Part One: Run
On July 17, 2022, I finished a half-marathon, 13.1 miles from Napa to Sonoma in Northern California.
This is the story of how a tall awkward uncoordinated young man became a tall awkward uncoordinated half-marathon-finishing senior citizen.
I never played team sports. Not that I haven’t enjoyed watching them. I loved seeing the Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffle their way to victory in 1985. I witnessed the Chicago Bulls defeat the Knicks in 1991 in a crowded New York bar, and was careful not to cheer. I wept when Drew Brees led the New Orleans Saints to their inspiring post-Katrina win in 2007. I’m the guy for whom the term “fair-weather fan” was invented.
Still, something about running made me consider actually doing it, probably because I could do it all by myself (insert sex joke here). In 1980, when I was grossly overweight, I read a book called Fit or Fat.
I cut out alcohol and sugar. And as recommended, every day, I did 20 minutes of aerobic exercise. I ran. In place. Indoors. In six months, I lost 5 inches from my waist. My father, who competed in tennis on a state level as a young man, would watch me lifting my knees high as I created a puddle of sweat in the laundry room. He’d shake his head and say, “Don’t you ever want to go anyplace?” I would, eventually, want to go someplace, But my dad didn’t live long enough to see it.
I was in my late 40’s, living in California, knowing I should exercise, and thought, what the hell? I’ll strap on a pair of running shoes and give it a go. I’d run in our tree-lined neighborhood. I’d run around a track at our local park. Run may be too dignified a word. More accurate would be a jog, occasionally a somewhat rapid jog that, if you squint, might look run-ish.
As time went by, and as jogging became by tiny degrees easier and more enjoyable, I began to entertain the idea of signing up for one of the hundreds of races held in Southern California every year.
I chose a 10K, in retrospect an odd choice for my first race. Why didn’t I start with a 5K, 3.1 miles instead of 6.2? Despite my nervousness, I guess I saw myself as more than a beginner.
I found a training plan in a book. I followed it. I’m good at following recipes.
The race took place in Griffith Park, a location I would come to know well.
Before the early-morning start, we pinned our bib numbers on our shirts and attached our chip timers to our shoelaces. These days the timer is in your bib. But I remember the old days when race prep was a complicated two-step process. I paced back and forth behind the start line when I wasn’t making trips to the port-o-potty. Before a race I average three pees. This is also my habit before a live performance. Three pees, and I’m ready to go. My worst fear–irrational as it turns out–was of finishing last. I would focus on the other entrants I knew I could beat. I’m sure these days, amateur runners size me up the same way.
They played the national anthem. The race began. Hundreds of us crossed the starting line. Each of us running by ourselves, together.
I finished the 6.2 miles. I wasn’t last.
There is a special exhilaration a runner, or jogger, feels when he, or she, finishes their first race. “I did it! I pushed through the discomfort, and I did it!!”
With adrenaline surging through my veins, I made the decision then and there: I was going to run a marathon.
I signed up to run the Los Angeles Marathon, six months away. Actually, I would run/walk the marathon, as per Olympian Jeff Galloway’s recommendation in his book MARATHON: You Can Do It! You alternate periods of running and walking, e.g., run four minutes, walk one minute.
I trained alone in Griffith Park. I mapped an eight-mile route, which I began to think of as my personal Trail of Tears. The training schedule required one run longer than the 26.2 miles of a marathon, the reasoning being you have a psychological edge knowing you’d gone longer than the brutal 26.2. So… 27 miles. That’s three times around the Trail of Tears, plus another three. That’s a lot of tears. Oh well. I saw a coyote and a deer, so it was worth it.
Race day. I stood with thousands of other runners at the start line in downtown L.A
Actually, I was quite far back from the start line. After the horn blew, it would be another twenty minutes before I officially started. Speakers blasted Randy Newman singing “I Love L.A.” not, in fact, a pro-L.A. song, but everyone was more focused on the race than on the ironic lyrics.
Like most other runners, I wore a cheap sweatshirt that I would remove and toss by the side of the road as I heated up. Later they would gather the discarded tops and give them to charity.
The first ten miles felt pretty good. The second ten miles were work. The final 6.2 miles were hell, an agonizing process of planting one sore foot down after another.
Here are a few vivid memories:
Helpful race supporters giving out fruit along the route. One misguided fellow handing out banana segments with the peel still on. Runners proceeding gingerly around the discarded banana peels on the street, in an effort to prevent large-scale physical comedy.
Some frat boys with a cruel sense of humor, at about mile 23 or 24, offering “Free Lap Dances” from a young bikini-clad coed standing next to a barcalounger.
People shouting “Go, Mark!” as I approached the final mile. And me wondering who had come out to cheer me on until I realized my name was printed on my bib.
I finished. Four hours, thirty minutes, give or take. They gave me my medal. They wrapped me in a mylar blanket.
Saying that finishing is a peak experience–those words don’t do the feeling justice. I felt triumphant. I felt I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. Anything was possible.
I returned to my car and enjoyed a well-deserved cigarette–did I mention I was still a pack-a-day smoker?
I did two more marathons after Los Angeles, both in Chicago, my hometown.
In the second Chicago marathon, I got cocky, abandoned my run/walk strategy, and ran the whole race. I was ten minutes slower. But I had caught the bug. I ran numerous 5K and 10K races in California. I even won a medal. Third place out of four runners in my class. Because of my size, my class was termed “Clydesdale,” one class faster than “Bull Walrus.”
I ran a half-marathon in Memphis, Tennessee, to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. All along the route, parents held up pictures of their kids who were being treated, free of charge, at that wonderful institution. An emotional day.
I moved to New York City, quit smoking, and continued to run races. Central Park, Prospect Park, Washinton Heights. I turned 60 and felt pleased with myself for being an almost senior citizen who could still race.
Then my left knee started talking to me…
(TO BE CONTINUED)