The Day I Almost Beat An Olympic Champion

The great Joan Benoit-Samuelson, after winning the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The great Joan Benoit-Samuelson, after winning the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

I was once young and spry and athletic, good-looking and confident, and willing to go at it with anybody in the world, athletically speaking — from a Division 1-level college basketball player to a Gold Medal winning Olympian.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I got schooled when it came to going up against those more athletic that me, bigger than me, and just plain ol’ better than me.

But I wasn’t one of those athletes who ever shined in the spotlight of fame and athletic grandeur. I was never destined for greatness on an athletic field. To the contrary, my greatness was found in telling the stories of the athletes who deserved to have their stories told. Thus, I made that my life, my passion, my success.

But I did love sports and they were always fun for me. And I never gave up when I stepped into that arena. I was the worker bee, down in the mud, working my ass off during each and every competition to make sure that if you were better than me then you were going to work your ass off, as well. You might beat me, but you would never out-hustle me.

In the fall of my 16th year, in my hometown of Bangor, Maine, there was a popular road race called the Benjamin’s 10K. It was sponsored by a local watering hole and instead of giving out t-shirts, they gave out the coolest green and yellow winter caps. It became one of the biggest and best road races the state of Maine would see back in those days, which was in the early 1980s, at the peak of the running boom that was sweeping the country.

I was a cross country runner back then, during my high school days, back before the desk job and before age and fat and bones that ache took control of my body.

This particular Benjamin’s — the one rising from my past from this morning — was held in 1982, the day after our Eastern Maine regional championship race. Still, a number of runners from our team opted to run the race as a weekend workout. As a team we attacked the course as we would any race. For me, that meant finding my pace — which was never at the front of the pack — before turning it on at the end and emptying my tank over the last half mile.

All of these years later, I don’t remember much about the course. I can’t even tell you where the starting line was, though if I had to render a guess I’d say it started in front of Benjamin’s Tavern, on Franklin Street, just a block from the heart of downtown Bangor.

But I remember the finish.

The finish was a long stretch up Harlow Street, past the old covered bridge that spanned the Kenduskeag Stream, past the five-story tall Federal Building, toward the finish line in front of the Bangor Public Library.

It began as a long slow grade up a hill before evening out for the kick home.

There I was, young, taut, ego-driven, pumping my arms, churning my legs, just starting to dig into the reserve tank that made my kick the best part of my running game. I figured I’d pick off 10 to 12 spots over the last quarter mile. Sure, I’d finish maybe one hundred people back in a pack that numbered more than 600 runners, but they would be 12 others who would finish behind me. So one by one I started to pick them off.

From out of nowhere she came off my left shoulder, at first a blur, then as obvious as the Federal Building, which stood high above my right shoulder as I ran by, my pace picking up with each foot strike.

Anybody who laced up a pair of running shoes in the State of Maine in the 1980s knew who Joan Benoit was. She was the best female runner the state has ever produced.

Two years later, in 1984, when she won the gold medal in the marathon at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the whole world would know her name, as well.

I tried to go with her, tried to find that testosterone-driven pride that a woman would never beat me. But it was a vain attempt of machismo. It wasn’t happening. Greatness scoffs at the notion of being bested by a middle of the pack runner like me and Joan pulled away as she raced home and won the women’s championship in a time of 32 minutes, 43 seconds.

Needless to say, by the time Joan Benoit — who would later become Joan Benoit-Samuelson — built the bulk of her running resume there would never ever be any shame in losing to her. She won marathons. She set world records.

And on an Sunday afternoon in October she out-kicked me and left me in the dust and there was nothing I could do about it.

This ghost from my past comes back to me today because on Monday morning Joan competed in the Boston Marathon once again. It was race she won twice in her prime, over a course where she set a record that lasted 11 years.

This year, she finished 1,413th overall, 67th in the women’s field. Her time was listed as two hours, 54 minutes and three seconds.

She’s 57 years old.

As for me? I can sit at my desk for three hours, reliving the day Joan beat me in the Benjamin’s 10K Road Race. Without any doubt whatsoever, though, I admire her as much today as I did back then.

She is one of the greatest runners I’ve ever gotten to see run in my lifetime and the fact she’s still out there doing it gives even a shlub like me hope that tomorrow is just a few miles away.

 

New Jersey remains the armpit of the world (Or, don’t ever stay at the Double Tree Hilton near Newark Liberty Airport)

Growing up, I once heard of the state of New Jersey called the armpit of the world.

I never really knew why until the first time I drove through it, seeing the barren wastelands er – Meadowlands, I believe it they call it — complete with the all the oil tanks and power lines and gridlocked traffic from those trying to escape the state across the George Washington Bridge. I’ve learned you can go to New Jersey for free, but you have to pay to leave. I think that says a lot about the state, right there.

Over the past weekend, I got an even closer look at what a despicable, shameful state New Jersey has become.

On Saturday, I drove to Newark, N.J., to visit my mother, my step-father, my cousins and my Uncle David and his girlfriend, Mavis, both of whom had traveled from England to spend two weeks on a cruise to the tropics with their family. They picked Newark as a rallying point since the cruise ship was leaving from the Port of Bayonne.

