A Tale of Woe and Wonder from Running’s Age of Innocence
by Bill Donnelly
I ran my first road race in 1973, which was when the running boom was really starting to take off. The race was the New York City Marathon, at that time run completely in Central Park (one 2-mile loop followed by four 6-mile loops), with only 400 entrants. My 3:01 time qualified me for Boston the next April, where I was joined by a record crowd of 1,700 runners.
Most of the runners I knew were both always competitive and always struggling financially. We ran in $17 Tiger Boston shoes and wore cheap running gear. In the winter we wore long johns and cotton sweats.
We trained in our own ways and tried to learn from our mistakes. My training consisted of 16 miles per day with a long run on Sunday of 20 to 23 miles. My racing style was to line up in front, go out like a bat out of hell, and hang on as best I could. There was no speed work except for races.
My Tale of Woe Begins
For me, learning from my mistakes, began in the fall of 1974. My tale of woe begins on September 29 in the city of New York, where I decided to take on the marathon once again. There were 500 runners this time. The weather was extremely hot, and the humidity was listed as 93%. I was young and invincible, and, since I had never before run a hot weather marathon, the conditions did not concern me. Mistake number one.
As I once again took a starting position in the very front of the pack for the 11 a.m. start, a beautiful woman in a short tennis dress lined up next to me. She was none other than Kathy Switzer, who had gained fame in 1967 for being the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon with an official number, even though women were prohibited from the race. People magazine had a reporter and photographer in New York capturing her every move for a feature article they were doing on her.
I was set to go, and I had the nylon laces of my Tiger Bostons tied in a double knot as I always did to prevent them from coming untied. While we waited for the gun, Switzer turned and spoke to me. She told me my shoes were untied, which was not true—they just looked untied. Being the shy young man that I was, and with very little practice in conversing with attractive women, my mind turned to mush. I thanked her and knelt down to pretend to tie my shoes.
I never saw the issue of People with the article on Kathy. If one of you should ever come across it, and should it have a picture of the very start of the race, I would be the one kneeling next to Kathy, seemingly tying my shoe as everyone else takes off.
Mistakes and Misery
I quickly recovered and was able to take off in my usual style of going out too fast. NYRRC president Fred Lebow had always tried to put on a runner friendly, mistake-free race, but in ’74 his workers made a critical error. There were only a couple of water stops in those days, one on each side of the park. On that hot, humid day, they did not get the water stops set up in time, and there was no water for us until the eight mile mark. By that time it was too late.
I was running along with no idea of what would soon transpire, while ahead of me, Bill Rodgers was leading the pack for the first 20 miles. This was six months before he would win his first marathon ever in Boston, but in New York in ’74 he became dehydrated and faded to finish fifth in 2:35:59. Dr. Norb Sander went on to win in 2:26:30. The lovely, but dangerous—to me—Kathy Switzer was the first woman in 3:07:29.
Meanwhile, the adverse conditions were starting to do me in. As I approached the 20 mile mark at the Tavern on the Green where the race had started, I saw my sister Maureen, who lived in New York. I stopped and told her and her husband that I was whipped and would quit despite being only six miles from finishing. They urged me on, saying I was in 23rd place. My competitive spirit took over. On I went. Mistake number two!
For two miles I felt pretty good and was glad that I had continued. The next two miles reminded me of why I wanted to quit, and everything seemed to be going in slow motion. With two miles to go, someone above took pity on me and the skies opened up. It started to pour down rain, lightning and thunder, and it would continue until I finished. That may have saved my life, for I was in very bad shape, and remember little of those miles other than the light poles moving towards me ever so slowly.
At the Tavern on the Green my brother Mike joined me for the run to the finish. At that time I hated him, for he would not let me quit. My last memory is turning out of the park to head to Columbus Circle and the finish. There was a bright flash of light followed almost immediately by a loud crack of thunder, and a couple of onlookers ran across the road when they saw me turn. My last thought was that they were race officials, and that they were stopping the race because of the storm. All that happened for the next hour or more is totally gone from my memory. I had passed out on my feet.
My parents were there, and when my mom saw me meandering from side to side and puddle to puddle, she thought I was kidding around. When she saw two runners pass me and I did not react, however, she knew I was not playing. Being one of nine children in our Irish Catholic family, my mom knew how competitive I was, and she became worried.
I finally made it to the finish line, but before crossing it, I started to walk towards some grass to sit down. Keep in mind, I remember none of this, I am only repeating what my family has told me happened. My brother-in-law, now wearing a yellow rain slicker, ran at me waving his arms like a giant yellow bat and screaming at me. This startled me sufficiently to dash across the finish line, whereupon I crumbled to the ground.
Medical Measures and Moaning
I had finished in 29th place with a time of 2:56:32, but at the moment I was still in lala land with no idea of what was happening around me. I had gone into shock from dehydration and heat prostration. Now the adventure really began.
Another thing Fred Lebow apparently forgot was medical assistance at the end of the race. An official used the sound system to ask if there was a doctor in the area, and the only one to respond was the winner of the race, Dr. Norb Sander. As he approached, my worried mother asked him if I would be OK. He asked about my training, and when my mom told him that I ran 100-plus miles a week, Dr. Sander said I would be fine. He then proceeded to scoop up puddle water with his drinking cup and pour it over my head and down the back of my neck. Knowing I would be okay, my mom started to take pictures of my lying there. What would we do without our mothers?
Dr. Sander continued to watch over me until an ambulance arrived, about 45 minutes later. I figure I may be the only finisher of the New York City Marathon who ever received medical assistance from the winner of the race. When the ambulance arrived, an attendant asked if I wanted ice chips. My response was that I was not married. 28 years later, I still have not figured out what connection I was making. But my family swears that is what I said.
