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Every Step Of The Way

Liebers Receives Outpouring Of Support From Running Community

Rob Liebers, right, is pictured with nurse Alyssa McLaughlin at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Submitted photo

I last wrote about Rob Liebers five years ago after the Lakewood resident had successfully competed at the National Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships in Boston.

Then 56, Liebers placed fourth in the 3,000 meters, sixth in the mile and third in the 800 meters in the 55-59 age group. His performance in the latter event earned him a bronze medal.

In other words, the attorney with the Jamestown law firm of Burgett & Robbins was at the top of his game at the sport he loved the most. The passion for it was forged when he was a kid growing up two blocks from Union College, a small, liberal arts school in Schenectady.

Liebers still has Union track & field programs from the 1960s, as well as the William F. Eddy Meet, which was held in those days at Linton High School, his alma mater. It was there that some of the best prep athletes showed off their talents. It was also there that Liebers took home the numbers that his running heroes wore on their jerseys.

“We put them on our shirts and ran around the block,” Liebers told me in April 2014.

Now, Liebers is running a far more challenging race, and his many friends from near and far are prepared to help him on that journey in the form of a worldwide event called #running4rob. The virtual race — participants can run on their own, join friends or put together a group run — is to financially assist Liebers in his time of need. It will be held on Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m.

A devoted father and a mentor to many others, Liebers was diagnosed with ALK-negative anaplastic large cell lymphoma in July 2018. He has spent the past nine months battling the rare cancer and just recently received a stem-cell transplant three weeks ago at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

The race registration — it can be found at https://runsignup.com/Race/NY/Jamestown/run4rob — is $10 with all proceeds benefiting Liebers. Any additional donations will also go directly to him. Once the run is complete, participants can enter their time and upload it to the race results. Additional information can also be found at http://www.trackqua.com.

“I just hope a lot of people will realize that someone in the running community has been absent,” said David Reinhardt, a close friend of Liebers and the chief executive officer of Trackqua, a track & field timing services company. ” … He’s just a great person.”

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It has been months since Liebers has been able to lace up his shoes and head outside for a run, but he remains steadfast about his recovery and overwhelmed with the support he has received from so many.

“It means everything to me,” he said in a halting voice earlier this week from his hospital room in Rochester. “I’m just so humbled with all the support I’ve gotten. I don’t get emotional about thinking about my disease. I’m just being emotional because of how good everybody has been.”

Included in that group are Reinhardt and Cristin Hockenberry.

“The big thing about Rob is the person he is,” said Hockenberry, the Southwestern Central School girls track & field coach. “He has a huge heart. He has this love for running, the running community and the athletes. His knowledge base is just incredible. You can sit and talk to him for hours, and he can tell you about kids in high school and in college at D1, D2 and D3. He knows times, but he knows about the person, too. No matter where he is, people flock to him.”

Even after church.

“Every time, after the 7:15 mass, we’d … talk track and field,” Hockenberry said.

And even after he became ill, Liebers would typically end their text messages asking about her husband and her children.

“It’s always about somebody else,” Hockenberry said.

But now a host of people, including Reinhardt, Hockenberry and Jamestown native Travis Prejean, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, are making it about their dear friend and an activity they all love — running.

“I can’t wait to be at a track meet when he’s (watching from the) backstretch, or at a cross country meet when he runs by me and yells something at me,” Hockenberry said. “I can’t wait until we see him back here.”

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Liebers is finding out that the love and support he’s receiving extends far and wide.

In late January, he was feeling well enough to make a trip with a friend to Boston for a track and field meet at the Reggie Lewis Center. In the wee hours of the next morning, Liebers received a phone call that his mother, who lived in Schenectady, was being transported to the hospital. At 6 a.m., Liebers received another call that she wasn’t expected to make it through the day. On Jan. 27, Mary Liebers passed away.

Later that day, Liebers, who had been staying with his parents in Schenectady since his diagnosis last July, found a package waiting for him at their home. It was from Grand Valley State University cross country and track and field coach Jerry Baltes.

Inside was a poster signed by the student-athletes on Baltes’ teams, a Grand Valley State cross country T-shirt and a get-well card.

Baltes, who has coached at the school for two decades, was a high school teammate of Hockenberry and they have remained friends.

“She knows I follow them and I would have been at (Division II cross country) nationals when they won if I hadn’t been sick, because they were in Pittsburgh,” Liebers said.

Hockenberry’s kind gesture brought Liebers to tears again.

But there was more.

One of Liebers’ nurses at Strong Memorial is Alyssa McLaughlin, the niece of Walt McLaughlin, who is the varsity cross country coach at East Aurora High School in suburban Buffalo. Not surprisingly, the nurse and patient had their photo taken together.

“There’s Rob … with a smile that could swallow his ears, holding up his Grand Valley shirt with his nurse,” Hockenberry said with a grin nearly as wide.

The photo was texted to Baltes, who shared the image with one of his athletes. When Matt McLaughlin, a sophomore distance runner, looked at it his first comment was: “There’s my cousin (Alyssa)!”

It was a serendipitous connection, for sure.

But in Liebers’ world, everyone is “family,” anyway. When the Chautauqua County Bar Association held a dinner on his behalf last November at Moon Brook Country Club, 130 people turned out. In four days, runners from 12 states will take part in the virtual race as a way to give back to a man who has given so much.

Added Hockenberry: “It’s just a way for people to let him know, ‘Hey, we’re running for you.'”

And thinking about him at the same time, every step of the way.

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