At 26.2 miles, race just warm-up for man with pack on his back

With Sahara on his mind, Gordon totes extra load

Baltimore Marathon

October 16, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Aran Gordon should be easy to spot amid the throng running in today's Baltimore Marathon.

He's the one toting a knapsack. The guy who looks like he veered off the Appalachian Trail. Or a scoutmaster in pursuit of his troops.

Which begs the question: Of the 3,000 runners, why is Gordon the one with a 10-pound pack strapped to his back? Because he's training for a bigger race, one that makes this one seem like a walk in Druid Hill Park.

For Gordon, 44, of North Baltimore, today's 26.2-mile race is a prologue to the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands), a 145-mile traipse through the Sahara Desert next spring. There, runners must lug sleeping bags and enough food and clothing to last six days - nearly 25 pounds of extra weight.

Tackling that ultra-marathon, in stifling heat over the dunes of Morocco, has long been Gordon's dream. Today's race is a tuneup. Hence, the lighter (10-pound) load.

"You build that weight up over time," he said. "I don't want to hurt my spine."

What will he stuff into his tan backpack? Towels. A bag of sugar. A dumbbell, perhaps.

Gordon acknowledged that sounds goofy.

"I expect someone will say, `The real dumbbell is running the course,' " he said.

Others have competed in marathons so burdened, said Clary Shaw, elite athlete coordinator for the Baltimore race. For instance, leathernecks who run in Washington's Marine Corps Marathon must do so in full gear.

"It's rare, otherwise, but it happens, mostly for the same reason [as Gordon's]," said Shaw. "I once ran the Big Sur Marathon with a backpack because I wanted to photograph it, too. People kept saying, `Are you running away from home?' "

As for Gordon, the backpack isn't the only baggage he is carrying. He suffers from hemochromatosis, a metabolic genetic disorder that causes an excess of iron in the body. The disease, though relatively rare, targets more men than women and can affect the liver, heart, thyroid and lungs. It may cause chronic illness or death, if undetected.

A marathoner since 1984, Gordon began feeling lousy in 1998. His stomach, hips and spine hurt. Fatigue set in; his joints ached. He quit running. His weight shot up, from 160 to 213 pounds. His spirits sank. His skin turned a bronze-like color. Red flags, all - though it took doctors three years to pinpoint hemochromatosis.

"Physically, I could feel myself shutting down," he said. "I started to get blue [depressed]; I really fell off the cliff. Why? I had more than five times the normal amount of iron in my system."

Diagnosed in 2001, he began a year of blood therapy treatments. Every week, he was drained of a quart of blood to reduce his toxic iron levels.

"It was a very medieval experience," said Gordon, who then became anemic and contracted pneumonia three times before his system finally stabilized. Now, he "gives blood" about six times a year to maintain his balance of iron. There is no cure for hemochromatosis.

Recovering in 2003, he determined to run again - and not only 26-mile marathons. Gordon had long wanted to compete in the Marathon des Sables, now more than ever.

How grueling is that race? The admission fee includes a $150 "corpse repatriation fee" - the price, he said, of a body bag.

"One hundred and forty-five miles?" remarked Gordon's wife, Lara. "I don't even like to drive that far."

Gordon won't be deterred.

"At first I took baby steps, walking the dog around the block, huffing and puffing behind Monty, our Tibetan terrier," he said. Progressing steadily, he jogged along the Northern Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County. He sought the training acumen of a world-class ultra marathoner, Lisa Smith-Batchen. She has guided his workouts via the Internet from her home in Idaho.

"Aran is chasing his dream, and I'm going to help him every step of the way," Smith-Batchen said. "If you can dream it, you can do it."

Her protege is a realist. "I'm still facing a steep hill," said Gordon, a vice president of T. Rowe Price. The Baltimore Marathon is his first competitive event since an April 2000 race in London. He has run the New York Marathon eight times and the Marine Corps Marathon on five occasions. It was in Washington that he posted his best time (2 hours, 50 minutes).

Never before, he said, was he as giddy with anticipation as he appeared Thursday while jogging through the leafy streets of Homeland, near his house.

"I'll feel like a 6-year-old on Christmas morning," he said of awakening today. "This distance does something magical to your mind. It takes you places you don't get to go in everyday life."

Where he finishes is irrelevant, said Gordon. "You don't have to be a champion. I've never trained to win.

"But there's no question in my mind that I will finish with my backpack on. That is not an option."

Running Festival

What: The fourth Baltimore Running Festival.

When: Today. Marathon start: 8 a.m. Team relay start: 8 a.m. 5K start: 8:30 a.m. Fun run start: 9:20 a.m. Half-marathon start: 9:45 a.m.

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