ST. PETERSBURG — When Timothy Runyon was a child, his mother’s feet gave her hell. She had painful calluses and wore special shoes. Every time the family moved to a new city, the first thing she did was seek out a podiatrist — then visit frequently.
More than 50 years later, Runyon remembered the “magical hold” those doctors had on his mother. And he remembered being impressed when, after the family moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., she finally found the one podiatrist who made her pain go away.
Runyon wound up shadowing that doctor as a pre-med student years later. By his late 20s, he too had become a podiatrist. Looking to escape the brutal midwestern winters, he turned to Florida and found a practice whose owner needed to sell it in short order. Runyon flew down on a Friday in 1978, and the following Monday, he was open for business.
He retired this month from the practice he built, St. Petersburg’s Tampa Bay Sports Medicine Center, where he spent 42 years treating the lower extremities of some of the region’s most powerful residents, some of its most overlooked and a lot of everyday people in between.
Between his local patients and those he saw during 20 years of mission trips to South America, he estimated he treated some 200,000 people — “some of them happy I became a podiatrist, and maybe some not, after I stuck a needle in their toe,” he joked.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Oct.1 issued a proclamation in Dr. Runyon’s honor, the day of his retirement. It deemed that in the city the month of October would be a celebration of Runyon’s career, with the mayor highlighting the doctor’s “academic excellence and servitude to both his profession and community,” his “amazingly balanced life” and the bright underwater scene painted on the side of his office — based on one of Runyon’s own photographs.
Among the things that attracted Runyon to podiatry is that it was a dozen specialties rolled into one. A good podiatrist had to have training in dermatology, orthopedics, internal medicine. Problems from all over the body can manifest in the feet, and he might be the first to notice a patient’s diabetes, vascular disease, thyroid problems.
“The foot had so many facets,” he said. “I wanted to know as much as I possibly could about each and every facet.”
Early in his career, he worked with the Chicago Bears' team podiatrist, practicing on the sidelines of Soldier Field. In St. Petersburg, he built his reputation by volunteering in the medical tent at high school track meets. Soon, his most frequent patients were runners, people who sometimes ran 100 miles a week with shoes that were “like pieces of cloth with a rubber sole.”
He started reading Runner’s World. He prescribed cross-training before it was a standard part of athletic conditioning, getting funny looks from single-minded athletes in return. He took up running himself, learning to speak his patients' language and empathizing with their obsessions.
They took him more seriously, he found, because he was one of them. It helped to be able to say, “You have posterior tendonitis — I had that last month.” He’s run 50,000 miles since then.
Carol Hollenbeck, a runner and physical therapist who owns a health club and clinic in St. Pete Beach, said Runyon’s experience as an athlete made him beloved in the local running and triathlon communities.
“We’ll all have to find our new go-to professional,” she said of his retirement.
In the early 1980s, Runyon was at a race when he ran into Bill Rodgers, then known as the best marathon runner in the world. Rodgers had a brother in the Tampa Bay area, Runyon remembered, and the two got to talking. Rodgers became his first famous patient.
Runyon can’t speak in specifics about most of his patients, because of privacy laws. But even the broad strokes are impressive: He was the Tampa Bay Rays' podiatrist from the team’s founding until his retirement. He treated Olympic athletes and pro wrestlers; mayors and high-powered business people; and at least one beer magnate, who came into his office on a rainy Saturday with a limo driver, a big feathered hat, a six-foot-wide umbrella and an infected toe.
Runyon said he found these various figures to be, for the most part, exceedingly humble and psychologically well-rounded — until he told them that they couldn’t do something.
Retired Sarasota podiatrist Andrew Peterson, a close friend of Runyon since podiatry school, said his friend never talked up his big-name clients, even in the years before strict health privacy laws. When he told Peterson about his gig with the Rays, Peterson remembered, he made it sound like no big deal.
“He’s very quiet,” Peterson said. “He’s honest. And he doesn’t need a lot of attention. He just does his thing.”
Nor did Runyon ever look for praise for his volunteer work, Peterson said. In 2000, he treated a Catholic sister whose boss ran a mission program. She told him he had to go to Brazil, and having been raised Catholic, he worried what might happen to him if he said no.
He’s been to South America dozens of times since then, including 14 times to Peru, where he met his wife and where, he said, he and the doctors he traveled with for two weeks at a time were the town’s only medical care, aside from obstetrics. He found that giving people the medical help they needed but could never afford was the most fulfilling thing his career could offer.
“This is how healthcare should be,” he said.
After four decades of working by appointment, Runyon, who also has two grown sons, isn’t used to how much time he suddenly has on his hands. The coronavirus has upended his biggest retirement plans: He and his wife want to travel extensively, living for six months at a time in Indonesia, South America, Vietnam. In the meantime, he plans to dig deeper into scuba diving and underwater photography, to read something besides medical journals and to attempt to write some country-western songs.
Lately, he said in an interview during his first full week of retirement, he’s been thinking about a Kenny Chesney tune called “Don’t Blink.” It’s a story-song about a young man glued to a TV interview with an old man, who seems to speak directly to him: “Life goes faster than you think.”