by David Panza
March 15, 2002 - The Boston Marathon Committee has seen fit to include me in their 26.2-mile party on April 15, and so my entourage and I will be making the 5-hour trek to Beantown for, in my humble opinion, the most sacred and prominent of all marathons.
The 26.2-mile marathon has always fascinated runners and non-runners alike. While outstanding local runners such as Gail Marino, Grace DePompo, Spencer Ellis, Tim McCauley and Louis Rodriguez are capable of running 50 miles and beyond (incomprehensible to even the standard marathoner), the focus of this article is about the standard marathon.
My earliest recollection of the marathon is Frank Shorter in the classic blue USA shirt running to victory in Munich until an imposter tried to steal his thunder at the end. I close my eyes and think of Joan Benoit waving her baseball cap as she ran the track at the end of the Los Angeles Olympic marathon. Joan had grabbed the early lead from Grete Waitz and never looked back, as Waitz frantically tried to close the gap. Other memories - Rod Dixon kissing the ground after winning NYC by a second. Alberto Salazar, the last USA runner to win NYC, a runner who would run to complete exhaustion, and near death in Boston one year. The great Bill Rodgers, seemingly winning Boston or NYC every year in the 70's. The two Mexicans running stride for stride until one took a wrong turn on Fifth Avenue. Incredibly, the errant runner ran down his teammate and won the race, not caving in to the panicky thoughts of disaster and defeat. Tiny Tegla Laroupe, with a smile as wide as her whole body.
And my most vivid memory of all involves that same race that Benoit won in LA, where a Swiss runner hit the track well behind most of the runners, but still aiming to finish despite her body falling apart at the seams. Those who know what I'm referring to can still recall the agony of watching her desperately trying to get around the track while waving off attempts of race officials to help, knowing that such help would disqualify her. It seemed forever, and her limbs were flailing in frightening directions, but she finished and then collapsed. I was in tears from the sheer emotion of witnessing this extraordinary event. She was the anti-Rosie Ruiz on that day.
Yes, the marathon has always captured our imaginations. How many novice runners (and some experienced runners) have told me of their desire to run a marathon, if only one marathon, for the experience and accomplishment? And I never discourage any of them, but instead try to give them a flavor of what it's like, and the unbeatable feeling of seeing the banner overlooking the finish line just ahead. I never get tired of that, even after 13 marathons of my own. But in my enthusiasm, I caution the would-be marathoner that any good runner can run 20 miles. It's the last 6.2 that are so difficult even for world-class athletes. But finishing those tough miles just adds to the glory of receiving the medal around your neck.
Most of you don't know that my first race ever was the 1979 NYC Marathon. I worked in college at City Hall, and met fellow college student Sam Rosenfeld, who was a year older and a marathoner. I expressed my admiration for marathoners to him, and asked if I could run part of the way with him. He agreed and said he'd have a phony number for me to wear. I was to meet him at Fort Wadsworth on the morning of the race. I had no idea that the NYC Marathon was such a big deal, and arrived at the fort only to be confronted by Army guards. They weren't interested in my story that Sam had my number, and of course wouldn't let me in. I started to walk away dejectedly. Had I continued on home, I might never have become a competitive runner. But something inside me turned me around, and at the proper moment, I sneaked past the guards into the fort.
I never found Sam that day, and stood at the Verrazano Bridge alone and bemused. What am I doing here, and how far can I go? I'll run a moderate pace, and go as far as I can. (I had never run more than 5 miles continuously in my life!) That day, I kept running and running, changing my mind along the way as to when I'd drop out. Then I realized to my complete shock that there was no turning back, that I could finish the race. As I approached the finish line, I saw 4:03 (only 15 minutes behind Sam), but a police officer asked if I was officially in the race. When I said no, he escorted me to the sidelines, after chasing after me unsuccessfully at first!
I did not receive a medal or get a goody bag afterwards, of course, and so instead sat on a bench in Central Park munching on a hot dog. An old black man was sitting on the bench next to me, and I told him I'd just run the marathon. He replied, "That's nice", but did not seem overly impressed. I still chuckle at the memory of that moment, and still buy a hot dog after every marathon I run. My wife Janet can testify that I eschewed the long lines for sandwiches and fruit after Philadelphia in November, and instead bought 3 hot dogs from the vendor in the park.
Yes, the marathon holds a place near and dear to my heart. It's getting harder and harder to train for such a distance, with the added responsibilities of being a responsible adult. So maybe Boston will be my last one, and maybe not. Perhaps I'll relive the thrill of running with a disabled runner at his or her pace, as I did in the 2000 NY Marathon with a blind Swiss runner. But if I'm done after April 15, I have wonderful lifelong memories that give me heartfelt enthusiasm to pass on to the new marathoners out there. To all of you who have not run the marathon but are thinking about it: BY ALL MEANS, GO FOR IT!!