Thursday, May 19, 2011

                                          FRIENDS TO THE END

                              Reflections on the end of 20 years with a running partner.

                                                    By: Malcolm D. Gibson
           A friend of mine died today. He was my running partner for 20 years. I watched him go through a long divorce and fight a bout with cancer. He was a trooper. We were exactly the same height and weight so our bodies reacted the same on long training runs. We ran every race together.

          As younger men we were of one mind as competitive runners, always scheming to better our race times by trying the latest shoes, clothing and training techniques. But, over the years our ideas about running began to diverge. While he continued to be absorbed with his quest for faster times, I discovered that running let me stop being a slave to thinking at all. We remained virtual alter egos, but each with different reasons for running. His was to achieve PR’s, mine to unlock my inner self.

          I knew his wife well. She was not an athlete and struggled to accommodate the changes we adopted in our lifestyles as we pursued our running. Their relationship was like many others between runners and non-runners. There was conflict over diets and naps after long runs. As their marital problems mounted his runs changed from a joy to an escape. When the marriage ended it was not because of running, but running was all he had left.

          Over the years we struggled to find common ground in our philosophies of running and, eventually, life itself. We agonized and argued over which approach was best. Always the disciplined soldier, he believed that the purpose of life’s journey, like a long run, was to arrive at one’s destination…to rate one’s accomplishments against past performances or future goals. For him the journey was comprised of thousands of steps measured by time and space.

          I argued that there was an alternative….that the importance of the journey was not how it compared to the past or the future, but rather the quality of each step along the way.

          My friend devoted much of his life to avoiding adversity, seeking always to find an “ideal” formula for personal fulfillment and success. In his running, fatigue and pain were enemies to be out smarted in order to accomplish his goals.

          Rather than avoiding adversity, distance running taught me how to accept it as part of a larger positive experience. This approach helped me to achieve a better sense of perspective and balance not only in running but in life.

          In his heart, he knew I was right, but he was afraid to admit it….afraid to leave behind his competitive philosophy even though it took an ever increasing toll on his physical and mental health. I worried about him, about us. But, I loved him and hoped for the best.

          The end came quietly today after we shared a grueling 15 miler. I felt tired but renewed at the end of the run. He had been unusually quiet and I was encouraged because he seemed more at peace than before. It happened as we rested together on a bench in the park, dripping with perspiration. No one called an ambulance. He just smiled and slipped away, leaving me alone in the twilight. As I walked to my car I knew we were both better for it because, you see, he was also me.

Copyright 2011/ All Rights Reserved



Wednesday, May 4, 2011


                                                    INTO THE FIRE        

                               First time marathoners, comrades in arms.

            Near the starting line first timers mingle chatting and laughing.  They try to reduce the marathon to something normal, something routine, something familiar. They kid, pretend to be confident, and recount training runs. But, soon a hush falls as the  challenge looms.

            For months they have trained, and need only one thing to make them marathoners, crossing the finish line at 26.2 miles, and they will never be marathoners until they’ve done it. No one knows what will happen beyond Mile 20. It’s uncharted territory. Will they respond with strength and courage, or retreat into the crowd? It’s impossible to tell, and that’s the hell of it.

            By tonight they will be different. They will understand then what they cannot know now, how they will react under fire. Like green troops going into combat, when their story is told, it will be about those who survived and those who perished. Which will they be?

            They look into the faces of those around them, friends they have trained with, questioning who will make it and who won’t. They feel isolated as the starting gun draws closer.            

            The mystery is that they have volunteered for this mission. Why? What trait do they share that separates them from others? Not heredity. Not experience. Not success or failure in life. Perhaps somewhere inside they sense that they cannot discover the truth about themselves without risking it all, putting it all on the line for everyone to witness. The force that drives them to the starting line will deliver the answer by day’s end, a glimpse of who they really are.
            Life detaches. The marathon unites. Comrades in arms, the first timers band together to conquer the world, if only for a day. Most will never see each other again. But, neither will they ever be far from each other’s heart.

            Battling through the final miles, bonds will form between strangers. The strong will help the weak, the weak will find strength, all with a glance and a word of encouragement. Nothing they feel for the rest of their lives will be as spontaneous. Nothing they do will be as courageous, as compassionate, or as loving. In the face of defeat, they will give each other the gift of victory.

