'Get busy living, or get busy dying'

Michael Vitez after the Philadelphia Half Marathon, which he finished in 1:59:19. JONATHAN VITEZ
Michael Vitez after the Philadelphia Half Marathon, which he finished in 1:59:19. JONATHAN VITEZ

At 56, and after two friends' deaths, a former runner decides to go for it

Posted: November 25, 2013

I rediscovered a very old - and wonderful - sensation at the Philadelphia half marathon last weekend. I'm still over the moon about it.

I am 56. I ran track and cross-country in high school. I was only a little better than ordinary, breaking a 4:40 mile once or twice, but loved it.

Loved everything about it - the friendships, the fitness, the feeling of success after a good race. I graduated high school in 1975 and still keep up with several of the old teammates.

I ran lots of miles on bad shoes back in those days. In my day, the premier running shoe was the Adidas Gazelle. I ran 50- to 60-mile weeks in the Adidas Gazelle. In the late 90s, when my kids were playing indoor soccer, I couldn't believe it: the shoe of choice was the Adidas Gazelle, considered by then a slipper for indoor surfaces.

I ran in my 20s, and into my 30s, and even in my early 40s, but only a few days a week at most, never long distances, and rarely entering even a 5K.

I stopped running because my knees ached. I thought I'd worn them out from too many years of bad shoes. I remained active - tennis, biking, swimming, walking. But never running many miles.

We had three kids, who all became high school and college runners - way better than I ever was. The baby is still running in college. I rediscovered distance running with even more passion as a husband and parent. My wife and I loved going to races and still do.

I had long wanted to try triathlons, particularly the Philadelphia Triathlon. I thought they would be better suited for my aging body. I had two inhibitions: (1) swimming in the Schuylkill; (2) running again.

I had two good friends and neighbors, only a little older than I, get sick with cancer last winter.

Both are dead now. Their deaths shook me on many levels. I felt like the Tim Robbins character in The Shawshank Redemption who says: "Get busy living or get busy dying."

So I registered for the Philadelphia Triathlon, and began running. I loved swimming in the Schuylkill  - the water didn't feel dirty, I was surrounded by hundreds of others in bright swim caps, and what a view of riverbank and city!   In all, I did four triathlons last summer, the last at Olympic distance, which ended with a six-mile run. I discovered that running didn't make my knees feel any worse. I also discovered that once I got running, two or three miles in, my knees would loosen up and feel good.

So I decided to go for it and run the Philadelphia Half Marathon. The last time I ran 13.1 miles was in 1977.

I set my goal for 2 hours. I began in one of the middle waves and loved it from the start. I realized immediately that I was no different from all these other runners. I could run with them. I could do this. This inexplicably to me was quite a surprise. Why hadn't I done this for the last 30 years?

I paced myself the first eight miles, relaxed and just enjoyed the cheering crowds. My favorite thing as I ran through Old City and along Chestnut Street was the signs. Such cleverness. The journalist in me wished I had run with pen and paper so I could have remembered more. "My wife's got stamina!" "Run as if somebody just called you a jogger!" And "I've got a thing for chafed nipples!" I was in the spirit of the event and really tempted at 8:45 a.m. to take a swig from the Drexel fraternity students who were offering cups of beer as we ran by.

By mile 10, and 11, climbing the hill into Fairmount Park, running by Memorial Hall, my hips, groin, knees and ankle were all complaining pretty seriously. I knew I'd finish, but I was telling myself just to limp home. And then I hit Martin Luther King Drive, and saw the clock at the 11-mile mark: I had 18 minutes to break two hours. My mind immediately said, "Surrender, 2:02 or 2:03 is great."

But I found myself picking it up. I felt much better the faster I went. I was never that tired, just sore, and the soreness was leaving me the faster I ran. In the 12th mile, and into the 13th, I felt this long-lost, distantly familiar, amazingly satisfying sensation - that I was rolling.

Relatively speaking, of course. But I was passing people.    I had cross-trained all summer and fall to get fit, lost 20 pounds, and here, for this brief moment, it was paying off. Although I wobbled like a newborn colt after I crossed the line, I finished in 1:59:19.

It isn't the time or sense of accomplishment that I will savor most. It will be that ephemeral moment when I felt as I did a long time ago - like a distance runner.