“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
-Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States
I am writing this blog post aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited from Worcester, Mass. back to my adopted home of Chicago. In doing so, I feel a little bit like Peter King, the longtime Monday Morning Quarterback columnist for Sports Illustrated who frequently writes his copy aboard Sunday night Acela trains and seems to take pleasure in telling his readership all about it. This is probably the closest I will ever come to actually being Peter King. Once upon a time, I thought I could be Peter King, or Peter Gammons, or another similarly prominent sportswriter. Prior to that, I thought I could be a national sportscaster like Bob Costas or Al Michaels. And, years prior to that, I thought that one day I could be like Jim Rice and play left field for the Red Sox.
I was wrong on all three counts. In a parallel universe, in a different lifetime, with different circumstances and/or breaks, perhaps I could have become a Gammons or a Costas. Somewhere in there I do still believe I possessed the talent to do either, but maybe I never did. It’s hard to say, and much like the old Tootsie Pop conundrum, the world may never know. My dreams of playing for the Red Sox were strictly that: dreams. I most definitely never possessed the talent to be a professional athlete.
TALENT WILL NOT.
Yet, there is at least one corner of athletics where those among us without the God-given talent to achieve at the highest levels can, for brief (or not so brief, if you have a slow pace) moments, lace ’em up and occupy the same playing surface of legends. That corner is distance running. The Boston Marathon is its Super Bowl. For the second straight year, I was fortunate enough to score a bib for a cancer charity, lace up my own Sauconys and take my place at the same starting line in Hopkinton as the world’s elites.
This one wasn’t really supposed to happen. Last year, I ran for Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Though I would have loved to sign up again for 2017, I didn’t believe my fundraising well was deep enough to reach the required charity minimum for Boston two years in a row, so I planned on sitting this one out. Then, at the start of February, I received a surprise call from Drenda Vijuk. Drenda, whom I met through running races with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program in Chicago, was scheduled to run Boston this year with Team In Training, but had to drop out due to other commitments. Knowing me as a friend and cancer survivor with Boston roots, Drenda asked if I would be willing to come off the bench and take her spot on the team. I accepted, and the race was on. Ten weeks to whip myself into marathon shape, come home, and run Boston again.
The Calvin Coolidge quote at the top of this piece was a favorite of Drenda’s husband Joe, who personified it throughout his life, not least by surviving multiple bouts with cancer. Joe is no longer with us, but I decided that I wanted to dedicate my 2017 Boston Marathon to Joe’s memory, and so I ran with his name and the first sentence of the Coolidge quote on my shirt.
Two days after I received the call from Drenda, my beloved New England Patriots played in the Super Bowl, and if you are remotely into sports you know how that turned out. Trailing 28-3 to Atlanta, Tom Brady and the Pats stormed back to mount the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, winning 34-28 on James White’s touchdown in overtime.
Knowing I needed to increase my mileage quickly in order to run the marathon, I began pounding out near-daily 5ks on the treadmills in my office building’s gym over my lunch hour. The Monday following the Super Bowl, while on the treadmill, I had a post-Super Bowl panel discussion on ESPN. Some reporter – I can’t remember who – at one point made an off-handed comment in the midst of discussing the Patriots QB’s longevity that “Tom Brady doesn’t drink beer.”
When I heard that comment, I thought, “hey, why don’t I stop drinking beer until the marathon?” Now, I don’t drink very much to begin with under normal circumstances – maybe a beer with dinner a couple of times a week – but I saw no downside to cutting out alcohol entirely for a while, and it isn’t a big enough part of my life so that this was at all difficult. In the process, I also cut out just about all sweets and excess sugars and substantially increased my water intake.
Partially thanks to closely watching my diet, partially thanks to diligent training, and partially thanks to the wisdom gained through running 11 previous marathons, I felt an almost eerie sense of calm leading up to Monday’s race. I slept great the night before the race. I approached the starting line with almost zero butterflies. I was entirely injury-free. There was no reason to expect anything other than a strong race.
The Boston Team In Training coaches repeatedly stressed the importance of going out slowly, and I had already learned the hard way from my experience in 2016 how correct they were. If you search on this blog for my recap from last year’s race, you’ll find more details, but the early miles of the Boston course basically start off like a roller coaster. I took the downhills hard, and they sapped most of the juice out of my legs early.
