When it comes to making an appearance at the Tucson Marathon, no one can beat the Lee family.
Seriously. Just don’t even try.
On Saturday, Dec. 10, 22 family members will run in the day’s events — many of them in the Holualoa Marathon Relay. Another 10 from the clan will serve as moral support.
They call it the Lee Spirit Run.
It’s a family tradition going on 15 years, and this year’s race will double as a birthday celebration for family patriarch Joe Lee, an Oro Valley resident and retired psychiatrist. Lee turns 80 on Jan. 30 and continues to stay active. A few years ago, he broke his neck climbing the Matterhorn with two of his daughters.
No big deal. He healed and still ran a leg of the marathon. Ran, not walked, says daughter Nana Lee.
When the family started running in the marathon about 15 years ago, it was just Joe and a few of his sons.
“But I wanted the girls,” says his wife, Gayle Lee, 67. “There was just too much testosterone in the house on those weekends. One of the daughters that is running now had never run 2 feet, so her first run was a difficult one, but then it just became a habit. … It’s kind of a like a reunion.”
Over the years other siblings have joined the weekend fun, bringing along spouses, grandchildren and now 1-year-old James Lee, the first great-grandchild at the event. Usually half of the 30 expected this year make the trip, but Joe’s birthday is the no-miss event of the year.
Joe and Gayle Lee have nine children between them — Joe brought six into their marriage, Gayle brought two daughters and then the couple had a son together. They have 25 grandchildren and have been married 36 years. Both will run a 6- to 7-mile leg of the marathon relay.
And while the family runs several events and finishes at different times, they try to congregate at the finish line to cheer each other on.
Fitness goals. Family goals. Relationship goals.
After 15 years, as with any good family get-together, this weekend has its share of traditions — and a wall of fame. Joe and Gayle have a wall in their house dedicated to marathon family photos.
When we caught Gayle on the phone Wednesday, she was already “getting the lasagna assembly line going” for the family’s Friday night carbo-load dinner. This year, of course, there will also be some birthday festivities to mark the occasion.
The evening of the race, the family celebrates with Mexican food. During the meal, Joe doles out trophies and medals to participants and winners.
And why not? This is pretty much his event.
In the week before the marathon, we chatted with a handful of Joe’s kids and grandkids to get a sense of the family lore surrounding the race. Think trash talk, hush-hush junk food runs and a patriarch who keeps his act (and his family) together.
“My dad brought us together and we started bringing our kids, and now we have a great-grandchild that is going to be here,” says 35-year-old Geoffrey Lee, the couple’s youngest. “It’s a great intergenerational opportunity to celebrate health and exercise and family.”
Contact reporter Johanna Willett at email@example.com or 573-4357.