A runner’s legs

My wife had the TV on when I got home from work. News of the Boston Marathon bombing was breaking. I popped my tie, unbuttoned my shirt at the throat and slumped onto the couch.

I had been a runner in my youth. Forty years ago running was just beginning to come into its own as an accepted sport. Many times we runners were mocked by the locals as we tooled down the streets and roads of the sleepy little town where I attended undergraduate school.

Back then, runners stood a world apart from most athletes. Running was a lonely sport. The only glory one could hope for was the moment of hitting the tape at the finish. Many who ran seldom felt that exuberance, but they were runners just the same.

A runner’s strength lies in his lungs and legs — the lungs oxygenate the blood, the legs carry him along. If a runner has been true to himself, he finds himself spent at the finish. If he’s in good shape, he recovers quickly. He wipes the sweat from his brow and takes his victory lap. All is well — until the next race.

Imagine pushing the pace for 26 miles, lungs and legs burning. You round the final turn into the home stretch. Up ahead the finish line awaits. It won’t be long now. Just keep the pace, swing the arms, drive the legs, keep the rhythm — and soon you will be there.

The roar of the crowd surges in your ears, easing the pain in your body. A few more steps, then — an unearthly blast deafens your ears, a ball of orange flame blinds your eyes, smoke chokes your throat. Your legs give out as you collapse to the ground. It takes several eternal seconds before you realize that those legs that have carried you 26 miles are now pummeled with nails, ball bearings and shards of metal.

National tragedies affect all of us. As a people we grieve, as a people we stare in disbelief, as a people our anger rises collectively. Once again we question another senseless act of violence, devised and delivered by deranged malevolent minds.

Only this time round I am touched at a deeper level, for I too have been a runner. In a special way these wounded are my comrades, once fleet of foot, suddenly cut down moments before their final finish, lives shattered forever.

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Marking the paces

In the ancient Greek economy athletes were runners. Winning the footrace was the coveted prize. Our modern concept of athletics has expanded to include many recognized types of sport; but for runners, running remains the once and future king.

Forty years is a long stretch. Time and chance happen to us all. But the bonds formed between runners in their youth somehow hold firm over the years. There is more to running than speed, stride and stamina.

Such thoughts ran through my head as the notes of Haydn’s Il Distratto flowed from the car radio. Haydn composed Il Distratto — The Distracted Man — his 60th symphony, in 1774. The Heidelberg orchestra performed their rendition while I struggled to keep my eyes on the road.

It had snowed the night before — an inch of slush — and with the morning rain the highway remained somewhat slick. After two and a half hours I hit a fresh snow squall as the car descended the 1272 foot peak and slipped past the sparse grey cliffs along the upper Delaware.

For another hour I drove through swirling snow, slipstreaming behind tractor trailers with the wipers slapping against the windshield. Below Scranton the snow gave way to a wintry mix. I headed west on I-80 past freshly plowed fields, their expansive furrows limed with a dusting of snow.

Further west the mountains rose in the south like fresh-baked powdered loaves laid end to end. Reddish brown tufts of grass mingled with the dirty yellow remnant of last year’s growth along the hillsides.

Finally up ahead a familiar shape rose up from the valley floor — the Nittany Lion resting beneath a brown mountain blanket. I eased into the exit lane and headed south to Huntingdon.

One by one the members of our party arrived. That evening we assembled around a common table at Kelly’s Bar for supper and then trudged up the grassy hill in the cool night air to our rooms at the inn. The talk continued for several hours: back and forth banter, the merits of recently read books, the intricacies of a Bach fugue, and — beekeeping.

One of the more recent graduates — the son of the organizer of our weekend reunion — was slated to run the 1500 meters as an alumnus at the invitational meet the following day. He had signed up for the event but wasn’t sure if he wanted to run. It would most likely be a cold wet day on the track.

“What kind of shape are you in?” I asked him.

“Oh, I’m a great shape,” he said. “That’s not the issue.”

I looked over at his father, a sub-two half miler in his prime. Then I said: “If you’re in great shape, do the run. Never mind the weather. The day will come when you wish you could stay that pace without pain.”

The other fellows nodded in agreement.

He ran the following afternoon, looking strong as he crossed the finish line.

An older fellow appeared at breakfast in the next morning, a former runner from the early 1960s. He attended college to run, he told us. He had a stellar record, winning many races from that era.

