Twenty-four Years to Boston—My Journey from the Vegetable Aisle to Boylston Street is a memoir based on the marathon, but is really about my challenges and triumphs as an aging endurance runner. After I crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street in 2005, I looked back on my life beginning with my elementary school days spent in the Vegetable Aisle with fellow-students my teacher declared were in a vegetative state. I set out to write my story as a lifelong runner, and inadvertently discovered that distance running had been the one consistent thread that helped me overcome an underachieving childhood to succeed in life.
Chapter One – Mirage: I swore I’d never run another marathon, twice, yet I lay in a hot bathtub soaking my aching body, sipping an ice-cold pale ale, and contemplating where I’d run my next. As I drifted into an altered state, I saw myself as a young man suffering through the final miles of my first marathon twenty-four years earlier. I was in excruciating pain running through the Italian Market in South Philly, when a voice inside my head whispered, ”Walk over to the curb, lie down and surrender.” Then I heard a murmur in the distance.
Chapter Two – The Accidental Runner: I inadvertently discovered distance running during the Vietnam War era when the Rolling Stones screamed Satisfaction and many runners wore Chuck Taylor sneakers over knee-high sweat socks. I ran organized track only one year in third grade and then decided to be a football player. Our high school football coach would send the team on two-mile runs during evening summer sessions, and while my teammates complained endlessly, I realized I could run long distances effortlessly.
Chapter Three – Epiphany: While on a business trip in 2001, I had an epiphany to run my second marathon—twenty years after my first. What initially seemed a harebrained idea became an obsession. My life had changed drastically since I ran the first marathon as a rowdy twenty-seven year old. I was now married with four children, attending night school and working endless hours of overtime, all of which added to the challenge of maintaining a demanding marathon-training program.
Chapter Four - The Running Establishment: A small cadre of enthusiast evolved over the years that promoted distance running as a sport so complex it intimidated many beginners and outsiders. I would read mainstream running publications that described the process of running as if it were an instruction manual on how to split an atom. Years would pass before my presumptions were shot full of holes by encounters I had with humble and inspiring former Olympians and international world-class runners. I acquiesced and joined the fraternity, though I had to tweak their code of ethics to accommodate my propensity for Guinness and an occasional cigar.
Chapter Five – The Lure of the Marathon: Most people find it incomprehensible that someone would aspire to run 26.2 miles. At times, even I am mystified by the thought. Running guru, Dr. George Sheehan, said that, “A runner runs because he has to.” The craving is no different from the reason a mountain climber climbs, a skydiver dives or a writer writes. The history of the marathon goes back thousands of years and is the quintessential challenge to the distance runner, with an allure as strong as the gravitational pull. The proliferation of the marathon over the past thirty years is astonishing, and fields of runners that once measured in the hundreds, are now in the tens of thousands.
Chapter Six – Turf: The idea of running the marathon after a twenty-year hiatus evolved along three running trails in Philadelphia—the River Drives along the Schuylkill River, Forbidden Drive in Fairmount Park and the trails in Pennypack Park—which became my local training grounds. The narrative germinated into a story on trails across the nation while I was on business travel, which was an opportunity to run a variety of terrains and climates. Meeting runners along trails in diverse environments from the Sonoran Desert to the Rocky Mountains, and from the plains of Iowa to the Southern California coast revealed that running is universal and runners possessed an irrepressible passion.
Chapter Seven – Philadelphia—2nd and 20: My initial enthusiasm to run my second marathon waned and I was faced with the reality of turning the epiphany into a 26.2-mile reality. My job changed from merely running another long-distance race to devising a training program that could whip a forty-seven year old body into the condition required to pound out a marathon.
Chapter Eight – Self-inflicted Distractions: Martial arts and a Harley Davidson wouldn’t typically play a role in a fitness program, but the distractions provided a refreshing break from a brutal routine of running forty and fifty-mile per week. The diversions were a lesson in disengagement and I returned to training revitalized physically and emotionally.
Chapter Nine – Awakening: My passion for running was put in perspective when my son is diagnosed with melanoma. The ordeal changes my focus from working long hours, business travel and marathon training to my first-born’s health. The tables turned and my children began to teach me lessons about life.
Chapter Ten – Breakthrough: The training program intensified the final two months leading to the Philadelphia Marathon. One weekday afternoon in the middle of a fifteen-mile run, it struck me that I was in the best physical condition I’d been in since high school football camp many years earlier. I looked back at that run as the first revelation that I would conquer the marathon in November.
Chapter Eleven – Stranded in Seattle: I flew to Seattle, Washington to speak at a conference on Monday, September 10, 2001. My return flight was scheduled for Wednesday, but air travel in the United States was suspended after the horrific events of 9/11. I was stranded three thousand miles from my family during the most emotional time of our lives. The chaotic week ended with an inspiring lesson from an old man I met at seven thousand feet above sea level on Mount Rainier.
Chapter Twelve – No Place Like Home: Patriotism inspired a finishing time that exceeded my expectations at the Philadelphia Distance Run, an emotional event in the wake of 9/11. In late September I was forced to take time off from running to recover from a foot injury I suffered during the final race on my training schedule. During the break, my youngest son and I rode our motorcycles to West Chester to visit his brother at college. After spending the day together riding, I was struck with a revelation—the reason we always butted heads was because he was mirror image of me.
Chapter Thirteen – Philly Marathon—2001
The epiphany I had nearly a year earlier came to fruition at the 2001 Philadelphia Marathon. I was ahead of my planned pace until leg cramps hobbled me at mile fifteen. I continued to struggle to mile twenty-five, when out of nowhere a tall, pretty blond with a fluid stride and two deformed arms passed me. The young woman’s courage inspired me to finish strong. As I sat in the shadow of the Art Museum chasing warm soup with cold beer, I swore never to run another marathon, the same flawed pact I had made with myself twenty years earlier.
