By Debbie Adams
Bill Cundiff recently completed his 42nd marathon race out of the 51 that are on his bucket list—after undergoing open heart surgery in January.
“I would like to share a praise to God from this past weekend,” Cundiff said in a Facebook post. “Last fall I had to stop running due to a congenital heart valve issue, and in January I had open heart surgery. On follow up, my surgeon said I could start to run. Gradually I regained my endurance so that four and a half months later I completed the Teton Dam half marathon that commemorates the collapse of the dam in 1976.”
In early June, Cundiff and his wife, Beth, took a non-stop flight from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, then took a rental car three and a half hours to Rexburg, Idaho, for the race.
“Arriving at our hotel at 4:30 a.m., I was able to sleep till 6 a.m., then out to the starting point at 7:30 a.m.,” Cundiff continued. “The good Lord provided a hedge of protection around me, and I finished first in my age group. Unbelievable!”
After the race, the Cundiffs were able to stay a couple more days in the area to visit Yellowstone Park (before the flood) and the Grand Tetons—the “most beautiful mountains” he has ever seen.
Cundiff says his wife doesn’t run. She fills the role of “tourist.”
Rexburg is the home of Brigham Young University-Idaho. He and his wife found the town to be a “breath of fresh air” with its college town atmosphere.
The Teton Dam Marathon takes place every year around the anniversary of the breaking of the Teton Dam on June 5, 1976. The collapse of the dam resulted in a deadly flood which caused $500 million in damage, took 14 lives, and made thousands homeless in Rexburg and the surrounding areas. With the dam’s collapse, a large reservoir of water 280 feet deep was dumped on the farms and towns below.
According to race organizers, “This tragedy was turned into triumph by the victims’ own faith and courage and by an outpouring of aid by many volunteers from Idaho and nearby states. For this reason, each year hundreds of runners flood the streets to take on their own personal challenge of running a race.”
With their late arrival the night before, Cundiff was concerned about getting his race packet on time. Contacted online, the race director hunted him down the next morning personally with his packet.
Cundiff says that during the race, he felt his fingers begin to tingle, a circulation problem indicator, but God provided that “hedge of protection” and he was able to complete the race with no ill effects.
“What a trip–God is good!” is how Cundiff summed it up.
Cundiff’s goal is to eventually run races in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Most of the states still on his list are in the Midwest—Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Maryland, North Dakota, Alaska, and Nevada—plus Massachusetts and Vermont.
Cundiff is well-known in Vinton, although he now lives in Salem. He graduated from William Byrd in the Class of 1975 and played football there. He grew up in Vinton Baptist Church.
He, his late father, Wallace, and his brother, Sam, are all pharmacists—Wallace and Sam at Cundiff Drug Store in Vinton, Bill at Richfield and then Friendship. Bill worked at Cundiff’s as a delivery boy and then a pharmacy technician in his youth. He retired a year ago.
Bill ran his first marathon in 2002 at age 46. Some friends were going to Washington, D.C. to run the Marine Corps Marathon. Someone dropped out and he was invited to take the spot. He remembers running past the Pentagon during the race, which was in the process of being rebuilt after 9/11. The Marine Corps Band was playing in the parking lot to encourage the runners.
He says he ran some in college, but not high school. He lived in Richmond while earning his pharmacy degree and ran through downtown Richmond past the monuments and the Capitol.
He returned to the Roanoke Valley after pharmacy school and “became a gym rat.” He and some friends would be waiting outside the gym for it to open at 5:30 a.m. and started running during the wait. He gradually built on that.
As for the heart surgery, Cundiff had a congenital heart valve condition in which his heart wasn’t pumping enough blood and had to work harder.
He had “passed out five times” while running before the surgery (“syncope”) which involved “not enough blood getting to my brain.” He says if you notice the signs, you can catch it, but that’s difficult to do. On three of those occasions, the Rescue Squad was called, but Cundiff declined going to the hospital.
He and his doctor planned the future surgery, but one day he passed out at an intersection near Glenvar High School while running. When he woke up, he was surrounded by students, the Rescue Squad, and traffic cones.
After the surgery in which they “cracked open his chest,” and fully repaired his valve, he received clearance from his cardiologist to run, but not lift anything heavy. He started out again walking with a friend and little by little got back into running, with the approval of his doctor.
Cundiff says that after the initial Marine Corps Marathon, he ran one in Richmond, then the famous New York Marathon. He has run a marathon in Hawaii on the island of Kona and was able to take one of his sons and his daughter along. Cundiff says that surprisingly that was his hardest race—running through large fields with no trees and no shade—heat radiating both up and down.
He has attempted to complete two or three races each year, one in the spring and one in the fall, to “knock out the last nine” on the list. He is running about two days each week this summer, depending upon the heat and humidity, and will increase the miles as he prepares for the actual marathon he selects for fall. The Bismarck (North Dakota) Marathon, in September, may be next.