Lying on the couch, I looked squarely at my “prize” from the Delaware marathon, a right ankle that was black and blue and swollen to twice its normal size. I had strict orders from the doctor to not do any running until October 1st. It was September 12, 2011. I had a 62 mile relay scheduled for October 15th and the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma on November 20th. I could not even get my right foot into a shoe BUT, the doc did give me a glimmer of hope. He didn’t order a boot or crutches, just a lace up brace with supporting Velcro straps. He also said, “If it hurts, don’t do it.” For me, this was the open door to get moving as soon as possible.
I did nothing but hobble to work and the bathroom for the first 3 days. At the office, I had a bucket of ice water under my desk and forced my foot into its frosty depths every couple hours. At home, I used a borrowed machine that circulated ice water through a wrap on my ankle that chilled the injury from all angles. This treatment with a regular regimen of aspirin and ibuprofen helped me squeeze into a shoe on the fourth day. Now, I could get back to some exercise.
I started in the weight room on upper body work. Then on day 8, I got on the elliptical machine in the office exercise room. It only hurt just a little when I started, stopped and got off so I felt like I was “almost” obeying the doctor’s orders. From September 19 to September 29, I was lifting weights, on the elliptical or the stationary bike every day but 2. The ankle was slowly getting stronger.
Feeling good, I decided to cheat just a little and stepped onto my basement treadmill after work on September 30th. I kept the ankle in the lace up brace and managed to run a respectable 3 miles. The next day with the ankle ever so slightly stronger, I went outside for a 5 mile run. It went well except for negotiating corners and angles. Running straight on a smooth surface was okay but any twist, turn or uneven surface did not feel good. On October 2nd, I went 10 miles for the first time since the injury. I alternated running and resting the next couple days. Then I went 29 miles over 4 consecutive days from October 6th through the 9th. Every day the ankle was slightly better.
Another thing the doctor said was, “Don’t run any marathons!” Well, he didn’t clarify when so I simply stuck to the advice of “if it hurts don’t do it”. Since running with the brace on didn’t hurt, I loaded up the car on October 14th and headed to Gaylord with Mary. The next morning, I met up with friend and fellow co-op manager Brian Burns. Together, we would run the Top of Michigan inaugural 62 mile relay from Gaylord to Mackinaw City, Michigan. The race consisted of individuals, 6 person teams and 2 person teams.
It was the worst day to run of Michigan’s entire fall season. Winds exceeded 25 miles per hour and the rain was steady. The good news was that the route was on a rails to trails project, was pancake flat and the surface was crushed limestone which was even softer under the consistent rain. Brian started us out at 6 a.m. and we alternated segments for the next 9 hours and 56 minutes. When we were finished, I had logged 32.5 miles total. The ankle was sore and tired but generally held up well in the brace although the brace did change my gait ever so slightly which caused a new pain on the inside of my right knee. Regardless, our time was the best of 4 two man teams and after the handicap was figured our combined age of 102 had earned the second place award. Now, up next was the Route 66 marathon in just 35 days.
Gradually, over the next month, I eased out of the brace. It helped alleviate the knee issue as I got back to a normal running style. I also continued daily stretching and strengthening exercises at night in front of the television. At the beginning, I tried to balance on the right ankle and could only count up to 5 before having to grab onto the wall or put my good foot down. I also raised up on my toes using a single foot and then both feet in an effort to further strengthen both ankles. By the time I left for Oklahoma, I could balance on one leg to the count of 100 and didn’t even think to pack the brace. The ankle still had some swelling when compared to the left one but it was clearly at 95% or better of normal.
I was wrestling with one other issue heading into the Oklahoma marathon. I was trying to decide whether or not to run alone or tag along with my niece and her husband, Theresa and Rich Stangle from Pipestone, Minnesota. First, it was Rich’s first marathon and Theresa’s third. A first time marathon is always a special event and I didn’t know if they really wanted me tagging along or not. Second, despite the last couple months, I felt as good as I had since Boston in April. A small piece of me wanted to just let go and see how fast I could run the course.
I discussed the issue with Mary. I debated it on a run with friends, Jim Carpenter and Dean Bott. I got advice either way and still couldn’t decide. Rich is a great kid. I really enjoy being around him. He is always upbeat. He is very much dedicated to his wife. Half my age, Rich is still just one of those people you want to be around. It was Rich who cheered us on at the Quad Cities Marathon in 2011 when Theresa and I ran with her sister Becky. Rich with his mom and mother-in-law in tow was on virtually every corner of the course that day. Because we live so far apart, I had not seen Rich or Theresa since Quad Cities. Yet, Route 66 was Theresa’s idea. I did get an invitation from her. So, maybe I wasn’t butting in after all?
