After meeting during a YMCA exercise class in 1974, Mary Larson and Marilyn Montzka discovered they kept the same pace while running. The two women began talking and formed a friendship.
Forty-three years later, Larson and Montzka remain walking partners, walking every Tuesday and Thursday in Elmwood Cemetery for more than an hour. Through the years, the women also have participated in a half-marathon and the Sycamore Pumpkin Run together.
For Larson’s birthday, Montzka purchased a bench in the cemetery where the two women can rest during their walks.
Montzka and Larson met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss their exercise routine and how they have been best friends and walking partners since 1974.
Milton: How did you meet each other?
Montzka: When I moved to Sycamore, I took my young children to the [Kishwaukee Family] YMCA, and I went to their gym for an exercise class. We ran around the gym and then outside when the weather was nicer. That exercise class is where I first met Mary. We realized we had the same pace. As the years went by, the pace changed. We started jogging and now we’re walking. But we’ve been exercise partners, walking together at the same pace since 1974.
Milton: Where do you walk now?
Montzka: We walk around the big circle of Elmwood Cemetery. The cemetery is about seven minutes from each of our houses. We usually meet at 11 a.m. and walk an hour or an hour and a half. We meet people as we walk and dogs and their walkers. People visiting the cemetery slow down and ask us questions or for directions.
Larson: Even the funeral directors know us and stop to say hello. It might seem a little ghoulish to walk in the cemetery, but it’s quiet and peaceful.
Montzka: It’s quiet except when the lawn mowers and trimmers are out. Then it can be pretty noisy and loud.
Milton: Have you always walked in the cemetery?
Montzka: No, we used to walk along Route 23, when it wasn’t as busy as it is now.
Larson: I vividly recall a truck that yelled out the window. He slowed down and said, “Get a move on, lard [butt].” So whenever I want to give up and go home, I tell myself that I don’t want to be a lard [butt]. Stopping isn’t an option. We keep moving. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve recognized how important it is to stay active.
Milton: Does weather affect your walking?
Montzka: We’re there every Tuesday and Thursday, unless there is ice or sleet. Sometimes, if it’s cold or windy, we take a detour.
Larson: We love the exercise, the sunshine and fresh air. It gives us color in our cheeks. In the summer, during the extremely hot days, we have a week or 10 day-hiatus. Ice is our No. 1 enemy. We have jogged and ran in real heavy snowstorms. We check the Weather Bug app before we head out.
Montzka: We have lots of scarves and gloves to keep us warm. We mix and match. We always wear running shoes and have rain gear handy.
Milton: Tell me more about the bench.
Larson: There are certain benches along our cemetery walking route, and we sit down and take a break. We used to say that whichever one of us dies first would buy the other a bench. Marilyn surprised me this year by buying me a bench for my birthday.
Montzka: On the day of her birthday, as we were walking, there was a new bench with ribbons and balloons tied to it. I told her, “Let’s go check it out.” The bench has both of our names inscribed and the words “Walking partners since 1974.”
Milton: How did you plan the gift of the birthday bench?
Montzka: For two months, I researched benches. I measured the other benches we sat on and picked out the backing and seat I wanted. I spoke to the manager of the cemetery, and picked one out and ordered it. With the manager and her son’s help, I was able to choose where to put the bench. I placed it near a tree, off the roadway, where we could sit and look out.
Milton: What was your reaction to seeing the bench for the first time?
Larson: When I first saw the bench, I was dumbfounded. She kept it a secret for so long. I was completely and totally surprised. … We know everything that’s new at the cemetery, from floral placements to new graves. We often look at and read the graves. Some graves go back to the Revolutionary War. There was a plague in 1918, and little kids, whole families died.
Milton: What do you like the most about walking together?
Larson: We saved each other hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy. Between the two of us, we have six children and nine grandchildren. We talk and walk, usually doing a lot of talking. We talk about everything. Sometimes we talk about politics, and it’s great that we agree politically. We had two other women friends that walked with us, Sally and Judith, but they were too fast. We keep in touch with them still and remain friends. But with Marilyn, I can walk comfortably. Gait is important.
Montzka: We have been developing our friendship throughout the years, and we tell each other anything and everything. We have become each other’s best friend.