When the siren wails Saturday at 5:30 p.m. signaling the start of the 46th Annual Captain Bill Gallagher 10-Mile Island Run, there will be some constants.
Among the things certain to happen: runners will face a challenging 8 miles of the course on the hard-packed sand, longtime Beach Patrol Captain Renny Steele will run the event with clockwork precision, and Bill Kehner will be among the 1,000-plus competitors expected to toe the starting line.
Kehner, 64, has started and finished all but seven editions of the race since its inception, beginning in 1978. The last time Sea Isle held its annual race without him, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the average price of gasoline was 65 cents a gallon and some guy named Steve Jobs recently introduced his Apple II computer in Cupertino, California.
Kehner was a single man who had no idea his now 30-year-old son Collin would finish the race several times himself, or that he would launch an unparalleled streak of not simply longevity, but excellence. Bill won a trophy for finishing first or second in his age group 23 times, took his age group championship 10 times and once finished in the top three overall finishers. He has a personal best time of 54:25.
“This year I am going to run conservatively and will be happy to just get through it,” Bill said. “I need to get that 39th finish before I can think about going for my 40th straight next year.”
Kehner’s elite status in the run is even more impressive given his lack of experience in the sport as a youth. The Pitman resident briefly ran winter track in high school at Collingswood, where he grew up. But he didn’t become a serious runner until he put in his training for his first Sea Isle, then called the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol Island Run, at that time a half marathon, when he was in his mid-20s.
Full disclosure: the author of this article has been a close friend of Kehner since junior high school and has participated in more than 30 races with him over the decades. Another close friend, Ron Ferguson, of Pittsburgh, has also competed in approximately 30 of the races. There are over 100 Sea Isle finishes among the trio.
“It wasn’t until I ran a 5k in Delaware with you and Ferg that I got the running bug,” Kehner said.
When he did, he got it in a big way. Over the years he ran 26 marathons, including finishing in the top 10 New Jersey finishers at Boston multiple times and clocking in a personal marathon best of 2:29 and a 10-mile personal record of 55 minutes.
Kehner works for Rowan University in is Recreation Center. His wife Diane, with whom he recently celebrated the couple’s 30th anniversary, together they have another grown child, Christine, 28. This year, Kehner is training has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries, and a bout with shingles.
Through it all, the Sea Isle run has always been his holy grail.
“It’s a special race,” he said. “From year to year the conditions change and you never know what the challenges will be. It’s either the heat, the wind, the tides effect on the running surface, having to jump over jetties, and always dealing with the soft sand at both ends of the Promenade.”
This year could be interesting, he said, because the sand is “new” since a major beach replenishment project. “The sand might be a little softer this year, which takes more energy out of the runners.”
Despite all this and his advancing age, Kehner says he will keep running the Island Run as long as he is able.
“The fan support along the route is tremendous and there are always interesting sights along the way. There really is no other race like it.”