In September 1970, Dad died. I, an only child, crashed. He was my alpha and omega. After a wild week of dying, when he left I was devastated. I lost it. I couldn’t think or sleep, eat or function . Yes, Dad was my parent, but he was also my medical colleague. We shared patients. We wrote papers together. We lectured together. I recall vividly the talk that we gave to the plebes at West Point in 1958 about the principles of a long healthy life. It was a huge kick. We golfed together, we read together. We were great friends. Together with Mother the three of us went to the Saturday night concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra with Ormandy for all of my childhood.
Dad was also my hero. He fought with the Marines as a regimental surgeon on Iwo Jima. He became the youngest president of the AMA in 1947. He was a co-founder of the AARP with Ethel Percy Andrus, who provided the fiscal platform. Father provided a biologic framework. Dad was a precocious geriatrician. I became a geriatrician as a legacy.
I was a mess after he died but somewhere recalled that running was a great therapy for depression. It was even claimed that no depression could withstand a 10-mile run. So I started to run at age 40. I’d always played sports in high school and college but running was not on my resume. I am slow, glacially slow, but that did not deter me from aspiring to run the Boston Marathon — that was the only athletic event of world class in which an amateur could participate. It was the last year in which a qualifying time was not necessary.
So I put on my shorts, sneakers, and T-shirt and started chugging around the block. My depression lifted immediately. I finished in five hours and five minutes, as they were taking down the bleachers.
Now, 44 years later, not only did I do that first Boston, but have continued with an annual marathon ever since Dad died, 44 consecutively.
Every Wednesday I run 3 miles, 3 miles on Friday, and 10 on Sunday, except more when anticipating a marathon. My jogs have become my religion.
I have now run Boston many times, New York, Athens, London, the Gold Coast in Australia, Limerick. Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dublin, and Big Sur, my favorite. I have finished every one with three exceptions. The first failure was way back in the 1970s when our 17-year-old son, now Dr. Walter M. Bortz IV, ran. He is one of those whose feet don’t seem to hit the ground. I run like I have army boots on. It was a cold, dank day. Walter finished in a little over 2.5 hours, and I labored hours behind. I reckoned that I was so slow that it was cruel to keep him languishing awaiting my late arrival. So I bagged it.
My second non-finish was in Beijing, China 2008. I started together with tens of thousands of young Chinese in Tiananmen Square beneath Mao’s tomb. I was chugging merrily along until at half way some officials blocked my passage. “You are too slow” was their command, so I was left there in the center of Beijing in my underpants with no further indication of where to go. So I grabbed a cab to the hotel, disappointed, but what the hell?
My third non-finish was last year, 2013, the year of the bomb. I was smilingly on my way, anticipating a 7.5 hour finish, on Heartbreak Hill at mile 21 when the police tape became my finish line. “Boston is closed. No one in and and no one out,” came the bullhorn. Hundreds of other stragglers were herded into the Newton City Hall where we struggled to find out what this rumor of a bomb was about. Ruth Anne followed several miles behind.
But that was last year. What about now? Now at age 84, 44 years after Dad died, I am totally committed to running. It is my religion, my positive addiction. I have slowed markedly. Last year I visited Oxford where I had the opportunity to run on Bannister’s track where he broke the 4-minute barrier. It took me 18 minutes. Roger would have lapped me four times.
I have never been swift, but now I fear that darkness may happen before my finish. I have tried to outrun my aging. My good friend Ron Clarke, legendary Aussie runner, observed that the race of life goes not to the person who starts out fast, but to the one who slows down last.
My ego bruise at my slowness encroaching on my annual marathon record is a powerful signal, not to stop, but instead to have a more modest goal.
Accordingly, in four weeks I will run my first half-marathon across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. If this goes well as I am confident it will I can embrace the half-marathon as my target for the next 16 years.
After that, who knows?
I will negotiate that later.
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