I was determined to avoid a repeat performance in 2017, and especially when the weather turned out hotter than forecast (it was in the 70’s throughout) I made the conscious decision to start out extra slow. Checking my stopwatch, after I saw that I’d cleared the first three miles at a 10-ish minute pace, even though I was feeling strong I intentionally dialed it back.
Sports fanatic that I am, I am incapable of participating in an event like this without having various sports analogies and figures roll through my head at different junctures. As I enter Natick around Mile 8, I can’t help but think of local legend Doug Flutie and his “Miracle in Miami” pass to Gerard Phelan. Shortly thereafter I heard the voice of Joe Castiglione on a radio on the sidewalk, and asked the man with the radio the score of the Patriots’ Day Red Sox game.
“4-2, Red Sox?”
Above all during this portion of the race, I thought of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. A brilliant tactician and game theorist, Belichick employs principles which I have, over the years, tried to incorporate into my own life (and no, this is not an exaggeration). Belichick’s strategies often seem counter-intuitive, but they are always made with a long-term vision in mind. He also is unsentimental, and will adjust on the fly to his current circumstances, as opposed to adhering to what he originally believed the circumstances of a game or a season would be. Perhaps most importantly, Belichick always devises a game plan which neutralizes the opposition’s greatest asset. In other words, if the opponent features a stud running back, Belichick will develop a defensive scheme to contain that running back. If the opponent prevails, it will be on the strength of a secondary option.
I began to see my own game plan for this race as a pseudo-Belichickian strategy. Run too slow, almost painfully slow, on the early hills so that they would not destroy my leg muscles. After the race’s midway point, the course becomes mostly flat or downhill save for three big hills in Newton. By the time I hit Newton in 2016, I had no energy left in my legs. Not this time. I would hit the race’s midway point, gain adrenaline from the Wellesley College “scream tunnel,” and turn on the jets for the back half of the course. I was banking leg energy and would close with negative splits. Call it a “Bank it and Crank It” game plan.
Approaching Wellesley, I was almost giddy. Many runners were passing me as I progressed slowly, but I moved along with a big smile on my face. At a couple of moments I even giggled under my breath to myself. My legs felt so fresh, almost as if I had barely run 5k instead of a half-marathon. Anyone tracking me on the marathon app would assume I was struggling, but I would soon take off and surprise them all. “Bank It and Crank It” was going to work. I had the energy to take off at any moment; all I had to do was pick my spot.
Shortly after Wellesley College, my friend and fellow Hodgkin’s Disease survivor Calli – whom I wrote about in my pre-race blog post – caught up with me. I asked how she was feeling and she responded that she felt no pain, injury free. Such great news after she had battled injury in the final weeks of training. She asked me the same and I responded that though I was going slow at the moment it was “all strategery.” I explained that I was going to lay in the weeds for a small bit longer and then take off. She took off ahead and said I’d probably catch up to her soon.
“Soon” would be a three hours later after the finish, the next time Calli would see me. On a hot day, celebrating her 10-year cure-versary, she ran stronger than I think anyone anticipated, including herself. She should be extremely proud.
I bided my time for another half-mile or so, proceeded up a small incline around Wellesley Hills, and decided, “this is it.” It was go time. I smiled and giggled to myself once more, and cranked up the pace to somewhere in the 9:30-10:00 range, which for me is a comfortable 10k or half marathon.
It felt superb. Where other runners had been mostly passing me for the past handful of miles, now I began cruising past all of them. I was 14 miles into my race, yet with virtually fresh legs. The final 12 miles of a marathon would never be easy, but the fastest close of my life seemed not merely attainable, but almost a certainty, until…
GENIUS WILL NOT; UNREWARDED GENIUS IS ALMOST A PROVERB
…it all fell apart at once.
At Mile 15, the heat began to get to me. I felt it swirling up from my neck and around my head. And, seconds later, the unmistakable feeling of nausea entered the pit of my stomach. I had two choices: Slow down, or throw up. I chose to slow my pace. The legs had what I needed, but my insides did not.
A mile or so later, one of my other Team In Training teammates, Talya, caught up to me and said hello. I told her about my queasiness, and she told me she was suffering from the exact same thing. A lot of people were; it was the heat. Leave it to someone who works within the medical profession to be prepared. Talya was carrying antacid tablets with her and offered me one. I took it and thank her and chewed it, and could barely muster the saliva to choke it down. I was losing fluids from the heat and my mouth was simply too dry.