Chapter Fourteen – Only the Beginning
The Philly Marathon was supposed to be the final chapter to my memoir, but after I crossed the finish line I struggled to find meaning in all the time I’d devoted to training. I became frustrated that I couldn’t translate the passion that motivated me to break a twenty-year hiatus and run my second marathon into a meaningful story. After the soreness wore off, I eased back into a less-rigorous routine and entered a circuit of local races. One afternoon while running on West River Drive, I met a young runner who offered advice that forced me to reevaluate the pact I had made never to run another marathon.
Chapter Fifteen – Tear and Revival
After many years and running thousands of miles, I suffered my first serious injury, a torn meniscus in my left knee—not from running, but while pushing a car with my feet sliding around inside flop-flops. What an idiot! The injury had an ironic twist of fate. I had to alter my training routine during rehab after surgery, which made me look at my fitness from a new perspective. I was reacquainted with cycling, discovered the sport of trail running, and experienced a surprising resurgence in my otherwise directionless running life.
Chapter Sixteen – Half-Centurion Club
I celebrated my fiftieth birthday with a thirteen-mile run along the towpath that parallels the Upper Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Immersed in sweat, somewhere around mile ten, the conundrum that had tantalized me since I crossed the finish line at the Philadelphia Marathon came into focus. In a rare state of clairvoyance, I began to translate my passion for running into the narrative I craved to write.
Chapter Seventeen – The Plan
If running my second marathon twenty years after I ran my first was an epiphany, then attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon during my fiftieth year was shear genius. To prepare, I researched training programs and developed a plan that included running hills, fartleks and dropping weight. I even abstained from an occasional cigar and switched my staple from Yuengling to Yuengling Light, swearing that I’d drink a Guinness every day for a month if I qualified. I chose the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to take advantage of a fast course with many downhill stretches, and because my daughter Colleen was attending the University of Scranton.
Chapter Eighteen – Quest to Qualify
My household was in mayhem the week I had scheduled the longest run on the training program. Between an upcoming bridal shower at the house for my future daughter-in-law and a busier than usual work schedule, I struggled to keep on track and maintain my sanity. The 2004 Philadelphia Distance Run, a half-marathon, was the following Sunday and I planned to continue running after the finish line to complete a twenty-mile training run to gauge whether my expectations to qualify for Boston were realistic.
Chapter Nineteen – Steamtown
A professional trainer would have advised me to skip the bachelor party weekend in the Pocono Mountains the week before the Steamtown Marathon, but it was my son’s wedding and there was no way I was going to miss it. I survived the weekend and toed the starting line in Forest City, Pennsylvania the following Sunday. Far ahead of the pace I needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I was struck by paralyzing calf cramps in the final miles. All I could do was watch the seconds tick away on the large digital clock above the finish line on Washington Avenue.
Chapter Twenty – Introspection
The time-lapse between Steamtown in October 2004 and the Boston Marathon the following April diminished the emotional high I had been riding and began a philosophical period of introspection. I pondered the odyssey from the 1981 Philadelphia Marathon to the 2005 Boston Marathon, the long hours of training and thousands of miles I’d run, and assessed the role running played in my life.
Chapter Twenty-one – Boston on My Mind
In mid-January, reality sank-in—Boston was three short months away. Between nursing a fractured bone in my foot and being snowed-in, I hadn’t run in weeks, but at least my body had a chance to recuperate. I eased back into training in February and put my endurance through a twenty-mile test run at the end of the month.
Chapter Twenty-two – Roman Holiday
Just before it was time to taper the training routine for the race, my wife and I visited my daughter in Rome, who was studying abroad. The Rome Marathon was the day we arrived, and in a rare exhibition of restraint and common sense, I refrained from registering since there were only five weeks remaining until Boston. A week touring Italy, visiting ancient ruins and historical landmarks, eating Italian cuisine and learning the culture was a timely diversion from the regimented training program. My body had barely adjusted to the six-hour time zone difference when we landed back in the US and it was time to count down the final month until the race.
Chapter Twenty-three – Man Plans and God Laughs
Four weeks remained until the starting gun would sound in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Each run became increasingly important and tapering properly was essential so my body could recuperate and be in peak condition for race day. Ten days before the Boston Marathon my strategy took and unplanned detour. I woke in the middle of the night, walked into the bathroom and passed-out for the first time in my life, striking my face against the tiled floor. I was concerned that something serious had caused the episode, but wasn’t about to jeopardize running Boston, so I scheduled a physical for the week after the race.
Chapter Twenty-four – Twenty-four Years to Boston
Patriots Day in Boston features a race that is a tradition local residents have worked passionately to celebrate for over one hundred years. The Boston Marathon combines the world’s best marathoners with thousands of amateur athletes and recreational runners into a 26.2-mile festival. My goal for the race was not to run a personal record, but to relish every moment—every step. Crossing the finish line was symbolic of every mile I had ever run. After the race, I reunited with my wife and we limped through town holding on to one another. As we sat in the sun on a park bench in Boston Commons, I felt like I was in heaven. Or, perhaps Boston is heaven to a runner on Patriot’s Day.
With age comes perspective and I now realize that the journey to Boston was never really about Boston, just as the Philly Marathon in 1981 was never really about Philly. It took every one of those years and each mile along the way before I realized that running was its own reward. The solace and contentment I found along the trail maintained balance in every aspect of my life. Distance running enabled me to get beyond an underachieving childhood, persevere through years of night school and a hectic career, kept me grounded through over thirty years of marriage and raising children, and is with me today as a freelance writer and author. When I look back on my life, I see it woven together by my passion for the long run and, in a sense, I find the marathon a metaphor for life.