I was 47-years-old in 1985 and had become obsessed with running. I was getting up at 4 a.m. each day, running 50-60 miles every week, and had completed nine marathons, including the famous Boston Marathon.
My middle son, Chris, was a sophomore in high school and on the track and cross-country team. We frequently ran together, but nothing more than five of six-mile distances. When I suggested the two of us have an adventure and run 164-miles from the west coast of Florida to the east coast in four days, he couldn’t imagine how we could run 40 miles a day for four consecutive days. I thought we could do it, although it would take serious conditioning. Starting right after Christmas we would have three-months to get into shape. Chris signed on enthusiastically.
Our conditioning regimen started with 50-mile weeks and built to 80-miles per week. Each Saturday we ran a long run together. The idea for this adventure came from books I read about foot races across America called “The Great Bunion Derbies.” One of the ultra-marathoners, James Shapiro, recommended a pacing routine of running fifteen minutes then walking for five. Although Chris had never run more than six miles at a time, we tried this method on our first Saturday together and found he easily covered sixteen miles. Those weekend runs gradually built to 17, 20, 25, 30 and 40-miles.
Looking back, I have to say, our long hours together that Indiana winter, in snow and often freezing temperatures, was the bonding highlight of the entire experience.
The route across Florida starting from Siesta Key on highway 72, had the towns of Arcadia, Lake Placid, and Okeechobee conveniently spaced 40-miles apart where we could stay in a motel at the end of each day. We would be carrying all our worldly possessions in fanny packs which included: all-weather jacket & pants, camera, film, tripod, credit cards, travelers checks, aspirin, Ben Gay, second skin, tape, shoe strings, collapsible water battles, hat, sunscreen, Vaseline, bandanas, tooth paste, tooth brushes, comb, ChapStick, glasses & case, dental floss, gum, maps, Band-Aids, pocket knife, airline tickets, and extra socks.
At a send-off party by my office staff the day before our departure, I was asked if I thought we were ready. “Yes, I think we really are. My only concern is heat. If it’s 60 or 70, we’ll be fine. Temps in the 80’s, could be a problem.” Little did I know we would have four days of temperatures in the 90’s!
Our send off from the beach at Siesta Key was witnessed by a few friends and a reporter from the Pelican Press who took photos of us dipping our right foot in the Gulf of Mexico. Then we began. Having run shorter mileages the previous week to rest up for the event, Chris remarked, “Isn’t it great to be running again?” I hoped those were not words we would regret.
That first day was a killer. It was our longest day, 46 miles. By mid-day with the sun scorching down on us, out of water, and dehydrated, we were still only half way to Arcadia. We were in trouble. Finding a low bush for shade, we crawled into the dirt under its branches and laid low until later that afternoon.
At 5 p.m. we started again. Chris was really hurting. Our 15 and 5-minute running routine had changed to 5 and 5. Conversation had stopped. It took all our determination to get one foot in front of the other. Finally, at 8 p.m. we saw a sign in the distance. It said Arcadia … 6-miles ahead. Six miles! All we could do was weep.
The day ended around 10 p.m. I ordered a pizza for the room but after only a few bites we both crashed in bed. The next day, after a breakfast of pancakes, and feeling somewhat recovered, we started out. However, after 20-miles it was obvious Chris could go no further. As it happened, we were passing a prison where I used a telephone. I called a taxi to take Chris ahead to our next motel in Lake Placid were he was to rest and drink lots of fluids. I continued to run.
That night, after Chris has spent the day in bed, we had a big meal and decided that in order to beat the merciless heat we would begin the next day’s run at 4 a.m. What a difference that made. Chris had made a full recovery and by 7 a.m. we were half way to our next stop, Okeechobee.
That night in Okeechobee, my dad who had a winter condo in Stuart, drove over to spend the night with us. The next day, he would accompany us, driving ahead in his car for ten miles, relieving us of our fanny packs, and he had iced down drinks waiting for us at each rest stops.
Our destination that day was my parent’s condo in Stuart. It was still six miles short of the Atlantic Ocean beach, but we would run those last six miles the morning of the fifth day. My two sisters, Cherilyn and Lisa had flown down to Stuart to see us finish.
Newspapers in my hometown and in Siesta Key had been following our run and we learned a Palm Beach newspaper would be sending a photographer up to photograph our finish the next day.
The six-mile jaunt that final day was a walk in the park compared to the previous four days. The Palm Beach photographer intercepted us mid-run and took some photos of us running down the highway. “See you at the beach,” he said and then left us with just a few miles to go.
My concern during this endeavor, in fact during all the months of heavy training was having Chris suffer an injury. I wasn’t sure what the heavy mileage might do to a young person’s body and was worried about stress fractures, torn Achilles, knee problems, and more. With less than three miles to go, Chris suddenly jerked to a stop, moaning, “Oh no!”
“Chris, what is it? What’s the matter?”
“My jock just broke. It’s come completely apart. And these shorts don’t have an inner liner. I can’t go to the beach with those folks there and that photographer taking pictures.”
“Okay, no problem”, I said. “My jock is fine, and I do have an inner liner in my shorts. Let’s jump into these bushes and exchange shorts.”
The story in the next day’s Palm Beach newspaper, had two photographs on its front page. One was taken earlier in the day while en route to the beach. The other was taken after our ceremonial dip of our left foot in the Atlantic Ocean. A particularly observant reader might notice that in one picture my son was wearing the shorts with the double white stripe down the side, whereas the other photo shows that I have the shorts with the double white stripe.
Interviewed by the photographer, I told him Chris and I decided this was NOT going to be an annual endeavor. The Palm Beach headline read: 164-Mile Marathon A First and Last for Father, Son.