A lot of runners are devoted to their sport, and Mike Bertolini was certainly that: He kept a running log of his running, and by 2007 had counted more than 62,000 miles he’d covered — with many still to come.
But Bertolini, a Bridgeton resident and a regular at races around South Jersey for more than 30 years, wasn’t just a dedicated runner. He was also a fast one — even at nearly 90.
Bertolini, who died last month at 92, didn’t start running competitively until he was almost 60. And at 61, he ran a half-marathon, 13.1 miles, in 1:22:01 — an American record for his age group.
Four years later, he ran a 1:23:50 half-marathon, a national record in his new age group, 65 to 69 — a record that stood up for years to come, says Bertolini’s longtime friend, Herb Townsend, of Ocean City.
In 2007, Townsend, an avid runner himself, wrote a tribute to Bertolini. Townsend closed by saying Bertolini — then 87 — “continues to amaze and inspire younger runners in South Jersey.”
Bertolini actually ran when he was young, at Bridgeton High School, and was good enough to earn a college scholarship, says his daughter, Debi Krawiec, of Upper Deerfield Township. But he had to turn the offer down because he couldn’t afford room and board, and shortly after high school, he was in the U.S. Army to fight World War II.
He didn’t run for years, staying busy with his job — he retired at 80, after 61 years at two food-processing plants in his hometown — and his marriage to the former Annie Corona. But Krawiec says her dad returned to his old sport after he went for a swim in a local lake and “didn’t have any endurance. He started running to get in shape.”
That was in the mid-1960s, but it wasn’t until 1980 or so that he started racing.
Steve Antczak, of Northfield, met Bertolini at Antczak’s first race ever, in 2004.
“Then I went back to the second race, and there was this guy again,” says Antczak, who runs a website focused on local races, njshorerun.com. “I did about 50 races that year, and I think he was at every one.”
Norb Vondra, 57, started running into Bertolini shortly after Bertolini started his competitive career.
“You’d go to races, and all the top runners were 18, 20, 21, and then you have a guy who’s 61. You’d see the results and say, ‘Is that a mistake?’” said Vondra, of Pittsgrove Township, who delivered the eulogy at Bertolini’s funeral — fittingly, he was buried in his running clothes.
Vondra saw Bertolini in action at hundreds of races, and he saw the reaction his old friend got.
“The greatest thing was, when they would announce Mike’s name for winning, the crowds went crazy,” Vondra says. “He was everybody’s hero.”
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