The Inquirer is presenting one profile a day of participants in the May 6 Blue Cross Broad Street Run. See full coverage at www.philly.com/broadstreetrun.

By Michael Vitez

Inquirer Staff Writer

Joe Whelan's introduction to running, and the Broad Street Run, was as a student at Central High School, when he volunteered on the bag-check buses. He felt awe.

He remembers handing one runner his bag at the end.

"Did you run all 10 miles?" Joe asked.

"I did," the runner replied.

"Man, that's amazing," Joe said. "I could never do that."

In college at Temple, Joe ran to stay fit, but hated running, and even more, developed contempt for runners who took themselves too seriously.

But he had this girlfriend whom he thought he could impress by running 10 miles, so he signed up for the Broad Street Run in 2006.

This was his first organized run of any kind. He dressed like a clown, including a fuzzy red hat, to mock the serious runners. He was 21 years old, and his time was 86 minutes.

The girl didn't last, but the run changed his life.

"While slow to take effect," he says now, "that first Broad Street planted the seeds of a profound and intricate love affair with the sport of running. I have since completed 11 marathons and some 75 other distance races, including every Broad Street Run since. It will always be my favorite race."

Joe got fit. Gained confidence. Felt joy. Made friends. Running was how he defined himself, and in time he felt that the sport had given him so much, "it would be criminal for me not to share and give back in some way."

So in 2010, he volunteered as a running leader with Students Run Philly Style.

"My 2010 and 2011 Broad Street Runs were defined by helping some 20 high school students go farther than they had ever gone before," he said. "Last year, I ran with a young man who could not run even two blocks when we started the season in late February.

"It's great to run. It's even better to give that gift to others," said Joe, now 27 and a content editor with the online service the Benefit Bank.

This year will be his seventh consecutive Broad Street Run. Each has grown in meaning, and 2012 is no exception.

"This year's run will bookend a very important chapter of my life," he said. "It will be my last long-distance race before heading to Ethiopia to serve for 27 months with the Peace Corps."

Joe hopes to run in 70 minutes, a goal he set for himself, and has yet to reach, after his first run in 2006.

And there is one more little matter before he leaves.

He will propose marriage.

Running has brought him meaning and purpose — and love.

He met Laura Woolston, a third-grade teacher at Southwark Elementary School, last summer. She also volunteers with Students Run Philly Style.

Laura will also run Sunday, with students, and is expecting a proposal. She just doesn't know when or where.

Recently, Joe posted this quote on his running blog, and it's surely been true for him: "Run with love in your heart and the wind will always be at your back."

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez