It’s not every day you fall in love with a marathon champion. It happened to me as I hobbled down the side walk after the Chevron Houston Marathon. For a super hero who had just dazzled 100,000 fans, she was surprisingly approachable. As she strode past me flanked by policemen and race officials, she glanced at my finisher’s medal and gave me a quick nod. Although she competed at a far different level, for a split second we were equals, and more. I was smitten.
But, this was not the stuff of romance. Just an affirmation between athletes of a higher awareness, accessible at life’s most profound moments. The kind you experience at the birth of a child, death of a friend, or at mile 26 when fatigue and emotion have burned away all pretense. It’s love born of pain.
A classic example was Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon. Each year he waited with arms extended, touching the hand of every runner as they crossed the finish line, all thirty thousand of them. I remember him in the gray shadows of Central Park standing alone like a crucifix until the last of his runners found their way home. From victors to survivors, we all shared a special love with Fred.
In 1990 Fred was diagnosed with brain cancer. His brand of love was never more evident than in 1992 when he attempted to run his race one more time, before it was too late. After struggling in at 4:49, I waited with hundreds of other runners shivering in silver Mylar blankets to see if Fred could make it. As darkness fell, along with our spirits, a siren wafted across the park from 59th Street. It was either an ambulance or a police escort at Mile 25. We held our breath.
Finally we heard the roar of the crowd rolling toward us, and cheered as Fred crested the final hill. Ahead of him was a phalanx of NYPD motorcycles and beside him was 9 time New York City Marathon champion, Greta Weitz. She had toiled with him very step of the way and now could barely walk, having never been on her feet for more than 3 hours in a marathon. We welcomed them with an ovation at 5:32:34. Fred kissed his running partner and the finish line, in that order. They cried, we cried, and in twenty months Fred was gone.
On that cold day in Central Park, although our backgrounds, our color, and our points of view were different, for a moment we were one. A marathon champion, a dying runner, and a crowd of strangers combined for a love that cannot be defined, only experienced.
So now, fifteen years later, I once again felt this special love for a marathon champion. A solitary figure silhouetted against the Houston skyline, my new hero was hobbling the final few yards to a deserted finish line. But, as a tear rolled down my check, I thought about Fred and knew she was not alone… the last place finisher in the Chevron Houston Marathon.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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