Richard Schletty will toe the starting line Saturday at Grandma’s, his 189th marathon in a quest for 200 that started more than four decades ago.

Richard only claims one of them … so far. The other 187 belong to his late brother Joe, who through his own infectiousness dragged his friends and family kicking, screaming and laughing into his passion for running.

Months after Joe, a gregarious 6--4 lifetime athlete and occasional smoker, died from lung cancer at age 64, Richard laced up for the first time in more than a decade, at Grandma’s in 2012. Though the experience was emotional, Richard couldn’t finish. But in 2013, he and 14 other friends ran the Twin Cities Marathon, symbolically closing Joe’s unfulfilled gap.

Long after picking up running with Joe the first time around, the fever caught Richard once more, for the same reason: staying close to Joe.

“I just keep thinking of Joe as I go out and run,” said Richard, a 61-year-old commercial artist and web designer. “He had 13 left. I wanted to complete them on my own.”

Joe’s leadership was always evident — just ask the handful of relatives and friends who became marathon runners.

It began almost by accident. Joe threw the discus and shot at St. Agnes High School, inspiring Richard to do the same. Then after Joe returned from four years in Vietnam as an electronic technician for the U.S. Marine Corps, he picked up running to stay in shape.

The pied piper

But if running was a lonely sport, Joe quickly changed that. First came Larry Mike, Joe’s cousin and one of his best friends. Mike was living in Buffalo, Minn., but caught the bug through frequent phone calls with his pal. Joe quickly had become enthralled with the sport, knocking off as many as 12 marathons in some years. With Joe as his “coach,” Mike began to join his cousin, traveling first to Winnipeg for a 26.2-mile run in 1980, proof of which hangs in a picture in his Inver Grove Heights living room.

“I never had any intention of running a marathon, but he kind of led us down that path,” Mike said.

Richard, tall and stocky like his brother, started running around 1984. He and Joe had side-by-side houses, purchased from their parents, on Cherokee Avenue in St. Paul. Joe’s personal best for a marathon was 3 hours, 8 minutes in 1988, Richard’s was 3:51 in 1983. Mike moved across the alleyway from the Schlettys in 1987.

The three dubbed themselves the Bushrunners Running Club, named after their starting spot at the bushes in Cherokee Park. Joe’s enthusiasm grew the group. Mike’s brothers — Joe, Bernie and Ben — jumped in. Then came Karl Stadstad, Mike’s brother-in-law; and John Wenker and Jimmy Peterson, a pair of close friends in the area. All of them ran marathons, continuing for more than two decades.

Through it all, Joe would keep his fellow runners motivated and entertained, ripping on one guy’s gait or telling jokes until they begged him to stop lest their muscles revolt from the laughter.

“We always said he was full of baloney,” said Larry Mike, 60. “But he was hilarious … We always said this guy was going to live forever.”

A sudden turn

In the summer of 2012, the invincibility cracked. After running Grandma’s — his 187th marathon — in slightly longer than five hours in June, Joe’s recovery lagged. He had been full of energy as he started building a garage a month earlier, but by July, watching from next door, Richard saw something foreign. The man his friends nicknamed “Iron Man” and “The Godfather” wobbled across the yard. When Joe spoke, the words, still peppered with wisecracks, came out slowly.

Tests ran in August suggested only pneumonia. A month later, however, Joe received the diagnosis: an aggressive form of lung cancer that had spread to his brain.

The disease quickly took over, claiming first his ability to run, then to walk. He never complained, Mike said, except to lament that he couldn’t even manage to hobble to the bushes, where the friends began their runs for so many years.

Just a month later, in October 2012, Joe passed away, cracking jokes until the night of his death.

Not sure how else to mourn, Richard, along with many family members and friends, picked up his sneakers.

No. 189 will lead to No. 190, perhaps at the Twin Cities Marathon in the fall. Eventually, Richard knows, he’ll cross the finish line in No. 200. The goal hanging in the balance will be fulfilled, step-by-step, by the power of legacy and the love of a brother expressed in the way it always was.

“It was so meaningful, so poignant that I was running in Joe’s honor,” Richard said. “But I really wish I was running with him.”