Theresa was part of the equation as well. Her mom is Mary’s sister and her dad is my first cousin. Mary and I have literally dozens of nieces and nephews. All of them are special for their own reasons. However, there are simply extra bloodlines involved with Theresa and her siblings. I spent many nights at her Grandma’s house while growing up. Grown with families, her dad, Roy, and I have been good friends for years. My oldest son, Zach, and Theresa became friends while in daycare together. One of the things I cherish the most is the fact that they remain great friends today. So, spending time with Theresa was clearly a no brainer. Yet, I couldn’t shake the concerns of being almost 50 years old, mostly removed from regular contact and intruding on what would be a special day for a young married couple out of my head.
I flew into Tulsa late on Friday the 18th of November. I slept in and went for a short run the next morning while waiting for Theresa and Rich to finish their drive down from Minnesota. It was almost 60 degrees at 8 a.m. on a beautiful day. I still found myself struggling with what to do. Run hard? Be the old man third wheel?
They arrived in the hotel lobby just before lunch. Rich’s mom, Pat, and her sister, Marcella had driven up from their winter home in Bullhead City, Arizona to watch the marathon and arrived at the same time. I snuck up behind the entourage as they were at the registration counter. I tapped Theresa on the shoulder. Her eyes lit up and I got a great hug. Rich with a wide smile and firm handshake pulled me in for another hug. My decision was made right then and there. I was tagging along with these two kids for as long as I could. It felt good. It felt right. September 2011 seemed like yesterday. After all, did I really have anything to prove? I can run hard, alone, on any given day of the week. Time with family is all too rare. I honestly don’t know what I had been debating. Life is so very short and family is spread so far apart. Why had I ever thought about missing one minute?
Rich was also what I would call “one of my people”. He had lost his father at a young age. We had never spoken of it but, I hold him in a special place because I have walked in his shoes. I know what hills he had to climb to be the person he is. I also knew why his mom had driven so far to catch a glimpse of him passing by on the marathon course. Both missed a man long lost. Both had learned to simply be there for each other at such times. Kids like Rich are my motivation in the dark spots on every marathon course. I run to raise money and awareness for kids who need mentors in their lives. Running with Rich would be a rare opportunity to run with one of these kids. Somewhere in the future, we will share dad stories. In Tulsa, I realized I needed to share and enjoy a day running at his side.
Prior to the Quad Cities marathon, Rich, a former college football lineman, had completed a local eating challenge in Moline, Illinois called “The Big Twenty”. In one sitting, he ate a 20 ounce burger and 20 ounces of French fries. So, prior to deciding to run the Route 66 marathon, Rich had researched local eating challenges in Tulsa. He found one at Joe Mama’s pizza parlor that involved jalepeno peppers on a pizza. Collectively, we decided that hot peppers may not be the best move prior to a marathon. Instead, we simply went to Joe Mama’s to get a taste of local Tulsa food and catch up on the past year.
We strolled through the expo later that afternoon. It was one of the better expos for a marathon of this size (approx 5,000 participants in the marathon and half marathon). I picked up some information on future marathons to fill my 50 state quest. Rich purchased a T-shirt with a turtle on it and the words “I AM RUNNING”. Theresa picked up a head band and being a physical therapist by trade stopped to watch intently as we passed by a kinesio taping booth. Rich, Theresa and Pat stopped to create a poster for Pat to hold so we could find her better as we scanned the crowds. Everyone was disappointed when we got our free shirt as it was 100% cotton. Disgusted, I commented how any marathon worth its salt should provide a technical tee shirt.
We spent the rest of the day visiting and lying around the hotel. For dinner, we opted for the pasta buffet in the hotel restaurant. Rich and I shared a hotel room while Theresa bunked with the ladies. With our gear laid out, Rich asked for any last minute tips or strategies. I simply told him to run his race, not worry about time and enjoy the experience. I talked about how I enjoyed the torture of the last 6 miles because they are always a challenge. Marathons would be easy if they stopped at 20 miles. I tried to convince him not to worry because I knew he had the athletic ability and the mental ability to get through whatever would arise in the morning.
Marathon morning in Tulsa was around 40 degrees which was almost 20 degrees colder than the previous day. I quickly decided that I probably wouldn’t be throwing away the heavy shirt I had on while waiting for the start. We said our good-byes to Pat and waded into the starting corral to listen to the national anthem. Rich was wearing his “I conquered the Big 20” shirt as he felt it was a fitting symbol of his decision to run and not eat his way through this marathon trip. Theresa was wearing a shirt in honor of her brother who was presently serving in Afghanistan. (her sister Becky was wearing the same shirt while running the Philadelphia marathon at almost the same time) Me? I was proudly sporting the M4K colors.
