Luke Sondej races on his own despite the official cancellation of the infamous Dick's Den tradition due to COVID-19.

A few heroes have emerged in Columbus as the city has fought the spread of COVID-19. Some have educated the public about the danger posed by the novel coronavirus. Others have offered kindness to an elderly neighbor or generosity to those in economic need. And then there’s Luke Sondej, whose heroic act involved a bottle of whiskey, a pitcher of beer and running 8.3 miles in the rain.

This past weekend, the organizers of the Norwich Marathon, the infamous Dick’s Den tradition, canceled the race because of coronavirus concerns. For the denizens of the Old North bar, it was as painful a development as the loss of the Arnold Fitness Expo was for Muscle Milk salesmen. Since 1973, a dedicated group of runners have participated in the annual footrace, which involves downing a shot of whiskey, running to the Kroger liquor store in the Graceland shopping center and then carrying a bottle of booze of your choice back to Dick’s Den, where runners then complete the race by chugging a pitcher of beer. It’s fair to say there’s not a race quite like it anywhere else in Columbus, and some claim it’s the oldest continuously run footrace in Ohio.

For Sondej, the Norwich Marathon has been a fixture of his life. The 37-year-old high school math teacher is the son of John Sondej, the former owner of Dick’s and one of the six original runners. They started the race to get more booze for a blow-out St. Patrick’s Day party at their off-campus house on Norwich Avenue. 

Even though Luke Sondej grew up around the race, he didn’t participate in it until last year, mostly because he often worked the Saturday afternoon shift at Dick’s during the race. (The race is held on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day every year.) The news of the cancellation hit him hard, and when he woke up last Saturday morning, he decided to push forward on his own to keep the continuous streak alive. 

As the sole runner, Sondej didn’t have to worry about social distancing, but he did face other challenges. “You definitely get stranger looks when it’s one person running down High Street with a bottle of liquor as opposed to having 35 do it,” he says. He also didn’t have as much competitive drive without other runners pushing him. He finished the race in 1 hour and 24 minutes, down from his time last year of 1 hour and 17 minutes. His pitcher time may have suffered the most. It took him 13 minutes to down the 48 ounces of Black Label this year compared to 4 minutes in 2019. “Normally, there’s people coming in behind you, so you drink faster,” Sondej says. “I was the only one, so I just sat down, and I was having a conversation [while drinking his pitcher].”

Regardless, Sondej will forever be known as the brave soul who kept the Norwich Marathon streak alive. And he’ll have a full year to reign as champion until he must defend his title on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Next time, he hopes to have other people running alongside him. 

“That would be nice,” he says. “That would be nice.” 


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