Bill Draper came home from work one day in 1979 and asked his wife what they were doing that night.
“We’re going out and buying running shoes,” she said.
“For what?” he asked.
At 27, Draper loved being around his family, the James River and outdoor photography. He hated running.
His wife said they needed to lose some weight.
“Of course she meant me,” Draper said with a chuckle.
They started by running around the block. Then two blocks. Then a mile. Several months later, Draper ran his first Richmond marathon.
Draper, now 67, marked his 30th Richmond marathon on Saturday. The Henrico County resident walked the 26.2-mile course because of a virus that has affected his joints since this summer, finishing in 6:39:01.
The marathon, which started in 1978, is in its 41st year. Draper has missed some races because work took him to Roanoke and Louisville, Ky., for several years. But he’s logged about 50 marathons total, as well as taken part in two 50-mile races, several 500-mile multiday bike rides and numerous shorter races.
“All [the first one] did was motivate me to continue doing it,” he said.
Draper grew to love running so much it became a way to spend time with his family. His wife, Deedee, and daughters — Shannon Grymes, Erin Reid and Bridget Draper — often went with him to watch his races or run.
Deedee walked the marathon with him Saturday while their daughters watched. She ran the marathon in 2011 — at age 60 — to help celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
Some of them run together on the weekends (Bridget lives in Washington) as part of the Sports Backers marathon training team, or separately along Draper’s favorite spots on Riverside Drive.
Grymes said those runs have been “a beautiful way for me to stay close to my parents.”
“We just grew up that way,” said Grymes, who has run three marathons with her father. “That was our weekends. Whatever race my dad was running, we’d go.
“It was just a nice way to grow up, around people who were goal-setters. It’s a very positive community of people. That’s the thing about my dad. No matter what bad things happen, he finds a silver lining. Through any injury, through anything in his life, he finds the bright side. That’s really his super power.”
Draper was told in 2015 he needed spinal fusion surgery because of degenerative disks and would have to give up running. He walked the marathon that year and said he could hardly move three weeks later.
He did not have surgery. Draper took a year off from working in the field of medical distributors and manufacturing and slowly started rebuilding his fitness by walking and working with a trainer.
Eventually pain free, that led to his favorite marathon in 2016. He ran again.
“My wife and three daughters were less than a mile from the finish line,” he said. “When I came running by, it was like the first mile. I felt great. And it was like a miracle. I went from hardly being able to walk, not being able to stand up more than 30 seconds without pain, to running a marathon and actually enjoying it. It was sheer joy every mile.”
Once serious about his marathon times (his best is 3:19), Draper has learned to enjoy the moment more. He sometimes strikes up conversations with other runners to help them through the mental and physical struggle of the race, which he says is motivating for him as well.
“I’ll run into people and they’re like, ‘Oh, your dad is Bill Draper. He helped me from Mile 23 to Mile 26,’” Grymes said. “We just make these connections where he’s really helped a lot of other runners meet their goals. That’s just something that is really special about him.”
Draper combines his passion for running with a passion for photography. He’s often running, walking, biking, kayaking or exploring somewhere in the James River Park System with a camera around his neck or his iPhone poised to take a shot. He’s been drawn to the river since his pre-teenage years, when he and a friend would spend time fishing and swimming around the Pony Pasture.
Draper studied photography at Western Kentucky, where he was a competitive diver. His photos sometimes are used as backdrops on WWBT Channel 12’s weather forecasts. Soon, he hopes, a 100-page book with his pictures of the park system will be available.
He intends to keep running “until I can’t.”
“I just love to get out and do it,” he said. “It’s not about time anymore. It’s not about competition. It’s just about being out there and enjoying the whole thing.”