If you’ve made it a tradition to walk or run in the National Cherry Festival races, George Kuhn has been right there with you. Kuhn is not only the founder of the 1973 race but has also participated every single year, including this year’s 40th annual race on July 6 at the age of 81.
With black-rimmed glasses and a stack of brilliant white hair, Kuhn resembles the main character of the Disney/Pixar animated film, “Up,” Mr. Fredericksen – but instead of a tweed jacket and a plump body, Kuhn sports a pair of black spandex bicycle shorts. Veins snake along his muscular arms and legs, which have been darkened by years of the sun during daily workouts.
“You just have to make it part of your day,” Kuhn said about his daily workouts, which range from morning walks to pedaling his Trek road bike the 38 miles to Suttons Bay and back. “I’ve always kept it in my schedule. There was just no question if I was going to do something active. I’m just going to do it.”
That included overcoming hip surgery at the age of 64 and getting through a case of West Nile Virus.
“I got bit by the wrong mosquito and was in the ICU for four days. There were four cases in Northern Michigan. Afterwards, the doctor told me how worried he had been for me,” said Kuhn.
Both incidents threw a wrench in Kuhn’s exercises, but by six weeks post-surgery, Kuhn was on his bicycle – even riding 50 miles just two months after he was discharged.
When it comes to his diet, Kuhn has simply shifted from a protein-based, meatheavy focus to a balance of starches – and of course his nightly serving of ice cream.
THE FATHER OF FITNESS
Kuhn has become synonymous with running in Traverse City. Aside from organizing the first Cherry Festival race, he helped found the Traverse City Track Club, which celebrated its 50th year in 2011.
“George was always at the weekly track club races, ready to run because part of why he organized it is because he wanted to be able to do it himself,” said Lisa Taylor, director of the Meijer Festival of Races. “For my husband and I, (the track club) was our welcome wagon into the community.”
That same self-starter attitude has carried over into other aspects of Kuhn’s life, including his role in creating the school computer center at TBAISD.
“Who ran in the ’60s? Nobody. Who had a computer in the ’60s? Nobody. You’ve got to start things because no one else will,” said Kuhn.
‘IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL…’ OH, YOU GET THE IDEA
As of press time, there were close to 2,400 walkers and runners signed up for the 5K and 15K races, said Taylor.
“We usually get about 300 walk-ups the day before and maybe 100 more on the morning of the race,” she said, despite the race date being moved ahead a week from previous years. “I’ve noticed it’s also really a family event. It’s not surprising to see mom, dad and the kids all registered.”
That wasn’t the case when Kuhn started the event.
“Back in the ’70s, one of the Cherry Fest board members said, ‘we ought to have a marathon for the festival.’ Well, back then there weren’t many marathoners around so we decided to do a 10K,” Kuhn said of the original race.
Within a few years, word had spread and nearly 600 participants were signing up.
“It got to the point where it became too much a hassle to bus so many people out to the peninsula (the original starting point), so we changed it to a 15K and tried to narrow down the field.”
Even after adding the route over McKinley Hill, that race continued to draw participants.
“Eventually the numbers grew again,” he chuckled.
Now divided into a 5K and 15K, the Meijer Festival of Races invites people of all ages to get moving during the National Cherry Festival.
And like years past, Kuhn will be present – rounding out the back of the pack with his ski walking poles and determined attitude.
“I talked to him the other day and he goes, ‘Well, it’s going to be a long 5K but I’ve been preparing for it.’ He takes it seriously,” said Taylor about her mentor and hero. “I remember when he turned 60… he had a chin-up bar in the backyard and would celebrate his birthday by doing a pull-up for every year he turned. He walked right up to that bar and did 60 pull-ups. Some of the 30 and 40-year-old guys were standing there with their mouths open.”
The 40th Annual Meijer Festival of Races will take place on Saturday, July 6. Both the 5K and 15K distances will start at the main campus of Northwestern Michigan College and end along the Grand Royale Parade route in downtown Traverse City. Registration is still open and available at cherryfestival.org/festival-of-races.