Iris Simpson Bush keeps the Flying Pig Marathon running

By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Videos and Photo by Madison Schmidt

It is no exaggeration to call the executive director of the Flying Pig Marathon "the "peripatetic Iris Simpson Bush," so that is what I am going to do.

From the time, Iris was six years old, she was walking the two-mile round trip from her home on the East End ("4369 Eastern Avenue; it’s gone now”) to St. Stephen Grade School. To this day, she finds walking and running to be as much therapy as it is exercise -- part and parcel of her life's philosophy.

You can bet the good sisters at Marian High School (it merged with Purcell to become Purcell Marian in 1980) knew that the root word of peripatetic is "peri," derived from the ancient Greek and Latin, meaning "around" or "about." Yes, the good sisters at Marian knew a lot of things – right from the get-go. (Iris was a member of the first incoming freshman class at Marian.)

From the time peripatetic Iris Simpson was 15 – she’s the oldest of four siblings; the lone gal, and one who changed a lot of diapers--the good sisters of Marian knew that she was literally working her way through high school. She worked for her aunt at an electrical company downtown (she rode the bus from the East End to Clay Street; the store is no longer there; it’s the Salvation Army now).

By 17, she was working at Zayre department store.  She worked modeling shoes for U.S. Shoe; the nuns let her leave school early for that gig; it was a good-paying job, and she was even able to save up money for college.

Zayre had its own “Flying” program: It was called the “Flying Cashiers.” Yep, the peripatetic Iris Simpson was a Flying Cashier long before she was a Flying Pig.

I’ll let her explain:

“I was barely over 18, and they made me a front-line supervisor. I worked in the cash office. In back to back weeks during the summer they allowed me to work 80 and 84 hours.”

It wasn’t that her employer insisted on it, but because she wanted to. She was assigned to various departments at the store, so that it wouldn’t be obvious to do-gooding outsiders that she was working more than 40 weekly hours as a teenager.

“The Flying Cashier program was great for me,” she remembers. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. They’d send me all over, one time to Missouri. I’d fly in and help open a store – get there a week early, train the cashiers, work with them during Grand Opening week, and at the end of those two weeks, they (Zayre) would take us someplace nice. I saw my first play in the Ozarks – Fiddler on the Roof.”

I have a friend who has long tried to convince me that Cincinnati is not a blue-collar town; he describes it as a "blue'ish"-collar town. I've always disagreed with him on that, given that I know a blue-collar work ethic (if not a blue-collar job), when I see it. I've always felt Cincinnati had and has the blue-collar work ethic. Now I have somebody to give my friend as Exhibit A: the peripatetic Iris Simpson Bush.

When I began interviewing her for this story, it wasn't as though she volunteered her life story from age six forward. I asked her where she grew up and where she went to school. Ten seconds after she began to take me back to her roots, she said: "Are you sure you want to hear all this?"  I said yes, and off we went.

I knew I was onto something when she told me about that mile walk to school and the mile back home, but I really knew I was onto something when she told me that after two years at the University of Cincinnati, she packed her belongings into a U-Haul at 21 and headed for Florida. Her job in the president’s office at the fledgling "FIU" (Florida International University) in Miami had a "bilingual" in its description, but after the interviewer got wind of how fast she spoke English and how many bases she covered, he told her: "You talk enough in English to cover several languages -- you're hired."

Although she liked the year-round warmth and the flat topography of Florida for her running – it’s where she first began the pursuit, she missed our four seasons here in Cincinnati, and was back home in a few years, working (ofcourse) and finishing UC with marketing degree.

In 1997, toward the tail end of her 30 years in broadcast sales in the Cincinnati market (she began at WSAI radio, was at WCPO-TV for 20 years and three at WLWT), she read with a great interest a newspaper article that Bob Coughlin was trying to bring a marathon to Cincinnati.

The Flying Pig’s inaugural run was in 1999; this is its 19th year. After three executive directors (and an interim director, her husband, Jim Bush) in the first four years, this is the peripatetic Iris Simpson Bush’s 15th year as the Pig’s executive director.

Even though I’m not a runner – I’m a walker – I have been spent my share of time at the Pig’s starting and finish lines doing human interest stories. And, like most Greater Cincinnatians, I’m proud to have the Pig woven inextricably into the fabric of my adopted city.  I love its growth:  A hoped-for 3,000 the first year (it drew 6,600) is already at 40,000 this year.

This year, all 50 states and Washington D.C., and 20 foreign countries are represented, including China, Norway, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada and five from the Ukraine. The youngest full marathoner is 10 (the minimum age is 18, but, occasionally, with parental waivers and Pig due diligence,  some exceptions are made), and the oldest (a female) is 86 (running the Pig on her birthday, May 7); the oldest male is 82; there is a 95-year-old doing a half-marathon, and a 90-year-old doing a 10K. Sixty percent of the field is female, 40% male; 94 of the registered runners have done all 18 past Pigs – they’re known as “Streakers.”

Even a non-runner can appreciate the “we-don’t-take-ourselves-too-seriously” aspect of the name, “Flying Pig Marathon.”

Simpson Bush spent several minutes talking about that very thing: “A lot of names were offered up,” she remembers, “but ‘Flying Pig’ Marathon made everybody laugh, and of course it hearkened back to the 1800s and Porkopolis… But there was a bit of a risk with ‘Flying Pig.’ A marathon is a serious undertaking, and people are investing their money and months of training. But we’ve been recognized as one of the best-named brands in the country.  The name has worked for us.”

The peripatetic Simpson Bush doesn't have time to run the Pig on race day, so she runs the week before (she likes staying connected with the course). Suffice to say it is always emotional for her running through the East End. She calls herself a “recreational” runner, who has never run “competitively.”

Her first race was Cincinnati’s Thanksgiving Day special in 1975 (she has since done 31 more). Her first full marathon was one I didn’t even know ever existed – the Pacesetters Marathon in Northern Kentucky, which went out and back Route 8 along the Ohio River; she did that in 1979 and 1980.  About that time, she also began playing soccer in a recreational league, something she thoroughly enjoyed for 20 years. (Marian High offered only volleyball and basketball, and Iris couldn’t participate, anyway: she was always working.)  

On Sunday, Simpson Bush will again work the Pig finish line, but only in the way somebody “works” a room; she knows the real work that day is being done by others, all of whom she names and praises to the heavens.

She loves seeing the faces and hearing the stories and absorbing the scenes and emotions of personal accomplishment. A few finishers (ok, more than a few) will hug her, and then upchuck on her feet. That’s the way it’s always been. It’s as much a badge of honor as it is anything with the executive director.

It is why she keeps an extra case of water bottles handy -- to wash down her shoes, providing the next runner-hugger a fresh canvas.

“It’s not all glamorous, but it is all fun,” says the peripatetic Iris Simpson Bush. “I don’t worry about getting sick, those are healthy people crossing that finish line!”