Former triathlete walks his dog for a cause

February 22, 2009 11:56:30 AM PST
Kurt Behm leaned over the quivering 81-pound knot of muscles named Colby and asked the question he'd been waiting for all day: "Are you ready to go for a walk?"

As soon as he heard the W word, the 4-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever bounced up and down as if he were on a trampoline.

Behm strapped a leash and jacket on the cavorting canine and off they went on their daily 8- to 10-mile ramble, chugging down the street with a springing gait and a sense of purpose.

For Behm, 60, a former triathlete from Villanova, the walks are a way to raise money for kids with chronic illnesses at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. For Colby, well, he would just go nuts without his daily constitutional.

Man and beast have been walking together for almost four years, but about six months ago, Behm had a eureka moment: The perambulating pair could use their walks to raise money for charity and get other dog-walkers to do the same.

"I read somewhere online that 13 million people walk their dogs," said Behm, who is a consultant in the home-furnishing industry, working with companies such as Wal-Mart and Target. "These people are walking anyway. I thought, if they could get their friends, family, co-workers to pledge a penny or nickel a mile, we can raise money and awareness for children who can't walk themselves."

Ever since his best friend's daughter - and Behm's goddaughter - died at age 3½ months at Children's Hospital in 1993, he has donated to the facility. So he contacted Children's, which loved the idea, and in January set up the walkingwithcolby.com Web site, which links to the hospital.

The site tracks the miles Behm and Colby walk - 321 so far in 2009 - and the amount of money they've raised: $1,090. All of the funds go directly to the hospital.

With the walkers coming up on their 10,000th mile in the spring, Behm set a fundraising goal of $10,000. But he wants to expand that with corporate sponsors and start programs in other cities with children's hospitals.

Tess Boyle, of Children's fundraising department, said she admired Behm's energy and passion for helping children. Other people have raised money with marathons or walks, but Behm is the first one to do it each and every day.

"He's committed to Children's Hospital, absolutely," she said.

For Behm, who used to run eight miles a day, being on the go is as natural as chasing a tennis ball is for Colby. After Behm broke a hip during a six-mile run in 2003, his doctor suggested he switch to walking.

"That was the last thing I wanted to hear. Walking was something my wife did with her girlfriends, holding a cup of coffee," Behm said.

The slower pace, Kathy Behm recalled, was hard for her energetic husband.

"Walking was not fun," she said. "When you're a runner, the endorphins from running give you a high."

For two years, Behm walked alone, "but my heart wasn't in it," he said.

That changed in 2005 when his son, Trystan, came home from college with a 6-month-old chocolate Lab and soon afterward got a job in New York. The dog stayed and became Behm's walking partner.

The two are a familiar site along Lancaster Avenue, walking west through the small town of Wayne to Strafford or east all the way to Ardmore. Behm, who works from home, squeezes in the two-hour laps at lunch or about 4 p.m. But if he gets tied up during the day, they will hit the pavement late at night.

The recent cold, snowy weather didn't slow them down. Colby wore a sweater under his jacket, and Behm strapped rubber treads on his sneakers, though once in a while he'd hit an ice patch and take a tumble. But cold is better than heat, which forces them to slow down.

On a recent afternoon, with the sun shining off Colby's sleek fur - "the best day we've had all year," said Behm - man and dog headed off at a runner's pace, 5 miles per hour.

As soon as they approached Wayne, they were stopped by a woman who went gaga over Colby (sorry, Kurt).

"Oh, he's so cute," gushed Margot Stamateris, 22, as Colby gave her kisses outside Starbucks in Wayne. "I really like dogs."

Behm gave her a flier about the organization and pulled Colby away from the pretty brunette.

"He loves girls, and they love him," said Behm, charging past the shops of Wayne. "But it's not only girls. On weekends and days when the weather is nice, we get stopped all the time."

As if on cue, a former neighbor, Frank O'Neill, waved hello.

"God bless you," O'Neill, 82, said when Behm told him what he and the dog were up to.

Their next stop was Wayne Jewelers, where Suzanne Smith came to the door to give Colby a treat. Owner Wayne Reid, a friend of Behm's, said he believed that what the two were doing was wonderful, but that he didn't have time to walk himself.

"I need it more than Colby does," he said.

The walkers headed along North Wayne Avenue to Competitive Edge, a lacrosse store, to say hi to another friend, owner Chris Hupfeldt, who handed out more treats.

A "dog owner" as opposed to dog-walker, Hupfeldt said he had a Lab who "will take the shoe off your foot."

It was the midway point, and Colby and Behm both seemed energized by the treats and the attention.

"We love it when people say, 'Hey, I see you walking everywhere,"' said Behm, striding off with his canine companion. "This is a grass-roots movement, and it has to start one person at a time."

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