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In memoriam: Marathon coach Mike Broderick

By Lenny Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 12:15 PM

In June, 53-year-old Mike Broderick of Gaithersburg finished the 100-mile Western States ultra-marathon, earning one of the most coveted prizes in all of distance running: a bronze belt buckle given to the few thousand people who have been able to complete the super-human endeavor in less than 30 hours.

In August, Broderick ran the 50-kilometer Green Lakes Endurance Run in New York, and in September, he completed a mere 26.2-mile marathon in Utah and Montgomery County's Parks Half-Marathon.

On Nov. 4, he was dead, the victim of an aggressive lung cancer discovered just a few weeks earlier.

Unless you're a local distance runner, it's unlikely you've ever heard of Broderick. But in our community, he was a bit of a rock star. His sudden passing shook all of us badly, and not just because of the harrowing notion that cancer could so quickly claim one of the toughest people we'd ever known. His death has brought an outpouring of support and remembrance reserved for people who profoundly change the lives around them.

The Boston Athletic Association, which runs the legendary Boston Marathon, acknowledged Broderick's contributions to its event in a letter that arrived after his death. The Montgomery County Road Runners Club changed the name of its coach-of-the-year award to posthumously honor him.

Scores of runners from his Experienced Marathoners Program (XMP) dedicated their fall races to him, and three who ran the Nov. 7 New York City marathon began a fundraising campaign on behalf of the Team Labrecque-Uniting Against Lung Cancer, which works to end lung cancer. They had hoped to raise $2,000; at last count the total was more than $38,500, and the fundraising continues.

"Coach Mike" - like LeBron or Kobe, his surname had become superfluous in our world - seemed to know everyone in the running, coaching and physical training communities, and everyone seemed to know him. He was everywhere at once: jetting off to give a training seminar, teaching coaches somewhere, cheering on his runners at a local race, loping along the trails as he trained for his next ultra.

He started his career as a lawyer but left that path when he realized what he really liked to do was run, coach and teach. But it wasn't enough for him to devote himself to physical training full time. Mike threw himself at running with the same passion he turned on everything, from the Grateful Dead to night scuba diving, until his knowledge was so vast that he was in demand at coach certification sessions across the country.

He was blunt, funny and charismatic - a born leader who didn't care whether you were a back-of-the-packer like me or a sub-three-hour racer. He knew you could reach your goal, however outlandish it might seem, even if you didn't know it yourself. It was easy to believe him; he had put himself through much worse.

"Coach Mike," someone wrote on the fundraising Web Site, "when so many thought we couldn't, you knew we could."

"You have given so much to so many," wrote another.

In September, word rippled through our pace groups: Mike had trouble breathing at the Utah marathon and had to walk some of it. They thought he had pneumonia. I thought nothing more of this until Mike sent us all an e-mail in October.

"It turns out that the shortness of breath and other symptoms which I have been experiencing over the past several weeks are not due to pneumonia after all. I apparently have lung cancer and am now in the process of further testing and evaluation to determine the extent to which it may have spread and to begin a course of treatment."

A few days later he told us that the cancer had spread to the "lymph glands in the center of my chest, the lining of the pleura around the lung on the right side, and to several levels of my spine, some ribs, my hips and right femur." Half a gallon of fluid had been drained from his chest.

Mike is best known here for the XMP and Boston Bound programs, which have prepared hundreds of men and women for the Boston Marathon over the past nine years. Yet Mike never ran the race himself. He was not fast enough to qualify. Instead he ran long, much farther than most of us could even dream about. Western States, for example, includes 18,000 feet of climbing and a river crossing on rugged trails through California's Sierra Mountains.

There is something obviously biblical about leading legions of runners to the promised land of marathoning without getting in yourself. Mike might have hated that analogy. He reveled in his runners' successes as much as they did and each fall, organized a banquet to celebrate the dozens of personal bests and Boston qualifying times runners achieved after training in his grueling program.

This fall's dinner was Nov. 14, and while we took note of our accomplishments, as he had demanded before he died, the night was a tribute to Mike. On a table, each of us laid a marathon medal we had earned, most with notes pinned to their brightly colored ribbons, telling Mike what he meant to us.

The idea had been to give them to Mike, a show of support as he battled a form of cancer that few survive. Mike never learned of this before he died. Instead, his widow, Jill, showed up to accept the medals.

"He loved you all," she said.

I gave her my Boston Marathon medal. It is my most-treasured running memento, but it was not a difficult decision. Like Mike, I am too slow to qualify for the historic race. Unlike him, I took a free pass to get in and finished with my best time ever.

"Mike Broderick passed away last evening at Georgetown University Hospital with his wife Jill and sister Sue at his side," another coach, Harold Rosen, told us in an e-mail Nov. 5. "His cancer was so advanced with so many complications, and Mike was prepared to leave this earth and close this 'marathon' called life. He passed peacefully."

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