So, on Saturday morning, I found myself toeing a made-up start line, a strip of tar covering a crack in the middle of my parents’ street. I had no idea how it would go, or if anyone would show up along the way to cheer me on. But whatever happened, I knew I was not going to forget this day.
Why do all this? Last summer, on my 55th birthday, I tipped the scale at a stunning 205 pounds. When you’re 5-feet-8, that isn’t healthy. When you have a 3-year-old son, that isn’t very smart, either. Something had to give.
I had never been a serious runner, but I had always played hockey and stayed in decent shape — until 2014, when I got married, had a son, Teddy, then wrote four books in five years. I was eating about as mindfully as a raccoon tearing through your garbage at midnight. To hit deadlines I replaced my weekly hockey habit with pizza, soda and Double Stuf Oreos, short-term fuels I used to get things done. But each book was followed by another, and “short-term” soon stretched to five years. If I had kept it up, I would no longer be a participant in my son’s life, but an observer.
I needed a big, scary goal to jump-start my mission: the Boston Marathon. No, I could never qualify. But I could raise money for charity (as 15 percent of Boston runners do) and write a book about it, which was enough for the Boston Athletic Association to give me a number.
Now I needed help — lots of it. I reached out to Ron Warhurst, who coached the University of Michigan to 18 Big Ten cross-country titles, and his star Greg Meyer, who won the 1983 Boston Marathon. They motivated me, ran with me and gave me this advice: Don’t worry about how fast you run or how many miles or how bad it feels or who is doing more. Just put your shoes on.
So that’s what I did. I started running a two-mile loop with Warhurst, 76, who waited while I shuffled, walked and often stopped. But I kept doing it until I could run 20 miles in four hours — about the same pace as a riding lawn mower. It won’t win any races, but you get your lawn mowed.
What now? Wait a year? Quit? Go back to Double Stufs? One look at Teddy and my wife, Christie, and I knew those were no longer options.
On one of my runs, an elegant solution came to me: Why not run 26.2 miles the weekend of the race, but through my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich.? To replace 500,000 screaming spectators, I could set up a route winding past all the places I cared about — my old schools, my friends’ homes, my favorite ballparks and ponds — in the hopes that these memories would keep me going.
I enlisted a lot of help. The day before the “Baco-Thon,” I picked up 10 T-shirts with “OPERATION FAT ASS” printed on them for me, Christie, Teddy, my running coaches and my old friend Eddie Sponseller, who helped Christie plan the day. That was no small thing when we decided to move the start from Sunday to Saturday, hoping to get one good day amid a week of Michigan snowstorms.
There was only one thing left to do: run 26.2 miles.
The weather Saturday morning was perfect: low 30s, rising to mid-40s in the afternoon, without a cloud in the sky.
When my wife, son and I pulled in front of my parents’ home, our face-masked neighbors were milling outside in coronavirus formation. An official marathon measurer joined us on his bike, and Meyer himself stood 10 feet away to give me his final advice: “Remember: run your own race.”
With that, I ran up to my elementary school in honor of Mr. Pudduck, my fifth-grade teacher who is recovering from a life-threatening staph infection yet still comes out for my book tours. We were soon joined by Tom Kent, the star pitcher of the ninth-grade baseball team I coached with Eddie when we were just 19 years old, and later Adam Was, a former hockey player of mine who graduated from MIT and Harvard Medical School two decades later.
“How lucky can you get?” I asked. It was good to have a doctor along.
When we reached my old junior high, I was shocked to see Bob Cope and his wife holding signs. Cope had been my teacher and baseball coach, one of five coaches I dedicated my last book to. He now has Alzheimer’s, and we had been trying to get together for the first time in years when the virus hit. When I stopped and thanked him his eyes turned red, and I wiped a tear of my own before starting off again.
I didn’t expect to see 10 people that day, but about a hundred showed up along the long route. The response was unexpected — and overwhelming. With all the bad news leaving us feeling so powerless, perhaps they needed to cheer something, anything — and as one friend told me, “Hey, you’re the only game in town.”
They brought handmade signs, cowbells and even bagpipes in honor of Barney Klein, whose eulogy I gave last year. He was 56.
After four hours, my already-slow pace turned slower, with every step pounding my left knee and right hip. At Mile 24, just past Michigan Stadium, Warhurst yelled, “If you ran any slower you’d be walking — backward!” But we both knew, with friends yelling from the curbs and spread out in the empty streets, there was no way I was stopping.
When we made our final turn it wasn’t quite the same as Boston’s famed Hereford-to-Boylston bend. There were no stands of screaming fans, hundreds of reporters or medals at the end.
It's done. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't fast - a staggeringly slow 5:30, thanks to the last 6 miles (it's a marathon, I hear). But I finished 26.2 miles. Best part was running w/30-40 friends along the way, and 100 more cheering (all at a safe distance!). A day I'll never forget. pic.twitter.com/kNbFeVuAE1— John U. Bacon (@Johnubacon) April 18, 2020
But my wife and a friend spanned the street with a strip of drywall tape, and I had just enough energy left to snap it. I thanked everyone from afar, replacing high-fives and hugs with air fist-bumps and waves, and I received big hugs and kisses from Christie and Teddy.
“You did it, Daddy!”
But we had done something else, perhaps best captured by my friend San Slomovits, who wrote me that night: “It was uplifting and inspiring to see you today. Moved all three of us to tears. Probably the same thing would have happened last year, but it was even more moving now. To see you do something very hard, when times are very hard; to see you keep your word, when that’s a character trait in rather short supply; to see your friends and family cheering you and supporting you — that kind of community is always moving but, again, especially now.”
Together, we had created something from nothing — something worth remembering.