Al’s Ship of Fools

By Meara Isenberg – May 1, 2019
Brian Fitzsimmons

Al Cumming sits in a north Austin coffee shop, slowly drinking a mocha. He had tried — and failed —  to order a diet Coke, and it’s clear that he doesn’t spend much time sitting in cafes.

The 73-year-old has been on the move as long as he can remember. He played various sports until a knee injury in his mid-30s led him to take up running.

Since then, he has run not one, but two marathons in every state, and has founded his own running group in Austin, Al’s Ship of Fools.

The Starting Line

Al ran his first marathon when he was 50 years old. After attending a marathon training group, he decided to split off and form one of his own, and gradually others joined him.

“Year after year, the size of the group just started building,” Cumming says. “We always said it was free — it didn’t cost anything to join — and we guaranteed that you always got your money’s worth.”

The name, “Al’s Ship of Fools,” came from an encounter during one of the group’s runs down Lake Austin Boulevard on an exceptionally chilly day.

“It was below freezing here in Austin,” Cumming says. “And this guy who was running the other way, when I passed him, he said ‘This is a damn ship of fools!’ And so that stuck.”

Ten years worth of training runs later, the Ship of Fools joined the Austin Runners Club as ARC’s Marathon/Half Marathon Training program in 2010.

While all of this was taking place, Cumming also started a separate endeavor with his wife, Sandy — a marathon run in each of the 50 states.

“It was travel with a purpose,” he says. “We would go and we would run, sometimes in big cities, sometimes in crazy small towns.”

After completing the feat once, the duo did it over again, but this time a bit faster — completing as many as six marathons in a week in six different states.

Cumming’s favorite run was the Mystic Places Marathon in Connecticut, notable, he says, for the scenic Atlantic Ocean view and the five free Krispy Kreme donuts he ate afterwards.

Steering the “Ship”

While he’s experienced a bit of every state, Cumming still chooses to call Austin home. He currently leads the ARC running group on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

Each Saturday, the Ship of Fools meets at the zero mile marker of Town Lake Trail and takes off at exactly 7 a.m.

“We like to say if you’re a minute late, we’ll be a minute down the trail,” Cumming says.

He’s not kidding.

The group includes upwards of 70 runners, both novice and experienced, and afterwards, some head over to one of a few rotating Mexican restaurants for a cheap breakfast.

Once a month, the group celebrates birthdays, and Cumming has a chance to showcase another one of his passions — baking. He and Sandy usually make a cake, such as the chocolate chip cream cheese-filled creation they brought to a post-run meet-up in March.

“Usually the people who have a birthday that month sort of show up — and some people for the free cake too,” he says.

Community is a big part of the Ship of Fools, according to Cumming. He describes the group as competitive, yet supportive of each other.

“After the workout, you would think people would just head on home,” he says. “But they hang around and we have to chase them off, if you will, after a while.”

Members of the group are often referred to by nicknames — most of which are given by Cumming.

Jeff Burrus got his nickname on his very first run with the Ship of Fools. There was already an experienced runner named Jeff in the group, so Al joked he would be called “Fast Jeff,” and Burrus — a larger-built former football player — would be “Big Jeff.”

“They pretty much dropped the Jeff part, and now I’m just ‘Big,’” Burrus says.

“Big” has been running with the group for two decades. He met his now-wife on a run with the Ship of Fools and has officiated the weddings of two other couples who met through the group.

He says the relationships he’s formed with people he’s not sure he’d have met any other way have kept him coming back to the “Ship” for so many years.

A Self-Proclaimed “Geezer”

Years of physical activity have taken a toll on Cumming. He’s had two ACL surgeries and three meniscus surgeries, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. When he mentions his injuries, he laughs and calls himself a “geezer.”

He says having had “every injury known to mankind” helps him identify problems when members of the group come to him for help.

“Lots of times, people will say, ‘Oh, it’s hurting right in here,’” he says, reaching down to touch the top of his blue Mizuno sneakers. “Well, I’ll say, ‘Have you tried skipping one of the holes on your laces?’ Because that happens to me, and that’s all it takes.”

Cumming keeps the Ship of Fools up to date on all his travels with a humorous “race report” of each run he completes. Seven hundred and eighty-one people currently receive his emailed reports, which have chronicled enormous desserts and spontaneous hot tub parties with locals.

“The hot tub party turned out a little differently than we had expected,” Cumming wrote in one race report, attaching a picture he took of a bathtub sitting on top of an open fire.

He also sends the write-ups to his six kids, including his daughter, April Cumming.

April says she was basically raised on Town Lake Trail, running with the Ship of Fools. As Austin continues to grow, the group, to her, represents the small-town feel the city can still have.

“Everyone’s very welcoming and supportive and encouraging, and I don’t think that that’s something you really find too much of today,” April says. “You become part of the family.”

More than 20 years since Al started leading the group, April sees no signs of him giving up the Ship.

“I’ve always kind of wondered, like the next time I meet up with him, is he gonna tell me ‘he no longer is coaching the group,’ or ‘he’s going to let someone else take over,’” April says. “But no, each year he’s still talking about them. He’s still just as connected.”

There’s a ship on Cumming’s T-shirt, too. It’s a red tee decorated with a white boat and text that reads “Celebration Run” from a half marathon he ran in Oregon last year.

That race helped him close in on his latest goal — a half marathon in each state. He only has two races left, including one in New York that he will knock off in May.

So, no, you likely won’t catch Al Cumming sitting in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. But if you stop by Town Lake, you may spot him living up to the signature that follows each of his race reports: “Run every chance you get.”

Memberships with the Austin Runners Club, which include runs with the Ship of Fools, are $30 a year. But Cumming says anyone can try out a run with the Ship for free.



Related Articles