Joe Wedemann’s favorite memory of Wayne “Big Dog” Joseph was an early-morning run in the rain. It turned into a life lesson that summarized the former Big Island International Marathon race director, who died Jan. 22.
It was 1996, and Wedemann was on his first long run with Joseph, who lived down the street in Paradise Park. The starting time for the 12-miler was 5 a.m. Wedemann awoke at 4 a.m. and discovered that it was raining and windy, not exactly great running conditions.
Wedemann deliberated, then drove to Joseph’s house and walked to the back, where the carport was pitch black. No lights were on in the neighborhood or at the house, but the Big Dog was waiting.
“He was standing in the carport with his arms folded and said, ‘Joey, you’re late. It’s one minute after 5,’ We laced up our shoes and ran,” Wedemann said. “He said, ‘What would you do if it was the Honolulu Marathon and it was raining?’ It turned out to be a beautiful day. We saw three rainbows and laughed about it.
“That was his way of life. You make a commitment, you have to be dedicated and stand by your word.”
Wedemann moved to the Big Island from Chicago in 1993, and he wanted to get into running shape and join the fire department, which he did in 2004 when he was 43 years old — with Joseph’s assistance.
He first met Joseph at the Volcano Wilderness Runs and later attended a fun run put on by the Big Island Road Runners Club, which Joseph founded. From there, the two trained together, and Joseph offered advice on everything from buying the right size shoes to eating a healthy diet.
Wedemann ran his first marathon, the BIIM, in 1997, clocking in at 4 hours and 5 minutes. He completed his first Ironman in 2003, finishing in 11:54, meeting a goal to break 12 hours. He’s done four Ironman events and 12 marathons, including the Honolulu Marathon in December in 3:37.
“He’s had a major impact on my life,” Wedemann said. “I am who he is and was. We’re all molded by life experiences, and hopefully we become better people through the people we meet.”
Wedemann said he already had values of commitment and hard work, but Joseph sharpened both traits and also opened his eyes to the community and helping others. Joseph didn’t know Wedemann but starting running with him every week.
In fact, Wedemann’s mom, Emily, became a volunteer at the many running and walking events Joseph organized. When she died in 2006 after a battle with lung cancer, Joseph established the Emily Wedemann Memorial 5-miler in her honor and also as a tribute to fellow volunteers. The event’s ninth anniversary arrives in April.
The lessons of commitment and community are serving Wedemann well in his role as the race director for the 16th edition of the BIIM, which will honor Joseph, who lost his fight with brain cancer, with a redesigned finisher’s T-shirt.
The T-shirts had a paw print with the inscription, “Running with the Big Dog.” It’s been changed to “Forever Running with the Big Dog,” and the shirts will be green in recognition of St. Patrick’s Day.
Wedemann was the finish-line coordinator the past seven years. Joseph, in his declining health, asked him to take over as race director, but the timing was never right. Wedemann was taking fire science classes at UH-Hilo and living in Ocean View, making for a lengthy commute.
Then things started to fall into place. He got a promotion and moved closer to town, and his brother Bob retired to the Big Island in December. Wedemann is taking only one class now at UH-Hilo. Bob suggested they coordinate the race together.
Wedemann is learning it’s a job that presents challenges in every direction. For example, HPM sold off its rental equipment. So important items like generators are gone, but the community has stepped up.
People pitching in helps ease the workload but not the worry. There’s never a detail too small to double-check, like if there are enough buses to drive runners to the Pepeekeo Community Center starting point.
That’s where the commitment part comes in. Wedemann has to make follow-up calls for everything. There are no shortcuts to anything, only hard work — a Big Dog life lesson reinforced with every cellphone call.
As for the marathon, the defending champs aren’t entered, but the numbers are as good as ever with 900 participants registered. The marathon, with 250 spots, and half-marathon, with 350, are sold out.
Wedemann has a few ideas for improving the race, like making the start and finish lines at the same place at Hilo Bayfront, a far more convenient spot for the community and the out-of-town runners staying in the hotels. He’d also relax the strict entry deadline imposed by Joseph, who was a stickler for detail.
The joke about Joseph was he was always running whether he was coordinating the race or actually competing in it, too. He was nonstop busy. Now, it’s Wedemann’s turn.
“It’s opened my eyes to how much he has done. It’s not something that falls together on race day,” said Wedemann, who has taken Joseph’s life lessons to heart. “The best way to honor Wayne is to make sure the event is a success, and you have to put in the hard work and do the best job that you can.”