- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"Do you ever think, 'God, racing through back roads in Hawaii, what a comedown for an Olympic marathoner'?"
"No," I said. "It isn't a comedown. The imperatives are the same in any race. I get in a situation like this one with John, and I don't think of anything but what is necessary to have a chance to win. Then afterward I'm as amazed as you at what we're doing. Especially the destructiveness of the pace." He didn't seem much comforted.
Extrapolation kept right on going for me that evening, expanding to include foreshadowings of later years, of age. I had a career's experience of gauging levels of tiredness to summon for decisions in this race. But what would I call on to know whether it was better to kick and bite against the onset of decline or to accept it?
As an Olympian, had I ever regarded my running as an affirmation of vigor and youth, a denying of death? No. It had been a chase. The thrill was in improvement, in a discipline that was difficult. If there was defiance then, it was that I ran to set myself at a distance from the compromising mass. That aloofness was characteristic, but I was too full of life to think that I was opposing death. Death was myth.
Day 6 was 21 miles over the steepest hills we would run on Oahu. McCormack started slowly. I led by 200 yards at four miles, impressed at the good a night's sleep could do. But within a mile he came past, Krichko with him, at what seemed five-minute pace. I couldn't stay with them. The hills were making my legs worse. They beat me by six minutes through a cool rain. I finished in a sour, desolate mood. McCormack had the lead on elapsed time and he seemed to be growing stronger every day. I knew I was not. I had to forcibly remind myself that there were 12 running days left; one could not make partial-surrender statements so early, even to oneself.
Later, walking the Kualoa Park, once a region sacred to Hawaiians, a city of refuge for the hunted of the island's other districts, I found myself considering the athlete's way of keeping hopeful, of ignoring the odds. In competition you suspend disbelief. You go hard all the way when opponents seem out of range, just on the chance you'll do well.
Yet that is in contrast with dispassionate, logical behavior. Yogi Berra's "It's never over until it's over" is sheer tautology to an academic intellect. It is sacred tenet to the athlete.
Weeks later, on the radio, I would hear Goose Gossage railing profanely against sportswriters, and the worst printable thing he could think to call them was "negative." He couldn't stomach their not understanding that players had to be irrationally positive. It's the only rational way to play. He seemed right. Writers seldom understand. But neither did he acknowledge that their writing and his play are on opposite sides of that chasm referred to earlier: thought vs. action, scientific vs. partisan. It seemed in that light that he was upset at nature, furious with the only universe we know.
I loved to run with the wind. We had only 14 miles to cover on the seventh day, and I was stiff and uncoordinated, but at the four-mile water station I was done gulping first, so I led. It was a level run, with the wind pressing on our right shoulders and the sea always near. It crossed my mind that as McCormack had gone hard yesterday, it wouldn't be entirely dumb to keep some pressure on him today. He slipped back with five miles left, and my aching left thigh and calf seemed to hold steady at 5:45 pace, so I got back 45 seconds, stopping at the end of the leg beside a field of apprehensive cows.
I was groggy the next morning, heading into a 20-miler, but McCormack wasn't. I wanted it hot. It began to rain. I had to let him go after nine miles. But he only ran out to a 200-yard lead, then hung there. The sun came out. I caught him through Haleiwa, with 2½ miles to go. We were like boxers, punched out in the late rounds. I couldn't get away from him. He couldn't get away from me. We finished together in 2:01.