Saturday, October 27, 2007
The Man in the Yellow Shirt
ORN: 9.3 miles with 6 x 1 mile repeats at 8:30 average
It was around mile 8 or so when I first spotted the Man in the Yellow shirt during last week’s Indianapolis Marathon & Half-Marathon. It was probably his bright shirt that first caught my eye. I noticed again as we moved through the park, as we were staying about the same distance apart. I observed we were both using a run/walk plan and we seemed to be about on sync with each other.
I gradually got closer to him and could observe him more closely. He ran with a practiced economy of motion. Head up with no bobbing, back straight, arms low, swinging gently in metronome-like cadence, legs solid, feet close to the ground. No pounding, no wasted movement, steady and experienced. His shirt had long sleeves, even on a day in the low 60s. He wore a broad-rimmed floppy hat. He moved surely through aid stations, negotiating the traffic with ease and consideration while hydrating well. This guy knew what he was doing.
After the half marathoners split off at mile 12.5, I found myself getting closer to him. For the first time I noticed the full head of grey hair under the broad rim of his hat. He seemed to be at least in his mid 60s. And I was fascinated by just watching a man who seemed to be a very experienced runner.
During miles 13 to 19 as we ran the out portion of the marathon, our run/walk cycles were slightly out of sync with each other, so we leap frogged each other several times. He ran steadily, I admired his style each time I was behind him.
On the way back, our walk breaks finally coincided somewhere around mile 20. I pulled up beside him and asked him how he was feeling. He smiled, put his index finger to the base of his throat and uttered “It’s getting a little rough about now,” in a raspy, guttural type of voice. And I realized what I saw and heard in that instant.
He had had a laryngectomy.
A laryngectomy is the surgical removal of the larynx, better known as the voice box. It involves rerouting a person’s breathing away from the mouth and to a surgically-made hole at the base of the neck. The person having this surgery has to learn how to speak again, forcing air over a surgically placed flap that vibrates. My wife is a trained speech therapist and had told me about this procedure and what is involved for a person to learn to speak again following this life-changing surgery. I was aware of the fact it reduces life to a minimalist existence for many. Yet the Man in the Yellow Shirt had decided it was not going to be that for him. I had no idea what his story was, yet I knew it had to be amazing.
Our short walk break was soon over and, knowing speech was difficult, we didn’t talk any further. We continued to leap frog for the rest of the race, yet on the last long incline when I struggled, his steady pace pulled right by me and he finished ahead of me, the Yellow Shirt climbing the hill and out of view.
After I finished the race, walked a bit and collected my gear bag, I headed for the big food tent, mostly to just sit down. Walking in, there he was, his Yellow Shirt as visible as it had been on the course. He was by himself at a table and I asked if I could join him. He smiled and motioned for me to sit down. After some small talk about the race and the finishing hill, he asked me “Are you doing 50 States?” I smiled and told him I didn’t have that ambition though I had a good friend who was. “So, are you doing 50 states?” I asked. Matter of factly, he said “I have and I am.” I did a double-take and then realized what he was saying. Turns out he has already run a marathon in all 50 states and is now doing it all again. Saturday’s race was his 40th state this time around. “Yeah, only 10 to go now,” he said “and then I think I’ll call it quits.” He mentioned the city he came from, then bid me farewell and walked off.
I sat there, utterly impressed, completely amazed, in full awe. And I couldn’t get him off my mind.
When I got home, I looked up his hometown on the results list and found his name. I then did a web search for his name. I ended up with nearly 10 Google pages of his name with marathon results from all over the country, just as he had said, regularly doing marathons in the 4:20 to 4:50 range. Time after time after time.
And in the midst of all these marathon results was one article from the University where he had been a faculty member. He had won an outstanding teaching award several years ago. Several students were quoted saying what an amazing communicator he was in his field, making difficult technical subjects understandable, despite the obvious hurdle of speech he had following his surgery. This was no ordinary human being I met.
I tracked down his address and wrote him a letter to express my appreciation for our conversation and wishing him well on the last 10 states of his second trip around the country. I’ll respect his privacy here and not give any further specifics. Yet this man’s story is the most amazing one I’ve personally encountered in running. What he is continuing to do is an inspiration. I hope it encourages you just a bit as much as it has me.
Persevere. Like the Man in the Yellow Shirt.