Most people Downriver know my husband, Bob Ankony, as the “Tan Running Man of Grosse Ile.” Bob has been running the island and throughout Downriver since 1979.
Bob runs in all weather, from below zero to above a hundred. Oddly enough, as he gets older, he enjoys running in the heat more and more. He comes alive in hot, humid weather—says the heat acts as a natural lubricant for aging joints—and he loves the idea that wherever he is, he can always run home. On average, he runs 2,800 miles a year. So far, he’s run more than 130,000 miles. That’s more than five laps around the earth—more than half the distance to the moon. And he has logged a lot of those miles in faraway places such as Stalingrad, Moscow, Leningrad, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Okinawa.
On the island, he could be seen running anywhere from Hennepin Pointe in the north to Hickory Island and the Ford Yacht Club in the south. His favorite runs were two fourteen-mile off-island routes. Since pedestrians couldn’t use the toll bridge, Bob always ran across the county bridge with his dogs and then headed either north or south. The north route would take him to Sibley and Fort, and the south route to Gibraltar and Fort, then back to Van Horn and the bridge. If it was hot and sunny, he would add a couple of miles and make a sixteen-miler to Southgate Lowes or Allen Road and back.
I often dropped him and our dogs off at Sam’s Club, and they would run home as I shopped, or on summer days I’d drop them off by the Edison Plant in Monroe County and they’d run all the way back on Jefferson. Bob knew where all the watering holes and fruit trees were for his dogs. Along the way, he’d pick mulberries, apples, and pears and share them with his loyal running partners. And once they crossed back onto the island, they would swim in the Trenton Channel, where I’d meet them on my bike, and we all would head home.
I think Bob is happiest when he’s running. This past summer, he suffered plantar fasciitis, a painful long-term foot injury that prevented him from running. So to work up a sweat and burn off energy, he cycled daily twenty-one miles to Lincoln Park and back home.
Two of Bob’s most memorable running experiences involved saving lives. The first incident happened in the Ferry Woods not far from our home, on a hot summer afternoon, Tuesday, August 29, 1995. I was cycling alongside Bob when we came upon a young teenage boy sitting slumped off a dirt trail, with a man standing over him. Bob asked if they were okay, and the man said, “Yeah, we’re all right. He just fell off his bike.”
But something seemed odd. The boy had dirt all over him and wasn’t talking, so Bob asked again if they were okay.
In a quiet voice, the kid said, “Please, don’t go! He’s trying to kill me!” The kid’s shirt was off, and he had footprints on the skin of his chest from being repeatedly stomped on. Apparently, the man was lying in wait to rape a girl, and when the long-haired teenager came sailing by on his bike, he made the wrong grab. Then, realizing that his victim was a boy, he stomped on him and was in the process of dragging him to the Thoroughfare Canal to drown him.
Bob helped the young boy up, then grabbed the man, whose ankle was sprained or broken during the incident, and hauled him out of the woods. I walked ahead with the boy to the nearest house and called an ambulance and the police. Bob later testified at the Thirty-third District Court, along with SGT Joe Porcarelli of the Grosse Ile Police. The boy's attacker, 28-year-old Brett Wilson Sowers, was charged with assault with intent to commit murder but was found guilty of felonious assault. (He went to prison and died nineteen years later, on Wednesday, August 12, 2015.)
The other incident took place in Killeen, Texas, in 2005, when Bob and I were at an Army Rangers reunion. Bob had just been down with heat exhaustion for two days. After feeling nauseated for the entire flight, he had immediately gone on a long run as soon as we arrived in the humid ninety-six-degree heat. By Friday, June 24, he was feeling better, so he got out of bed and took off, believing, as always, that a run is good for what ails you. About an hour later, he was cutting through a parking lot when he heard faint cries. “Please help! Please help!” Stopping, he looked inside a car and saw an elderly woman lying on the front seat. She was barely conscious and fumbling weakly with the latch, trying to open the door. Bob couldn’t open any of the doors. He didn’t know whether she was suffering from heat exhaustion or something else—only that if she wasn’t rescued soon, she would be dead. Fortunately, cell phones were common by then, and he called the police, who got the woman out.
