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Monday should have been the 124th running of the Boston Marathon. Thirty-one thousand runners were registered to line up in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, for the start.
Instead over this past weekend, one man, a writer who's never before been a serious runner, stood outside his parents' home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, intending to run a marathon of his own.
He had no idea if anyone would come out to cheer him on, but he knew he had trained hard for this moment, and he wasn't going to let it pass him by.
John U. Bacon shared his story with Only A Game:
KG: Let's actually start at the beginning of this story, and that's on the day of your 55th birthday. What did you discover on that day?
JUB: That was July 3, 2019, and what I discovered, Karen, since you had to ask: You put your feet on that scale, and it flashes back "205." Now, to put this in context: I'm 5-foot-8. That was 40 pounds over my coaching weight — not my playing weight, Karen; my coaching weight.
"You realize, 'Look, am I going to observe my kid growing up, or am I going to be part of that?' ... This was a wake-up call.John U. Bacon
I was eating about as mindfully as a raccoon tearing through your garbage at midnight. On deadlines — and you know about those, of course — you put some Diet Cokes and a pack of Oreo Double Stuf or Häagen-Dazs or whatever else, and you pound that stuff 'cause you can't take any breaks.
This is not where you want to be. And that's where I was. And I've also got a 3-year-old kid at that point, so you realize, "Look, am I going to observe my kid growing up or am I going to be part of that?" You know, "Can I run with a kid?" So this was a wake-up call.
KG: Many people when they hit their mid-50s start to think that maybe they should take up cycling or yoga or something with less impact on the joints. What made you decide that this was the time to become a serious runner?
JUB: And they're right, by the way. I knew that I needed some crazy, scary goal to really motivate me. Daniel Burnham, the architect of Chicago, of course, in the 1890s said, "Make no small plans. They lack the power to stir men's blood." And so I was going to scare the hell out of myself, and how [better] to do that than the world's greatest race, the Boston Marathon? Many far better athletes than I have fallen at that race. Let's do that. Why not?
KG: I gotta think if I were gonna pick something to be my first marathon, I think I would choose a race that doesn't have something called the "Heartbreak Hill."
JUB: I didn't think it all the way through.
KG: OK, so you had some help getting ready for this big, scary goal. Tell me about those first few runs with Ron Warhurst. And first of all, we should probably mention that Ron is 76 years old.
JUB: That's right. Ronnie's a two-time Purple Heart recipient from Vietnam — he volunteered for that after graduating from college. He started coaching Michigan in 1973, the cross country team at the University of Michigan — 18 Big Ten titles in 40 years. And one of his star runners is Greg Meyer, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion. So, I needed help, and I got grossly overqualified assistance.
KG: So you got Ron, and you went running with Ron. And at first did you have trouble keeping up with Ron?
JUB: Yes, I did. Ronnie is 21 years my senior, and he had to wait for me repeatedly. A two-mile loop — I had to stop two, three, four times; walk, catch my breath, grab a tree. This was horrible. You would not have bet on me at this time. And many of my friends and my students at Michigan — I teach there on the side — they all pretty much bet against me doing this.
KG: Well, over time you lost weight, your runs got longer, they got faster. What did it feel like to actually be accomplishing this goal?
JUB: I gotta tell you, I could say in the first week, "I'm in horrible shape. I've got a million bad habits. But, I ran three times this week, two miles each. I am getting better." Ronnie Warhurst, man, God bless him. He said, "Man, don't focus on what anyone else is doing because everyone else out there is doing more than you are. Just put your shoes on. Everything else takes care of itself."
KG: So you worked your way up to 20 miles and then on March 13, the Boston Marathon was postponed to September 14 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That news couldn't have come as a surprise. But what was the most immediate emotion you felt when the announcement was made?
JUB: It was heartbreaking. Truly. Because there is nothing like Boston. I'm sorry. New York's great, Chicago's great, you know, Berlin and London and so on, but they're not Boston. So what do you do? Do you quit? Do you go back to eating [Oreo] Double Stufs? And one look at the mirror, my wife and my son, I realized I'm not — I cannot go back. I have to look forward, not backwards. But still what do you do? And on one of my runs through Ann Arbor, my hometown, it occurred to me: This is what I do.
"On one of my runs through Ann Arbor, my hometown, it occurred to me: This is what I do."John U. Bacon
I'm going to start at my parents' house. I'm going to run past everything I care about: my junior high school and my favorite ponds and ballparks, you name it. I don't have, you know, half a million screaming spectators. The students at Wellesley are not going to kiss me. So what do you do? I needed these memories to keep me going, and I put the word out there, but I did not think anybody was going to show up.
KG: Who and what were you expecting to find along the route?
JUB: Not much. I knew that a few of my friends were gonna meet me at a few different junctures, hop on their bikes and be, you know, a safe distance apart. But that was five or 10 people in the course of 26 miles. And in my case, that's five hours, by the way.
KG: One person per hour.
JUB: Not quite half a million spectators, is it? I hope they're loud and enthusiastic.
