In 1968 I was a 9 year old head-over-heels Jets fan living just outside NYC. One sunny day I was flipping through a sports magazine and saw a picture of Joe Namath with the ring and index fingers of his right hand taped together. So, naturally, I taped my fingers together.
I walked around like that for a few days until my mother asked me, Why? So, I told her about the picture. She asked me why I wanted to be like Joe Namath. I just stared at her amazed that she didn’t know the truth: I was Joe Namath. After several seconds of her silent, wide-eyed glare, she snapped, “Take off the tape.”
In 51 years, I’ve never known a moment of athletic success, let alone glory. And yet those childhood dreams persisted. So, I decided to enter my creaky body in the 2011 Houston Marathon, because there’s a measure of glory in even finishing a 26 mile race and I thought I still might have a shot at that.
If you want to finish 10,998th out of 11,000 runners, it’s important that things start going wrong before you even get out of the car. It was 5:30 a.m. on January 30th, and the temperature was 61. All of my long training runs had been under much colder conditions, and I feared this portended disaster.
At first it was sublime, like being a herd animal during one of the great African migrations; 11,000 pumped up runners streamed toward the rising sun. There were rock, country, and marching bands and even a fat Elvis impersonator to entertain us along the way.
Best of all were the huge crowds lining the course. My race bib had my name written in big letters, so all along the way people shouted, “You got this, Pete!” “Looking good, Pete!” “You the man, Pete!” Many, especially kids, with real admiration in their eyes, vied for me to high-five them as I ran by. It was as far from my everyday life as I’ve ever been.
But the day kept getting hotter, and around mile 17 I was hit with a searing cramp down the length of my right leg. I found myself spread-eagled on the hood of a parked police car desperately trying to stretch the cramp out. The startled officer told me his high school track coach made him drink pickle juice to avoid cramps, which caused me to suddenly remember that there were two energy gels in my pocket; I quickly sucked them down.
Slowly the pain started to ease, and I stood up. Instantly, it cramped-up again and the gel packet shot out of my hand and hit the officer in the chest. I was again writhing on the hood of the patrol car when a paramedic approached and asked me to get in the bus carrying injured runners to the finish line. It seemed like a terrific idea, until I noticed all the sullen, disappointed faces in the bus. The cramp abated slightly, and the tattered remnants of the boy who was Joe Namath stood up and kept going.
I made it another three miles until the cramps stopped me again. A police officer walked over to me and said, “The belly dancers under the bridge have bananas.” I’d never heard those words strung together in a sentence before and looked at him like he was crazy. But under an overpass about fifty yards ahead, jiggling dancers were handing out cramp-killing bananas. I choked one down, felt better, and pushed on.
About a half mile later, both of my hips completely locked up due to a previously undiagnosed condition that picked a particularly inopportune time to manifest itself. I was reduced to slowly waddling along side-to-side like a six foot penguin. Literally thousands of runners sped past me; it was like riding a tricycle in the Indy 500.
Two paramedics on bikes began to circle me like vultures waiting for a wounded elk to keel over. The bus filled with injured runners crawled alongside as the paramedics urged me to quit. They warned me that the water stations had closed, that the streets were now open to traffic, and that they were no longer responsible for my safety. I told them there was no way I could stop only 4 miles from the finish. They shook their heads in disgust and finally rode off, followed sulkily by the bus.
The last several miles were a blur of pain and thirst. Picnickers in a park handed me a beer and a Coke, which I quickly knocked back. My son found me and gave me a sports drink and several energy gel packs. A woman took pictures of me and said my determination was inspiring. In the now wide open streets of downtown Houston, people shouted from cars,” Don’t give up, Pete!” and “Keep going, Pete!” An elderly woman at a bus stop remarked,” It doesn’t look like the race was much fun for you, Pete.”
As I limped toward the towering, ornate finish line, workers were tearing it down. My wife ran up to help me across, but one of the workers told her to let me finish on my own. My time was 7:10:21, a mere 5 hours and 7 minutes off the world record.
My family rushed me off to the hotel room, where, despite drinking a river of sports drinks, I shook on the bed in an agony of muscle cramps and spasms. As a last resort before heading for the hospital, I told them what the police officer had said.
My son went looking for the nearest convenience store and came back with several individually wrapped dill pickles. I couldn’t lift my head, so my daughter stuck a straw through the plastic wrapper, held it up to my mouth, and I sucked down the bitter liquid. Incredibly, within three minutes, the pain and the shaking stopped. I said a silent prayer of thanks for the HPD and fell asleep happily dreaming, at long, long last, of my own small feat of athletic glory.