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My dream marathon: Running in the most famous of all road races

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man. Shakespeare wrote that, and he might as well have been writing about my marathon story, which has been told and retold many times. But now that the final chapter is about to unfold, it has to be told one more time.

You must write your story, the lady on the bus insisted. Denise, a physical therapist running only her second marathon, was seated next to me on this anxious bus ride to Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Dripping wet from the cold rain outside, she had told me her story, how she ran her first marathon at 50 to qualify for this most famous of all road races and earn the right to be where we were headed now, the starting line of the 123rd Boston Marathon.

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Now it was time to tell my story.

It starts in Honolulu in 1980, when this young sedentary and chain-smoking sportswriter covered the Honolulu Marathon and wondered why, hours after the winners had crossed the finish line, hundreds of runners kept running, walking, shuffling, stumbling or crawling across the finish line, pumping fists in triumph as if they, too, had won the race. I wanted to savor that feeling. So I quit smoking cold turkey and started running, getting high on endorphins and finishing my first marathon nine months later.

By 1983, I was fast enough to run 3:30, which earned me a slot in the Boston Marathon (with a little string-pulling with the then race director Jock Semple, infamous for his attempt to stop Kathrine Switzer from becoming the first woman to run in Boston in 1967). Boston was to be my final destination, but before I got there, the story took its twists and turns.

First, work stranded me across the pond when I was supposed to be in Boston running with the best of world’s marathoners. Then life threw me a couple of curve balls. After running the New York City Marathon—my first major marathon—later that year, I suffered an injury. Then in 1984, a car accident crushed both my knees—and my Boston dream.

I stopped running, although my knees were good as new after a few months. I went back to smoking and I just could not get myself to run again. It took me 23 years to take to the road again.

Epiphany came one chilly Sunday morning in the autumn of 2006 in New York. I woke up to a live telecast of the New York City Marathon, site of my last marathon, and rushed to Central Park to catch the still-to-be-disgraced Lance Armstrong break the three-hour threshold of the marathon. After watching runner after runner cross the finish line, I walked away with a firm resolve to run again, first in New York, and finally in Boston.

So I was back in Central Park in 2007 to finish my comeback marathon and again in 2008, 2009 and 2010. I would go on to complete 13 marathon majors—six in New York, five in Chicago and one each in Berlin and Tokyo. But the one major thing missing from my collection of medals was the coveted unicorn of the Boston Marathon.

By the time I returned to running in 2007, many things had changed. But the biggest change of all was me. I was no longer the swift, lean young runner of the ’80s. The years, the added 30 pounds and the old knee injuries had slowed me down considerably. The 3:30 marathoner I once was now had to struggle to break five hours and the Boston Marathon qualifying time for my age had gone way beyond my reach.

But I was not lacking in enthusiasm and determination.

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Finally last month, 36 years behind schedule, I got to the starting line of the Boston Marathon.

Getting off the bus in Hopkinton heightened my excitement. I thought of family and friends who rooted for me. I could not fail them now. My daughter Paola had brought tears to my eyes when she posted on Facebook her gratitude “for showing me how dreams should be chased.”

I chased that dream like a man possessed. I had run the Boston Marathon route in my dreams so many times it felt like I knew it like the back of my hand.

On this rainy and windy spring morning, Hopkinton’s Main Street holds the biggest concentration of elite marathon runners per square meter. At the bottom end of the field were the sponsored entries and the charity runners who bought their way into the marathon by raising millions for charity. As interlopers in this elite field, we were second-class citizens who were expected to start—and finish—last. For the elite runners, it was a contest to get to the finish line fastest; but for us who were there mostly just to make the six-hour cutoff, it was a race to get to the finish line while it was still there.

But neither the cold rain nor inferiority complex could dampen my spirits as I sprinted down the first five kilometers. I was two minutes faster per kilometer than planned, which means I was 10 minutes ahead of schedule when I hit five kilometers in Ashland. By the time I hit 10K in Framingham, I was perilously running on the edge, 15 minutes faster than my intended pace. It was the biggest mistake of my running career.

I was almost wasted by the time I approached the halfway mark, but I got a big lift from the loudest cheers on the course. Hundreds of screaming girls from the nearby Wellesly College, probably still hung over from Spring Break, had lined up behind the barriers forming what had been described as the “Scream Tunnel of Wellesly” and offering kisses to runners. The dirty old man in me was tempted to oblige them, but I would not allow myself to be waylaid by these temptresses.

My legs were getting heavier and heavier as I came face to face with the steepest of the Newton Hills, the infamous Heartbreak Hill, some 10 kilometers from the finish where a number of races were won and lost in Boston’s storied past.

I shifted gears and eased up the hill until I was I greeted by a huge sign: “Heatbreak is over; it’s all downhill from here.” Indeed, it was downhill for me, literally and figuratively. The long steep downhill took a heavy toll on my quads and what followed was another series of small hills. When I reached the last one, an underpass with less than half a mile to go, I bonked. I hit the wall. My body just wanted to drop dead, but the spirit willed my body to move on.

Stuck in second gear and the weather blowing hot and cold, the vintage 1952 engine was sputtering.

Close to delirium, I was haunted by prize-winning Chinese writer Zhou Daxin’s quote about getting old: “Before the sky gets dark, the last stretches of life’s journey will gradually get dimmer and dimmer; naturally, it will be harder to see the path ahead that you are treading towards, and it will be harder to keep going forward.”

Indeed, the sky became dimmer and dimmer when the finish line came faintly into view as I made the final turn to Boylston Street. I was startled as the stragglers and spectators suddenly began pointing to the sky as if they were seeing an apparition. The rain that had tormented us before and during the race was gone and a rainbow lingered over the finish line long enough to light up the sky. I crossed the finish line and got the long coveted pot of gold and the crown jewel of my worldly treasures—the Boston Marathon medal. It had been a long and circuitous journey. And, as endurance athletes always say, what a journey it had been.

(Editor’s note: The author is the former News editor of the Inquirer).

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