Datong: "Marathon Man, Part 1: Boston"

The snow in Luoyang never let up. I was lucky to get a seat on a train east to Zhengzhou where the airport was open. I flew back to Beijing. The weather in Beijing was clear so I made a side trip to Datong.

Shanxi Province

January 23, 2008

Dear Family, Friends and Runners Everywhere,

Did you know that Jan was a Marathon Man? Yes, it's true. Many years ago, my "salad days" coincided with the Running Explosion that erupted after the American runner Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich. I was one of the millions of insufferable, "I-own-the-road" joggers who clogged the streets and sidewalks of every city and town.

During my jogging "career" I entered a number of short 10 kilometer road-races, several half-marathons and six official marathons (26mi 385yd, 42.1km).

The most exciting race was in New York City in early October. The organizers arranged to have The New York City Marathon touch all five Boroughs – all five political-geographical areas of The City.

We began in Staten Island and crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge over Upper New York Bay into Brooklyn; then through Brooklyn to cross the Pulaski Bridge over the Newtown Creek into Queens; then across the Queensboro 59th Street Bridge over the East River into Manhattan and up First Avenue; then across the Willis Avenue Bridge over the Harlem River to The Bronx; then across the Madison Avenue Bridge over the Harlem River back into Manhattan and down Fifth Avenue to Central Park; then down the length of the park to finish at the Tavern on the Green restaurant.

I started the NYC Marathon along with the champion, Bill Rogers, and ten thousand other runners. But when Bill crossed the finish line in Manhattan, nine thousand of us were still groaning and wheezing in Brooklyn. Thousands of cheering fans lined the streets so we were motivated to keep on jogging and run through the pain. At the finish line, we collapsed into the embrace of a glorious welcome. We all won a precious medal.

(I wore the medal that evening. A fellow New Yorker came up to me, checked out the medal and commented as only an honest New Yorker would dare, “You know you look pretty good for an older man.” I was thirty-eight at the time.)

I ran my personal best marathon of just under four hours in the Orange Bowl Marathon in Miami. In a second Orange Bowl Marathon I ran with my father. He ran twenty miles at the age of sixty-two.

I had my best time for twenty miles (three hours) in the San Diego Marathon, a race I entered on impulse since I was there on a business trip. Fortunately, the hotel had a Jacuzzi.

For all of the races I trained in my suburban neighborhood outside Philadelphia. I left my home on appropriately named Red Coat Lane and jogged through the gentle hills of Valley Forge National Historical Park. The circuit around the park was six miles (10k) which was a "walk in the park" for me. Serious training demanded at least two and sometimes three circuits.

Valley Forge Park was the perfect place for jogging and I am grateful that I lived so close by. My companions were the Revolutionary War canons and the dug-into-the-hillside soldiers’ huts. I also took some beautiful runs in downtown Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River. My companions were the university boat houses and the smooth gliding rowing crews.

When I moved to Boston, I decided to run The Boston Marathon the following April. The schedule meant that I would need to train all winter in New England.

Now, what does all this marathon business have to do with the price of tea in China?

This morning, as I walked across the frozen tarmac of the airport in Datong, China, a booming industrial and coal mining town on the southern flank of Inner Mongolia, what popped into my brain that is attached to my frozen face was the memory of the preparation for the Boston Marathon.

Can you imagine my training regime during the winter months in the frigid countryside of New England?

Get up at 05:00. Dress with several layers. Warm up and stretch the muscles. Hit the snowy back roads for an hour's run in the dark. The temperature is below freezing and your face is exposed.

Here's what happens: The mucus lining in your nostrils begins to solidify. The tears on your eyeballs don't freeze of course, but it feels cold anyway. Then your teeth react. Discomfort radiates from your front teeth into your gums. The silver or gold in your molars absorbs the pre-dawn winter air. Agony spreads into your jaw. You slide your tongue across your incisors but it doesn't help. Finally, after about ten minutes your muscles warm up and that relieves the pain in your teeth and mouth.

Did I mention that I wore a full beard? Here's what happens. Your whiskers freeze. Then the warm moisture from your nostrils condenses as it passes through the whiskers. In a few minutes, your black beard and mustache turn white with caked ice.

Scientists tell us that of all the five senses, smell is the most important sense for memory. For example when I wander through a pine forest, I immediately recall the warm summer adolescent days in Boy Scout Camp. Here in Datong and the frozen atmosphere of Mongolia, the olfactory nerves in my frozen nostrils were stimulated and activated.

I stepped out of the airplane and onto the stairs leading down to the tarmac of tiny Datong Airport.

I drew a breath.

I remembered Boston.


Marathon Jan (ret)

PS My marathon times were never fast enough to qualify as an official entrant in the Boston Marathon. Along with hundreds of others, I simply started at the back of the pack in Hopkinton as a barely-tolerated unofficial also-ran. Twenty miles later, in Newton, on Heartbreak Hill, my heart was truly broken when I decided that a modest walk to the finish line at the Prudential Center would be more...prudent.

In case you are counting: I finished two New York City Marathons, two Miami-Orange Bowl Marathons, one San Diego Marathon and one Boston Marathon.

If for some reason you don’t believe me, you can check the “morgue” at The Miami Herald. My picture appeared (with running shorts, tee shirt, and Nike Waffle Trainers) in several editions. And I have a Certificate too!


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