My first memory of my ordeal was waking up in the emergency room of the Roosevelt Hospital. I was surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses. They were taking blood samples from one arm and inserting an IV needle in the other. My reaction—and this I do remember clearly—was to scream: “NO NEEDLES, NO NEEDLES, I CAN’T STAND PAIN!” This of course brought immediate silence and puzzled looks, followed by laughter, and to my dismay, the continued insertion of those dreaded needles into my arms.
I had a great deal of difficulty trying to express my thoughts verbally. I had no control of any bodily functions, and could not take liquids. The ice chips they put in my mouth would make me throw up. Naturally, I was terribly thirsty after the race, and that was the worst of what I was going through. It would be hours before the thirst went away thanks to the IV.
I was in the emergency room for over eight hours. During that time the nurse in charge would bring around groups of doctors and nurses and gather them around my bed. With a smile she would say: “Go ahead, tell these folks what you did to yourself to get here.” When I told them my tale, they would leave shaking their heads. Not many people knew about the craziness of long distance running yet.
A few hours into my adventure, when I was starting to get my wits about me, I heard a soft moaning coming from the fellow in the bed next to me. I asked him what was wrong, and his tale of woe put mine to shame. Seems he arrived via the marathon also. It was his first one, but he passed out several feet before the finish. That was bad enough, but his wife had not wanted him to ever run a marathon for fear that he might end up in a hospital.
He told her in the morning that he had to go to Jersey to run several errands. Now he was in the hospital, and the doctors had called his wife to come and get him. He went back to moaning, more from fear than pain, and I might have moaned a bit just in sympathy with him.
More Marathons, More Mistakes
I got out of the hospital near midnight, had another checkup that Tuesday, and headed back to Buffalo to train for my next marathon, which was two weeks after New York. I was running the Kitchener Marathon in Ontario with some of my buddies on October 12. Mistake number three. It was the Canadian National Championships, and we were doing it as a training run. We all finished together in 3:06:26. Not a good idea after my experience just two weeks earlier.
“A training run for what?” you might ask. Why, for the first Buffalo to Niagara Skylon International Marathon to be held two weeks later on October 26th. I had been on the committee that helped put this race together, so I was looking forward to running it no matter what. Mistakes number four and five and many more. By now my body was protesting a bit, and I was training despite a sore groin. By the time of the marathon, I was running with a noticeable limp.
I had to line up for the race in the front row, of course, and when the gun went off, there went the old bat out of hell. I felt my groin snap in the first couple of steps, but that didn’t stop me from running in second place for the first third of a mile. The groin did not bother me at all during the race, but what I was putting my body through would catch up to me.
In all of the marathons I have run, I felt I have never hit the wall. That is, all but the first Skylon. In that race I hit the wall hard and I hit it 13 miles into the race. The last 13 miles were the toughest miles I have ever run, but I was too proud and stupid to quit.
It turns out that when the marathon aired on national television two Saturdays later, I would get my 1.5 seconds of fame. Towards the end of the report, they showed some good runners finishing and looking fresh, while the announcer was saying that some runners looked as if they were just finishing a light jog in the park. He then said that others looked like they were finishing their second marathon of the day. Guess whose finish the report showed along with those words. Little did the announcer know that I was finishing my third marathon in four weeks.
I somehow managed to finish with my best time up to that point, 2:46:34, but I also ended up back in an ambulance. The Skylon had the good sense to have an ambulance at the finish, and I staggered to it. They gave me liquids, told me I was in a mild state of shock, and sent me on my way because they needed the room for others. I was helped to the hotel room where club members were celebrating, and for the entire evening, I lay on a bed under many blankets, shivering uncontrollably. I should have been in a hospital.
The Happy Ending
Needless to say, I did not run any more marathons that year. My groin was so bad that I had to walk on crutches for three days. I was off running for six weeks while I healed. Once I did heal, I, of course, had to start training for the 1975 Boston Marathon. Since I had only four months to train, I took a friend’s advice and joined him in some tough speed work on the track, twice a week for three months. It paid off.
I ran my PR at that Boston. Other friends of mine from the New York Marathon were there also. Bill Rodgers set a course record of 2:09:55, 26 minutes faster that he had run New York six months before. Kathy Switzer finished second among the women in 2:51:37, 16 minutes faster. I managed a 2:34:57 and finished 181st out of 2,000 runners.
Another friend of mine from New York was there as well. As I entered the finish chute, the runner in front of me was looking whipped. A young lad ran up to him, placed a blanket around his shoulders, and said, “Great race Norb.” Now, I was feeling good and my mind was working well as there were no beautiful Kathy Switzers around turning it into mush. I thought that there could be very few men named Norb, and fewer still who ran marathons. I asked him if he was Dr. Norb Sander, winner of the New York Marathon. He said yes, so I told him who I was and what had happened to me at that marathon. I wasn’t able to thank him personally back in New York for what he had done, so I thanked him then and there. He looked at me with glazed eyes. Obviously he had had a tough race. He said, “You just ran a great race!” and then staggered away. I, on the other hand, floated through the chute, feeling no pain, and truly enjoying the greatest runner’s high ever.
Thus my tale of woe and mistakes ends on a happy note. I think I did learn from all those mistakes, and now the future looks bright. But enough of that, I must go and run 16 miles so I can be in shape for the Tow Path Marathon in October. That reminds me, the Columbus Marathon is only two weeks after it, followed closely by the New York City Marathon. I wonder if these old legs still have it in them. Well, gotta run.
Bill Donnelly recently moved back to Buffalo after living in the Cleveland, OH area for 24 years, where he taught Special Education. He has also recently returned to competitive running, as it helps him keep his sanity after a day of working with kids.