They started out as high school buddies who got to know each other through Largo High's Band of Gold before graduating in 1987.
They ended up joined together again as Wendy's Warriors, whose mission was to pay homage to the kind, powerful spirit of their friend Wendy Wrucha, who died suddenly this year.
Wrucha, a speech therapist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, died in March after she contracted a bloodstream infection that caused meningitis.
On Nov. 6, five of her friends — Tom Bronson, Tracy Feinsilver, Michelle Drum Inman, Madeline Ankenbauer Bisesti and Bobby Collins — ran the New York City Marathon in her name.
Wrucha's death at age 42 sent those who knew her reeling in grief and shock. Several hundred people attended her funeral at Hyde Park Methodist Church in Tampa. It was there that the idea of Wendy's Warriors was first hatched, said Bronson, who is now a middle school math teacher in Tampa.
To run in the New York City Marathon, one of the largest in the world with about 45,000 runners each year, participants must either gain a spot through a lottery system or run in support of a charity. Wrucha, who had been an avid runner, ran the 2010 marathon for the national charity Autism Speaks. She raised about $3,000 for the organization and she finished in 5 hours, 31 seconds.
"Michelle and Tracy were the first ones to come up with the idea of us running like she did for her charity," Bronson said. "They said, 'Come on, let's do it for her,' and we all got on board right away.''
After the funeral, they all headed back to their homes. Bronson, Bisesti and Collins still live in the Tampa Bay area. Inman lives in North Carolina and Feinsilver in Delaware.
Through emails, they spent the next six months planning the trip. They each began their fundraising. Autism Speaks required each runner to raise $2,700.
The group rented a three-bedroom apartment in Spanish Harlem for six days. "We wanted to stay all together, and it made the event's purpose even more clear,'' said Feinsilver, who is now vice president of retail banking for WSFS Bank.
Also staying in the apartment were Bronson's parents, Milton and Mickey Bronson, who had been active band parents when their son was at Largo High. They agreed to come on the trip to help care for Bronson's son Carter, a toddler.
"The funny thing was that my parents had been so involved with the band when we were in high school that having them there seemed to cement the feeling of it being about our great times together,'' Bronson said.
The group spent time seeing the sights of Manhattan. They toured the Empire State Building. They ate dinner in Little Italy.
"But we talked about Wendy the whole time, too,'' Bronson said. "We did fun things like create a secret Wendy hand gesture. We'd hold up our three fingers to make a W and throw it up randomly to each other.''
There was one event on race day that Bronson felt bordered on the supernatural.
"It was 5 a.m. We all climbed on the subway for Staten Island and the train was pretty much empty except for us," Bronson said. "Out of nowhere, a man walked up to us and said, 'Welcome, runners.' ''
The man, a UPS employee with a severe speech impediment, told the group that he was going to be assisting runners during the race. Then he proceeded to give them advice on how to stay properly hydrated, and he encouraged them to keep their warm-up jackets with them because the Queensboro Bridge would get chilly.
"When we got off the train, we all looked at each other and said, 'Okay, don't you think that guy was sent by Wendy?' " Bronson recalled. "We just came to the conclusion that Wendy, who had made her living as a speech pathologist, made sure to let us know she was with us by sending us a guy with a severe impediment. She also probably wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing.''
At the starting line, everyone split up according to the section they were assigned by marathon organizers. Bronson was the first of the group to finish, at just more than four hours.
"Then Madeline came in after Tom, about an hour later, and then I hung back with Michelle and Bobby,'' Feinsilver said. "It took the three of us a little over seven hours, and I tell you, the soreness I experienced the next several days was worse than what I remember after childbirth."
Bronson's parents secured a perch near the finish line and, despite the crowd, were able to hand Bronson his son, Carter, to carry over the finish line.
"It was a great day for everyone, and I know Wendy was watching,'' Bronson said. "I'm very, very confident that she is so proud of how we all did in the race.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.