber laced up his sneakers and hit the road. His sister-in-law dropped out after three miles. He kept going, for two more miles.
“It was fun … it was a beautiful day. I wanted to get in shape,” said Huber, now 63, sitting one recent morning in his Lower Manhattan office of American Friends of Tel Aviv University, where he works as vice president for the Northeast region.
“I found out that I loved to run,” he said, taking a sip of coffee from his oversized San Francisco Marathon mug.
That San Francisco race was one of the 26-mile, 385-yard competitions he has started and finished.
The ING New York City Marathon, on Sunday, Nov. 3, will mark a milestone — the New York marathon was also his 50th and 75th. It’s his favorite marathon, said the Brooklyn native.
After number one, in 1989, “I wanted to do two,” he said. “Then I wanted to do five, 10…” The numbers, and Huber’s enthusiasm, kept mounting. At number 50, he looked ahead to 100; he does seven or eight a year. “I recover in three weeks.”
What keeps him going?
He likes to “shteig,” he said. Shteig means to climb or go up in Yiddish. Huber grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in the Bronx, the son of immigrants, Holocaust survivors, from Poland.
“You want to climb,” or strive, Huber said. Running, he says, has given him a new confidence, which spills over into his non-running life. The discipline he needs to prepare to run for hours — his best marathon time is 3:24:28, 22 years ago; now he completes the course in about four hours — gives him a resolve to deal with whatever “adversity” crops up in other parts of his life. Huber, who has served as a Jewish federation director and a development executive for several Jewish organizations, says he got one job because of his running. The person doing the hiring noticed Huber’s marathon background on his resume and hired him, figuring that anyone dedicated enough to run that far several times a year would bring that trait to his job.
Huber said he looks at marathon running philosophically. “Life,” he says, “is a series of long runs.”
“When have Jews not run?” he asks rhetorically. “We have been a people on the run,” the so-called Wandering Jews. “My parents ran from the Nazis — that’s how they survived.”
As a kid, though fast, he was unremarkable, Huber says — literally “an average Joe.”
“I’m no longer an average Joe. I’m not the average Joe when I run.”
Though usually a middle-of-the-pack competitor, he’s won a few age-group medals.
On the walls and shelves of his office are various marathon mementoes — photos, a gym bag, etc. He tells of running in the near-100-degree heat of Los Angeles, and in the pouring rain of Atlantic City and Toronto.
He said he remembers each race he’s done.
He’s at work early this morning, after finishing a seven-mile training run on a local high school track in the dark, wearing a miner’s flashlight on his head. “That was one of my short runs,” he said.
His parents, Huber said, thought his marathon running was “meshuge.” His wife, Sharon, and three grown children think it’s “cool” — though the novelty has worn off for the kids. “Now it’s kind of passé.”
He’s long ago lost the weight he had gained after he quit smoking.
“I’m blessed with good health, he said. “I don’t feel old.”
This year Huber is collecting pledges as part of the American Cancer Society Determination Team, in honor of four people he knows who have the disease, including his sister, Anna, and a sister-in-law, Susan.
Two weeks after the New York Marathon he’ll do one in Philadelphia, “God willing.”
He has no plans to quit doing marathons; one day he hopes to do a marathon in Israel, which he has visited more than 40 times.
“Each race” — he logs them on a T-shirt that is running out of space — is a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” he says. “The thrill is not gone.”
Will he reach 200 marathons?
“I don’t think that that’s gonna happen,” Huber said — he’d have to keep running into his late 70s. Then he thinks again. “But I didn’t think 100 was going to happen.”
You can contribute to Joseph Huber’s marathon fundraising on behalf of the American Cancer Society here.