            And so when the battle is over the soldiers will retire. But, no matter where they go, no matter what they do, they will remember this day. The day they went to war alone, risked it all, and came home together as victors.  These are marathoners.      


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

                           EVERYONE LOVES A CHAMPION

 A tribute to Greta Weitz, Fred Lebow, and marathon champions everywhere

                                                  By: Malcolm D. Gibson

            It’s not every day you fall in love with a marathon champion. It happened to me as I hobbled back up the course to my car after the Chevron Houston Marathon.  For a hero with 100,000 fans she was surprisingly approachable. Steps ahead of an HPD cruiser, she glanced at my finisher’s medal and gave me a quick nod. Although she competed at a 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 one of life’s 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 at the finish with arms extended, touching the hands of all thirty thousand runners. I remember him in the shadows of Central Park standing alone like a crucifix until the last of his children found their way home. From victors to survivors, we all loved 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 others 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. We held our breath.

            Finally we heard the roar of the crowd rolling toward us, and cheered as Fred crested the hill. Ahead of him was a phalanx of NYPD motorcycles and beside him 9 time New York City Marathon champion, Greta Weitz. She had toiled with him every 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. 
            Nineteen years later we said farewell to Greta Weitz. I knew, however, she’d always be there with Fred in Manhattan at the finish line. Love is like that.

            So now 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 Greta and knew she was not alone… the last place finisher in the Chevron Houston Marathon.

Copyright 2011
All Rights Reserved     

Friday, April 1, 2011

                                                    TRAIL TAIL
The first time I saw her she was walking alone at dusk in the forest where only trail runners go. As I trotted passed she gave me a shy nod. I pretended not to notice her tears.

The next day I saw her again. Thirty-something with hair pushed under a cap, this time she was running the trail ahead of me.  She smiled as I pulled along side her, so I gambled that she wouldn’t mind the company of a “mature” runner.  She seemed happier, and I wondered about yesterday’s tears.

 After some pleasantries, we ran 6 miles over sylvan paths through a sea of pines, lost in our own thoughts. At the end we shared the comfortable fatigue of a mission accomplished, as only runners can, and then went our separate ways. She headed to her car and I to my home near the edge of the forest.  

Each day I awaited her arrival. She rarely disappointed. We became running partners testing each other with ever more challenging routes. Through the scrapes and bruises of trail running we developed mutual respect as athletes and friends. I couldn’t deny my affection for her and hoped she felt the same about me, if only a bit.

I volunteered little about myself preferring instead to be the best listener I could. We were different animals in that regard. She talked of her career and even complimented me for being the only male friend she had who listened without giving advice, or asking her to dinner.

She never spoke about her personal life, or why she was crying that day in the woods. But, I knew I’d hear the story when the time was right.

That moment came several months later as we slogged through a rainy 5 miler. Her words tumbled out like a waterfall.  While on assignment in another city she met a guy who changed her life. He offered his heart, but she came home instead to pursue her career. By the end of our run she was in tears again and we both knew she had let the love of her life slip away. Tomorrow she would leave to find him ….and herself.  

As we said goodbye in the evening mist, it was my heart that was now breaking. I watched as she walked to her car, a lone figure in running shorts soaked to the skin. But, instead of driving away, she stopped for a moment and looked back at me. When she motioned for me come to her, I ran as fast as I could. As I climbed into the seat beside her I knew that we would both soon have a new home and that sometimes dreams do come true….even for an old dog like me.        