Uncle David and Mavis arrived on Friday, settling in at the Double Tree Hilton near the Newark Liberty Airport. They spent all day Saturday in New York City until the rest of the family arrived. Thanks to a change in my work schedule, I made the road trip from my Connecticut home and was able to have dinner with the family — some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades.

It was nice. A few Guinness were tossed back, we broke bread, caught up with each other and even had a family photo taken by the concierge at the hotel.

The next morning I received word that somebody had broken into my Uncle David’s room and stolen all the cash they had on hand.

After we all arrived back at the hotel, and went out separate ways, it seems Uncle David couldn’t get his key to work. Upon being given a new one by the front desk, they had found their room had been rummaged through and the money was missing.

“You were right about Newark,” my mother told me the following morning.

We had actually foreshadowed such an event while sitting at dinner when one of my cousins said he was carrying his cash with him because their hotel room didn’t have a safe in it.

Another cousin told the story about while they were back home in the state of Maine they went to a restaurant and met a waiter from New Jersey, and when they told him they were going to Newark for a few days before the cruise the waiter told them, “Don’t look anybody in the eye.”

At dinner, I told my family Newark and Camden were probably the two worst cities in the state and, at least in Newark’s case, I was proven right.

What disappointed me the most, I suppose, was the reaction of the hotel — again, that’s the Double Tree Hilton, located at 128 Frontage Road, in Newark, N.J. It looks nice from the outside and the inside, but customer service isn’t a high priority.

When told off the robbery, the hotel’s manager persuaded my uncle not to call the police, saying “They won’t come out here for something like that. You’d have to go to the police station and spend all day filing out reports.” (All of a sudden it sounds like an inside job, no?  — two elderly English tourists show up, check into a hotel and get robbed and the hotel manager doesn’t want to call the police?).

The manager, however, did offer my uncle and his friend two free breakfasts for the following morning.

It’s a shame my family wasn’t killed in one of their rooms. We might have gotten a free night or two out of the deal and the first round of drinks might have been on the hotel, too.

While the rooms didn’t have safes, the hotel did offer them a portable safe for the remainder of the trip — but warned the couple that if they lost the key, they would be charged an additional $250.

Needless to say, I will never stay a Double Tree hotel for the rest of my days. I will go out of my way to stay in a cardboard box before I would give them any of money. Their brand is dead to me and, as part of the Hilton family, I also refuse to acknowledge Paris Hilton as a celebrity anymore, as well.

So thank you New Jersey for being a piece of shit state and living up to your reputation. I know there must be some good people from the state, but how they can live there is beyond me. Cheap gas, I suppose, could be a draw.

And to my country, I can’t say I’m surprised by the treatment you showed my relatives from across the pond. We might be the world’s last remaining Super Power, but as a collective one, the United States of America is also the crime capital of the world, a place where a third-time marijuana user can go to jail for life, but a mentally ill person can walk into a school and start firing a legal purchased gun that can kill classrooms of children in just seconds.

And it’s a place where our visitors can be violated and robbed, but get two free breakfasts out of the deal.

Land of the Free, indeed.

Jim Croce — and my gut — are telling me I should trust again

There is a new woman in my life. Who is she is and what she means to me is something I will not share here; not today, nor likely ever.

But the signs are saying I should trust again. I should trust her and move forward in the way I need to move forward to become whole again. I need to trust again and I need to trust that she is the one and that is not easy for me.

But there have been times in my life when I’ve been a big believer in signs. And earlier this afternoon I was sent one from space. I have to listen. I have to trust.

The first sign that always comes to mind is from my junior year in high school, traveling in a school bus through a Maine winter’s night, the passing street lights acting as the slow beat of the music of thoughts running through my mind.

I hadn’t played much in the game that evening and I was angry; angry at a coach I didn’t like and didn’t respect very much. I didn’t know why I hadn’t played much and he wasn’t the kind of coach who knew how to communicate very well. I didn’t know what to do. I could stew away the rest of the season or I could confront this man I had no respect for and possibly find myself riding the bench for the rest of my career.

From the back of the bus, I heard Heidi Gambino’s voice rise above all the other commotion. Her voice was clear as day — as though she was a bird chirping into the silence of a new morning. It was her voice and her voice alone rising above the din.

“Go for it, John!”

Heidi was a cheerleader and one of those girls everybody has had over the history of their lives. She was the short-term girlfriend.

It was a quick flash of a high school relationship, one that ended with both of us going our separate ways and not having much else to do with each other. It wasn’t a bad break-up; just an obvious-it’s-over ending that left us not friends, not really talking, just going our separate ways and co-existing in the drama-filled world of high school.

On this night, though, even though she wasn’t talking directly to me, she spoke to me.

“Go for it, John.”

I took it as a sign and I walked to the front of the bus and sat down with the coach for a heart-to-heart. What was going on? Why wasn’t I playing? What did I have to do to get back out on the court again?

