Running tattoo is permanent reminder to pursue health for one Michigan man

Julie Bitely

| 5 min read

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The tattoo on Wyoming resident Tom Popma’s left calf is officially the Fifth Third Riverbank Run logo. For Popma, it’s much more than that.
It’s become an almost talismanic reminder for the 32-year-old to never return to unhealthy habits he’s left behind, in a trail of his own running dust.
The tattoo was recently featured on the Runner’s World website as part of a roundup of 28 Amazing Running Race Tattoos. Popma submitted his tattoo as a contender, but said he was surprised to make the list. (Check out number 26!)
“It was awesome,” he said. “People always ask if it’s real and I get a lot of compliments on it.”
The Riverbank logo means a lot to him because it’s the race that got him back into running and on the path to better health. Inspired by a friend who had changed his lifestyle by running a marathon, Popma was intrigued when family members brought up the idea of running the Riverbank around the Thanksgiving table in 2011.
He started training that winter with his cousin and uncle. Although he didn’t finish under two hours as planned, he was definitely hooked on the experience he had during his first race in May 2012.
The cheering crowd, the camaraderie between runners on the course, and accomplishing a goal were all highlights of the largest 25K road race in the country for Popma.
“The whole race day was just awesome,” he said.
He’s since completed three consecutive Riverbank Run 25K races. In 2013, he ran with My Team Triumph, a group that pairs participants with disabilities, known as “Captains”, with athletes who push and pull their Captain as an “angel”.
Tom Popma running as a Team in Triumph "angel" during the 2013 Bridge Run.
Tom Popma running as a Team in Triumph “angel” during the 2013 Bridge Run.
Popma’s natural endurance hid the fact that he was a smoker during his first two Riverbank races.
“I remember sitting after the race thinking I wanted to smoke a cigarette,” he said.
Popma finally quit last June and the tattoo serves as a visual marker between the old and new Tom. He explained that he couldn’t very well get a running tattoo and continue to smoke.
“Every time I see it, it reminds me of why I do it and where I was,” he said.
Popma and his girlfriend, Lisa, have five children between them. He said he didn’t want to be a hypocrite to Juan, 13, Aubree, 10, Kiley, 9, Hailey, 7, and Mackenzie, 5, when it came to smoking. It wasn’t easy to quit, but Popma said it was worth it.
“It was huge. It does feel a lot better knowing I’m setting a better example for them,” he said.
The kids are now expressing interest in running and some of the girls completed the Alger Heights Halloween 5K last October, Popma said. Running has really become part of Popma’s lifestyle and his extended family has come along for the ride. A group of about 10 family members meet most Wednesdays and Saturdays for runs. The group even have their own shirts made to wear in races they run together, so other family members can see them coming.
Favorite local running spots for Popma include Riverside Park for long runs with family on Saturdays, running from John Ball Park, to Butterworth, to Millennium Park occasionally with the Grand Rapids Running Club, and right now, runs in Wayland through a summer running group coached by his former high school coach.
The Gordon Food Service warehouse worker has shed about 20 pounds since he took running back up. A cross country runner in high school, Popma hadn’t really run much before his 2012 Riverbank Run training began. He golfed and played softball, but said he wasn’t exactly the picture of health. In high school, he regularly finished in the top 5 or 10 at races.
“Back then it was about beating everyone, but now races are about beating myself,” he said.
He estimates he’s finished about 30 races – everything from 5Ks to half-marathons to the 25Ks – in the past three years. He loves the local running community he’s now part of and the challenge that races provide.
Tom Popma at the Brian Diemer 5K earlier this year.
Tom Popma at the Brian Diemer 5K earlier this year.
“I’ll never win a race, but it’s a competitive thing – more against myself than against anyone else,” he said.
That competitive spirit helped him beat a time he’d been chasing since he ran his first Riverbank. Since he stopped smoking, Popma accomplished his original goal to complete the 25K in less than two hours.
On May 10, 2014, his official time crossing the finish line was 1:57:50. He said he didn’t care if the time read 1:59:59, he just had to meet that goal. Mental toughness and finishing with a friend got him there.
“For me it’s just kind of thinking about all the work you put in,” he said. “You either put up or shut up.”
After that successful finish and races in between, Popma got his tattoo last October. It’s one of 12 and he explains he always strives for meaning when it comes to his ink. Two of his tattoos are the names of his children and he’ll soon have the third tattooed as well.
Al Owens is the Riverbank Run race historian. He said the running man logo was designed in 1978 by Lowell designer and artist Joseph E. Kinnebrew, who is also responsible for the iconic Grand Rapids Fish Ladder Sculpture, built along the Grand River in 1974 at 560 Front St. NW. Owens said the running man has largely remained the same throughout the race’s history, with only minor tweaks here and there.
“He’s the trademark of our race,” Owens said.
Popma is proud to display him and he’s already thinking about getting another running-themed tattoo. His biggest race yet might just provide the inspiration. Training runs have started for Popma for the Grand Rapids Marathon, which will be his first attempt at running the 26.2-mile distance. He said he’s “nervously excited,” but that it’s all part of doing things he’s never done before and taking his running to the next level.
“I’ll see if something during the race sticks out,” Popma said about his next potential tattoo.

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