In the Chicago Marathon of 2008 some 2,000 runners went to the limit of their endurance and stared into the abyss. They failed to finish the 26.2-mile distance. One ended up crawling. Each pushed the edge and felt its raw contour.
As I nearly did. To each runner, the edge brings unique evil. In my case, leg cramps, springing from dehydration, nearly dragged me down. Had that happened, I might have been unable to get back up. Starting six miles from the finish and becoming deadly serious three miles later, my legs and feet alternated episodes of cramping, hard and hurting.
My stride jerked into a grotesque lurch, favoring whichever muscle was seized at the moment, hoping it would ease up. At times I ran wooden-legged, my foot twisted grossly to the outside. I gave up precious minutes, shuffling forward like a busted scarecrow.
I was competing for first place in the 65-69 age division, or hoping to. Once the cramping began, I doubled my fluid intake. By then, as usual, it was too late, especially when the day is hot. It was hot. The official high for the day was 84, which tied the high for that date set in 1960.
The official temperature is measured in shade four feet above grass. The street was paved with asphalt, not shade and grass. One runner said she saw 96 on a thermometer.
Heat was a factor in the outcome of the marathon. Some 45,000 had registered. Only 33,000 showed up to start. Of those, some 31,000 finished. For whatever reason—one guesses the hot forecast—some 12,000 registered runners, many with bib number and timing chip already attached, decided: “Nope, I ain’t going.”
Indirectly or not, that particular circumstance led to a puzzler in my age division, sending me to scrutinize the rule book.
A man beat me by one minute and eight seconds.
I didn’t know that until I’d left the race site, taken a shower and a nap. Since I don’t lug a laptop around, I called my wife back in Cookeville to get the bad news. Online results were unofficial at that time, the runners arranged in alphabetical order, not by order of finish. She had to scroll through the list and, when she did, she found that a Dick Byrd (I’ve changed these names) of North Carolina had finished in 3:24:12, beating me by 1:08.
It was a buzz-kill. I sank into a morose hole. But I had to accept the hard numbers. I hadn’t run well enough to win. Nutritionally, I’d prepared more carefully for this race than any I’ve done—only to blow it during the race itself, ignoring the heat and drinking too little.
I’d had a string going. I’d not lost first place in a marathon since June of 2004, on a hot day in Stockholm, Sweden, thirteen marathons ago. Hard leg cramps that day, too, muscles like frozen snakes. After that race I lay on the ground for a long time, a long way from home, alone and unable to get up. My string stretched back to that blue Scandinavian sky where a white gull soared over, clouds drifted in from the south…
That string was snapped now.
A couple days after Chicago I was back home in Cookeville. I looked up Dick Byrd in the online race results. He was 66. Results were still unofficial, but I made an interesting discovery—he was missing most of the split times, including the starting line itself. The rule book says a runner must have a starting time or he will be disqualified. Also, anyone missing multiple splits will be disqualified. Byrd faced double jeopardy.
The splits need explaining. At Chicago, a runner gets split times (accumulated time to that point) at 11 check points spaced out along the course. These include: the starting line, the half-marathon, the finish line and at each 5K—5K, 10K, 15K, etc. A missing split may mean the runner took an illegal shortcut. Dick Byrd had split times for only 40K and the finish line, just two of the required 11.
It appeared he had skipped the race and had jumped onto the course about two miles from the finish line. Was he a cheat? If so, he made a clumsy attempt, displaying gross ignorance of the marathon rules familiar to all runners. Maybe his timing chip had been defective, I thought, somehow fixing itself at 40K.
Never forget Google. I looked for previous marathon times for Dick Byrd but found none. I did, however, find three recent half-marathon times. All were over two hours. One was 2:08. That answered the question: He didn’t actually run the Chicago Marathon. A two-hour half-marathoner, inexperienced at the full distance, would push five hours in a hot Chicago Marathon. If he is able to finish at all.
He didn’t run it.
But why did he fake it? It would take colossal arrogance to expect spoils from such an awkward trick. The race director would resolve all timing irregularities, I knew, before publishing the official results. At least I hoped he would.
On the third day after the race, the word “disqualified” appeared in the results after Dick Byrd’s name. Correct outcome, but it didn’t answer why he had pulled the stunt.
Then MarathonFotos put pictures online of all the racers. I looked up Dick Byrd’s photos; there were a few. In each, he was running with a young woman. They crossed the finish line together and had a photo taken together.
I looked up the young woman, too. She was Pamela Byrd, 36, from Georgia. She had exactly the same finishing time as Dick. I had my answer. Same last name, different states and 30 years younger—she was his daughter.
By race morning in Chicago, Dick had already pinned on his bib and attached his timing chip. Then when he saw the weather forecast he realized the marathon could not go well for him, a first-timer.
Prudence demanded he sit it out. Some 12,000 others came to the same decision. But Dick, I figure, so wanted to share in his daughter’s adventure that he came up with the perfect plan: Walk south on Michigan Avenue and wait for her at a point two miles from the finish. When he saw his child, he jumped in and ran beside her, a jubilant, smiling, proud papa.
I can’t blame him. His daughter ran an excellent race. He was proud. He meant no harm. But his caper sank me in a multi-day funk. On the fifth day after the race, the online results were finally revised, the runners listed in their order of finish. My name moved to the top of the 65-69 age division. The name Dick Byrd disappeared altogether.
The race director had enforced the rules. Dick Byrd was missing multiple splits, including the starting line. Hence he had been disqualified.
I had won.