When I first call Ray Figlewski at his home in Branford, he says, “It’s hard for me to run these days; my balance is gone” because of Parkinson’s disease. Then he adds, “It’s tough. But it can be dealt with.”
I recognized his voice right away, although it’s become softer in recent years. That’s the voice I, and thousands of other runners, hear every Father’s Day on the Branford Green: “Thank you for running the Branford Road Race! There’s no better place!”
Figlewski, aided by his running companion, Dick Wainman, founded the popular race in 1979. Since then it has steadily grown. About 2,000 people ran the 5-miler last year, while up to 1,000 others participated in the 1-mile fun run or the 2-mile health walk on the scenic shoreline course that starts and ends on the Green.
While I’m interviewing Figlewski at his condominium, which has a majestic view of Long Island Sound, I notice he proudly refers to the event as “my race.”
“When I started this, there were two things I wanted it to be: really good for my runners and a great community event. I also wanted it to be a way to raise money.” The beneficiaries include Connecticut Advocates for Parkinson’s and Camp Rising Sun in Colebrook, a nonprofit camp for children with cancer.
Figlewski and Wainman met around 1977 on a day they were out running in a heavy rain.
“I look across the park and I see another guy running,” Wainman recalls over the phone from his home in Nevada. “And I think: ‘I’ve got to meet this guy.’ It was Ray. We started training together.”
Both of them were in the prime of their running lives. Figlewski says, in those days, “I used to run 84 miles a week. I did a 12-mile run before work.” He ran the New York Marathon in 1976 and more than 10 years later the Newport Marathon, doing his personal best of 2 hours, 58 minutes. That’s a pace of 6 minutes, 45 seconds per mile.
But in 1998 or 1999, he began to notice something wasn’t quite right with his body. Figlewski had always enjoyed dancing with his wife, Anne, at weddings. But during a dance event in the late 1990s he said to her: “Annie, something’s wrong. I can’t dance the way I used to.”
Later he began to notice one of his fingers was trembling.
Finally, in 2006, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects neurons in the brain. Approximately 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s. There is no cure.
For Figlewski, who played football and rugby at Boston College before becoming a competitive runner, the diagnosis has required a major lifestyle adjustment. But he says, “I absolutely refuse to let it beat me.”
He admits to moments when he says to himself: “What else? My eyes don’t work right.” (Often they close when he is talking.) “I can’t talk right; I bite my lips and tongue all the time; my stomach doesn’t work right; and I’m uncoordinated.”
But he notes what he calls “the positive things about P.D. (Parkinson’s disease), the goodness and kindness of everyone in deference to my disability. I have not had anyone give me a hard time in line at CVS or Kohl’s. Not once has anyone not been patient when my eyes close while talking or when I stutter or have slurred speech.”
Figlewski adds, “P.D. has taught me to slow down and see people.”
But “slowing down” for him still seems quite active. He is out of bed at 6 a.m., puts in about six hours in the foreign currency trading he does from home and then, after a nap, does a workout.
“I try to do aerobics for 50-60 minutes at least five days a week. And I do weight-lifting at the gym three times a week for a half-hour. I tell anybody who has Parkinson’s: ‘If there’s one thing that makes you feel better, it’s exercise!’ ”
But sometimes they complain it’s too strenuous to put in that 45-60 minutes. “I tell them: ‘You’ve got Parkinson’s disease! You’ve got to fight it!’ ”
When the weather is good, Figlewski still gets to an outdoor track and runs for 3 miles, two or three times a week. He says running “makes me feel like a normal human being.”
Figlewski is 69; his old pal Wainman is 83 and has his own physical issue: rheumatoid arthritis. “I don’t run very much anymore,” says Wainman, who also ran in several marathons from 1979-81.
Wainman says of Figlewski: “He’s one of the most courageous guys I’ve ever met. There aren’t many people who would put in the time and effort to continue this road race when battling what he’s battling. I think it’s absolutely phenomenal what he’s done. I’m so proud of him.”
Figlewski says the shaking that afflicted his body got so bad that in 2012 he underwent deep brain stimulation: wires were inserted into his brain and connected to a device implanted underneath his shoulder. This procedure, along with a second one done in 2013, brought an end to the shaking. He calls it “a miracle, a blessing.”
Ironically, neither Figlewski nor Wainman has ever run the Branford Road Race. They were always too busy managing it. Wainman says that he plans to return to Branford on Father’s Day this year and perhaps walk the course with his old friend.
Meanwhile, you can count on Figlewski being out there as the race emcee. He has taken voice lessons to help keep his voice strong enough for that traditional role.
“I refuse to quit doing it,” he says. Then he demonstrates in a remarkably booming voice: “Thank you for running the Branford Road Race!”
For more information about the Branford Road Race, and to register, go to branfordroadrace.net.
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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