WHEELING - For 37 years, Mitch Toto knew exactly where he'd be at 8 a.m. Saturday on Memorial Day weekend. But this year, he found himself in unfamiliar territory - the sideline - when the starter's horn sounded for the 38th annual Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic.
Toto, who will turn 77 on Wednesday, recently made the difficult decision to pull out of this year's race after being diagnosed with a heart arrythmia late last year and undergoing surgery just a few months ago.
About 30 supporters showed up Saturday wearing neon-yellow T-shirts with the name Toto and the number 38 emblazoned on the back to honor the Ironman's many athletic accomplishments.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Mitch Toto and his daughter, Christine Toto-Nicholes, are pictured near the start/finish line of the 38th annual Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic just before the race kicked off Saturday.
Some were members of Toto's family, others part of a group of friends that call themselves the "Misfitz" that came together through another popular local race, the annual Barkcamp Trail Run in Belmont County.
One of them was Toto's daughter, Christine Toto-Nicholes, who ran her first-ever half marathon Saturday.
She had trained for months in preparation to run with her father this year, but when he decided not to run, the mission changed.
"He's done 37. We're doing 38 for him," Toto-Nicholes said, though she couldn't help but wish things had turned out differently. "It's really sad to me that I didn't get to do it with him. ... I kind of feel like I have to carry on the legacy."
In a touching moment, after Toto's supporters had finished running the race, they ran, as a group, the final 100 yards of the course as he waited at the finish line chanting, "Mitch! Mitch! Mitch!" the whole way.
Toto said he changed his mind three or four times in the weeks leading up to the race. But in the end, his body told him he just wasn't ready.
"You've got to use common sense, and realizing that your health's more important, it's easier to deal with," Toto said.
Toto's wife, Nancy, also was there in her "Toto 38" shirt to support her husband of 53 years. She believes he made the right decision, but said she did not pressure him to back out in any way.
"It was completely up to him," she said. "He knows his own body."
Being an Ogden Ironman is just one of many feats Toto has accomplished over the years. In addition to various marathons and triathlons, he's biked across the country and around the perimeter of the United States - 12,000 miles - run for 24 hours straight and competed in various endurance challenges.
Toto has certainly earned the respect of his fellow runners, including 84-year-old Ella Jane Custer, who ran the half marathon Saturday for the 35th time.
"He's accomplished a lot," Custer said. "I'm very proud of him. I'm very proud to know him."
Although he's taking it easy for now, Toto's not convinced he's finished just yet. And given all he's done over the last 40 years, that should come as no surprise.
"Who knows ... if I can do an endurance challenge when I'm 80, I may," Toto said.