VALPARAISO | Ken Jankowski isn’t likely to be anywhere near the finish line when the first runners complete the 35th annual Popcorn Panic on Saturday morning.
The Valparaiso native may not even be the first in his age group to finish, but after receiving welcome news earlier this week, Jankowski will continue a streak that is 35 years in the making.
Jankowski has run the annual Valparaiso five-mile race every year since its inception in 1979 and not even eight stents in his heart or a recent trip to the hospital is going to keep him from participating in his favorite race of the year.
“I was out walking the other day and I got dizzy and started going to one side,” Jankowski said. “Since I have the stents and I have a friend who just had a stroke, I figured maybe I should go to the emergency room.”
One electrocardiogram and several X-rays later and Jankowski has been given a clean bill of health plus the all-clear from his doctor to participate in the race. The 1962 Valparaiso graduate won’t be racing for time on Saturday and he may just use the course for a nice bit of a morning exercise.
“I’m not 35 years old anymore and even then, the best place I ever came in was maybe 50th overall,” Jankowski said. “I’ve only gotten first in my age group once. As you get older, there aren’t quite as many people in your group, but I’m still going.”
Jankowski and Jim McQuillan are the only two runners to have participated in every Popcorn Panic and the pair will be there again on Saturday. Both are members of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Valparaiso and keep up a rapport the rest of the year.
“I think it’s great that he and I are still out there running after all these years,” Jankowski said. “I’ve kept all my shirts from every race. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. It’s not like I’m going to make a blanket or something like that. I guess some day I’ll give them to an organization.”
If there is one thing that Jankowski is looking forward to during the race on Saturday, it’s seeing the support from the community that has become a staple of the event.
“What I really love is the crowd and the music that they play to keep us going,” he said. “Every once in a while someone will have the 'Rocky' music playing and that’s always inspiring. If I can just hear that song in my mind, who knows what I’d be able to accomplish.”
That doesn’t mean Jankowski is quick to adopt the style of so many of the younger runners by wearing headphones whenever he goes out for a run. The 69-year-old has tried running with music on three different occasions and claims he fell over twice.
“I just enjoy going out there and hearing the music and seeing the crowd,” Jankowski said. “Every year when I’m going over the bridge, my family is there cheering me on and I go over and give the kids five and say hello to my wife (Caren).”