By EVA FEELEY
Perhaps you were taking in the panoramic view of marshlands off north Central Avenue in Sea Isle City as you drove past in your car. Or maybe you were strolling back from an afternoon on the 37th Street beach. Suddenly your attention was seized by an unusual scene.
Surrounding the well-kept house on the corner of those two streets is a stone landscaping border, the ledge of which is covered by well-worn athletic shoes of various sizes, designers and colors.
You probably thought to yourself, “There has to be a story behind all these shoes.” Well, you would have been right.
The petite 78-year-old woman to whom that story belongs is Janet Halasek, the owner of the “shoe house” as it is affectionately referred to by Sea Isle residents and vacationers.
Halasek and her late husband, Richard, moved to the house permanently in 2000. Janet was retired from her career as a Marlton, N.J., elementary school physical education teacher and Dick from his service as a Marlton police officer.
Halasek had always been a physically active person.
“I wanted to be a boy when I was a kid,” she admitted. “My mother gave me a doll when she brought my brother home from the hospital and that was the only doll I ever owned. I liked playing with trucks and footballs. I taught myself to ride a two-wheeler and then taught the other neighborhood kids.”
She graduated from Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., in 1967 and is proud to inform that her alma mater is the birthplace of basketball. After graduation, she began her career in elementary PE. Despite her passion for all things physical, Halasek was not a runner until a consequential day in 1989.
Janet and Dick were at the Deauville Inn in Strathmere on that day and a bartender, Ken Brown, told them that the Deauville was going to sponsor an “Ugly Bartender Contest.” To raise funds for the event, they were organizing a four-mile “Ugly Bartender Run.”
Brown encouraged Halasek to participate despite her protests that she had never been a runner. Brown prevailed and, in the determined and serious way that she approached challenges, Janet began training for the run.
“As far as I was concerned, this was going to be a one-and-done deal,” she said. “Whenever I would get tired and sore while training, I reminded myself that it would all be over in a few weeks.”
Halasek enjoyed the run and said about it simply, “I didn’t come in last.”
After her initiation into the running life, she was surprised to find that she missed the discipline and regularity of training. She confided to Jim Lombardo, a neighbor and running enthusiast, that she thought she was ready for the next level of difficulty. Lombardo signed her up for a 5K run and, at that point, the die was cast. Halasek was infected with the run bug.
The next rung on the ladder of accomplishments was the Broad Street Run, a 10-mile jaunt from the Olney section of Philadelphia to the Navy Yard in South Philly. Halasek went on to complete that run 22 times and watched the participation grow from 1,800 to 40,000 runners. After Broad Street, she knew she was ready for her first marathon.
A marathon is a long-distance foot race with a distance of 26.2 miles. Halasek’s first and favorite was the Marine Corps Marathon. The course is in Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C. It is the largest marathon in the world that doesn’t offer prize money, earning it the nickname “The People’s Marathon.” Halasek found that marathon inspiring, with many of the runners in uniform.
In order to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a runner in Halasek’s age and gender category at that time was required to complete a marathon in four hours or less. Now that Halasek had the Marine Corps Marathon under her belt, she set her sights on Boston. It was 1996 and she was 50 years old. Janet completed the run that year and once more in 1998.
An event that certainly holds bittersweet memories for Halasek is the annual Law Enforcement Memorial Run. Runners make the journey from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to honor fallen officers from multiple states across the country and Canada. It is a three-day event during which runners join the original group on various legs of the run.
In 2014, when Halasek arrived in the nation’s capital, she was given the awful news that her husband Dick had passed away back at their home. At the Law Enforcement Memorial Run the following year, she was presented with the Jamie Roussey Award for “the active police officer who contributed most to the run that year.” Halasek, of course, was not a police officer.
“I guess everyone just assumed I was,” she said.
The plaque she was given hangs on a wall in her living room among the photos of past beloved dogs and her two current canine housemates, Sam and Tilly.
Halasek was fortunate in terms of injuries; she sustained only one during her running career and that was a pulled hamstring during the Jolly Holly 5K Christmas Run in Millville, N.J.
The Jolly Holly run took place in the early darkness of a December evening and part of the course included a street that had recently been milled prior to repaving. Halasek’s foot came down hard on rubble and she felt the telltale pop that athletes dread. Although painful, the injury didn’t sideline the dedicated runner for very long.
“Dick was always fine with the time I put into training and participating in events,” she recalled. “He was a fisherman, and I was a runner. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to stand in the water and wait for fish and he couldn’t understand why I enjoyed running. But we just allowed the other to do their thing.”
At this point in the tale, you may be wondering when the shoes enter the story. Hold on – here it comes.
During her years as a gym teacher, Halasek frequently lectured students and staff about the importance of proper footwear. When she retired 25 years ago, the school secretary gave her a pair of her used sneakers with petunias planted in them as a retirement gag gift. Halasek set the petunias in their sneaker pots outside her home and thought it would be fun to continue this unusual garden motif.
“At first, I planted petunias in my old sneakers but, when I began running, there were just too many. Runners hate to get rid of their shoes, so displaying them as a collection allowed me to repurpose them,” she said.
The collection has grown over the years with friends and neighbors contributing their worn athletic shoes to the cause. There have been some setbacks. Superstorm Sandy washed away about a quarter of the shoes that encircled the house in 2012. There was also the issue of thieves, both animal and human.
“Foxes seem to have taken a liking to the shoes,” Halasek said, laughing. “But I usually find them discarded when I walk around the neighborhood.”
The human thieves are generally of the inebriated variety. “Young people returning from the bars in the middle of the night used to think it was funny to sit on the sidewalk and try on a few pairs for size and wear them home,” Halasek said.
She soon found a way to foil the theft. “I never place a pair together. I mix them up. In the dark of night, a shoe thief would have a heck of a time matching them up, especially under the influence,” she said.
During her years as a runner, Halasek completed eight full marathons and many halves. Her sport took her to multiple locations across the country. She has many happy memories and thoroughly enjoyed her athletic pursuit but eventually had to give it up.
“I didn’t make the decision to stop running,” she said. “My knees made the decision for me.”
You would be seriously mistaken, however, if you thought that retirement from running has left Halasek an idle woman. She fills her day with a plethora of activities. She’s an avid photographer, her favorite subjects being her dogs, Sam and Tilly.
A vegetable garden in her back yard occupies many a pleasant hour during warm weather and she generously shares the produce with her neighbors.
Halasek is the only hardy soul who has never missed a plunge into the frigid Atlantic during the 26 years of Sea Isle City’s former Presidents Day Weekend Polar Bear Plunge.
Running has now become walking, and she’s fine with that. Along with a partner, she takes a five-mile walk five days a week, in addition to walking her dogs along the beach.
“I know the names of every dog that we regularly pass on our walks and I keep treats in my pockets for them. They get excited when they see me coming,” she said.
If all of that isn’t enough to exhaust a person 20 years her junior, our intrepid retired runner also swims at the Ocean City Aquatic Center five days a week and attends spin, strength and aerobic classes.
So there you have it. The woman who lives in the shoe house is so much more than a collector of beat-up sneakers.
Janet Halasek is a bundle of enthusiasm for life and a whirlwind of positive energy that Sea Isle City residents are proud to count among their own.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Eva Feeley, is a Sea Isle City writer and creative writing teacher. She is a member of Jersey Cape Writers, Beach Bards and Great Bay Gallery Poets. In 2008, she began presenting her very popular workshops in several genres of creative writing.