Kent State Trumbull Cross Country Coach Runs for His Life

Dealing with uncertainty is tough, especially when it deals with your health. Many have come to grips with this struggle over the last 18 months as surges of COVID-19 have come and gone. Cross-country coach Bill Hess takes uncertainty in stride, moving forward with a positive attitude and a smile. He was already running the race of his life.

In 2008 at the age of 44, Hess was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease a degenerative disease that eventually breaks down the nerves in the brain, causing physical and cognitive disorders.

“It’s a genetic disease,” Hess said in a recent interview. “My mother had it and when I noticed myself losing my temper at work, I got tested.”

According to Hess, medications have helped him and slowed the progression. But he also relies on strenuous exercise: running.

Hess did not begin running until he was a freshman at Youngstown State University.

“I had a buddy who ran, and he asked me to go with him,” he said. “It came to me naturally and I started doing it every day.”

By his sophomore year, he tried out for and made the Youngstown State cross-country team. After three years, he was one of the top runners on the team. He picked up a side job coaching at Ursuline High School in Youngstown.

Today Hess coaches at Kent State University’s Trumbull Campus in Warren, Ohio.

“When I received my diagnosis, I was working at the Youngstown Development Center and coaching at Niles-McKinley High School,” Hess reminisced. “It was such a blow. I leaned on running and coaching to keep me going.”

Huntington’s causes involuntary jerking movements, balance issues, and sometimes muscle rigidity, according to Mayo Clinic. Functional abilities diminish as the disease progresses. Sufferers can live with the disease anywhere from ten to 30 years after onset.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is another side effect.

“It takes me about 20 minutes to leave the house,” Hess said. “I check and recheck the oven, windows, and faucets. Then I am checking my car tires and walking around the car a few times to make sure everything looks okay.” 

Hess uses his energy and attention to encourage his runners. Briana Ellwood has run for Hess at the high school and college levels.

“Coach Hess is one of the most caring people I have ever known,” Ellwood said. “He pays as much attention to seasoned runners as those who are running for the first time.”

Ellwood continues to schedule time to run with Hess. “He will run five miles before I call him and then run another five with me,” she said. “He’s like that Energizer rabbit. He keeps going and going and going.”

After spending last fall without a competitive season, Hess looks forward to this fall. Until then, he laces up his shoes, puts one foot in front of the other, and enjoys his body’s resilience each time a foot hits the pavement.

“Running is the one thing that gives me power over the disease,” Hess said with a smile. “I can end up flailing around or stiff like a board. Until then, I am going to keep moving.” 

POSTED: Monday, September 20, 2021 - 9:28am
UPDATED: Monday, September 20, 2021 - 9:28am