Finding my stride, one step at a time

Last November, I struggled - half walking, half running - to complete the Long Beach (Calif.) Marathon. I was exhausted but determined to finish. It was probably my last marathon, after half a lifetime of them, and in my laboring footsteps I still heard clear echoes of my first.

Running for fun was not an easy concept for me - or for the rest of the civilized world, back in 1968 - but when the Army forced me to begin, I discovered that it suited me. I ran alone, for fitness and pleasure, down the back roads of Korea, Vietnam, and, in 1973, Tehran, Iran.

Word traveled fast in those days that someone so odd as a runner had arrived in town, and not long after arriving, I was confronted in the US Embassy cafeteria by a very fit-looking, friendly, and fast-talking navy officer, obviously a fellow runner.

But apparently John Butterfield, the US naval attache, was a different species of runner entirely - one who lived for long miles and competition in road races. In the face of his enthusiasm, my initial response was no doubt polite, but noncommittal. I was not that type of runner. But perhaps....

Under John's tutelage, my total weekly miles increased, speed work and hill repeats grew commonplace. Physical fitness was just a minor byproduct of the increasingly tough workouts.

John and his wife, Priscilla, formed the Iran Roadrunners Club - a motley crew of Americans, Germans, British, Australians, and Iranians - which added weekend races to our routine. When we didn't race, we ran for fun, the group always protecting Priscilla and other female runners from Iranian drivers in passing cars. Dressed inappropriately by Iranian standards, the women risked being run down.

In the early mornings, we ran to the unearthly sound of the call to prayer, broadcast from every mosque in Tehran. We passed bread shops and through the windows saw the bakers with their shirts off, dripping sweat as they loaded bread dough on paddles into round, glowing ovens. We ran with wild dogs, which seemed to see us as fellow travelers and outcasts.

Once, we even ran to conduct surveillance. Tehran University had been shut down, armed military surrounded the campus, and no one could get near it. The leadership in Washington, D.C., wanted to know why. John and I donned our running gear and set out toward the university.

Sure enough, the military had not been told what to do about two foreign runners, so they did nothing, while we ran around the campus and observed. We returned to the embassy with a full report.

I should have known that the next goal would be a marathon - the first ever to be held in Iran. My wife would not hear of it. Not only was she afraid I couldn't do it, she didn't understand why anyone would want to. I agreed with her; I was not that type of runner. But perhaps....

As the race drew nearer, I was more and more tempted to try. John, who for many years had never missed the Boston Marathon and had run in the Olympic trials, assured me I could complete it.

The morning of March 10, 1974, I told my wife that I planned to run only part of the distance. I gave my car keys to a friend and asked him to meet me at the 10-mile mark. The field was small, fewer than 20 runners, and the first to drop out at five miles were the US Marine Corp security guards at the US Embassy. I labored on.

Coming up on 10 miles, there was my friend, leaning against my car. Salvation, and yet - I decided to run another five miles. I drank some water and kept going.

Five miles later I again continued on.

Finally, nearing the end, I began to flag. The few miles ahead of me seemed much more difficult than the many I had already covered. Then I saw John running toward me. He had finished the race and now was running the race route in reverse to encourage those of us still on the course.

He grabbed a sprinkler and sprayed me, and fed me orange slices, which I gratefully ate. He ran with me, refusing to leave until I assured him I would finish.

Finally, I crossed the finish line - 26.2 miles in approximately 3 hours and 35 minutes (I did not record my actual time).

After the race, the Iranian track and field officials made it clear that they did not want any more "marathons" to be held; old losses apparently remained bitter.

In 490 BC, the Greek army defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, and the legendary Pheidippides carried news of the Greek victory by running from Marathon to Athens. We were told that in the future we could only hold a "42 kilometer long distance race."

But I still know that in 1973, I finished my first marathon - and Iran's, too.

The race was run again the following year, the second and last time, and I also finished that one. I went on to run in 39 marathons - finishing 37, including Long Beach. John and Priscilla still compete in local races in and around their hometown.

Will I enter another marathon? Probably not, but perhaps....

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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