Two friendships, measured in miles

Real Life

Relationships

October 30, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Some friendships illuminate the side streets of our lives. Over the past few years, as I've explored the terrain of middle age, I've shared some of my proudest moments with my running buddies.

I have longtime friends who run, and running companions who work in the same newsroom. But training and competing has also led me to know unusual and passionate people I might never have met outside of our sport.

One finish-line photo, now four years old, tells the story of the best in both categories: An old friend who became a running mate and a stranger who has become a friend.

As the starting gun sounded for the 2001 Marathon in the Parks, I felt a particular sense of mission. This marathon, run from Rockville to Bethesda, was advertised as perfect for runners trying to land a qualifying time to compete in the Boston Marathon.

That was my current mid-life obsession. So what if I'd never been athletic in elementary school? Or high school? Or college? Or after? So what if I had spent my entire adult life at a computer, writing about others' achievements and sometimes smoking as many as three packs of cigarettes a day?

I lived in America, the Land of Reinvention. With the encouragement and camaraderie of a longtime friend, "coach" Bob Hilson - who was running this marathon with me - I had advanced in merely two years from running my first 5K to completing two marathons.

Now I was thinking about my marathon time.

And I was thinking: Four hours.

That year, completing a 26.2-mile course in four hours earned a 50-year-old woman a place at the running world's most prestigious starting line.

Bob was there to help me achieve it. The first three hours flew by, mostly a blur, dangerously ahead of schedule. Then pain caught up with us. Wooden thoughts and cement legs. A smothering curtain of fatigue. We had chosen a pace that was too ambitious at the start and now we were paying the price.

The last two miles of the race weren't pretty.

While many runners whom we had passed now left us behind, Bob remained firm that I would make my goal. I just kept plodding. Our family and friends, waiting near the finish line, watched the clock change from 3:56 to 3:57 to 3:58.

Suddenly they saw us, staggering toward them, and they began to yell. Bob reached back to pull me along.

Instead, I tripped and fell. I was 100 feet from the finish line. Bob bent down and helped me to my feet. Then, out of nowhere, a young man in an "I Love New York" T-shirt took my other arm.

Together, the three of us crossed the finish line at 3:59:55.

I was Boston-bound.

Being overwhelmed, I instantly forgot the name of the stranger who had played a major role in my personal victory. Being a reporter, I looked up the name and hometown of the man who registered my same finish time, then tracked him down to deliver a more lengthy and appropriate thanks.

It turned out that Marathon in the Parks was Dave Antonacci's first marathon, that he grew up in Long Island and that he had a high-tech statistical job that I'd never understand unless I'd had a few drinks. He was also crazy about a woman named Kristi - and worried he might get hooked on marathons. He was right about that. He ran his second only six days later, while I was still doing my best to avoid stairs.

I reminded myself that Dave was 31 - and that I wasn't. In the end, though, the only numbers that runners care about are the ones on their watches.

Since then, Dave and I have crossed paths at other marathons, keeping one another well informed of our training techniques as well as other items of interest. (For instance, Dave married his sweetheart and they are expecting their first child. Most important, he qualified for Boston '06 with a 3:11 marathon.)

I caught up with him three weeks ago when we both ran the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, Pa. - his 21st marathon, my 12th. We had important business to discuss: whether Kristi could watch him run his first Boston and still tend to an infant, and whether my husband and daughter, who had been there before, could look at colleges while I trudged toward Heartbreak Hill.

Dave had calculated that Steamtown was the fourth marathon we'd actually run in together - although never again at the same pace. Before the race, he programmed my cell phone with his cell's number so that I could find him later for a congratulations if we missed one another at the finish line. We didn't.

Now I'm saving the number for our fifth race: Boston.

linell.smith@baltsun.com

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