We headed down Tulsa’s main street then turned left on 15th street. After mile 2, we took a tour of the Swan Lake neighborhood which is made up of very large, luxurious homes that border a namesake pond. The mile 3 marker was passed 30 minutes 37 seconds from the starting line. Laughing and talking, the day was still fresh and challenges far ahead.
Next, we passed through Woodward Park, the historic Maple Ridge neighborhood and the Brookside entertainment district. The Brookside area is a stretch of local restaurants, retailers, bars and venues located between 32nd and 41st streets on Peoria Avenue. There was live music and decent crowd support. We also passed through the campus of Cascia Hall, a private catholic college preparatory school. The buildings were all red brick with steeples and spires. To me, it resembled Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies. I took a few pictures for my daughter Collette, the Potter fan of our house. We passed mile marker eight 81 minutes and 38 seconds into the race.
At about the 8.5 mile mark, we stepped onto Riverside Drive. Riverside Drive was pancake flat and parallel to a biking/running path along the Arkansas River. The previous day I had posted on my Facebook page that I jogged on this river path. Mike Card, a neighborhood friend from my childhood days in Timber Lake, South Dakota responded back that his mother, Oneta, had spent her retirement days in Tulsa from 1978 to 1998. She had regularly biked with her dog on that path.
Oneta was the school nurse in Timber Lake during my grade school years. Annually, she would come around to teach us how to properly brush our teeth. She had a large set of display teeth and an oversized tooth brush. We would chew up some red tablets that left our teeth colored. Each student then received a tooth brush and was required to apply the brushing lesson. When done, some kids smiled a white smile while others not so good at the lesson had a lot of red still showing. I was always in the middle of the pack, not proud enough of my efforts to smile without direction nor ashamed enough to open reluctantly when Oneta checked my work. I wrote Mike back that day in Tulsa and told him I would be brushing my teeth on marathon morning in honor of his mother! The connecting threads of my cross country marathon journey had taken on an interesting stitch in Oklahoma.
The half marathoners turned off at mile 13 and we could hear the roar of the crowd at the finish line. We discussed how nice it would be to be done but also how much more gratification we would get out of completing the full distance. We were now alone with other people as crazy as we were. Mile 14 slipped by after 2 hours and 24 minutes.
A brief time later, we finally turned onto a short section of the actual Route 66 highway. We took an exit ramp onto 7th street and found Pat holding the sign her and the kids had made at the expo. It was a simple “MOM” in large red letters with an arrow pointing down to the smiling little lady from Iowa via Arizona. Rich and Theresa gave her a quick high five and we continued on our journey.
As we ran through downtown Tulsa, Theresa asked Rich, “How ya doing babe?” Our pace had slowed and I think she sensed the need for some encouragement. We had a decision to make between mile 16 and 17. There was a .3 mile detour coming up for the “center of the universe”. It is a Tulsa landmark which has a distinctive quality. It is an echo that can be heard by someone standing in the center of a brick paved circle. Standing in the center one can talk and hear themselves echo while others outside the circle hear no such echo. Rich, although starting to struggle a bit, didn’t hesitate. We were going to get the full experience of 26.5 miles not the traditional 26.2. I stopped for some beer and a picture with the band playing just outside the circle but not having read my race packet, I didn’t know about the echo.
I caught up to the kids a short time later. Turning down 2nd street, we saw a man face up lying on the ground. A small crowd had gathered around him and we noticed they were doing CPR. As we slowly went by it looked like he could be responding. Theresa was ready to stop and use her CPR training. Having been an EMT for 10 years of my life in the past, I told her we needed to push on. There was a cell phone on the scene, plenty of people and the ambulance sirens could be heard in the distance. There was nothing for us to do but get out of the way. Later, passing runners confirmed the individual was responsive when placed onto the ambulance. We were now past 17 miles and 3 hours.
Miles 18 through 21 were lonely miles through a mix of industrial, commercial and residential areas that while quaint, lacked the lavishness of some earlier areas. We talked a little but the day was clearly wearing on. The temperature had warmed very little from the start and I was thankful that I hadn’t tossed my extra shirt. I looked down and my watch showed 3 hours 45 minutes 32 seconds.