This fellow told how the 1963 Middle Atlantic XC Championships were halted just as the starter had raised his pistol overhead. A policeman bounded over the hill on horseback shouting “Stop the race — the president’s been shot!” He held up a walkie-talkie so everyone could hear the shocking news. The race was run later that day, even though a number of coaches elected to withdraw their runners.

After the conclusion of the afternoon track meet we went out for a run up the winding road to the Peace Chapel, a memorial planned by Maya Lin, the same artist who designed the Vietnam War Memorial that stands on the green in Washington, D.C. A light rain had begun to fall as we headed out. Later, back at the inn, we saw the ephemeral blush of a rainbow sweep across the eastern sky.

That evening we gathered at the home of our former running coach for a traditional Smithfield spiral-cut ham dinner. More stories were shared. One of our group — an orthopedic surgeon and his pediatrician wife — narrated a notebook slide show on their medical mission trip to Haiti last summer. Over lemon cake and ice cream another fellow shared his unlikely journey from a geologist in the Texas oil fields to graduation from dental school. Our retired military man gave us his perspective on the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. We talked late into the night. Back at the inn I crawled into bed shortly after 1:00 AM.

Sunday morning we gathered at Top’s Diner for the final breakfast. The beekeeper handed out sample jars of Oxcart honey. I finished a short stack of sweet potato pancakes and took my leave, shaking everyone’s hand in turn.

It was almost like passing the peace at a church service.

Running the Race

My son stopped by my office last Friday over the lunch hour to chat. In the midst of our casual conversation he suddenly asked me if I knew how Steve Prefontaine died. His question took me by surprise. “Where did you hear about Steve Prefontaine?” I asked.

Steve Prefontaine—or “Pre” as he was known by scores of distance runners in the early 70s—at one time held the American record in every long distance race from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters. Pre was the darling of the distance men. He met his death tragically when the small MGB he was driving struck a rock wall by the side of the road and overturned, effectively pinning him underneath. The weight of the vehicle crushed his chest. Suddenly, at 24 years of age, this living legend belonged to the ages.

“This morning I met a guy I used to run with in high school at the track,” my son said. “He still runs. He had his dog with him. The dog’s name is Pre.”

I googled Prefontaine on my laptop. Together we scanned the Wikipedia entry. I learned a few things. As a high school sophomore, Prefontaine ran a 4:31 indoor mile. During his junior and senior years he ran undefeated. By the time he graduated, Prefontaine had set 19 national high school records in track. He went on to participate in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and was preparing for the 1976 Games when he died in 1975.

“He was some runner,” my son said over my shoulder.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “your old man ran undefeated in the mile his senior year, with a personal best of 4:31 for the season. The following year, as a college freshman, I turned in a 4:21.8 indoor mile and placed third at the Middle Atlantic Championships.”

“I didn’t know that, Dad. What happened then?”

“A small intervention called the draft. That was at the tail end of the Vietnam war.”

We were both silent for a moment. Then I said: “It says here that Prefontaine used to say ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.’”

“Sounds like he was quite a guy.”

“One of the greats,” I said.

The following day Michael Phelps won his first gold medal at the Beijing Games, breaking his own world record in the 400 meter IM swim. The time was an astounding 4:03.84—61 seconds per 100 meters of water.

Phelps has the perfect body for the water—a long torso and a wingspan of 6’ – 7”—perfect form and the drive of a champion. In training, he habitually swims 50 to 60 miles a week. At 23 years of age, he has become a world class athlete at the pinnacle of his career. Phelps is now the darling of the mermen.

Steve Prefontaine, Michael Phelps—athletes in their prime. Pre inspired one generation of runners; Phelps inspires another generation of swimmers.

Yet, like A. E. Housman’s athlete dying young, Steve Prefontaine never had to grapple with fame that fades when records fall to faster runners:

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

Like many world class athletes who spend years in intensive training to realize the goal of Olympic Gold, Michael Phelps will have to wrestle with finding meaning in life after he passes his prime.

Only a select few of us can achieve goals of such magnitude in this life, yet each one of us has been given a race to run, a distance to cover.

I don’t mourn my “what if” days. Thankfully, I somehow managed to channel my athletic energies into other areas and pursue different sets of goals. For me, these days it’s no longer about winning the race. Instead, it’s about learning to pace myself to find meaning in this journey to the finish.