Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marathon Man

I've been a distance runner for a number of years now - pretty much since high school. In ninth grade, I was on the cross-country team for my school, and I actually competed in a steeplechase or two. But the crowning moment was the last meet of the year, when our team went from Texas to Oklahoma City to compete in the conference championships. They put me in the two-mile, making it the longest race I had run that year, and of the three runners my school entered in the event, I was the only one who finished.
Then at the beginning of my sophomore year, I transferred to a performing arts magnet school which had no varsity athletics (well, unless you consider stage band a varsity sport), and that was pretty much the end of my athletic career.

But I continued to run. And compete in races. I ran the San Francisco Bay to Breakers, which is a 12k race, in 1980 and again in 1982. And again in 1985. Bay to Breakers attracts a loony-tunes cast of characters, from brides with full beards to guys who run the way the early Greek Olympians competed - completely in the buff. Some of them will even bind themselves together in a chain-gang for a chance at a prize; one group came dressed as the San Francisco Bay Bridge. To this date, no one, individual or group, has come dressed as San Francisco International Airport. The 1980 race attracted close to 100,000 runners, and the numbers kept escalating every year, so the race officials cut off registration at 125,000. Even with the limit, it would sometimes take half an hour just to cross the starting line, and you walk it for the first four miles due to the crowds.

The longest distance I ever ran in my life was 10 miles - until I registered for my first marathon. When I hit my 50th birthday, I promised myself I was going to complete a marathon. I registered for the Marine Corps Marathon, an event that brings out thousands and essentially closes Downtown DC for half a day. My brother had run a marathon ten years earlier and had actually turned in a decent time. Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, had actually run two marathons, including the prestigious race in London, but he died suddenly when he was 50. Nevertheless, I was determined to go the whole 26 miles and 385 yards, even though my wife thought I was nuts.
So I started training, eight months before the race. And to make it more challenging, I got myself diagnosed as a diabetic. I started doing 5 miles around the neighborhood in Spring, and by June, 5 miles had become 7, then 9, and by 4th of July, I was running 11 miles in sweltering 95-degree heat. My wife was convinced I was going to drop dead on the footpath, and one evening I came pretty close. I went out for an 18-mile circuit, and by the 14th mile I was sweating pretty hard. By the 14th mile I was walking, and I walked the last 4 miles. I went to bed a zombie, but still woke up the next morning and ran ten miles. By Labor Day, I had dropped 20 of my 150 pounds and I looked as skinny as a starving cat. My right ankle was sore after every run, but I persevered on.

The last Sunday in October was race day. It started out in the 40s at 8 in the morning, but by mid-day it was 60 with a pleasant breeze. The Marines had very thoughtfully provided blocked-out areas for runners who thought they were going to set a certain pace (6 minutes a mile, 6:30 a mile, 7 minutes a mile and so on) and each block was accompanied by Marines who were going to set that pace themselves. It was all very orderly - right down to the men's and women's bushes (yes, they had Porta-potties, but no one wanted to brave the lines). The time approached for the race. They played the National Anthem, lined the runners up, fired the starting gun and we were off.

The tallest hill on the race course was no more than 300 feet above sea level and it was within the first five miles of the race. We started on the north side of the Pentagon and proceeded northward through Roslyn, an office district in Virginia opposite Georgetown. After an uphill jaunt, we doubled back and crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown, then into the hills, back past the Reservoir, then along the Whitehurst Freeway and across the Mall to Capitol Hill. They had water stations every half mile or so, and I noticed that if I had a quick swig of G2 (Gatorade with half the sugar), it gave me a short burst of energy that lasted until I reached the next station. I also noticed that I was running comfortably at about 8 minutes a mile.

That did not last. I had just crossed the 14th Street Bridge from DC back into Crystal City, in Virginia, when my right knee started to lock up. I gritted my teeth and soldiered on, down and back up Crystal Drive and into the last couple of miles before the Hill. The last mile of the race was uphill going back again into Roslyn, and I could feel it with every step. The final portion of the race, that last 385 yards, was the incline up to the Iwo Jima Memorial, otherwise known as the Hill. I may have crawled those last yards, but I don't remember. I do recall getting one of those heavy iron medals - which is now pinned up in my office. Later, when I read the race results, I noticed that Gerry Epstein, also MIT Class of '78, had finished within ten minutes of my time; for whatever reason, I never saw him out on the course.
I drew several strips about the runner's high. I've encountered the kibitzer with the stick. Usually, it's a car full of teenagers. Sometimes it's teenage boys heckling me, but occasionally I've had girls whistle at me. They're less of a hazard than the cyclists, who come whizzing by at high speed. If they don't like my pace, they need to stay out of the middle of the street.
A word about coincidence. It turns out the idea for the strip above was also used in Mad Magazine, which used to have movie satires penned by Mort Drucker. He did a spoof on the movie "Rocky" that featured a Sylvester Stallone character who described his training routine as waking up early, cracking three raw eggs into a glass, drinking the eggs and then vomiting. It would not be the first time that a Stickles joke would show up somewhere else. The following joke turns out to have been a favorite New Year's Day joke of Johnny Carson for many years.
 And why is it that Jews take up recreational running? Well, I already explained it...

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