Ronnie Dukes still running strong at 73

By Michael Wetzel | Living 50 Plus

Ronnie Dukes vividly remembers crossing the finish line in his first road race.

The year was 1979, and the race was the inaugural River City Run, a 10-kilometer race, now in its 43rd year.

“The feeling I had when I crossed the finish line was something I had never felt before,” said Dukes, 73, of Decatur. “It was something I achieved all by myself. I had always played team sports, and there you are a part of a team concept. The joy I felt when I got through was unbelievable.”

And in step with the fictional movie character Forrest Gump, Dukes said, “I just started running and kept on running.” He has now logged between 44,000 and 48,000 miles of running, he said.

The retired director of marketing and public relations for Pepsi-Cola Bottling in Decatur said he had seen running as almost a form of punishment as a high school athlete. He said when he was in basic training for the Army National Guard at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, it was more of the same.

“Running from here to there, everywhere we went, then to stand around and wait,” he said. “If I ran, I wanted it to be because I was trying to catch a ball or after I hit a ball.”

He said that all changed when his co-workers at AmSouth Bank in Decatur, Sonny Craig and Mike Washburn, decided to start a 10K run as a community fundraiser. Craig and Washburn, the race directors, urged Dukes, then 30, to represent the company in the race.

“I was athletic and loved to play basketball and softball (as an adult),” he said. “They talked me into it, and I started training in early 1979 to prepare for that run.”

He said on race day, the 6.2-mile run became a 5-mile race when an escort vehicle inadvertently missed a turn and shortened the distance.

“After that race, running became an addiction for me,” Dukes said. “I just thoroughly enjoyed getting out and running. It became part of my life. I enjoy it, and have enjoyed it ever since. I continue to run. I have had ups and downs running. It has done a lot for me. I have a whole new set of friendships, people who run. It’s like a running family.”

Dukes, who graduated from Decatur High School in 1966 and Alabama in 1970, said running does not just benefit him physically. 

“I called it my PMS of running — physically, mentally, spiritually,” he said. “It keeps my cholesterol balanced. You can’t lose weight just by running though. You have to exercise and watch what you eat. Eat to live, not live to eat. It has helped me mentally. I realized anything you do you need to do it as a passion. Do something you enjoy doing that is not part of your daily life. With this COVID pandemic, mental (weariness) is becoming more of an issue. I believe it is developed in part through stress. Running helps ease the stress.”

He said early on he would run with headsets listening to music.

“Then one day I didn’t wear it and I started noticing everything,” he said. “I was observing things I had not seen while running with my headset on. The spiritual thing came to me.

“I started seeing the beauty in things along the route I was running. I started seeing God’s creations (along the Point Mallard Park running trail) and then started thinking about how my running is comparable to my spiritual life. Running has done a lot more for me than I have done for running. I saw the parallels in my life and thank God for the blessing I have the ability and opportunity to run.”

“When I started running in 1979, there weren’t many road races in the area,” he said. “Now, there are about 50 a year.”

He said the running pioneers of the area, including Michael Poovey Sr., Phillip Parker and Jim Worthey, got the running events started and “it has escalated from there.” He credits Jon Elmore of the River City Runners Club for helping organize countless races in the past three decades.

He said early on he traveled to Birmingham, Mobile, Tupelo, Mississippi, and Tennessee to participate in races.

He’s even packed his running shoes on trips to New York and the Carolinas.

“I’ve been fortunate to get into the New York City Marathon three times,” he said. “It’s very tough to get in because it’s a lottery system.”

He ran the NYC event in 1998, 2006 and 2018. He was among 65,000 people running the 26.2-mile event in 2018, he said.

“I ran in the New York when I was 70,” he added. “It’s such a special event. People are lined up cheering you along the entire route. Entering Central Park and seeing the finish line is just an unbelievable experience.”

More recently, he ran a 75.4-mile relay run from Greenville, South Carolina, to Asheville, North Carolina, in the Ville to Ville Extreme Relay last September. Dukes ran with team members — his son Matt Dukes, Elmore, Jay Vaughan, Michael Poovey and Keith Rutherford.

Dukes said when he turned 40, he planned to either parachute out of an airplane or run a marathon. He decided on the latter. He selected the Chickamauga Marathon in Chattanooga. “I knew I had to up my game to do that kind of distance,” he said. “It was such a wonderful feeling when I finished that.”