Bob’s worst running memory happened on Grosse Ile, when one of his young dogs, Sergeant, climbed over our backyard fence and caught up to Bob, who was running with his other dog, Ranger, on Parke Lane. Before Bob could do anything, Sergeant darted across the street and was hit by a car. Sergeant died in Bob’s arms.
On a lighter note, many kids on Grosse Ile knew that Bob had served in Vietnam, was once a cop, and had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1989, the same year it collapsed. They would ask him so many hilarious questions as he ran, he started collecting them and writing them down: “Don’t you gotta run because you got a bullet in your heart and if you stop running the bullet will move and you’ll die?” Or “I saw you in the newspaper, and my dad said you’re a spy for the CIA. Is that true?” Or “I heard you run because you lost a lot of friends in Vietnam.” Bob tried to dispel the rumors by explaining that he simply loved running. But they still preferred to believe that he was instrumental in toppling the Soviet Empire and ending the Cold War, among many other theories.
After decades of running in Michigan winters and tolerating the dark, overcast skies, it was finally time to move where Bob had always wanted to be: by an ocean where he could live his dream of perfect weather and an endless sunny beach to run on. That dream place was in southern California, where members of our family were already living or in the process of relocating. We chose a home in Huntington Beach, “Surf City USA,” just five houses away from a harbor beach, and a mile from the open ocean.
Upon arriving in California, Bob could do short runs and recover from his plantar fasciitis till he was back up to fourteen-milers. He usually runs south on the beach, to Huntington Beach Pier, where he stops and has a Pepsi or jelly doughnuts, or else heads north to the Seal Beach Pier to reward himself with a Cold Stone ice cream. Other than those little snacks, he never eats till after dark and then eats only one meal a day. I think it’s a habit he picked up in Vietnam or maybe from working odd police shifts.
When Bob enlisted in the Army, he had accomplished little more than a junior high school education and many run-ins with the police. At the age of 17, he became a paratrooper and served in Germany, where he earned his GED. He then volunteered for Vietnam and became a member of one of the world’s elite infantry forces, the US Army Rangers. He served during the two biggest battles of the war: the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh, and saw combat in A Shau Valley, near Laos. After returning home as a highly decorated Ranger, he became an undercover narcotics officer and a detective sergeant with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department.
Bob retired as one of the most decorated officers in the 1,200-man department. As for his GED, that proved to be the launching point into an academic career spanning nearly three decades. He has an insatiable appetite for knowledge and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan; a master’s in correctional sciences from the University of Detroit; and an MS, an MA, and a PhD in sociology (criminology) from Wayne State University. He now writes criminological, firearms, and military articles for scientific and professional journals and special-interest magazines.
Bob misses all the people who have waved, honked, and stopped to talk with him or give him and his dogs water through the years. And he loved to hear their stories of how they grew up seeing him out there running, over the years and decades, whatever the weather. Several people shared that they were raised Downriver, moved away, and moved back years later, pleasantly amazed to find him still running with his dogs, anywhere and everywhere. Bob wants to let everyone know that he’s still running and that his fourteen-year-old black dog, Sarge, is doing fine, though arthritis limits him to only a couple of miles. All Bob’s running dogs lived for fourteen to sixteen years, and most continued to run until their very last days.
Bob will return for visits Downriver from time to time, and when he does, you’ll see him running his favorite route on Fort Street. To keep up with him, please visit his new Facebook page “The TAN Running MAN of Grosse Ile and Beyond,” www.facebook.com/ankony.robert, or his Web site at www.robertankony.com.
This article was originally published in the Ile Camera on Friday, January 2, 2015, and by the News-Herald, on Sunday, January 4, 2015.