The course took us through the University of Tulsa campus. The UT campus as it is known locally is a private institution originally known as Henry Kendall College. It was founded in 1894 and moved to Tulsa in 1907. Today, UT has more than 4,000 students and is ranked 75th among national doctoral universities in a U.S. News and World Report 2012 ranking. During the late stages of a marathon, it was simply a lot of twists and turns in the road as we slogged past a nice looking football field and school buildings. Theresa reminded Rich that we needed to keep moving if we were going to make the 5 hour mark. Nobody had discussed a goal nor did we start. The agreement to her statement was implied in the silence. I simply felt a collective shoulder push into the wall of the marathon as we moved forward.
Then, a marathoner’s nightmare of sorts appeared in the form of rolling hills. Over the last 3 miles, we would conquer one hill only to be faced with another. I tried to remain positive and tried to push ahead on the uphill to give the kids some incentive to catch up. I attempted to counter Theresa’s use of the word “babe” by referring to Rich with the word “stud”. He will have to be the one to tell you if either mattered as we fought the hills. As we crested what I thought was the last hill only to see yet one more, my shoulders slumped as I muttered, “Holy crap”. Recovering quickly, I bet Rich that there was not one wide receiver on any football team he had ever played on that had ever run a marathon. It brought out a weary smile. We kept the group shoulder to the wall and shuffled past mile 25. We were going to be well under 5 hours.
Finally, the roar of the finish line was upon us. We found Rich’s mom once again. The little old snow bird started running on the sidewalk and paced us about a quarter mile before we turned the corner into Veteran’s Park and a strong finish. Without a word, side by side we almost sprinted across the line to earn a finishing time of 4 hours 51 minutes. Exhausted and full of pride, we congratulated each other before accepting the very much needed tinfoil warming sheet and a finishers medal in the form of a 1941 Cadillac hood ornament.
At the next stop, Tulsa redeemed itself. We were presented with a technical finisher’s shirt that far surpassed the quality of any marathon shirt I had ever received. My disgust from the previous day’s expo was completely erased. After grabbing as much to drink as I could carry in my cold fingers, we took a group picture and found a place to sit down. Pat went back to collect Rich’s first time marathoner medal. I gave Tulsa another nod of approval for this gesture of hospitality.
We each had two free beer tickets but sitting on the curb wrapped in tinfoil, not one of us wanted to make the walk over to the beer tent. We could see the shuttle bus to the hotel and after some rest, opted to make that walk. In a cruel twist, the bus driver was not able to drop us at our hotel but instead let us out a half mile away. THEN, he proceeded to drive past us towards our hotel! Tulsa got a few cuss words at that point.
After a hot shower back at the hotel, we parted company with hugs made warmer by the day’s shared adventure. While waiting for a hotel shuttle, I received a text from Theresa stating that they had neglected to pay me for Rich’s share of the hotel room. I texted back that they were paid in full. The day together was payment enough for an old man like me. Sitting on the shuttle several minutes later, the door opened and Rich stuck his head in. I thought maybe I had left something in the room. He handed some cash to a man in the row ahead, directed it back to me then looked me in the eye and said, “Gotcha!” Smiling with an open jaw while stuck in the back of a full van of people, I took it but began to plot how I could get even at a later date. Theresa and I had shared bloodlines but Rich too was clearly “one of my people”.
Five days later, I got the following Facebook message from Rich:
So, after a few days to let things really sink in I can officially believe that I have joined the “I have ran a marathon” club. Sitting here on the day after Thanksgiving flipping through the channels, I came across a football game being played at the University of Tulsa. Instantly, my mind went to the marathon when you, Theresa and I were running through campus and we ran right past the stadium. A few things that I really enjoyed about running the marathon was how when I think back it almost seemed like the three of us were on a 4-5 hour mission with only one objective, finish strong, and leave no one behind. Also, continuing with our mission in mind I loved the little discoveries that we encountered together from the private school that reminded us of Harry Potter, running through schwanky neighborhoods with a kid playing the saxophone to give us encouragement, finding the center of the universe, to conquering the most poorly placed 2 mile stretch of hills EVER.
I am not saying I am ready to sign up for another one yet but I am saying thank you. Ya know Tony, ever since my Dad passed away when I was 21 years old I have had great men enter my life that I have been able to view as a father figure during different phases of my life that I wish my Dad would have been there to provide what only a father can. You are a great man Tony and I appreciate that even though you were there on your own continued mission. I felt that you were only there to make sure I was successful and to give support when needed. So Tony I guess what I am saying is thank you for being that father figure for me during this phase of my life and after a day of giving thanks, I am thankful to have you in my life Tony.
I hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving with your family and everyone is doing well. The Thanksgiving meal in the Stangle household was great, the Packers are still undefeated, what more could a man ask for.
Take care Tony,
I wiped away a few tears and whispered, “You got me again.” Somewhere, two Dads were looking down at “their people”.