The end of this story within a story is that I did start playing again — even if it was just playing junior varsity basketball for a small program in the middle of the state Maine. It was my world and it was important to me and a sign from one of the last people in the world I would have expected it to come from gave me the strength to move forward.

Instances like this have dotted my life. Sometimes I have listened. Other times I have not.

Not more than one hour ago I had another sign come to me, this one screaming in my ears. I recognized it right away and my first thought was, “It’s a sign and I need to listen.”

As this new woman in my life and I sat together today talking about life, love, trust and the absence of couches in our world, I told a funny story from my past; one I always have to share every time it comes surface.

Part of this story includes a line from the Jim Croce song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” — the one where Croce sings, “Yeah, he big and dumb as a man can come, But he stronger than a country hoss.”

The story was told. I laughed, she smiled, and we moved on to other things. It was both a crack in the shell and a dent in the wall, I suppose, but that is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things when it comes to this blog.

It wasn’t long after saying our good-byes that I was driving home when my latest sign came down upon me from outer-space, courtesy of Sirius/XM satellite radio. I had been bouncing around stations, looking for something to listen to. Howard 100. Lithium. The 80s.

Nothing appealed to me.

I pressed the button to the 1970s station and there it was.

Jim Croce.

“Uptown got its hustlers,” he sang. “The Bowery got its bums.”

It was the same song from the story I had just told her.

To me, it was a sign — I could tell in the pit of my stomach — and I knew given the crux of our conversation today what it meant.

I need to trust again. I need to move forward. It’s not going to be easy and I know it’s going to take time.

But trust me, Mr. Croce, I heard you. And I also came to realize the very next song from that album is “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be A Brighter Day.”

I told you it was a sign.

Remembering Kevin Bate — The loss of a former teammate hits home

Kevin Bate — 1968-2015 - (Photo courtesy of Whittling Fog Photography)

Kevin Bate — 1968-2015 – (Photo courtesy of Whittling Fog Photography)

You know those dreams where you can’t run? You beg your legs to move, to push you forward faster, but there is no answer. Somewhere in your torso, the message sent from your brain to your legs gets lost and you’re just spinning your wheels, going nowhere fast.

On a Saturday afternoon in November of 1982, on a golf course in Portland, Maine, I lived that nightmare. It was during the State Class D cross country championship meet — the worst day of the year not to run fast. But I was on empty that day, I had nothing to offer the team and finished as our last runner.

We won the state championship that day. We put four runners in the top 10 and dominated the field. I finished in the last 10 and for the first time in my life — for the only time as I can recall — I threw up after the race. That’s how bad off I was that day.

In my later years, my friendship with my former coach would reveal something to me about that day.

He had asked if I could pick the moment he was most proud of me during the three years I ran cross country for him.

The year I finished 27th in the state — and the No. 3 runner from out team, just seconds behind our No. 2 guy? No.

The year I finished in the top 10 and we won the Pendale Cross Country Championship? No.

“It was the year we won the state championship and you had the worst race of your life,” my coach said. “I knew you were hurting that day, but you finished. You didn’t give up. You didn’t quit.”

I couldn’t quit. I had teammates counting on me.

One of them was Kevin Bate, who didn’t even run that day. He wasn’t one of our top seven runners that year, but he was certainly a Crusader just like the rest of us.

One of my strongest memories of that day was of Kevin, a freshman that season, and the other runners who didn’t compete spread out over the course, cheering us on. Well, he cheered on my teammates who shined that day, but he helped push me not to quit when I was having the worst running day of my life.

I woke up this morning and found out that Kevin had passed away. He was 46 years old.

His younger brother, Jeremy, who three years later would run along side his older brother and help Bapst win another state championship, posted the news on Facebook.

That’s the thing about Facebook. For all the great things it does (like allowing us to get back in touch with long lost friends) to all the mundane things it offers up (so one of my long lost friends had spaghetti for dinner … again), it also acts as the phone call in the middle of the night — the one that slaps you in the face with sad news and leaves you stunned.

Kevin Bate is dead.

I would never classify Kevin as a “close friend” — at least not in the sense of the word where we had grown up together, or where would hang out and do things together outside of school, outside of the cross country and/or track season.

Our relationship was that of “teammates” for two years, and sometimes that kind of relationship leaves a tighter bond than a casual friendship does. We trained together. We ran together. We pushed each other and we pulled for each other through thick and thin. We won a state championship together and that is something nobody can take away from us.

After high school, I lost touch with Kevin for many years — well, for most of our adult lives, to be  honest — until we became Facebook friends a few years back.

We had a few casual contacts via comments over the years since, but outside of that we only got to know each other again through our random wall postings that we stumbled across on our feeds.

After learning of his passing this morning, I went to his wall and read some of the tributes pouring in from those who knew him best. He was loved by his friends and family. Of that, there is no doubt.

I looked through his pictures and a saw a musician, a fisherman, a Red Sox fan, a father and a friend. That was the Kevin Bate of today, the man I never really knew after losing touch.

The Kevin Bate I knew was a teammate who would cheer you on and support you on your worst day.

That’s all I need to know to know the world lost a good man.

RIP, Kevin.