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.
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.
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
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
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?
100-yard dash," he said briskly. "I've always thought I had more speed