Six years ago today my father dropped dead of a heart attack while running on the treadmill at the gym. He was 59. He had run his whole life, or at least from the time, at age 7, he ran away from the Catholic orphanage in which he'd been deposited by his widowed mother who could not afford to care for him and his younger sister. He ran from the nuns and priests who employed him to clean stone staircases with a toothbrush and he lived briefly as a Dickensian waif, homeless and teeny, on the streets of Philadelphia, until he was found, returned, and punished with a close shaving of his head. He ran track at West Catholic High School, and cross-country for Millersville University. He ran marathons as long as I can remember. He ran with a Santa hat on Christmas and in many of the pictures I have of him in my head he is blanketed in Mylar. When he was exactly my age, my dad ran 100 miles in one day, on a quarter-mile track, in a race organized by Sri Chinmoy to perpetuate inner peace.
Unlike my dad, I had nothing to run from so early on. Instead I danced. I danced happily and strongly. I studied ballet, fosse, tap, Irish step-dancing, and both Horton and Graham modern forms. I began at Miss Betty's at age 4, took private classes from Gary Flannery when I was a little older and continued as a ballet major at the Performing Arts School of Philadelphia. I danced in recitals, in musicals, at theme parks, in college, around the house, at Steps and Broadway Dance Center in New York City and at Pineapple Dance Studio in London. I had the same physique, the same metabolism, the same discipline and energy as my dad, but no interest in running.
A few years ago, one of my closest friends, Michael, a retired dancer turned marathoner, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was given less than 6 months to live only two months after his 49th birthday. But he celebrated his 50th birthday at my house and I got to see him finish the Boston Marathon that same year. He ran the Boston Marathon with an inoperable tumor and in between his bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments. He ran it in just over 4 hours and raised thousands of dollars for cancer research through Fred's Team.
In the summer of 2007 I signed up to run the New York City Marathon for the Thomas LaBreque Foundation, raising money for cancer research. Michael's treatments at the time were difficult as was eating enough to strengthen his withered body for the chemo. The options of specialists were thinning.
When someone is that sick it can be challenging to find conversations that do not revolve around cancer, cancer treatments, and cancer symptoms. Michael and I had been lovers and then drinking buddies and neither of those distractions remained an option for our mutual amusement. There was baseball and books but even these required a sustained energy that was becoming more faint in his tired head. But when Michael became my trainer for the marathon we opened up a new world of conversation and engagement. Pain, fatigue, and frustration would slip away while we talked about chaffing, blisters, diet, and regimens, and Michael's voice became less airy with dryness and clearer with the lubrication of natural, unforced energy.
Michael died on September 30, 2007, just a month before the Marathon.
On November 4, 2007, I ran. It took me 5 hours and 9 minutes, officially. (I cannot relate my time without adding that I pooped 4 times at 4 different port-a-potties during the race. Had I not been so intestinally prolific I surely would have come in under 4 and a half hours.) In preparation I ran about 436 miles, a novice program.
When I signed up I hadn't really imagined that I would run it without Michael. But on that early Sunday morning I took the subway uptown to the New York Public library, emerging in pre-dawn darkness and embarking one of the long line of buses to be taken to Staten Island, knowing that we'd all be running the way back (and further) from the not insignificant bus trip.
The Marathon was like nothing I have ever encountered. I call it Marathon Day for World Peace. The goodwill was overwhelming. The entire route was populated 4-deep with strangers who read the shirts of all the runners and called our names out loud: "Go Hally!" and "You're doing great, Hally!" The volunteers who handed out water frequently told us how sexy we looked, lies we were desperately thankful to hear. People, just people, not marathon sponsors or organizers had bought crates of bottled water, crates of bananas, and pots of Vaseline and were handing them out cheerfully. There was music the entire course and most of it was live. I ran bouncily through Williamsburg while accompanied by an uncanny version of "I Wanna Be Sedated." I raised the roof while a gospel choir implored Jesus to help me in Queens. I pumped my fists over my head to the Rocky Theme and I was amazed at how every hard-core no-nonsense runner I could see performed the YMCA dance (myself included) as we crossed into Manhattan for the first time and where there were epic crowds.
But of all the burgs, not one could compete with the Bronx for style and entertainment. For the sadly short bit we spent on the pavement of that northernmost borough we got nothing but old-school, improvised, marathon MC-ing with beatboxes, breakdancing, and a microphone and I'd bet they didn't stop until every last runner straggled down their streets. Both formally and colloquially they represented.
"5 boroughs, 5 bridges and 2 million spectators" is one of the marathon's slogans. I managed to see my mother and brother 3 times during the route due to their brilliantly simple, large, and fluorescent sign boasting only my first name. They too said that the city had turned into a place of peace, where bumps and lines were met with cheerfulness, camaraderie and polite behavior. Any time they saw me coming crowds parted to let them to the front of the sidewalk for the best view.
As for bridges, one of my favorite moments was when the course took us under a covered highway bridge that led us over the East River from Queens into Manhattan. It was the first time in 15 miles that we were unwatched by a single spectator. Almost every runner stopped and walked, taking the private moment to collectively catch our breath, and to do so unseen. It was a little like cheating, but the crowds were so supportive and encouraging we runners would have felt we were letting them down for walking. They seemed genuinely dedicated to helping us reach our goal. And I think that's the stunning bit. There is no commercial gain for the supporters. There's no voyeuristic celebrity intrigue for spectators (though Katie Holmes did run incognito. And I beat her.) I can only assume that people go out of their way to call out names and hand out water because they are nice and have a sense of community and pride for their city and pride for the athletes. That is amazing.
When I met my family at the finish, after the requisite half hour or so tightly corralled with finishers, several of whom were fainting or vomiting, my mom and bro rather ridiculously (and repeatedly) remarked on how exhausted they were from following me around all day. I was still buoyant with accomplishment.
After returning home and relinquishing my ego to the disappointing fact that I could not possibly wear heels to dinner (though I could and did wear my medal), my family and I went to a favorite cozy restaurant on Spring Street, were seated at our favorite cozy booth, and our favorite waiter brought me a special cocktail from the bartender he called "the passion of the marathoner." I don't remember if we spoke of it or not, but we knew our party was bereft of important and missed company.
I used to think that my Dad and Michael were bananas when they'd say things like "only 5 miles" or do things like run on Christmas. I'm just like them in that regard now and it gives me a melancholy satisfaction to feel it.
On April 5 of this year I will run my second marathon, this time in kilometers. I'll be a participant in the Paris Marathon. People often say that they don't know how I can run that far or that long. But when one has the thoughts and memories of two strong and fast people like I do, I don't really feel like my own feet touch the ground. They just carry me and we dance to the music and have a good time.
To donate to my marathon campaign and help raise money for pancreatic cancer research please go to http://www.firstgiving.com/hallymcgehean