I Was the Last Official Finisher of the Philadelphia Marathon
I’ve always wanted to accomplish something on the scale of a Greek hero. Problem is, I don’t exactly have the body, skill set, or mental toughness of a Greek hero.
My twin brother does possess those qualifications. And there’s always been this contrast between us: In Little League, he batted second, and I batted 13th — on our dad’s team. In high school, he competed in varsity basketball; I competed in varsity Model United Nations.
But he’s always been generous with his physical gifts. I often think that when we were sperm, there’s no way I possibly could have come anywhere near matching his speed to the ovary. He must’ve communicated something like, “Look. Just latch on to one of my buff flagella and let me take us both to victory.”
When we turned 31 last June, I knew that my time to achieve something great with this uncoordinated body of mine was running out. Suddenly, I had a crazy thought. “I’m going to run the Philadelphia Marathon,” I decided. “All I have to do is keep going for 26 miles, and I’ll finally have my moment.”
So I signed up and began to train. Friends and family provided invaluable advice. I bought expensive running shoes, read a few blogs by Hal Higdon, and even spoke personally with Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run.
Being a teacher, training became much more difficult when the school year began, because, well, sleep.
And I have asthma.
And it got chilly.
Then, last week, the day of the race came.
Race Day: My Philadelphia Marathon Story
I started the race with my friend Theresa, who suggested I prepare a mantra for myself for the times when I would fade. She told me hers was: “My mind is strong. My body is strong. My heart is strong.” I decided on: “Dear God, please let me finish. Or at least not die. Amen.”
The run began okay, but I quickly became demoralized when, at about the third mile, I noticed a man with a sign that read “Two Knee Replacements.” On his back. Because he was passing me. In that irrational anger that sometimes descends upon me when I’m out of breath, I muttered, “Show off.”
However, at about mile six, my brother came out to meet me and provide advice. “Run for a song and then walk for a song,” he suggested. While I “ran,” he was able to keep pace by walking alongside me. We continued like this for the next seven miles.
As we approached the end of the half marathon, he asked me if I was sure if I wanted to continue. I’d get a medal for finishing the half marathon. It had already been three hours and 20 minutes. “I can do it,” I said.
Suddenly, the huge happy-go-lucky crowd of runners that had surrounded me a moment ago veered right toward the finish line for the half marathon, while I turned left to head out toward Manayunk on Kelly Drive. I was on my own.
At around mile 17, I began to have trouble bending my legs to run. I also noticed a van about a mile behind me with blinking headlights. I asked about it. “That’s the lag bus,” a fellow marathoner informed me. “It picks up anyone not on pace to finish the marathon within seven hours.”
I suddenly grew frightened at the prospect of not finishing the marathon. If every Greek hero has a tragic flaw, mine was not realizing that marathons have a time limit.
At mile 21, I was freezing and everything hurt. Suddenly, a cyclist named John, who was riding an inverted tricycle, pulled up next to me. “Steve, right? You are now officially the last runner in the marathon.”
I looked behind me, and sure enough, there it was: the lag bus. “They have to let me finish!” I shouted at no one in particular. The man on the trike responded, “Well, you might have to do that on your own.” My heart sank. I couldn’t believe that I only had five miles left, and there was a real chance I wouldn’t get my medal. Everything in my body was telling me to give up, to get on that bus. So I approached the van.
“They told me I have seven hours, right?”
“You’re just barely ahead of pace.”
“Do you have water?”
He threw me a bottle, and I was off looking like the Tin Man making his way down Kelly Drive. I screamed and gesticulated at the driver of the van, who was about three feet behind me and ever-threatening to pick me up. At Mile 23 I saw the police, and asked them if they can pull the lag bus over.
Then, at Mile 24, a street cleaner pulled in front of the lag bus, and I assumed they were going to make me stop. My heart sank again. The lag bus pulled up next to me. Two miles left and they were going to make me stop.
But then, a gift. “Just keep going,” the driver told me. He had a word with the impatient street cleaner.
As I approached mile 26, I heard the announcer exclaim, “There comes a time in every race when the LAST OFFICIAL MARATHONER CROSSES THE FINISH LINE.” Mayor Nutter approached me, shook my hand, and said, “I wanted to stay until the very end.” There were a few runners who finished after me on their own, but I got to officially close out the race.
As they began to take the finish line down and commenced the clean up, I looked down at the medal with a miniature Liberty Bell in the center and began to smile. Maybe it wasn’t epic on the scale of Hercules or Perseus, and maybe it was imperfect. But isn’t the crack what we love about the Liberty Bell? This town loves an underdog, and I felt a connection with Vince Papali. And Rocky. And even Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s dance team in The Silver Linings Playbook.
Maybe, for today at least, I was a Philly hero.
Steve Clark is a sixth grade teacher and twice named Best Storyteller in Philadelphia at First Person Arts.
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