300 races, 21 half marathons and countless friends
For decades, Allyn Genest of Kennebunk didn’t know he was a runner at heart.
“I was out of shape,” he says. “I couldn’t run across the street without being tired out. All I did was work, and I brought up the family. I worked and came home and watched TV and then I went back to work again the next day.”
Fast forward to age 67, and Genest has run his personal goal of 67 races this year… and counting.
It started in 2009 with running one 5K with his son Brad.
“I just felt like I needed to change my life around,” Genest says, explaining that he started a regular exercise routine that year, eventually training for the Maine Half Marathon at age 60.
And then his life did change—in the most heartbreaking way—when his wife of 39 years, Penny, died of a heart attack in 2011.
“She was always worried that I was pushing myself too hard,” he says. “Did I tell you that I administered CPR on her until the paramedics came?”
His first half marathon was on a cold, wet day that could only be described as dreary. “That first year was my best time,” Genest says. “When I came in, I started bawling my eyes out. I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Penny, I did it!’”
Genest started joining running clubs: the Maine Track Club, the Winner’s Circle Running Club, the Maine Rowdies Club and the Red, White and Blue. “I got hooked by the atmosphere and I kept making more friends,” Genest says. He ran—he ran a lot—but he also cheered on other runners, volunteered at races, took photos and was there for people in the running community going through struggles of their own.
“The year my wife passed away was a really tough year for me. I turned to the running for support. It helped take the pain away,” Genest says. “I almost think it’s not about the running now. It’s about the people I meet and what they’re going through in life. When my wife passed away, I wanted to give, give, give and be there for people.”
One of his favorite races is the Hugs From Hayley 5K Run and Fun Walk, hosted by Biddeford/Saco Elks to benefit the Maine Children’s Cancer Program. The race was set up by the family of Hayley Desjardins of Saco, who has been successfully treated for a rare bone marrow failure disease—twice.
As it turns out, Hayley’s mother’s sister-in-law’s father was a cousin of Genest’s biological father. And that’s all it took.
“Allyn has become a fixture of our family,” says Mike Desjardin, Hayley’s father. “It’s unbelievable the energy Allyn brings to an event, even if he’s not running. He’s one in a million.”
Runner Angela Coulombe of Saco walked up to Genest at a race and introduced herself because she’d seen him at a lot of races.
“He’s been like my best buddy ever since,” Coulombe says, talking about how Genest supports her Lyme disease benefit race and music festival. “He has a heart of gold. And you know your race has made it, your race is on the map, if Allyn shows up.”
There he’ll be in a bright orange T-shirt, high-fiving and talking selfies with everyone he sees.
“He’s our biggest cheerleader,” says runner Robyn Brown of Scarborough.
“When you give love, it comes back,” Genest says. “When you start cheering for people, you make a difference in their lives and they start to care about you.”
The running community has responded in ways Genest never would have imagined. He has completed 300 races and 21 half marathons. Three times, he’s raced up Mount Washington—each time a test of his determination as much as his endurance. In 2012, he came back too soon after an injury.
“I started getting so weak and exhausted I could only take a couple steps and sit down,” Genest says. “I was in so much pain. But I said to myself, ‘Why did I come to this mountain? To let it beat me?’”
That was 5.5 miles into a 7.6-mile trek. But, with unwavering determination, Genest finished the race—dead last. This race gives runners rides back down the mountain, and carload after carload passed him on the way down, waving or stopping to ask if he wanted a ride. No, he wanted to finish. And he did. By the time he was done, the finish line was gone. But, Winner’s Circle Running Club members were waiting for him, cheering him on.
Genest admits that sometimes he pushes himself too hard. He’s had issues with his knees, especially in 2011 when he ran three half marathons and two 5Ks over 22 days.
But he’s not competitive, not in the sense of worrying about his race times in relation to anyone else’s.
“I’m doing it for my heart,” he says. “And I do the best I can. It’s more about the people I’ve met than it is about the running. I started sharing my life with them, and then it came back to me.”
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer from Scarborough who happens to photograph several local races each year.