I resolved to get water from the next aid station, and did, but even swallowing the water was no easy task due to my burgeoning nausea. The Tums tablet did seem to have a nominally positive effect, but it wasn’t enough. As I entered the Newton Hills, with each incline and decline I felt my insides tossed and had to walk. At one point, I felt poorly enough that I had to take a seat on the curb for a minute. About to start heaving, when I reached the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Chestnut Street midway through Newton, I had no choice but to stumble over to a medical aid tent, sit in a chair, and sip water while waiting for my stomach to settle.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
This aid tent was just about one-half mile from where my brother Ben was stationed with a camera, steps from our onetime childhood home. I texted him to let him know the situation, but to hang tight, I was going to try and continue. About 10 minutes later, I sent a second text: “Feeling a bit better… I think I am going to give it a go.”
I took off from the aid tent, slowly increasing my walk to a run. I did this a couple of times in fits and starts as my ailing stomach would tolerate. I was running when I saw Ben, stopped by him for a few seconds and explained the situation. My stomach was causing significant issues on this day, but I would not stop. I was going to finish this.
The stomach issues never really subsided. They didn’t get worse again, but neither did they improve. I could run slowly on the straightaways, but every time I hit even a small hill my insides would shake up. In my head, I began thinking of Joe Vijuk, and saying phrases to myself in my head:
Joe Vijuk escaped war-torn, Communist Eastern Europe as a child with his family on a boat.
Joe Vijuk endured to play professional football, was a teammate of Joe Theismann, and reached the CFL’s Grey Cup.
Joe Vijuk went into business, succeeded, and donated lots of his money to charitable causes, including much in the fight against cancer.
Joe Vijuk fought cancer multiple times.
Joe Vijuk lost the use of his legs.
Joe Vijuk suffered through far more severe physical pain than I, in my own half-year bout with cancer, ever knew.
Joe Vijuk might well be watching me today.
Joe Vijuk was not a runner, but if he had been, and he was having the same race I am today, he would certainly finish. And he would do so with a big smile on his face.
I dedicated my race to Joe. I will finish it for him.
Joe Vijuk lost the use of his legs. I have plenty of stored power left in mine.
I will never, never quit a race I am running for a cancer charity. I will finish this marathon.
I will finish this marathon with a smile on my face.
And so, as Calvin Coolidge suggested, I pressed on. It was not pretty, it was not comfortable, but it was joyous. As our Chicago Team In Training head coach Marie always counsels, “take what the day gives you.”
This day gave me an upset stomach and a shattered race strategy. This day gave me a crappy, slow marathon time. This day also gave me a second opportunity to run the world’s greatest marathon in front of the world’s greatest spectators in the world’s greatest sports city, my hometown. And I was going to gladly take it all.
I passed a Patriots fan on the right-hand side of Commonwealth Avenue. He encouraged me. I shouted back at him, “The Pats trailed 28-3 in the Super Bowl in the third quarter, right? Well, watch this. I am going to win the Boston Marathon!” The guy loved it and cheered louder.
I passed the good-natured, inebriated students of Boston College and soaked in their encouragement. Turning the corner onto Chestnut Hill Avenue, I saw my younger brother Jeremiah and his wife Joanne, expecting their first baby next month. As I ran up to them I told Joanne, “I feel your nausea!” I told them, too, that it was slow going but I would finish.
Turning up Beacon Street through Brookline, the cheers grew louder, the spectators simply willing all the struggling runners on to reach the finish line. I hit Mile Marker 23, which is at the corner of Beacon and Winthrop Streets, just two blocks downhill from another one of my childhood homes. Calli – as well as several of the other Team In Training runners – had written the name of a cancer survivor or patient on her arm for each mile. Mile 23 was my mile. Remembering even that gave me energy.
I began to call back to the spectators throughout Brookline. “Thank you, Brookline!” “Thank you, Coolidge Corner!” The encouragement from the sidewalks and Green Line tracks only grew louder the closer I came to Boston. The loudest cheers I heard in this neighborhood were not for me, but deservedly for a wounded serviceman struggling up Beacon Street with an American flag in his left hand and a prosthetic right leg. As I passed him, I turned to him and said, “you are doing a great job, and thank you.”
The joy grew deeper the closer I drew to the finish. From the top floor of an apartment building, some alcohol-fueled spectators called out to me. “Pass that guy!!,” they said, directing me towards a struggling runner about 25 feet in the distance. I felt extremely conflicted in this moment, but I could not resist the opportunity to please a cohort of drunken Boston sports fans.
