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