First Marathon Mentor
Article by: Melinda LoReproduced with permission of the author
Burlington Millenium Marathon (28th May 28, 2000)
Yesterday I spent three and a half hours proving to myself that I could and would finish a runner's ultimate goal, a marathon. Funny thing is, I remember sprinting across the finish line so vividly, and the elation that I felt afterwards, spilling out of me like a high-pressure geyser. I remember the congratulatory hugs from friends who had driven an hour from Toronto to come and see me finish my first marathon. It was as if the runner's high that had pushed my legs during the last few daunting miles took over my mouth as I talked non-stop about how I felt for hours after the cheering crowds had returned home.
Today, I tried to rewind my memory tape and re-visit, play by play the difficult, challenging spots throughout the course. I couldn't. And it was all because of a stranger named Bruce who at first glance seemed like an ordinary, middle-aged guy, running in support of his hometown community where the race took place. At least that was what I thought at the ten kilometre mark where we introduced ourselves.
When I first saw Bruce at seven kilometres running a few metres ahead of me, I thought to myself, "My god, it would be sooooo annoying to have to listen to this loud guy for the whole race". He had no doubt latched onto some poor innocent-looking (and polite) runner next to him, desperate for an audience to hear his recollected running stories, complete with animated gestures and sound effects. Three kilometres later, to my dismay, I discovered not only that I had settled into my race pace, but that I was only a few feet downwind of "loud guy" and his impenetrable voice. Noticing that someone was a few paces behind him, he naturally introduced himself and his running comrade.
I was sorry the instant I told him that this was my first marathon, and that I would be thrilled if I could qualify for Boston. "What do you need to qualify?" he asked. From then on, he introduced me to every runner that we passed, shouting that I was going to qualify for Boston in my first marathon. I winced and smiled nervously each time as I felt the pressure mounting. "Don't worry", he reassured me, pointing at his right shoulder. "You stay right here and I'll bring you through the finish line to qualify."
I'm glad that Bruce was so sure of himself because I certainly was not. We were running against the wind, a minute and a half slower than my goal pace of an eight-minute mile. I was worried that he was unnecessarily depleting his glycogen supply by talking non-stop or shouting at the top of his lungs, stopping only to gulp some water at an aid station. I hated the fact that he had the ability to chew gum, talk and run at the same time. Not to mention that his only fuel that morning had consisted of a cup of coffee at 5:00 A.M. Where the heck did he get the rest of his energy?
Within minutes after our introduction though, I discovered that Bruce's stories were highly entertaining and amusing. I felt like I was being carried through the race merely by his words, recanting tales of glory (when he qualified for Boston) and tales of pride (when his ten year old son placed third in the American snowboarding championships). Bruce also described in detail the highlights of his sixteen-year running career and mentioned that this was his forty-sixth marathon. Okay, so maybe he did know a thing or two about pacing and what it takes to conquer twenty-six miles on foot.
At the fifteenth kilometre, he dashed across the street to find a bathroom refuge behind some trees. I momentarily panicked, thinking to myself, "How is he ever going to catch up? And if he doesn't, this is going to be one hell of a long, lonely race." But I had nothing to fear. After sprinting for ten minutes, he finally caught up to me again and reamed me out for failing to wait for him. Who did he think he was? First he agrees to pace me and then he disappears for a bathroom break! How was I supposed to know how long he would take? Being my first marathon, I was determined to maintain a steady pace and steady for me meant no breaks. After grudgingly accepting this explanation (but not without his standard "dramatics"), Bruce would sprint to catch up with me after each water stop he made. Not a bad effort for someone who was voluntarily pacing a stranger.
My respect for him grew as the race progressed, I was touched not only by the quantity but also the quality of his friends. Bruce appeared to be friends with at least ninety percent of the spectators, volunteers and runners, ALL of whom he thanked and acknowledged on a first name basis throughout the race. (I soon found out that Bruce was a dentist. In a small community, that may mean that he has treats most of the population, but it didn't explain the infinite number of friends he seemed to have. And anyhow, aren't most people afraid of dentists?)
I was further impressed by several of his friends who appeared throughout the course at different points to run with us. One of them included a colleague, who was cycling alongside us when a nearby runner asked if she had any Vaseline. Having none, she immediately cycled home to retrieve some for him. Wow. "Bruce is a lucky guy to know people like that," I thought to myself. But then I realized that perhaps the people who have Bruce as a friend are the fortunate ones.
Bruce's good friend Allan joined us at around the twenty-eight kilometre mark and kindly took my water bottle to carry for the remaining distance as he ran with us, offering encouragement and advice.
As we approached the dreaded thirty-five kilometre mark where I had frequently heard so many runners "hit the wall", Bruce suddenly turned to me and said "Okay, I'm gonna stop talking now. We need to focus to get through the rest of the race." And focus we did. I waited for my body to "hit the wall" as the thirty-six, thirty-seven, and thirty-eight kilometre mark passed, but it never happened. "You look good and you're running strong," Bruce said a few times, while periodically giving me some tips on pacing and how to focus. Bruce checked my breathing a couple of times when I lost my rhythm. I noticed that he had stopped talking to everyone around us and when Allan tried to crack a joke at the thirty-eight kilometre mark, he waved him off and said "Shhhhh!" while pointing as if the finish line was just ahead of us. I could tell that his mind was in "the zone" and that I should probably join him if I wanted to make it through the last few kilometres.
I have to admit that those last four kilometres were the most difficult ones. My mind kept on racing to the finish line well ahead of where my legs were carrying me. Although backed by Bruce's mind of steel, it took every ounce of discipline that I could muster to stay focused on the present and hold my form. Suddenly, I could hear the loudspeaker at the finish line. And as we approached within sight of the waiting spectators, Bruce and Allen telling me, "There it is. Go and get it." That was all I needed to hear in order to sprint for the finish. I couldn't believe it, a complete stranger had coached me to achieve my goal! Afterwards, I honestly could not recall any "painful" spots during my marathon. But I will always remember the steady stream of Bruce's words and the inspirational generosity that compelled him to lead a first time marathoner across the finish line to qualify for Boston.
Thanks, Bruce, for making this the most memorable milestone in my relatively short running career.
In case you were wondering...
Melinda's marathon time was 3:35:24, good enough for 3/19 in her age catagory.
Bruce Gardner, Burlington Runners club member finished in 3:35:31, 15/40 in his age group.