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Nancy Conz, world class runner and face of the Pioneer Valley, dies at 59

  • Nancy Conz, of Southampton, is shown following a victory in the 1981 Avon Marathon in Ottawa. Conz, who was the face of road running in the Pioneer Valley, died Wednesday night following a long battle with cancer. She was 59. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Nancy Conz, of Southampton, is shown on a run in this undated photo. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Nancy Conz, of Southampton, is shown on a run in this undated photo. Conz, who was the face of road running in the Pioneer Valley, died Wednesday night following a long battle with cancer. She was 59. SUBMITTED PHOTO



@mikemoran777
Friday, February 10, 2017

Nancy Conz, who rose from obscurity to the world stage of road running, yet stayed humbled through her decades working in Northampton running shops, died Wednesday night at her home in Southampton.

Conz, 59, had battled cancer since 1998.

“She handled it in typical Nancy fashion,” said longtime friend Sukie Kindwall, 58, of Conway. “She’s tough and I think that’s one of the reasons she was a good runner. She handled it with grace and dignity and still her sense of humor right to the end. It was quit something.”

From the late 1970s to the 1990s no female runner competed and ran quite like Conz, who did it her own way. The tall and slender redhead never had a coach and never had an agent, two ingredients to professional success nowadays.

“Easily the greatest female runner ever to come out of western Mass.,” said Bill Durkee, 55, of Florence. “I’ve been running around here since 1977. There is no one better than her.”

Conz coached herself and when she wasn’t running by herself she ran with the top runners in the area. She was affiliated with New Balance, but only because she liked their shoes and apparel, and enjoyed the people she dealt with.

“Everyone looked up to her. She was an icon,” Kindwall said. “She was the real deal. She was beating (1984 gold medalist) Joan Benoit Samuelson. She was a star.”

Southampton roots

Conz’s running took her from the Pioneer Valley to such places like Vermont, Tennessee, Oregon, Philadelphia, Chicago, London and Tokyo. And when she wasn’t competing she was working and raising a family.

She grew up on Former Road in Southampton, attended Hampshire Regional, married former blues drummer Paul Conz in 1979 and raised two boys, Derek, 29, and Jarryd, 26.

Conz worked at the Runner’shop in Northampton from 1979 until it closed in 2003. She then worked at Northampton Running Company since it opened in 2005 through last spring.

“One of the kindest people I’ve known,” said Kindwall, who worked with Conz in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Very kind, very caring. Great sense of humor. So much fun to work with. Loved people, loved to talk. Remembered everyone’s birthday and just unbelievable thoughtful. And she ran like the wind.”

Said Durkee, “She would bake for us every Saturday at the Runner’shop. “It boggled my mind with two boys at home and everything going on that she would still bake for us. She’d bring in bunt cake, or cookies, or brownies.”

Rise to the top

Conz’s ascension to the national stage was remarkable if not unbelievable. She never ran cross country at Hampshire Regional. She spent her final two years on the track and field team, but Conz never considered herself a competitive runner at the time.

“She liked to run,” her husband Paul Conz said. “I don’t think she was good at other sports. She liked to run. She had talent and was driven.”

Nancy Conz became a serious runner after she graduated from Hampshire in 1975. While working as a house mother at the Clark School for the Deaf, she competed in local road races, winning the first one she participated in, a 4-mile race in Granby in 1976.

From there the miles increased and so did the races.

“She would go to a race every week and basically win it,” Paul said. “Then she went to the bigger races.”

Nancy Conz scaled back from competing every weekend and trained more for longer distances.

Bill Tharion, 59, of Framingham, often trained with Conz between 1981 and 1985.

“We would maybe do 23 or 24 miles and we would go out and run the first 15-16 together at a pretty good clip then at about 17 miles it was every person for themselves,” Tharion said. “I came in about 10-15 minutes after and she had water, lemonade and cookies waiting for me.”

In May of 1980 Conz won the Five College Marathon in 2 hours, 43 minutes, 53 seconds. That race started a stretch in which Conz turned herself into one of the top runners in the country.

