Not a zero, a hero: Steve Dudziak felt a call to action in Irma, and for Billings RunAground

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As Hurricane Irma and its 100-plus mile an hour winds roared through the Caribbean, around the Gulf of Mexico and up toward southwest Florida, Steve Dudziak felt a call to action.

Dudziak, a former Hinsdale resident and now full-time Florida snowbird, was forced to evacuate his home in Venice, Fla., and head to his second home in Nokomis, a small beach town about three miles to the north. Both towns were in the red zone, and Dudziak began prepping his home to withstand a storm surge that could bring 12-foot waves rushing through the town.

He put down sandbags, boarded up his windows, loaded his boat with life jackets and filled two 10-gallon containers used to fuel his boats with gas, all with the intention of staying in his community and helping people in need.

Prepping to ride out a hurricane takes equal parts determination and faith — so does competing in a triathlon.

The storied Josh Billings RunAground triathlon has been part of Dudziak's life for the last 40 years.

He's the only person to ever compete in all 40 Josh Billingses, and even while facing Irma, missing the race for the first time in four decades never crossed his mind. The sense of duty that draws him to the Josh every year is the same pull that compelled him to stay in Florida and help his friends and neighbors any way he could.

"I looked at the people in Houston and I looked at the Boston Strong, and I said 'I'm from Massachusetts.' I'm not going to be a victim, I'm going to be a volunteer. I'm not going to be a zero, I'm going to be a hero."

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Dudziak never intended to be only person to compete in every Josh Billings race. In fact, he never really intended to compete in his first Billings at all. A chance meeting with a North Adams State College (now MCLA) professor that needed a canoeist sent Dudziak into the first-ever Josh. Then five years passed, then 10, 20 and before he knew it, 35 years passed and he was one of only three men to compete in all 35 races, along with Steve Moore of West Stockbridge and Richard "Dick" Billetter of Lenox.

Heading into the 40th Josh last year, only Dudziak and Billetter could say they competed in all 40. Dudziak, 68, said Billetter helped keep him young. He enjoyed competing against a fellow member of an exclusive group of dedicated Josh goers. Months ahead of this year's race, however, Dudziak learned that Billetter would not compete in the 41st. On July 4th, Billetter died.

"Dick and I were the only two that did [all 40]," Dudziak said. "[Last year] I said, I'll see you at the 45th. Just weeks before the race I was sad to hear that he couldn't make it.

"And then Dick passed away. ... One of the Josh sayings is 'to stay is to win.' As far as I'm concerned he motivated me. I'm not a young guy and Dick was a lot older than me. I said when I grow up I want to be just like Dick."

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Growing up in the Berkshires, Dudziak eschewed heralded sports like football and baseball for more adventurous activities such as biking, canoeing and motorcycle riding. He taught his son Jeffrey how to ride a motorcycle at a young age, against the better wishes of his wife Kathy. As Dudziak puts it, he has a "tendency to deviate from the norm." The willingness to be a trailblazer of sorts is what sparked his 40-year journey with the Josh.

"Forty years ago when we did [the Josh] it wasn't cool," he said. "Everybody's got bicycles, canoes and kayaks — it wasn't cool to do it way back then. It was the people that really loved the outdoors that did it.

"When I started doing this only the nerds rode bicycles and got in canoes."

He's witnessed first hand how the Josh evolved from people riding three-speed bikes and paddling giant aluminum canoes, to competing against high-level athletes in state of the art gear. He finished in sixth place in his first Josh. Now, he's happy to finish at all, but the race is more than just a competition to him.

"Some of the best people and best families were all around the Josh," he said. "It's not about people fighting and pushing in line to be first and who's going to do this. You go through and you'll see more smiles and families together after [the race] celebrating and having a good time.

"Because it's a family-oriented triathlon, you don't have to qualify to be in the same race with Olympic-caliber athletes. All you have to do is show up."

Dudziak credits people such as race director Patty Spector and Bousquet Ski Area owner Sherry Roberts for helping promote and grow The Josh.

This year he's competing with his son Jeffrey for the first time in several years. Jeffrey will be biking, Jeffrey's girlfriend Wendy Zunitch will be running and Steve's sister Mary Dall will be in a canoe with him.

Dall's never raced in a canoe before, and Jeffrey's never competed in the Josh as a cyclist — Zunitch is an accomplished runner — but neither hesitated to offer their services when a loved one needed their help.

"Obviously this race is very important to him," Jeffrey said. "He's been in every one which is amazing. Just to have the dedication and the persistence every year to do that, it's really compelling to me personally and you've got tip your hat off to him."

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The eldest Dudziak spent 40 years working as an engineer for General Dynamics. His plan was to retire sooner and travel with his wife Kathy, but she died in 2006 after battling diabetes for much of her life. In 2009, Dudziak finally retired to Florida. In 2011, he sold his home in Hinsdale and become a full-time resident of Florida.

Dudziak said he's fortunate to be able to travel back to the Berkshires every year for The Josh. In addition to honoring Billetter's memory, competing in The Josh is his way of honoring his late wife.

Watching her deal with her illness, living through a kidney transplant and a rare pancreas transplant, Dudziak said his wife's presence served as a great motivation to continue competing.

"With all her medication and everything, she was just a little peanut, as beautiful as the day I met her," he said. "She would be there supporting every race I did, whether it was the Josh Billings or any other race.

"If she was sick and The Josh was coming up, she would do her best to fake that she was not sick and go. Or she would stay home and say 'don't worry I'll be alright.' Then I would rush home and make sure everything was OK."

Jeffrey added that the way his mother lived her life was an inspiration for their entire family.

"To understand what she's going through, it kind of made these races and even the Josh Billings seem a little trivial compared to the struggled that she was going through," he said. "It's definitely a prime motivation factor in not only my father's life but my life and my sister's life. An unbelievable influence under those circumstances."

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Dudziak considers his ability to make every Josh a miracle. He said he's not a religious person, but the stars seemed to be shining on him as Irma came raging toward his home. Maybe it was divine intervention, maybe it was the ancient Native princess he heard protects the area from negative energy, or maybe he's just damn lucky, but as Irma wreaked havoc around him, his community suffered minor damage. Some neighbors lost their carports, had their siding damaged or suffered damage from a fallen tree, but Dudziak said he weathered the storm without extreme loss.

"A week ago I wasn't sure I would be alive," he said. "We thought [Irma] was going to go up the East Coast. We thought we were going to get high winds, but then when it started turning they had it forecasted that the eye of the hurricane was going to go right over us.

"As fate had it, we made it through. We had trees down, but nobody got hurt. I made it through. I was able to go with my gas because a lot of people still couldn't get gas. I gave it to people out with chainsaws, cutting trees down in people's backyard."

His sister Mary escaped the hurricane unscathed as well. She rode out the storm at the senior center where she works. When she finally left the center, one of the first statements she made to her brother was: "Geez, I hope we're still going to be able to make the Josh."

Making it to the Josh was uncertain for a moment, but they were able to book flights out of Florida in time to make the race.

Dudziak said he plans on competing in The Josh forever. From Hurricanes, to near-death motorcycle accidents, it's clear that nothing can stop him from making it back to his favorite triathlon.

"It is quite a feat. I don't think he would miss [the Josh]," Jeffrey said. "Hurricanes, accidents, I don't think there's a stop button when it comes to the Josh Billings race, that's for sure.

"This one is pretty special because he's the last one standing, so to speak, which is kind of unfortunate, but it is the case. So it's a special honor for me to be part of his team this year. ... Should be a lot of fun."

Reach sports writer Akeem Glaspie at 413-496-6252 or @TheAkeemGlaspie.


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