“You want me to pass him??”
“YEAH!!,” they responded.
Hoping the struggling runner would forgive me, I kicked it into gear with my still-able legs and passed him. The drunken fans in the apartment went bonkers. This must be what it felt like when Scott Zolak led the Patriots to their only two wins in 1992.
A more wholesome kind of inspiration came at Mile 25 as I entered Kenmore Square. There is a woman named Sandy Dubuc, who lost her son Matty to leukemia some years back, and who is heavily involved with the Dana-Farber team for which I ran in 2016. Her older son Chris, now a student at Penn State, ran Boston last year for Dana-Farber and posted an outstanding time. The Dubucs stand at Mile 25 each year, and Sandy offers a hug to each of the Dana-Farber runners. Last year, I wasn’t expecting to see them, but she recognized me immediately and called out my full name: “Matt Brown!!!” I knew who she was and acknowledged her, but was a bit too far away and didn’t stop for a hug.
This year, I looked specifically for the Dubucs, as I wasn’t sure I’d be recognized wearing TNT purple instead of DFMC orange. Yet, amazingly, Sandy again saw me first and recognized me instantly. The Dana-Farber team has upwards of 500 runners. I have no idea how she does this.
“I had to call out your full name last year!”
“Not this time.”
She, her husband, and Chris all were there. She gave me a hug, asked about my race. We thanked each other, not teammates in uniform this year but teammates in defeating cancer. I continued on for the final mile.
Before getting to the finish, I would be remiss if I did not backtrack one-half mile and note that those aforementioned TNT Boston coaches, Caitlyn and Kevin, were both out on the course shortly before Kenmore Square to greet runners, accompany them for a stretch, and make sure they are all safely reaching the finish line. Both in Boston and Chicago, these charity program coaches do great work, and must be in excellent condition in their own right. Simply running back and forth throughout the day, they log an imposing amount of miles and receive no medal for their efforts. Their job is simply to make sure their runners finish, and do so healthily. I found both Caitlyn and Kevin to be relentlessly upbeat, friendly, and excellent overall. Even though I was only back home for a long weekend, they certainly made this adopted Chicagoan feel right back at home.
And yes, home. The home stretch. Under one last underpass. Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston. And East on Boylston Street for four final alphabetically-reversed blocks (Gloucester, Fairfield, Exeter, Dartmouth, everybody talk about Pop Muzik) which feel like a dozen blocks after you’ve already traversed 26 miles in the heat. The cheers kick in as you turn onto Hereford, and it is truly energizing. Then you turn the last corner (where I saw Ben cheering with his camera again). This is the point where I get other sports legends in my mind: the actual legends of Boston Marathons past. Meb Keflezighi bringing home the title for the USA post-bombing in 2014. Uta Pippig fighting stomach issues and winning in 1996. Ibrahim Hussein sprinting past my all-time personal favorite, Juma Ikangaa, to nip him by one second at the tape in ’88.
If you grew up watching this great race, as I did, you think of all these runners as you turn onto Boylston and tread the same ground. I, and most of the other runners on this course, do not have the talent to ever dream about competing with marathon champions. I could quit my job, devote myself to marathon training year-round, take up a diet of organic kale, beet smoothies, supplements, and free-range ostrich, and the best I could ever hope for under ideal circumstances would be to achieve a 3:30 marathon one day…. maybe.
Yet, it is possible to gain a spot on the same course. It is possible for us mere mortals to gain entry into the realm of sport immortals. In the case of myself and other runners doing it for cancer charities, we are doing it to help our fellow mere mortals live longer, more productive lives. I don’t know whether that makes us worthy of sharing the same stage as the elites, but it should make us worthy of something.
As I titled my previous blog post prior to this race, any day you can run a marathon is a great day. This was not my fastest day, and few great days include a queasy stomach, but this was indeed a great, great day. Talent had no role in it, nor did intellect, nor did education. This was all guts (figuratively, not literally, because those guts were screaming) and, yes, persistence.
Next marathon is in Chicago this October, when persistence will be the order of the day yet again no matter what the day should bring.
Thank you to the LLS, the Boston coaches and teammates, the security and volunteers, and all the running community and city of Boston for a terrific race.
And thanks to Joe Vijuk for inspiring me to keep pushing.
That is all.