Once, as a kid, I met Gil Hodges. He was autographing baseballs in a men's clothing store and I brought him my bat to sign. Roy Campanella came to my school. I met Jackie Robinson and had a baseball signed by all the Dodgers, but all of that is nothing compared to what happened yesterday. I Interviewed Barry Weisberg. He came in last in the New York City Marathon.
It turns out that he meant to. He entered the marathon three years ago, intent on running the best he could, but the last two he has tried just to come in last. To do that, he both runs and walks, stopping from time to time for something to eat. He had a bagel, coffee, pizza, an eggroll and souvlaki during his 26.2 mile ordeal, worrying all the time that someone else was trying to come in last.
"First is pretty easy," said my 30-year-old hero, who in civilian life is a mild-mannered Brooklyn DA. "Last is tough. You never know if someone is coming up behind you." In fact, Weisberg ran ahead of his main competitor for last place, stopped for a bagel and some coffee and saw the fellow run by. It was then that he knew he had it won.
"For the last 18 miles, I was all by myself."
And all by himself, Weisberg mocks how insufferably serious running has become. He says he is now prepared to make endorsements -- possibly running shoes. I, for one, would buy them. I would also join the Barry Weisberg running club and join the movement to have a day named for him -- Barry Weisberg Day. I think kids should be kept home from school that day. Barry Weisberg should be a lesson to them.
In truth, I would have preferred it if Weisberg had not tried to come in last. In its own way, that's almost as bad as winning. What I like about running, about marathons, is that, to most of the people who do it, it is not about winning and losing. It is about competing with yourself, about setting goals and then meeting those goals. There is something wonderful about doing something for the sake of it, for the pleasure of it -- for the fun of it.
After all, the winning of a marathon is reserved for just a special few. You have to be a superb athlete for starters. And then you have to train and then, of course, you really have to want to win. It is not much different than being a professional football, baseball or basketball player, which is something I realized at an early age I could never be. But I could be a runner and I could run a marathon. I could never win, but I could run it and probably finish it and it would not matter to me in the least that I did not win. What would matter the first time is finishing. What matters after that is the goal you set for yourself when it comes to time.
This is what Weisberg personifies. He mocks the Vince Lombardi ethic that winning is everything -- the only thing. It is not. But it is this ethic that pushes kids out of sports. It lets them know early on that no matter how much they might enjoy a particular game and no matter how good it might be for them to play it, they have no right playing. They are not good enough. It is this ethic, also, that accounts for the phenomenal number of injuries in high school and college sports, especially football. When you think that winning is the only thing, then you sometimes stop at nothing to achieve it.
Weisberg also mocked the tendency to organize all sports, to professionalize them and turn them into television events. This has happened to running. Bill Rodgers, a great runner and a promiscuous endorser, pulled out of the race when his money deal fell through. He explained that he is a professional runner. He did not explain what he was doing in a supposedly amateur event.
So hats off to Weisberg. He runs a couple of times a week, plays basketball and entered the marathon for the fun of it. He ran last through five boroughs, going it almost alone, braving a girl who ran out into the road threatening to rob him until he pointed out that he could only offer his shoes. He ran most of the way, walked some of it, stopped for a snack or two and broke the tape about five hours after the winner. It was dark and raining by then, cold too, but to Weisberg it was worth it. He's unmarried and has a goal:
"I hoped that this would help my popularity," he said. "It hasn't. I might have to go out and buy a guitar."