Rob Kish, RAAM's Mystery Man

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Summer 1994

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Probably the least known RAAM winner is the man with far and away the most RAAM miles under his belt, Rob Kish. This year Kish became the fifth two time winner of the race, following in the footsteps of Lon Haldeman, Pete Penseyres, Susan Notorangelo, Bob Fourney, and Seana Hogan. In the process, the RAAM champ also achieved his ninth finish in the transcontinental event, far more finishes than any other competitor. In fact, he's never DNFed a RAAM, something the other two time winners except Hogan can not claim. And as usual, in 94 he finished with his trademark late night finish, being greeted by just a handful of reporters, crew members, and race staff. He doesn't seem to mind the lonely finish lines, though, but they certainly contribute to Kish's role as RAAM's Mr. Anonymity.

There are reasons for his anonymity, however, good reasons. For starters, Kish didn't really make his mark in RAAM until 87, the first year that ABC did not televise the race.(In 85 he placed a distant 6th with a time of 11 and a half days, then in 86 he sat out the race.) And though he was featured in the BBC / Discovery Channel program from the 91 race, he still doesn't give too many autographs. Also, while hotbeds of ultra marathon racing have grown up in both Southern California and the Midwest, Kish has always lived way out east in Port Orange, FL. (It's near Daytona Beach, which most of us have heard of, I think.) The only race Kish ever rides is RAAM, and prior to that he and the infamous Kish Krew always stay at another hotel, away from the pre-RAAM festivities. And once the race is underway, Kish is often no more than a quickly shrinking butt in the squinting eyes of most of the field.

Still, there's far more to Rob Kish, the RAAM winner, and Rob Kish the human being, than most of us will ever know. That's too bad, because he's a highly personable guy, a great athlete, and has much to share. Maybe we need a RAAM Open Florida (Tour of the Bubba Zone?), so that the up and coming can learn from the master. (I might note that 94 RAAM Rookie of the Year Danny Chew showed up unannounced at the Kishs' doorstep this Spring. He wanted to train and live with the master, in preparation for his first RAAM. And so he did. Chew is as wise as he is fast, that's for sure.)

Kish has made his living as a surveyor in Daytona Beach for 20 years, while his wonderful wife and crew chief, Brenda, serves her country in the uniform of the United States Postal Service. Mrs. Kish is committed, for she never leaves the pace van during the entire RAAM. No big endorsement deals keep these two living the high life or even pay his RAAM entry fee. For the Kishs, doing RAAM each summer is a way of life. We're lucky to have them, I say.

I had the good fortune to visit with the Kishs after this year's RAAM, down in their neck of the woods in Florida. It was a mere three days after he'd pulled off his second victory, but Kish didn't look any the worse for wear as he held his own in the weekly 25 mile race that he partakes in year-round like clockwork. I couldn't believe it was Kish I was watching out there on the course, but the missing jersey, curly blonde hair spilling out from under his helmet, and his powerful yet effortless riding style were unmistakable. Yep, that was Kish all right, doing what he does best: hammering and grinning.

Something that separates the top two or so RAAM racers each year from the field of also-RAAMs is this ability to ride consistently in the high teens and rarely get off the bike. Big legs and tough butts are standard fare. Cadences are usually on the low side and these few top guns never leave their aero bars, almost like their arms are velcro'd to the "narrow is better" bar set-ups. Kish, Fourney, and Tatrai, that's how they ride, but none does it better than our man from Florida. (I often ponder this fact that the front runners are glued to their aero bars, while the rest of the field almost never rides in the free speed position. It's kind of a chicken and the egg situation. Which comes first: being a front runner, or being committed to the aero position? For most of the field, aero bars are nothing but a "hood ornament" on their bike, hanging uselessly, begging to be used and enjoyed. But I digress.)

Rob and Brenda have an unusual hobby, or living arrangement, you might say: their house is practically a zoo, you see, since they their share property with four pigs, a sheep, a deer, two miniature horses, six peacocks, four dogs, one cat, a parrot, a cockatoo, a lovebird, and a gaggle of geese and ducks. Altogether there's 42 of them at last count, not counting Rob and Brenda, that is. Another hobby they share is playing as "extras" in movies. Rob even almost met Arnold Schwarzenegger once on the set.

Kish has an impressive resumé, that's for sure, so let me blow his horn a bit: It all started back in 85, when he and Brenda rode tandem out to California in time for Rob to race in the May 85 John Marino Open in Hemet. He placed fifth, doing the whole race, as I remember, without a jersey on. That was my first ultra marathon race, and though I placed seven notches behind him, I remember the mystery man well. That lion's mane of a hair style was quite unique. And as they, after that fateful JMO, the rest was history, a straight line trajectory of Rob Kish cruising effortlessly up the learning curve and into the record books: 6th in 85 (11:12:19), 5th in 87 (10:09:45), 5th in 88 (10:01:16), 7th in 89 (9:11:53), and then he moved to the front pack beginning in 1990, when he placed 2nd, a mere 1:11 behind Fourney in 8:12:37. It was 2nd again in 91, in 8:20:32, and then finally all the years of work, sacrifice, and commitment paid off in 92, when Kish earned his first RAAM victory, dethroning Fourney with a time of 8:03:11. This is the RAAM transcontinental record. (Only Secrest has gone faster, and that was as a UMCA officiated solo time trial.) Last year saw Kish finish 2nd again, defeated by the wonder from down under, Gerry Tatrai. But though Kish was having his worst race ever, and finished a full day behind Tatrai, he still did his trademark come from behind to pull off a third second place.

Now 40 (as of August 29, just after RAAM), Kish has no plans of slowing down. That magic 10th finish and unprecedented (in the men's field) third victory await him, possibly as soon as next summer. Wait and see, but do try to get to know the man if you get the chance. He's a really neat and funny guy. And if you don't trust my opinion, then just ask those animals out in his yard and in his living room. They know.

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