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By Patrick Letellier
"It's gonna sound like they're yelling 'Die! Die!', but I promise you they're not," said my running coach, Lori Lefkowitz, her spry form shaking with a laugh. "They're yelling 'Vai!', which means 'go' in Italian, but it sure sounds like 'Die!'"
I laughed, too, but somehow Lori's words were not reassuring. It was the night before the Florence Marathon and I was plenty nervous. Running 26.2 miles might seem like fun to some people, like those youthful, long-legged wonders from Kenya or a university track team, but not for this garden-variety 43-year-old San Franciscan who prefers books to running. Movies to running. Pork fried rice to running! And now our devoted coach was saying throngs of excited Italians were going to shout "Die!" as we ran by? Mamma mia.
I ran track in high school. In fact, as a sophomore I won an award for the "most improved" member of the team. It felt like the "Boy, were you a lost cause when the season started" award, yet it helped me, an insecure and gangly teenager, feel more comfortable in my own body and, for the first time, see myself as an athlete.
But the following year my mother, a single parent, died suddenly of a heart attack at the too-young age of 43, leaving me and my four siblings to fend mostly for ourselves. When track season began, I was working every day after school and on weekends. I tried to squeeze track in but couldn't, so I quit, ending my less-than-illustrious running career forever. Or so I thought.
Then I turned 43. Determined to mark that milestone and defy my own mortality, I signed up for the marathon in the fall of 2005 with the fantasy that within a year I could transform myself from a middle-aged gay man into a sleek and fit superstar, lean and sassy as a twentysomething. I'd be a human gazelle with a nice tan, no body fat, a cute tank top and great hair who could eat Haagen-Dazs for breakfast because...I'm a marathoner! Clearly, I was in a state of delirium.
"If you can run three miles, we can train you to run 26," said Mike, a lithe little fellow handing out National AIDS Marathon Training Program pamphlets at the Castro Street Fair. "You raise money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and complete our training program," he added brightly, "and we fly you to Italy and put you up for three nights. Then all you have to do is run the race." I laughed. Yeah, that's all.
For the next several months I ran on my gym's rickety treadmill, trying like a good Californian to visualize running around the picturesque city of Donatello, da Vinci, and Michelangelo's David. It was hopeless. I'd pant through a mile and find myself transfixed by CNN's Anderson Cooper, with his dreamy blue eyes, on the overhead TV monitors. I'd rather run into him than run a marathon, I thought.
But I persisted, stubbornly, and by late spring could run up and down Valencia Street (it's flat!), eventually trekking around Noe Valley and the Castro. My body was adapting to the runs, but I was still skeptical about my ability to actually finish the race.
When 300 of us potential marathoners gathered in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for the first official training run on a cold foggy morning in June, the program leader, Josh, and our coach, Lori, praised us as "heroes" in the fight against AIDS. "We're so proud of you," they said. "You guys are awesome!" Heroes? We haven't even run 50 feet yet. And where's the coffee?
From June to November I trained for the marathon like a devout monk, following every instruction to the letter: Run three times a week! Don't wear cotton! Drink lots of fluids! Rest! Have lots of sex (after a long run, not before)!
Soon enough, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was lining up in the soft golden sunshine in Florence's Piazza Michelangelo, jittery to run with 400 other AIDS marathoners from around the United States and 6,600 runners from around the world.
About the race I'll say just two things. Coach Lori encouraged us to write our names on our jerseys so the crowds could cheer for each of us individually. This is hokey, I thought. They won't really be cheering for me, and I'll know it.
I was so wrong. When people clapped and shouted, "Die, Patrick, die!"--and in English, "You're doing great! Go, Patrick, go!"--I couldn't stop smiling and was surprisingly moved. It was a Sally Field moment writ large--they love me! They really, really love me!--and one of the sweetest experiences imaginable.
I had also been told that after you cross the finish line you get a medal. Cool, I thought, I'd love to have a medal. But I had no idea I'd react the way I did. I ended the race strong and, I am delighted to say, laughed and danced and sprinted through the finish. Seconds later, I leaned over to allow the medal, a heavy gold piece on a red and white ribbon, to be slipped around my neck. I immediately grabbed it, kissed it, and pressed it to my heart.
I'm alive, I thought. I'm so alive!
Noe Valley writer Patrick Letellier is running the Florence Marathon again this year and wants to raise $25,000. To sponsor him, go to his web site, PatrickLetellier.com. A version of "An Unlikely Marathon Man" appeared online at Newsweek.com last spring, under the title "Running for My Life."
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