He said running longer races became a habit.

“Now every 10 years — 40, 50, 60 and 70 — I have run a marathon in those years,” he said. “But I think I’m finished. I don’t think I will be running one at 80 years old.”

He admits he wants to have personal record times every time out, but it’s not the top of his priority list.

“I want to finish in the top in my age division, but my No. 1 goal is to finish,” he said. “Our goal in life is to finish. It’s what you have in your heart and soul. Just go out and be the best you can be. But it is about living life and finishing. There are difficult challenges in life. You have to overcome them. Just like the hills and dips in running. It’s a parallel in life.”

At his peak, Dukes said he ran about 50 miles a week. He’s now at about 20 miles weekly.

As he has gotten older, Dukes said he no longer can run pain-free. He was forced to take about five months off of running in 2008 because of knee surgery, and a back surgery in July 2011 sidelined him for nine months.

“I have a sign that says pain is temporary and results are forever,” he said. “I like to live by that.”

But he admits it takes longer to recover from the small pains.

“If I have to stop running for a while, for a bad hip for a few weeks, it’s harder to get back into it like I could when I was 40. Now the little discomforts are a little more defined. They stay with you a little bit longer,” he said. “My doctor tells me to listen to my body.

“It’s important we don’t push ourselves over that limit. What’s important is to be out there and enjoy the time you have. One day we’re going to cross that finish line. That is what God has encouraged me to do. He has shown me the way. He has a path for me. I am running that path.”

Enjoying camaraderie

His running buddies help keep him feeling young, though, he said.

“I’m fortunate to run with people who are a lot younger than me,” he said. “They treat me as one of them. I appreciate that.”

One of those runners is Vaughan, 43, of Decatur. Vaughan said Dukes is an inspiration to the entire group that runs a few mornings each week.

“We have a big group that runs and it’s a great way to start the day, especially with Ronnie,” said Vaughan, director of business development company BlueHalo in Huntsville. “He’s a great man. He’s been an inspiration to me for many years. He’s told us to run your run and don’t worry about competing against the others. He’s taught me so much from a leadership standpoint and a spiritual standpoint.

“I’d love to be able to run and do what he’s doing when I get his age. He’s been a role model across the board to so many people. He’s always positive and is interested in the growth of the community.”

Dukes smiles when he thinks about the growth of the running community in north Alabama in the 40-plus years he’s been active.

Dukes has been married to his wife Vicki for 48 years and they have two grown children (Matt and Meg) and four grandchildren. He said he is fortunate to have had two dedicated and loving parents who taught him to have compassion for the community and others.

His late father, Bill J. Dukes, served as Decatur city councilman, mayor and a state representative across 38 years. His mother, Juanita, just turned 92, he said.

Eleven years ago, the Mental Health Association of Morgan County began the Bill J. Dukes 7K@7 Run as a fundraiser. “It’s kind of funny. The only running my dad did was for political office,” he said. “Now he has a race named in his honor. My father was a big advocate for mental health.”

He said Matt finished ninth overall in the 2021 7@7K race.

He credits longtime Lawrence County High School cross-country coach Stanley Johnson and Decatur High cross-country coach Rick Doke for introducing running to young people.

“We are seeing more and more young runners and especially females in area races,” Dukes said. “We have some excellent, state championship-winning high school teams in our area. What they have done for instilling running into our young people is amazing. I am so happy to see young people get involved in running.”

Johnson said Dukes and Pepsi have supported his teams during the past 31 years he’s coached.

“He’s been a big part of our success in Lawrence County and it’s hard to say what kind of impact Ronnie has meant to races and runners across north Alabama,” said Johnson, 60. “He’s always been one of the tools that helps the area running clubs.”

Johnson said because of Pepsi’s support over the years, many students have received college scholarships to run cross-country. “Ronnie and Pepsi never said ‘no’ to me when I needed sponsors for our races,” he said. “He’s one of my mentors.”

Dukes said he believes everybody has an addictive gene in their body. For some people, that addiction is drugs and alcohol.

“Some have an addiction and passion to exercise, to bike, to golf, work in the yard,” he said. “It’s so important to keep active, especially as you age. It’s important to listen to your body.”