Did You Know That Wheeling Is Home to the Toughest Half-Marathon in America?

Often touted as “The Toughest Half-Marathon in America,1” the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic and its many athletes will soon aim to dominate the perilous elevation embedded into the landscape of 13.1 unique Wheeling miles. Beginning in 1977, the race has evolved from a 20k to a half marathon that attracts hundreds of traveling and local runners.  The roads of Wheeling tell many stories, and there is no single group better to tell those stories than the runners who have mastered the course. 

Tim Cogan, a 75 years young lawyer from the Wheeling area ran the inaugural race during its onset, and has competed in every single Ogden race. In fact, he finished one of those races in a mere hour and twenty-four minutes. In his various races, including one finished with a mid-race sickness and a broken toe, Tim states that it comes down to the people on the course that provide the motivation to finish: “People on the course are so supportive.  You gain energy from those people.  I can think of hundreds and thousands of those instances.” 

Becky Droginske, also a local runner, began running in 1979.  The effect of running on her mental health changed her life: “It became my drug of choice.  All the big decisions in my life were carefully thought out during long runs.” Droginske began running the distance race in 1980.  This year’s race will make this her 42nd official race, she has not missed a race since 1980, even running at 5-weeks postpartum after the birth of her third child.  She credits former race organizer Hugh Stobbs for the amazing work he did consistently pulling a race together in a pre-internet era.  Using grassroots advertising, the race would pull thousands of competitors enticing them with prize money, even putting out-of-town runners up with locals to create meaningful and memorable bonds with the city of Wheeling.  Droginske finished as the first female in WV on two separate occasions in the early 90s, and took pride in her son, Sean, finishing in 1:30 in 2006 (beating Becky’s time by nearly two minutes) during his junior year of high school. 

Pat Cronin, 69-year-old owner and manager of Wheeling Rubber Products, is also local to the area.  Cronin began running track as a junior at Wheeling High School, and he’s continued to run since.  Cronin ran the inaugural Ogden in 1977, and has run all 44 races, including unofficially the two years during COVID cancellation.  “Those were particularly fun because I ran the alternate course on the jogging trail, and my grandkids could ride their bikes beside me for that portion of the race.”  Cronin recognized four men total who have run every single race: Tim Cogan, mentioned earlier, Dave Fioriili, a retired firefighter, Mike Lemaster, and himself.  Bob Scatterday, longtime race director, referred to these four men as “Ironmen.” In 1979, Cronin came in at the finish line in just under 1:12.  

Susan Mortakis has lived in Wheeling the majority of her life, running her first Ogden after making a bet with a friend that she could complete the race in 1982.   That was March, and we started running together and ran the distance race on Memorial Day weekend. I beat her and was addicted to running. I ran the distance race every year except 1990 when I was injured. My last race was in 2007.” 

Mortakis gives credit to the changing weather and conditions from year to year: “Every race was different due to the temperature on race day and the levels of training put in, but the race was always so fun.  The people, the friends, the course, just being a part of the race was so exciting.”  Mortakis’ daughter, Kelley, an avid runner who has run the course twice touches on a major sense of pride both watching the race as a young child, and competing in the race as an adult: “When my mom and her friends ran this race, the streets were packed with people. We squeezed our way to get to the front to cheer them on. It was inspiring to watch and one of the main reasons I couldn’t wait to get out there and race myself. A lot of talent came to the race.”  As an adult running, Kelley gives credit to the local police department.  “Being escorted by the police bikes when I got to the top of big Wheeling hill was one of the coolest moments in my running career. Accomplishing that race is something to be proud of! Also, seeing the Ironmen and some ladies (Becky) still out there running this race…Those runners are as tough as they come! To run that race once is something to be proud of … but to decide to come out the next year and next year, only a few understand how crazy your love for running is! It means so much being a Wheeling native and taking the starting line of the Ogden.”

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The Memories That Last

Droginske’s favorite Ogden moments span back to the 80s and the filled race course.  “I felt as if all of those families came out and lined the streets of Wheeling to cheer us all on.  I saw about 500 of my closest friends in an hour and a half. Local bands were playing at Wheeling Middle School, Bridge Street Middle School, and Triadelphia Middle School. You would hear “Rocky” or “Chariots of Fire” blaring from the loudspeaker at the former Bernie Glenn’s.”

Cronin’s memories add elements of humor to the grueling race: “One of the early years there was a runner who ran the race dressed as Darth Vader. Rumor has it that Dick Dei, a long-time dedicated volunteer race worker, attempted to persuade him at the start to take the costume off for fear of heat exhaustion, but the runner did not. I was near this runner, and about 1/3 of the way up 29th Street hill, there were no spectators around so he took his helmet off for a little bit and said, ‘Man. It’s hot.’ But I believe he did finish the race in costume.”  Cronin also remembered a year when the Mingo statue atop Wheeling Hill, the final hill during mile 12, was stolen. A woman stood in its absence to cheer on runners as they approached the end of the course.  

Interested in Running? 

All interviewed shared invaluable advice:  “Put in the miles, but don’t worry about the time on your first attempt,” states Droginske.  “Run as much as you can, and make sure there are long run days mixed with short run days and days off. Include hills. Uphill AND downhill,” states Cronin. “Give yourself time.  Check the course. Check the weather,” states Cogan. “Not every run will always go as planned.  Remember to have fun!” states Mortakis. 

While several runners I spoke with have decades of experience under their belts, those who are considering taking up the sport shouldn’t be intimidated. It’s truly a sport for everyone.  In fact, I myself decided to become a runner on a random morning in 2014. I was 24 and had never run before. I bought a Garmin watch, registered for my first 5k, and never looked back. Within the last nine years, in between the birth of two sons, I have run ten half-marathons throughout the tri-state area. There is no course that bears the same weight as the Ogden Half Marathon. Upon my first run, at mile 12, I reached the top of Wheeling Hill. I began to sob. One could credit the pain of the hill or the relief of a downhill and the closeness to the finish line, but I believe my tears were a connection to a city that I love and believe in.  Those roads were and are my roads, and the roads that the greats, like the Ironmen, Droginske, and Mortakis have tread before me. Crossing that finish line to a city that runners love and value is incomparable. 

In addition to the satisfaction of crossing the finish line after a long 13.1 miles, the free snacks are also an important part of the experience!

Community Support Matters

Regardless of the race, one thing is certain – spectators are a vital part of the course. So, even if you aren’t a runner, you can still play a valuable role at this year’s Ogden Wellness Weekend. If you are available in the Wheeling area on the morning of May 27, step onto National Road, venture into Downtown Wheeling, or camp out by Wheeling Hill.  The smile of a spectator, the high-five one may offer, even the energy of a silent affirmation, can give a runner that final push to successfully conquer the “Toughest Half-Marathon in America.”

Get all of the details about this year’s Ogden Wellness Weekend by visiting ogdenwellnessweekend.com.

Karin Butyn was born and raised in Wheeling, WV. A graduate of Wheeling Central, West Liberty University, and Wheeling Jesuit University, Karin spent nearly a decade teaching both English as Second Language and Reading Language Arts. She is currently in her third year as an Assistant Principal for Ohio County Schools. In her free time, she enjoys running and music. She and her husband, TJ, are raising their young sons, Finn and Watson, in Warwood.


1 “Ogden Newspapers Half-Marathon”. Runner’s World. Runner’s World. Retrieved 25 February 2018.