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Reporter's Notebook: The Last Runner

This article is more than 12 years old.
Dr. Walter Bortz, after his 40th marathon on Monday (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)
Dr. Walter Bortz, after his 40th marathon on Monday (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)

After a particularly bad day in the office battling with mutant computers to recover deleted files, I decided to walk the last mile or so of the marathon. Maybe take a picture or two. I hadn’t seen a single moment of the marathon or a single runner. There would be no Kenyans to see.

But as I rounded onto Boylston Street at about 7:30 p.m. Monday, I happened upon an elderly man listing to side, walking the last few hundred feet toward the finish line. He looked gaunt and disheveled, and I admit I paused to watch with morbid curiosity to see if the old man would make it across, alive.

As sanitation workers pulled up barricades and street sweepers scrubbed Boylston behind him, Dr. Walter Bortz completed his 40th marathon.

"I wanted to show what an organism can do this late in life."

-- Dr. Walter Bortz

Bortz laced up his running shoes for the first time after the death of his father almost 40 years ago. He was suffering from clinical depression and needed an outlet, and he has been running ever since.

As a doctor, Bortz says it’s his mission to encourage people to get out of their sedentary rut. The reason he runs is to prove that, well, it can be done.

"I wanted to show what an organism can do this late in life," Bortz said.

I didn’t know any of this as I walked down Boylston, and neither did hundreds of people who emerged from restaurants and cafes to cheer. As he walked through the canyon of high-rises, the cheers swelled and about 100 people joined him, taking pictures and offering encouragement. Funny thing is: He was completely silent.

I was ending a bad day. I’d just moved temporarily to Boston for a few weeks. Moving and changing jobs, even for a brief period, is no fun. And I was feeling detached from familiar surroundings, faces, buildings that give my life the warm hum of safety. Seeing Bortz made me feel connected to a small community, if even for a few moments.

That walk down Boylston reminded me of what makes the Boston Marathon the marathon. There are the elite runners who, through a mix of genetics, talent and hard work, can make a mockery of the 26 miles and 385 yards that killed Pheidippides. Then there’s the 80-year-old dude, who has a hard time standing upright, who sets out from Hopkinton knowing that they’ll likely be sweeping up after him.

Bortz wasn’t the last person to cross the finish line. There were other people out in the hinterlands of Newton and Brookline. But he was the last that got to go down the middle of the empty street. When Bortz finished the race, one of those giant street-sweeping Zamboni-like machines, patiently waiting, performed a dramatic and kind of scary U-turn to pick up the last of the trash dropped by 22,540 runners.

Running the marathon is partly a gimmick for Bortz. He’s got something to prove. He’s a doctor and professor who bills himself as an expert on aging. He has a website, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. That’s the world-weary wannabe swashbuckling reporter in me. But when Bortz ambled across the finish line and asked, slyly, “What’s all the commotion about?” I knew the answer, and so did all those people at sunset on Boylston.

Journalists are cynical by nature, or at least by affectation. When I act world-weary and bored, I miss the small moments. Did Bortz break a record? No. He wasn’t the first runner. He wasn’t the last runner. He wasn’t the oldest runner. He didn’t make news.

But for those few moments at sunset, he represented all the non-savants, the non-prodigies. Walter Bortz got a medal for participation, just for finishing. And sometimes finishing is enough. Especially if you have to bust your butt to do it. You probably know what that’s like. At least I do.

This program aired on April 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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