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About a mile down from the summit of Pikes Peak, near the water tank airlifted in by the Army to save the lives of the runners, Robert Fletcher fell among the rocks. While bounding down the trail he tripped and crashed as if shot, tumbling forward on his right shoulder and rolling into a gap between red-brown granite boulders. He lay still for a second, breathing hard, as if using his remarkable force of will to pull his battered body back into a functioning unit. Then, to the surprise of onlookers, who were preparing to call stretcher-bearers down from the Cirque aid station above, he bounded to his feet and took off down the trail, his GREATER HOUSTON singlet now stained with red dust and one bare shoulder scraped, but his reckless pace undiminished.
"Did you like that one?" he asked a journalist who was running the final leg of the Pikes Peak Marathon with him. Between gasps for breath in the thin air at 13,000 feet, the reporter muttered anxiously, "Don't show me any more." It was a wish in vain. Fletcher is a 51-year-old instruments engineer whose low-key, gentle demeanor is utterly deceiving. He didn't attain his distinction as a runner by being cautious.
At the 28th running of the 28.2-mile Pikes Peak "marathon," on Aug. 21, Fletcher was putting his cap on a year notable for its bold determination. In the 50 weeks since he'd turned half a century old, Fletcher, who took up running in 1968 and completed his first marathon in 1977, had marked that sobering anniversary by running 50 marathons, just because, as he repeatedly told reporters, he loves to run. At Pikes Peak, on the 51st weekend, he was flouting everyone else's certainty that his aged body must have become a whimpering, quivering wreck, by dramatically concluding one of the world's most brutal footraces.
Fletcher's 51st year had started pleasantly, with a swift 2:54 at the Black Hills Marathon in South Dakota, a time that would be his fastest of the year and that earned him the first of 19 victories in his brand-new age group. He followed with a 3:52 in the heat in La Pointe, Wis., but recovered to run 3:10 and 3:06 in Marquette, Mich. and Chicago, respectively. He and Lou Ann, his cheerful wife, had left their Houston house on Aug. 29, 1982, a few days before Fletcher's 50th birthday, traveling in a Ford van they had customized themselves. Lou Ann cooked beans, rice and tortillas for what Fletcher fondly calls his Third World diet and bought bananas by the case. Robert eats three to five a day for the potassium; Lou Ann always carries a couple for him in her purse. Before he took up running and bananas, the 5'11" Fletcher weighed more than 200 pounds and, Lou Ann recalls, "ate 16-ounce steaks." He says, "I had a little life-style change." Now he weighs 155.
Except for a constant supply of running shoes from Nike, the Fletchers were on their own. They dipped into their savings, sticking to a budget of less than $20,000 for the year. They visited motels and restaurants rarely; Pikes Peak was an exception. While dining out there, Fletcher ordered salmon with no sauce, potato with no butter, and salad with no dressing. Detecting the waitress' alarm at such austerity, he looked up at her with his wide blue eyes and said, "It's a heart condition."
In a way, that was true. It took a lot of heart to get through the late months of 1982. Fletcher claims that all this running has taught him how to sense the incline of even a pool table, and after the first month of his yearlong trek all roads began to seem uphill. Fletcher ran 3:10 in Detroit on Oct. 3 and then ballooned to 3:50 the next weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Although he was pampering his legs between races by taking two days off and running short (about five miles), easy workouts, it was still a strain to run a 3:13 in Buffalo, a 3:05 in Richmond, a 3:26 in Jackson, Tenn. and a 3:23 on Nov. 7 in Kansas City, Mo. After only 10 of the planned 50 races, he seemed to be tiring.
Each week Lou Ann asked, "Do you want to go on?" and each week she got a "yes." But on Nov. 21 in Birmingham, Ala. after he'd run a dismal 3:27, she recalls, "I got about a 'maybe.' "
" Birmingham was the low point," Fletcher says. After that grueling and entirely unsatisfactory race, there was quiet talk of carrying through until Jan. 16 for the Houston-Tenneco Marathon—in which he had run his personal record of 2:46:47 in 1981—and then gracefully retiring. Maybe a marathon a week was too much work for an aging body.
Thanksgiving changed all that. Marathons demand intervening rest, an axiom that Fletcher was bending at what appeared to be great cost. But now he shattered the rule completely. On Thanksgiving, just four days after the Birmingham race, he ran in the Atlanta Marathon. Surprisingly, he did a 3:14, good for fourth in his age group, and felt stronger than he had in weeks. Could it possibly have been that instead of wearing out his legs, he'd been giving them too much rest? That night he and Lou Ann went in search of a turkey feast but had to settle for Chicken McNuggets. Even that didn't dampen his resolve. During dinner he decided to begin training hard between races.
The week before Pikes Peak was typical of the regimen he maintained after Atlanta: On the previous Sunday he'd run 3:03 in his 50th marathon at Fort Davis, Texas. (Not counting Pikes Peak, his average for 50 marathons was 3:08.) On Monday he'd done an 11-mile workout. On Tuesday he'd run 12 miles. On Wednesday he'd gone five easy miles in the morning and that afternoon, while passing through Odessa, Texas, had stopped at a track and run eight hard 440-yard sprints in 95� heat. On Thursday he'd done a gentle five, the last training before the Sunday race.