“She was very humble. She wouldn’t brag about her accomplishment at all,” Durkee said. “We’d have to pry it out of her. Such a great person.”

Wins pile up

Her rise continued at the international level in the summer of 1980 when she earned a trip to Europe by winning a qualifier in Sudbury.

That August, she made her international debut at the Avon Marathon in London. Wearing bib number 184 out of 200, Conz charged from the start in only her second marathon. Running hard because that’s the only way she knew, she placed second in 2:36:02 and appeared on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

That following April, Conz competed in her only Boston Marathon, finishing seventh among women in a strong field and tough conditions.

“She ran 2:34:48 that year,” Durkee said. “It was a cold and rainy year and she hates that. She likes the heat, which is unusual for a marathon.”

Her success kept growing. In August 1981 she won the Avon Marathon in Ottawa, beating future Olympic gold medalist Benoit Samuelson. The then 24-year-old Conz finished the race in 2:36:45.9 and took two minutes off her personal best. She held the lead from the opening gun against a field of 625 runners from 24 countries.

Samuelson, who was Joan Benoit then, was favored to win, but finished runner-up in 2:37:24.

“I was really grinding it out from about mile 14 on. Nancy ran a very gutsy race, taking the lead like she did. I was very impressed,” Benoit said to a reporter from United Press International after the race.

Conz’s greatest win came in 1982 at the Chicago Marathon. She topped a field in which the top eight women broke the course record. Conz finished in 2:33:23, which was a career best.

It was a historic race too. Prize money was just introduced to road racing around the time and the 1982 Chicago Marathon had an inaugural purse of $77,000, with $12,000 going to the top male and $10,000 the top female.

According the Chicago Tribune, Mayor Jane Byrne announced shortly before the race started that she would make up the difference between the top prizes, adding $2,000 to the women’s share.

Conz used the money as a down payment on a home on Duggan Lane in Southampton.

“That’s how we got the house,” Paul said. “We put a small deposit on it and when she won we put it on the house. It was a real benefit.”

Conz set many distance records, including the American 20-kilometer mark of 1:08.45 at a 1982 Labor Day race in New Haven, Connecticut. That mark was broken by Deena Kastor in 2006, but Conz still holds the 20K record in a female-only race. She ran 1:09:31 in Washington D.C. in March of 1982. That performance landed her in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd.

In 1981 at a UMass track meet, Conz set a still-standing American record for running 10 miles, 1,290 yards in a hour.

“She understood training and what it took to become national caliber,” said Tharion, who witnessed the New Haven and UMass performances.

The wins piled up in the region. She was a six-time winner of the Springfield Fourth of July Road Race, and a six-time winner of the D.H. Jones/Town & Country 10-Mile Road Race in Amherst. She won the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Road Race three times — 1981-1982 at 7.5 miles, and 1986 at 6.2 miles.

“She was a tough road racer no question,” Durkee said. “She was a dominate runner here in the ’80s.”

Battle through illness

Conz battled through her share of running injuries during her career and never allowed her illness to keep her away from work.

“She was incredibly friendly with everybody,” said Runner’shop founder Fred Pilon, 71 of Lee. “She was very engaging. The most important thing was that she knew about running and knew the products she was selling. She would listen to people.”

Jeff Henson, manager of the Northampton Running Company, remembered reading about Conz in running magazines as a high schooler in Florida.

“I knew of her across the nation,” he said.

Henson’s impression became more personal after he worked with Conz and heard runners tell stories of seeing her compete.

“The older timers all still raved about watching her run and how easily she did it,” Henson said. “She was very humble. She never would have bragged or raved about what she did. She was world class for sure. To the old timers she was the face of running in the Valley no doubt.”

One of Conz’s last victories came in the Hatfield Lions Club 5-miler in 1997. She was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma in 1998 after experiencing pain in her eye.

Conz underwent radiation soon after, then again following relapse in 2008. Other surgeries followed as well as experimental chemotherapy in August.

While she continued to run, her competitive career was over. “She did not run if she knew she couldn’t compete,” Paul Conz said. “She couldn’t do what she wanted to.”