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Former local stars still run as they coach

Trio ready to participate in today’s Turkey Trot

The drive for Bobby Johnson was clear, push your body in every distance race to its outer limits.

The training and other preparation made him into a distance powerhouse. Even former Boardman High School state champion Mark Hadley commented the other day on how well Johnson is running.

Johnson finished eighth in the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis, where more than 20,000 runners entered.

Today, Johnson, Eric Rupe and Patrick Kunkel, former area distance standouts, are running in the annual Turkey Trot 2-mile and 5-mile races around the Kent State University-Trumbull Campus.

All three are done with their individual collegiate careers, but are giving back as coaches. It’s a shift all three have made. Johnson, a former standout at Butler University and 2013 Division III state champion for McDonald High School, is a graduate assistant at Walsh University.

“Although I’m continuing to train hard and value my personal training and journey as a runner, I recognize that I need to do my best to put the men and women at Walsh first and show them that I am genuinely invested in them and care about them as they seek to improve themselves,” Johnson said. “I need to give them my best attention and energy when I’m around them.

“That means I need to be willing to adjust my own training, which often means finishing my workouts after practice or beginning early in order to also keep up with my own aspirations as a runner. So the biggest change is just constantly reminding myself that I owe them all my best and that my own training must take a backseat to the men and women at Walsh if I’m going to do my best for them.”

Rupe, a former Maplewood High School and Youngstown State University standout, became the school’s assistant track and field and cross country coach. He remains in running shape as he runs with the Penguins around Mill Creek Park. Yes, you can still see Rupe, just like his father, Ted, did many times when he ran, jogging around the scenic Youngstown-area park.

“I still run every day and competitively,” Rupe said. “I average around 80 miles a week for the year. My focus is on racing a fast track mile before I get too old. Having a group to train with at YSU has allowed me to continue training at a high level.”

Kunkel, who ran at Ohio State after a successful career at McDonald, went on to be a graduate assistant at Otterbein University. He went to the NCAA Division III cross country championships in Louisville, Kentucky, this past weekend, as the Otterbein men qualified for nationals for the second straight year.

“However, now that I’m coaching, I try to make sure all my athletes are in good spirits and motivated,” Kunkel said. “I come to practice with a positive attitude and try to make everyone smile. I know how tough it is to show up every day as a student-athlete and stay positive, every day. So, just knowing that from past experiences, I try to be that go-to guy that everyone is comfortable with, can talk to in confidence, and motivates.

“I joke and have fun with the team but get to business when we’re headed to work out or race. I lose my voice every race weekend from screaming at those racing. I try to be their hype man; they claim they love it. You can ask anyone on Otterbein’s team.”

Johnson now juggles life’s responsibilities with coaching and continued training, still getting in about 85 miles a week.

He looks for athletes who are trending upward at the end of their high school careers.

“It’s important to value traits such as independence, responsibility, work ethic, selflessness, success in the classroom, and mental toughness in addition to raw running talent,” Johnson said.

He’s working on his master’s degree in school counseling and would like to work close to McDonald, coaching cross country and track at the high school level. Johnson has admired how his mentors — Chris and Ted Rupe and Lou Domitrovich — shaped him as a distance runner. Johnson said he could only dream of having that kind of impact.

“I believe that I bring a great deal of running experience and knowledge to Walsh as a coach and it’s important that I use that to help the men and women strive to reach their potential and be the best version of themselves,” Johnson said. “But it’s even more important that, beyond the running, they see me as someone who did his best work for them, who they enjoyed being around, who they had fun with, and who truly cared about them whether the running was good or not so good.

“I believe the true influence of a coach begins with and centers around the ideals of friendship in the context of helping people become their best. This is what I most strive to contribute every day.”

Eric Rupe looks for the best talent at YSU, with his first focus on the plethora of great area distance runners in northeast Ohio and in the Mahoning Valley. That search may expand state-wide and even around the nation.

The cross country team’s rosters are expanded to 30 men and 30 women for each team as the Penguins strive to be one of the best distance teams in Ohio each and every year.

“I can relate with our runners in that I have gone through college running not all that long ago,” Rupe said. “I had a lot of success in college, but also had some really terrible races. So using my experiences has given me a perspective of what maybe “not to do” in racing and training, because I at one time had screwed it up most likely.”

Kunkel has been pushed by his Otterbein athletes to run 40 to 50 miles a week recently, keeping up with the young Cardinals.

He finds it fun when he sees a potential high school senior latch on with the Otterbein program, knowing it is a good fit for them.

Kunkel is working on his master’s degree in allied health, specifically healthcare administration.

Wherever he lands for a job, Kunkel would like to still coach volunteer or part-time.

“While coaching, I quickly noticed how different the responsibilities are from athlete to coach,” he said. “Once the relationship is established, young athletes look up to you for advice in both life and sports. I share every experience I’ve had as an athlete with them and all that hindsight I wish I had known when I was their age.

“It’s an interesting dynamic and a different way to lead. I’ve enjoyed it. However, you need to stay on your toes. They expect you to show up every day at your best, and quite honestly, it’s an honor. They’ve shown great respect for me and it’s mutual. Even earned the nickname ‘Patty Ice.’ It’s growing a little on me.”

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