Copyright 2011
All rights reserved
Malcolm Gibson      

Thursday, March 31, 2011

                                   AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
                                 How a pair of old shoes touched my soul.        
            In the movie Shawshank Redemption, an inmate made good his escape by wearing the warden’s shoes, which prompted actor Morgan Freeman to ask “How often do you really look at a man’s shoes?”  For me the answer was never, until a young girl in discarded sneakers changed my point of view forever.
            I encountered her in a cavernous gym with gleaming wood floors, fancy retractable seats, and a parking lot filled with SUV’s. That’s how church league basketball was played south of the freeway.
            Her team arrived in an old station wagon, a coach and six black players from north of the Interstate, close yet a world away. Their opponents would be my daughter and her grade school teammates with their expensive basketball shoes and uniforms. The team from the north side had neither.
            Instead of NBA signature models, her shoes were low cut plaids with two eye rings. We called them boat shoes. Perhaps for a prior owner they’d matched a new outfit at a spring barbeque, or graced the deck of a sailboat on a breezy summer cruise. Now they were old and faded, the bottoms worn smooth. During warm ups our girls’ quick cuts to the basket squeaked on the hard wood. With each step the boat shoe girl struggled to avoid sliding to the floor.
            It was impossible not to notice, and she did. Etched in my memory is the look on her face as the differences hit home, more shame than envy. As a dad, I knew she wanted only what all young girls want, to look like everyone else. Thanks to us it was the one thing she couldn’t do. Stranded at mid court, nowhere to hide.
            I considered how my daughter might have reacted had the shoe been on the other foot. My hope was that she’d have been as brave.
            The boat shoe girl played her heart out. Every move was more difficult by half. My heart broke as I watched her try to wipe the dust from the bottoms of her shoes each time down the court. I pulled for her even as my daughter and her south side friends poured in the points.
            In the end her team capitulated, out manned and exhausted.  At the buzzer her coach gathered them around for his usual words of consolation. Then they headed north.  As she walked by I wanted to apologize for the dose of reality, to somehow make it up to her. But, I lacked the courage.
            So now, should the young lady in the boat shoes somehow magically read this column, all that’s left to say to her is thank you. No matter where you go or what you do, for this dad you’ll always be the little girl with the tattered shoes. The one who taught me the real meaning of step at a time.

Malcolm D. Gibson
Copyright 2011
All Rights Reserved


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

                                       THE FRIEND WE NEVER MET
                                         A farewell to Sally Meyerhoff
            Sally Meyerhoff is dead. The 27 year old Olympic marathon qualifier went for a bike ride and never returned, hit by a pickup truck.
            For every Sally Meyerhoff there are thousands of runners like me at the back of the pack. Although her 2:30 was our 5:30, we were all in it together. We’d never met her, but we knew her well.
            With her passing came finish line photos, arms held high, the haunting image of a young champion struck down in her prime...the champion we all are in our imaginations. For a moment we were her and she us.
            She struggled through injuries, fast races and slow. She cried at her victories and her defeats. She compared running shoes with strangers, struggled with her new sports watch, and on occasion took too many Gu’s. She was one of us.
            So now she’s gone, the friend we never met. But, as long as runners gather at dawn, feel tears well up in Mile 26, or pass a bicycle down along the way we’ll remember our friend Sally Meyerhoff.
            The next time you’re struggling to finish a race, do it for Sally Meyerhoff.  It’s her race, too. The next time you pass a runner hobbling for home, pull her along. She is Sally Meyerhoff.  
            What she can’t do in life, we will do for her in spirit. Train hard. Stay focused. Do your very best. Because, you see, we have a race to run in London in 2012. And we will win it….. for our friend, Sally Meyerhoff.

