It is unknown what the winner of this year’s Chilmark Road Race — Hugh Parker of New York city with a time of 16:07:29 — did to prepare for the race. He ran fast and shirtless in the morning downpour, crossing the tape nearly 30 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, David Melly of Newton, and the women’s winner Nnenna Lynch, also of New York city, who finished with a time of 19:21.27. Perhaps Hugh woke early, stretched and ran eight or nine miles just to warm up. He looked that fit and that youthful on Saturday morning.
It is known, however, what 98-year-old participant Eleanor Shabica did to start her day. After a training meal of eggs, toast with butter, a side of bacon and some Gatorade, she told stories on her porch in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs.
Eleanor never had a chance to run the Chilmark Road Race in her prime. By the time the race began in 1978, she was 64. But this didn’t stop her from competing dozens of times, even winning her age group in 1996 when she was 82. Her time in that race of 56:34:03 bested all women over the age of 69.
Time and a broken tail bone last year have slowed Eleanor just a bit. Saturday was her first race done in a wheelchair, pushed by her sons Carl and Charlie.
Eleanor’s athleticism is by no means limited to running. A decorated swimmer, in 1938 she raced against Albina Osipowich in the breastroke and beat her. For those not up on their swimming history, Albina won two gold medals in swimming at the 1928 Olympics held in Amsterdam. Eleanor had planned to compete in the 1936 Olympic games but as they were held in Berlin that year with Hitler on the ascendant, her father refused to let her compete.
“It was very close, but I beat her,” Eleanor said of her race with Albina. She took another bite of bacon, a competitive gleam sparkling in her eyes.
Rick Huss, a Camp Ground neighbor, stopped by to pay his pre-race respects on Saturday morning.
“We’ve been following your path like kids follow Santa Claus on Christmas,” he told Eleanor. “Checking where you were, how many inches of rain you went through.”
Eleanor spends her winters in Charleston, S.C. She arrived on the Vineyard on the last boat Friday night. It took her two days of driving, her son Carl behind the wheel, to get to the Vineyard just in time for the race.
“Well, I’m determined,” she said.
“Isn’t she amazing,” Rick continued. “You know, she probably caned a third of the chairs at the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. People would bring their chairs here in the fall and in the spring they’d be done.”
Eleanor’s son Charlie joined the group on the porch to make sure Mom was getting hydrated. Charlie is 68, and for many years was a professor of earth science at Northeastern Illinois University. While a professor he also started a company called Shabica & Associates, Inc., where he still works. The company builds environmentally-friendly harbors and beaches around the world, and is currently engaged in building a harbor in Belize.
Spending time with the Shabicas, you begin to feel a bit like a slacker and that perhaps life should be grabbed a bit more firmly by the horns, as the saying goes. Stephen Shabica, another one of Eleanor’s sons and the real instigator in this family race reunion, once spent a year on a remote research station in Antarctica.
Carl Shabica returned to the porch, just back from a trip to Mocha Mott’s for coffee and pastries. Evidently, pushing mom in a wheelchair requires a different sort of training meal.
When asked what exploits he has done, Carl shrugged. “I’m an attorney,” he said with a frankness that implied within this adventuresome family he is the homebody black sheep.
Eleanor first came to the Vineyard in 1914 when she was just two months old. Her family rented in the Camp Ground for a few years and then in 1921 her father bought the house where they still live during summers. Eleanor’s father, an Englishman who, in her words, “came over to America with a pistol in his pocket...” eventually settled down and made a career out of selling lace. He bought the cottage for $500, with $250 down and the other $250 borrowed from, “rich Uncle Joe,” as Charlie referred to him, laughing.
Charlie continued to recount family history, remembering dates, down to the minute, along with the names and exploits of myriad distant relatives.
“You know why I know all this is because I did a power point presentation for mom’s funeral that we had two years ago,” he explained. “We invited mom to her funeral. She was fine, but I thought, I always wanted to go to my own funeral and why don’t we do it for mom where she gets to be there. And she sat up at the front table and I’d say something or Carl would say something and mom would correct us.”
Eleanor smiled. “I had a blast at my funeral,” she said.
Charlie said it was Eleanor who inspired them all to live life so fully. “My dad was a scientist and very forthright,” he said. “We were always kind of afraid of dad. His view of the world was, you as a young man, your integrity was everything. Mom had a crazed sense of exploration. She’d wake up and say, let’s go to Florida. She’d pack us into the car and it would be an exploration.”
Charlie went on to say that on these road trips the main request would be to stay in a motel near some train tracks.
While most travelers look for a good night’s sleep when on the road, the Shabicas preferred the sounds of train whistles and locomotives streaming by during the night, the echo of wheels on the tracks a promise of more adventures to come.
If this sounds odd, consider that it could be the key to a long life, at least where Eleanor is concerned.
“I love to live,” she said when asked how she has stayed so fit and aware for so long. “I love to go. I don’t like to just sit.”
The clock struck 9:45 a.m., signaling that it was time for the family to drive to Chilmark for the race. The race officials had been very understanding and helpful, Charlie said, granting permission for them to drive up Middle Road, right to the starting line, to get Eleanor ready for the race.
Later that morning, standing at the finish line before the race had begun, a small crowd milled about in the heavy rain. Music poured forth from the speakers rallying the crowd huddled under umbrellas. And then, at precisely 10:47 a.m., an organizer announced over the microphone, “We have received the official word that the race has begun.”
The crowd cheered, the race clock began ticking and five kilometers away Hugh Parker began his mad dash to the finish. And somewhere behind him, 98-year-old Eleanor Shabica with her sons Carl and Charlie at her side, began to roll.