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It keeps her running ... through all of Connecticut's 169 towns

Colchester — There is something to be envied about the inner peace of a runner, although their anguished, roadside visages often suggest otherwise. And so while runners view their endeavors passionately, the rest of us might side with Erma Bombeck, who said once the only reason she began running was so she could hear heavy breathing again.

Or maybe we identify with Michele Ridolfi O'Neill's sister, Lori, who asked her sibling, "Why do you run where everything can kill you? Snakes, bears, cliffs ... "

This is the story of Michele, a wife, mom and professional, who is better in her 40s than her 30s. She's one of the few, the proud, who can say she's 169 for 169, having recently completed running a road race in all of Connecticut's cities and towns. She's graduated to loftier undertakings, such as trail running, where the aforementioned snakes and bears may lurk, but then might get pooped trying to catch her.

"The friendships I've made doing this ... some of these people have become my closest friends," said Ridolfi O'Neill, a Brooklyn native who grew up in Uncasville and lives in Colchester, working as an Educational Issues Specialist for the Connecticut Education Association. "They've encouraged me to not only run 5Ks but expand what I never thought was possible."

Ridolfi O'Neill joined "DEBTiConn," or Do Every Blessed Town in Connecticut, the Run 169 Towns Society. She knew not of its existence till one day she was playing outside with her young son, A.J.

"A.J. used to have this battery powered, 4-wheel vehicle he drove on the street and I'd walk alongside it," she said. "He wanted to use the high gear one day. It was too fast for me as I was walking, so he asked me to run. I could only keep up a short amount of time."

Ridolfi O'Neill started the "Couch to 5K" program running on her street, working her way to a 5K, feeling plenty accomplished. And then perspective hit like a train on a track.

"The Boston Marathon bombing happened a month after I started running. Very impactful," she said. "Runners' lifelong dreams were taken away from them. At same time, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I have this little boy who wants me to run alongside him, a mom who is sick, this marathon bombing. Running became more than just trying to keep up with A.J.'s quad. I'm perfectly healthy. Why am I not trying?"

This is where Ridolfi O'Neill's husband, Casey — Casey O'Neill, the voice of GameDay — was talking to co-worker Mark Irons. Casey learned of Run 169 and passed along the info.

"My first race for Run 169 was the Hartford Marathon Foundation 5K in 2014. I was 39," Ridolfi O'Neill said. "It was really rainy and I was very overdressed. Of course, I had pasta the night before because I had to  carb load before a race — not knowing you really don't have to do that before a 5K."

She began running more races with Run 169, making more friends, like the day before her 40th birthday in Stratford. The race began at 10:11 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2014. That would be 10:11 on 12/13/14. The gang sang happy birthday to her after the race. She belonged.

Since, she's seen our state as few others have. Pastoral hill towns to the mansions of the Gold Coast, where impatient drivers don't necessarily appreciate Run 169's mission, leaning on their horns and blowing exhaust.

"But my favorite was in Bridgeport," Ridolfi O'Neill said. "The people were so nice. It was early June, a warm day and people came out with their hoses offering to spray us. The owner of a bodega gave us bottles of water, as if to say, 'See? Bridgeport is nice so come back and visit!' Other places, people have offered us shots of Fireball and Dixie Cups full of ice cream."

Ridolfi O'Neill would have completed her 169th town long in advance of when she did earlier this month, were it not for COVID's tentacles. Delayed gratification or not, her running career gets better and more interesting.

"I have to say that Casey has been really great, helping out with house stuff and making sure A.J. gets to his (athletic) practices," she said. "It's  so important. Because when I'm out there running, I have time alone to think. I can work through issues and think things through. Very calming. I think about how lucky I am to be able to do this at my age, not having been an athletic kid."

And now Lori, her sister, might have to add lions and tigers to the bears who may one day chase Michele.

"I'd like to run a trail in every town in the state. I'd like to run a race in every state and maybe from there a race on every continent," Ridolfi O'Neill said. "I don't want fear to ever hold me back. I like to push myself physically and also mentally. The things I get to see. I often think, 'Can you believe we get to do this?'"

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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