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Fletcher's plan had worked. He'd been strong since Atlanta: in Dallas, Tulsa, Arroyo Grande, Calif., Gulfport, Miss. In Houston on Jan. 16 he ran a 2:56, and there was no thought of quitting. He did another 2:56 in Tucson. Then there was a three-hour flat clocking in Orange, Calif., a 2:56 in Las Vegas, a 3:04 in Palm Springs and a 3:02 in Phoenix. From Jan. 1 to Aug. 6, when he ran 3:31 at the tough Crater Lake Rim Marathon in Oregon, he finished in less than 3:10 in 27 out of 32 races. He ran the Boston Marathon, for which he has qualified the past six years, in an admirable 2:55.
Four hours and 12 minutes into the Pikes Peak race, about three miles down from the summit, Fletcher fell again. Meanwhile, the race's winner (3:39:50), 29-year-old Creighton King of Alta, Utah, was already telling spectators below that the secret of running downhill is not to let your feet spend much time on the ground. Fletcher was too heavy-footed. A protruding rock got him. He plunged forward onto the gravel of the trail and came up with a bloody left elbow.
But there was no stopping Fletcher now. "That was a good one," he said mildly as he clambered to his feet. The miles rolled by, pine forest replacing the scrub fir and the thin air becoming rich and warm. He spoke little. Perhaps he was weary. Or maybe he was just remembering: running in snow in Ontario; doing hill workouts at the only upslope in Houston, the ramp of the 10-story parking garage of the Marriott Hotel; wearing his rain jacket—a plastic garbage bag—for all but the last 385 yards of a race aptly named the Mad Anthony Wayne Marathon, in Wayne. N.J.; running the Houston-Tenneco race on what felt like a terrible blister and then finding out at the finish that the "blister" was three safety pins he had put in his shoe a week earlier for safekeeping; driving 2,750 miles in one week from the Paul Bunyan Marathon in Bangor, Maine to the Deseret News Marathon in Salt Lake City; fighting off colds at the Kansas City and Galveston, Texas races, and the flu at Rock Island, Ill., where he nonetheless ran a 3:04; leading the other 10 runners in the Rock Valley ( Iowa) marathon, which he'd persuaded the race director not to cancel because it was the only marathon in the country that week, only to be passed at 24 miles, and beaten by a minute; and groggily helping coach his middle daughter, Julie, 26, through her Lamaze breathing the night after the Galveston Marathon while another daughter raced to the airport for Julie's husband while his first grandchild (a boy) was being born.
Fletcher wasn't out to set records with his year's odyssey. Jay Helgerson of Berkeley, Calif. had run 52 marathons in as many weeks in 1979, and a fanatical runner, Don Nierling, who later changed his name to Don Marathon, had run up an even longer skein—57 races in 47 weeks. "I'm not obsessed," Fletcher said once when shown a newspaper story about him that had maintained just that. But he's obstinate. "He's always had a determination to him," Lou Ann says. "When he took up sailing he built a sailboat. When he decided it was time that we should have children, we had three girls in 33 months. He will be running when he is 90 years old."
It sometimes took more determination for Fletcher to find and reach a scheduled marathon than to run it. Once, when Lou Ann wanted to spend a week with their daughters, Fletcher and Nierling traveled halfway across the country in Nierling's 1969 Cadillac hearse to the weekend's only race. The two men alternated driving and sleeping in the back, but in the interest of economy, Nierling refused to drive the hearse faster than 50 miles an hour. Actually matters proceeded at a slower pace than that because Nierling's speedometer was a bit optimistic in its readings. "Can you imagine," Fletcher had said, "driving all the way from Oklahoma to California and back and never passing anything?"
That's not how Fletcher drives—or runs. On a brief uphill in the plummeting Pikes Peak downhill, about five miles from home, Fletcher slowed to a walk. "It's tough," he said abruptly. It was so unusual for him to complain that the journalist at his heels looked at him with concern. "Do you hurt anywhere?" the reporter asked.
"No," Fletcher said, his lower lip a hard line of resolve. "Just fatigue." The air was hot now, and grasshoppers clattered among flowers off the trail. In dappled sunshine the trail glittered with fool's gold. Fletcher walked a few more paces and then caught sight of another racer ahead. That racer was also walking. Fletcher broke into a jog, then a run. He passed the racer. He didn't slow again.
He came down the last switchbacks, running hard, passing younger men. He was running toward a fine time—5:17:52, good for 153rd out of 569 finishers and third in his age group. Below waited his horde—Lou Ann, the daughters with their husbands, and his mother and mother-in-law, all wearing BOB FLETCHER T shirts. Upon his finishing, they would pour champagne over his head to his great dismay and then, more to his liking, present him with a can of Lone Star beer preserved in a plastic bag full of ice. His 51st birthday would be in 11 days, by which time he'd be home, resting and beginning a book about the year, Spaghetti Every Friday.
What's next? A masters meet was coming up, he had said before the Pikes Peak Marathon, and he might train for that. Perhaps there was an event on the track that would inspire Fletcher? The hard grind of the 10,000 meters? The tough mental shifts of the steeplechase?
"Maybe the 100-yard dash," he said briskly. "I've always thought I had more speed than endurance."