KG: Well, I mean, yeah. Were you worried about that? Because for a lot of people who run marathons, and Boston especially, it's the energy of the crowd that pushes them through.
JUB: Absolutely. Look, I've interviewed Bill Rodgers at length, and Greg Meyer, of course, my coach, has told me all about it. They said, "Look. Don't worry about Heartbreak Hill. You'll never stop there. They will not let you, you know. You get past that, you're going to make it." So, yeah, I was uncertain, at best.
KG: All right, so take me to the start.
JUB: The starting line — we picked a strip of tar and a crack of the asphalt in front of my parents' house. My dad was in his car in the driveway to watch me with his mask on. My mom was on the street with her mask on. Neighbors came out with their masks with the COVID spacing, of course. My wife was there with my son. A few friends showed up just to cheer me leaving. And a couple I know were there to run with me the first four or five miles or so.
KG: All right. So tell me about some of the people you saw along the way.
JUB: It happened right away. I was running down the hill from my parents' house about a quarter mile. One of my old buddies, Brian Weisman, was there outside of his house. Passed the Benedeks' house. They're in their 80s — my friend's parents. I spent countless sleepovers at that home. They've got a sign up there saying, "Go Nocab Nhoj!" That's John Bacon backwards, which they called me 40 years ago. Have not heard that since. You know, a block later, Keith and Anita Severence. A block later Paul and Michelle Barnett. And it just kept going like this.
Went up to Clague Junior High School. Bob Cope was my baseball coach there. We've stayed in touch, but I hadn't seen him in years. He's got Alzheimer's. His wife is taking care of him. It's not too far yet, but we've been trying to get together for a few months now, actually. And of course the virus ended that. And as I'm running up — as I'm running up to Clague Junior High School, I'm seeing Bob there with his wife, Lisa, and a sign. And he's not talking, but he's red-eyed, and now I'm red-eyed, and I stopped. And you can't get out of Boston. But, dammit, tell me now I'm going to tell him at the end of the day that I didn't finish? You're going to finish. And that's mile four or five. You can't stop now. You cannot stop.
KG: Tell me about the people playing bagpipe music.
JUB: That was mile 24. I was OK through mile 20 doing about 11-minute miles, which for me is fine. After that, man, my left knee was hurting. My right hip was hurting. Every step is pound, pound, pound. It's just — you would not do this in any other situation, I don't think. You'd stop.
I know they're going to be there. They told me they're going to be. This is [for] Barney Klein, great friend of mine who died last year at age 56 of pancreatic cancer. And I emceed his service. His wife is there with their 20-year-old and 17-year-old sons, and they're playing the bagpipes because that's what we always played for tailgates and so on at Barney's house. Barney loved them. We played those. The last time I heard them was at Barney's funeral, so that gets you.
And they also had laid out shots, which we would normally drink on a tailgate. I said, "No, thank you." There are a lot of reasons I might blow this in the last two miles, but that can't be one of them. But that, I mean, how does that not get you? It hammers home, as corny as it sounds: This is a statement of life. We're not guaranteed anything. We know that now — with all these COVID deaths and so on — as we ever have. But you know, Barney was a perfectly healthy guy and he's gone at 56. So, if you are alive, do something, man. Put the damn shoes on.
Now, look. At Boston, of course, it's Hereford to Boylston, right? It's famous. And I was looking forward to that. Well in Ann Arbor, going Miller to Miner to Fountain is not quite the same. But, when we made that final turn onto Fountain, the cowbell starts and you hear 'em and I can see about 15, 20 friends spread out — a lot of folks in their car to be safe.
And we hit it 15 feet before the finish line, which looks like toilet paper in the photos. Toilet paper is way too precious. It was drywall tape. And I can see my wife holding one half of the drywall tape. I see my son, and you know, I'm slogging along. My feet are barely leaving the ground. I'm technically running, I guess, but there it is. But there it is.
KG: What did that moment mean to you?
JUB: It meant a lot more than I expected. You've changed your life. You've made a commitment to your family to do better. And your friends. I was shocked to see so many people there, stunned that this mattered to them — that, amidst all this bad news, my stupid stubbornness to keep going seemed to help people.
And by the time we're done, we estimated we probably passed a hundred people. I was expecting five or 10. Then you kind of realize just how thirsty everybody is right now for any good news, for any sense of connection. And as one of my friends pointed out — Adam Was, one of my former hockey players — he said, "With all due respect, Coach, you're the only game in town."
KG: You started this whole thing so that you'd be healthy enough to play with your son. But when you crossed that finish line, after five and a half hours, you didn't have enough energy left to race him down the street. Have you recovered enough to keep up with a 4 year old?
JUB: So he crushed me that first run. But I'm telling you this right now, Karen: two days after all this happened, we're running around the backyard exactly as I had dreamed a year ago and, doggone it: I not only beat him, he had to stop and catch his breath. So, hey, score one for Daddy.
John U. Bacon is hoping to write a book about his marathon experience. And if the Boston Marathon grants him a bib number for September, John says he will run.
This segment aired on April 25, 2020.
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