Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Running to capture a dream

It was a fantasy, one of those little dreams that float through your mind when thinking about goals well out of your reach.

And it was long forgotten until earlier this month on Mother's Day when Dallas Braden of the Oakland A's did the impossible -- pitched a perfect game. The Tampa Bay Rays took 27 shots at Braden and he accomplished what only 19 other pitchers in professional baseball have managed in the history of the game.


He's now a member of a tiny fraternity that includes such iconic personalities as Cy Young, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson. "It's pretty ridiculous," Braden told The New York Times, "to be in that kind of company."

Watching the news clips and hoopla play out on the evening news, my mind started drifting back a few years -- actually a few decades. And there it was -- the fantasy! I was once again back on the road, huffing my way through another training cycle, living the dream.

The fantasy, in one fashion or another, is out there in many of our minds -- the quarterback in the Super Bowl, tossing the winning pass as time runs out; the humble slugger facing a fiery closer in the seventh game of the World Series, whacking a walk-off homer; the tiny point guard, playing for a cinderella team in the Final Four, going for three and hearing only the whoosh of the net and the roar of the crowd.

But my fantasy was never about such mega-events, team sports played with a ball. Truth be told, I was always too small and too slow to make it big in football, baseball or basketball. I played at all three sports as a youngster, even made the all-star team my last year of playing little league baseball.

But after vegetating on the sidelines for two decades, I joined a softball league when I was in my early 30s and immediately realized that I had absolutely no talent for the game.

So I started searching for the athlete I knew was part of my life and ended up finding that guy while jogging in my neighborhood. It began with a very slow mile -- 15 minutes or so. But something clicked and over the next few days, weeks and months I managed to shed a few pounds, significantly increase my pace and create a fantasy. But first, a little history and context.

In 1972, I found myself in Germany, in the army and stationed at a NATO base outside of Heidelberg. That summer, the world returned to Germany after kicking Nazi butt 25 years earlier. The summer Olympics were being held in Munich and each evening the international community I was part of gathered together to watch the Games and cheer for our country's athletes.

The men's marathon took center stage as the Games were coming to an end. It's the first time I recall watching a long distance race and it was an American, Frank Shorter, who entered the Olympic stadium first that day, tens of thousands of fans calling his name, millions of others watching the event on television.

Twelve years later in Los Angeles, a young woman, Joan Benoit, managed to capture center stage and the world's attention by winning the first woman's Olympic marathon.

It was a breathtaking achievement, this wisp of a woman from a small community in Maine pulling away early from the pack of world-class talent, cheered on by hundreds of fans on the streets of Los Angeles, thousands waiting for her to enter the Olympic stadium and millions watching the spectacle play out on TV.

It's that spectacle that became my fantasy, my dream, to run into an Olympic staidum, my name on the lips and in the hearts of thousands. It's a fantasy, a mind game really, that I thought about each time I laced up my running shoes and pounded the pavement.

And, of course, it's a fantasy that never came true.

No, I've never experienced the thrill of dashing through a darkened tunnel into the light of a packed Olympic staidum, or heard my name called out by thousands as I floated around a track.

But this much I know is true. All those years ago when I was running every day, I managed to grab hold of something special, a tiny piece of the magic that Benoit and Shorter shared.

The dream kept me running and kept me company when I was tired. It was there on frigid mornings in winter and blistering days in summer, on painful runs that lasted for hours and short sprints that took my breath away. The fantasy pushed and pulled and prodded and waited patiently as I grew faster, stronger, willing to go the distance.

My reward?

There was a slight chill in the air as I approached the Queensboro Bridge, just one of thousands of runners pounding onto the span that would take us into Manhattan. We were two hours into the New York City Marathon and I knew the winner would cross the finish line in minutes.

I was yet another two hours from Tavern on the Green in Central Park and growing weary. I had managed to hold to my pace, a mile every eight minutes, but now I was slowing, banging against the proverbial wall, just about ready to call it quits.

And then I heard a noise, a rumble off in the distance. With each step the sound grew, a tiny muffled roar that seemed to call my name. The dream was waiting, out there again, pulling me into the Big Apple.

The noise grew and my pace quickened. The shadows of early afternoon cast me into momentary darkness and for an instant I was running toward the light, through a tunnel and into my dreams.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of fans were clustered at the foot of the bridge. They were filled with energy and good cheer, offering a hearty welcome and words of encouragement for family and friends, neighbors -- and me!

This was real. No fantasy, no dream. I had done the work, paid the price and here was my reward. Magic!

POUNDING THE PAVEMENT: Thousands of runners (photo above) make their way into Manhattan, looking for magic as they take part in the New York City Marathon.

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