Copyright 2011
All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 28, 2011


                       ECHOES AT SUNRISE

                     How a midnight marathon cast
                           my father in a new light
     I didn’t cry when my father died. A kind man but a mean drunk, I judged him only by his limitations. That is, until my limitations as a distance runner cast him in a new light.
     It happened at 5 AM on a two lane blacktop during the Texas Independence Relay. Eight runners…200 miles…33 hours straight, retracing the 1836 route of the Mexican army between victory at the Alamo and defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. From Gonzales, population 350, to Houston, population 3,500,000, the race is a running tour of rural Texas, through farming towns like those where my dad grew up.
     After three daylight 10-k’s with no sleep, I navigated my fourth rotation by the light of a headlamp. Farm houses with sleeping families floated by like ghosts in the pre-dawn chill. As boundaries of time and space merged in the darkness, I felt closer to my father’s world than ever before. I imagined him as a boy on one of those farms, before life took its toll.
     He had simple values forged by the Great Depression and World War II….work hard, play fair, look for the best in people. They endeared him to everyone, but protected him from no one. A trusting soul, he was no match for the brave new world of the ‘60’s.
     Dad was a college football player and a better athlete than me. If running had been in vogue, he’d at least have had a choice of addictions. But athletics were for kids. Real men didn’t run, they drank. So he did.
     By age thirty-five running had supplanted booze as my drug of choice….just in time to save me from my father’s fate. I wasn’t a better person, I just had better options.
     As my father’s generation morphed from the New Deal to the New Age, money became the benchmark for success. He lost this contest and, along the way, his self esteem. We boomers tried to dodge that bullet by advocating insight over income. We thought we had the answers…that who we were would be revealed by the questions we asked ourselves.
     We were only half right. It took more than musing to learn the truth. It took painful introspection. For me, the questions could only be asked by pushing beyond my physical limits…looking into the abyss. I thought the answers would materialize when I achieved my goals. Personal records were the Holy Grail so I ignored my failures and soldered on in quest of ever more medals…and enlightenment.
     Blinded by my own ambition, I judged others by their missteps. Someone else’s defeat made me feel superior by comparison. No one paid a higher price than my father. When he lost his battle against alcoholism, I hated him as a man.
     But on that cold Texas night, the pace I promised my team in shambles along with my pride, I finally felt my father’s pain. As I hobbled through the darkness I saw us standing together in a gas station forty years ago, his head bowed, too drunk to drive, waiting for me to take him home…crying. I didn’t encourage him, only judged him. When he needed love the most, I answered with distain. We never spoke about that night, and within a month he was dead.
     Now it was my turn, an old runner whose journey had taken me to a place where the trails followed by others died away……left to find my own way home. For the first time in forty years I needed my father.
     When I saw the lights of the transition area in the distance, I felt a sense of sadness. Although physically exhausted, my mind was clear and focused. I knew my teammates were straining to see my headlamp bobbing in the distance, a tiny point of light like a ship on the horizon. Although the glare from the gasoline powered generators bathed the hand-off area, it would be impossible for them to distinguish me from any other runners until we had approached to within twenty yards.
     It was then that I heard the foot steps of another runner behind me. He maintained my pace, never drawing too close. Struggling with me through the final mile, his presence helped push me along ….an exchange of special energy…a bond only athletes know.
     As we neared the finish a burnt orange sunrise crested the final hill. My companion had drawn close enough to speak, and through our shared fatigue I heard him chuckle and say in a west Texas twang…. “Well, thank you sun”. But, when I looked around, there was no one there.
     I didn’t report this mystery to my friends. Nor did I check for my comrade’s name on the finishers list. Because, you see, as I stood alone looking down the highway, the true meaning of his words came to me … “Thank you son”.

Copyright 2011 / All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 23, 2011

                                       REASON ENOUGH TO WRITE

         If truth is the Holy Grail, twenty-five years of marathons and law practice have proven me to be the Don Quixote of both disciplines. Armed with a lance of logic, my quest was doomed from the start.
         In law school we were thought to “think like lawyers”… code for bludgeon the facts into submission with reason and analytics. I loosed these weapons on my chosen profession and sport for a quarter century. No windmill was safe. 
          Reason was my Alexandrian solution to every challenge, cool and cutting. Gordian or not, no knot was immune. For faster marathons, embrace the training schedule. For legal victories, master the civil code. There were manuals for everything, organized, fool proof, logical. Mine was the generation that never colored outside the lines, rewarded for restraint, punished for passion.
           Analytics honed my spear. The object of my quest morphed from truth to treasure. I pierced anything for a fee.
            Finally, no race time was fast enough, no deal big enough, to move the needle. Personal records were eclipsed by age and legal victories by conscience.  My truth emerged, cold and empty. Reason had created its own trap. A commanding tool in an analytical world, in the end its price was passion. 
          There’d been hints along the way, unexpected whispers from the heart of humankind…“God’s speed John Glenn.” “Can’t we all just get along?” Over the roar of a bottom line, high tech world even I heard these faint voices. Not the stuff of bigger verdicts or faster finishes, I ignored them.
           Eventually, when the music stopped my weapon was worthless. The relevance of my law books had waned with each judicial ruling, while epic works like the Bible, containing nothing of logic or argument and relying solely on proverbs, stories, and examples, had remainded timeless.
          I realized that the most important passages of my life were penned before the quest began, by my heart not my hand. The truth I sought was not a new thing to be discovered, it was something that had  been there all along.    
          So, here begins my journey back to the start, to a time when all things were possible...and truth a way of life.