On Saturday morning, I found myself toeing a made-up start line, a strip of tar covering a crack in the middle of my parents’ court, surrounded by a few friends and neighbors at a safe distance, wearing facemasks.
This was not my original plan, which was considerably grander: run the Boston Marathon, arguably the world’s greatest race. But like so much this spring, the coronavirus changed those plans, too.
When I heard they postponed the marathon I was heartbroken — like 30,000 other runners. But I would probably rank among the least unlikely of them.
I’d never been a serious runner, but I’d always played hockey and stayed in decent shape — until 2014, that is. That’s when I got married, had a son, and wrote four books in five years. I replaced my weekly hockey habit with nightly pizza delivery, my trips to the gym for a pack of Oreos — Double Stuf, thank you — and my desire to be healthy with my desire to do whatever it took to finish the damn book. Good times.
Add it all up, and I gained 20 pounds that year — after I’d already gained 20 pounds a few years before that. That’s right: I was 40 pounds over my “coaching weight” — which is not to be confused with playing weight.
Last summer, when I stepped on the scale on my 55th birthday, it flashed an unbelievable 205. When you’re 5-8, that isn’t healthy. When you’re 55, with a 3-year old son, it isn’t very smart, either. There was a reason my son Teddy would slap my belly, laugh, and say, “Daddy fatty watty!”
If I wanted to be part of Teddy’s life growing up, I could no longer afford to wait to re-start my life.
I needed a jump-start, so I tried veganism, which proved to be very simple: You Cannot Eat Anything. Once I grasped that, I lost 10 pounds in two weeks, just like that. But I knew I couldn’t sustain that, or any other diet, so I settled on something more basic: When you are not hungry, do not eat. This sounds silly, but I used to break that rule several times a day. I learned this from Teddy, who never eats when he’s not hungry. How many overweight 4-year-olds do you see? I lost a pound a week, for 35 weeks.
For extra motivation, I decided to go big: the Boston Marathon. I knew I could never qualify, but I could raise money for charity (as 15% of Boston runners do), and write a book about it, which was enough to convince the Boston Athletic Association to give me a number.
I needed help — lots of it. Former longtime Michigan cross country coach Ronnie Warhurst and his best runner, Greg Meyer, who won the 1983 Boston Marathon, very generously agreed to help. The best thing they told me was the simplest: don’t worry about how fast you run, or how many miles, or how bad it feels, or who else is doing what, or how much time you have. Just put your shoes on.
When it’s hot and humid, put your shoes on.
When it’s cold and wet, put your shoes on.
When you don’t feel like running, put your shoes on.
So that’s what I did. I ran when I traveled to Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and Houghton, and all through my hometown of Ann Arbor. Once you start running longer miles, you realize you can get to know your home more intimately than you ever could by car.
I kept putting my shoes on until I’d run about 500 miles, dropped 35 pounds, and could run 20 miles in four hours. That’s about 12 minutes a mile, including one minute walking after every 14 running, at my coaches’ urging — or about as fast as your riding lawn mower. But it is, technically, forward.
“I hate to break it to you,” Meyer told me one day, “but you’re probably not going to win the marathon this year.”
Close to home
When we heard the marathon, like almost everything, would be postponed, we figured we were done. But then I had an inspired idea on one of my rounds around Ann Arbor: If I wouldn’t have 30,000 fellow runners and 500,000 screaming spectators helping me along, but I wouldn’t have to accommodate them, either, so I could set up a crazy route winding past all the places I cared about in the hopes that my memories would keep me going.
The list included my old schools, where I often drove my teachers crazy; the ballpark where I caught my first towering pop-up, surprising everyone — including me; the pond where a hockey puck gave me a permanent bruise on my right shin; and the Arboretum, where I often skipped class in college to play Frisbee. I put together a playlist of 100 songs to provide the soundtrack for these memories, arranged in chronological order.
A few days before my Saturday “event,” I sent word out on social media to let folks know what I would be doing, and where, and inviting them to cheer from afar if the spirit moved them. But I didn’t really expect anyone to come out, and said so. I just wanted them to know that my memories of them would help keep me going.
When I started out Saturday morning, I knew I’d find out soon enough.
In the first mile I ran past the home of a friend where I’d spent countless sleepovers. His parents, now in their 80s, were waiting for me in their driveway with a sign: “Go Nocab Nohj!” a nickname their youngest had coined for me that I hadn’t heard in years. How does that not keep you going?
My small, well-spaced running entourage passed my old schools and playgrounds. We were joined, always at a safe distance, by former teachers and coaches, classmates and teammates, and people I had taught and coached. It was a jogging version of “This Is Your Life,” and it felt great.
Because my planned mileage was proving to be a little short, we added loops around Rackham Hall, the Diag, and the Law Quad, where I had once attended for a total of five minutes before bailing. By running two laps around that gorgeous space I had doubled my time as a law student.
After mile 20 we added a lap on Michigan’s outdoor track in honor of Jesse Owens, who set or tied four world records in an hour there in 1935. In the southeast corner they built a monument commemorating that singular feat — surely the only tribute to a Buckeye on Michigan’s campus.
Next, a two-mile circuit from the track through Burns Park and back that Warhurst and I started doing nine months earlier, when I couldn’t go that far without stopping a few times. We’d always pass Bo Schembechler’s statue, where I would run up a few stairs and shake his hand, while Warhurst mimicked his voice: “You're FAT, Bacon — keep running!”
But this time I wasn’t fat, and I was actually doing the thing we’d set out to do. “Bacon, you’re doing the damn thing — and frankly I’m surprised!”
Through Burns Park the major, Christopher Taylor, and his wife Eva waited for us ringing a cowbell. It’s that small a city — and hey, we were the only game in town. People seemed to surface from nowhere with handmade signs (usually including bacon gags), cowbells and even bagpipes to cheer me on. Many told me they only planned to stop by once, or jog or bike a little bit, but they got sucked in by the energy of the people along the way, and stayed far longer than they planned. One of them, Jim Tobin, thought he’d pedal along a few miles but ended up finishing the last 10. “The sheer ordinariness of this mission had appeal,” he told me, echoing hundreds of messages friends would send me that night, that an ordinary man can do something quite extraordinary.
The response was unexpected, and overwhelming. I can now see they weren’t cheering me in spite of being a plodding non-runner attempting something kind of crazy, but because of those things.
'You did it, Daddy!'
After exactly 26.2 miles, and an even-slower-than-expected 5:30, we finally turned toward home, where I saw my wife and a friend stretch a roll of drywall tape across our street (toilet paper is too precious) with a dozen friends scattered safely behind it. I had just enough energy to snap it, accept hugs from my wife and son — “You did it, Daddy!” — and wave to our friends.
Nine months earlier, and right up to race day, I asked for help. No one owed me anything. Everyone had better things to do. My quixotic mission was below everyone’s pay grade. But they didn’t just say no or ignore my request; they gave me far more than I ever expected. I had no idea we were creating something we all needed: “Only connect!" as E.M. Forster wrote. “Live in fragments no longer.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more connected to the people I care about, and more grateful for what we have.
I will never forget that day.
John U. Bacon, a former Detroit News sports reporter, has written seven national bestsellers on sports, business, health and history. His website is johnubacon.com and you can find him on Twitter @JohnUBacon.