Monday, October 17, 2016
Yesterday I capped off a very tiresome weekend by running the Mario Lemieux & Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation 6.6k race (roughly 4.1 miles) through the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the middle length and second test of a three-race series of races I scheduled for myself over the final 6 weeks of training for the TCS New York Marathon on November 6. Given the week, or six days to be exact, leading up to yesterday it was amazing that I even toed the starting line along Fifth Avenue next to the newly named PPG Paints Arena.
It all started last Monday, while squeezing in a training run along the Ocean City Boardwalk, I tweaked my ever-troublesome left hamstring. Given my competitive spirit, I wondered after completing my run that afternoon if I had the ability to pull back and be smart with the injury. Fortunately for me (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) I also began to feel a bit under the weather on Tuesday. My sore throat quickly became a full-blown upper respiratory issue and running took a definitive back seat over the course of the next few days. One thing I never mess with is upper respiratory illness so I’ll never truly know if I would have attempted to run on the sore hamstring like I did during training for the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) last year. The chest congestion would have sidelined me anyway so I’ll call it a blessing in disguise. Still, I treated the hamstring, rested my body as best I could, and hoped for the best over the weekend.
By Friday morning when I was ready to depart for Johnstown, PA I was not in the greatest shape or spirits. Body aches and chills entered the equation and made for a very long and difficult drive north. Higher than usual traffic volume made it much longer than the usual 5 hour drive and I ended up reaching my destination after about 6 1/2 hours.
Some solid sleep Friday night and some over-the-counter medication allowed me to rest up enough and Saturday morning I skated a hockey game and spent the rest of the day visiting old acquaintances and family. Saturday evening I attended the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Anaheim Ducks hockey game and by Sunday morning I knew I would simply do what I’ve done countless times previously. I would gut out whatever conditions and body aches and pains and find a way to persevere. I felt some similar feelings I experienced at MCM last year approaching the starting line. Because I hadn’t tested the hamstring prior to starting I wondered if I would feel the familiar ‘twinge’ or if my hamstring would hold up. My purpose for this race became simple. Test the hamstring, survive the race, and of course, record a satisfactory time for myself given all of the circumstances. All of those things happened over the course of the next 31 minutes and 53 seconds, although I’m not exactly tickled with the time but I rarely am. But something else happened as I approached the finish line of the race.
As I climbed the final hill toward the finish line I noticed a tall gentleman standing just in front of the finish line giving high fives to finishers as they crossed his path and immediately I recognized this larger-than-life figure as my childhood hero, the one and only Mario Lemieux. As a young hockey fan I watched this man not only perform athletic feats only few can ever dream of, but I watched him transform my favorite team and franchise into a winner. A champion. A repeat champion. A four-time champion. The things I witnessed him do I believe are things that can never be emulated or repeated. There is no doubt in my mind that he is and always will be the greatest hockey player to ever live. It’s not really up for debate in my mind.
Beyond his athletic talent, this is a man who remained humble throughout his career. He did the best he could to stay out of the limelight despite his status and abilities. He overcame major injuries, including major back surgeries that were so debilitating he could barely tie his own skates. Perhaps his greatest feat was to beat cancer and return to provide more awe inspiring moments when it appeared that perhaps his career had been derailed. He saved the franchise, not once, but twice. He’s the first player to ever become an owner. He’s built a charity that carries the very name of the race I was running. He’s raised millions of dollars and helped countless children and victims of deadly disease. He’s gone on to help bring two more championships to the franchise as an owner. He’s remained humble throughout.
As I’ve aged I realize that we should not idolize other human beings. We are all created by the only idol we should have. We live in a time where there are few worthy of such status anyway, but this is no ordinary man. Beyond all of the winning and the athletic endeavors, amazing as they are, I believe I witnessed firsthand the very humility that I feel is the root of my appreciation. Well after I finished my race I went back down near the finish line area and watched. As runners and walkers finished their races, each one received a high five or a slap of the hand or a brief exchange of words. The entire time (well over an hour), Mario greeted the finishers with a smile and a high five or hand slap or a congratulatory pat on the back that was as honest and genuine as anything I’d ever seen in sports or otherwise.
Earlier, as I approached my finish and this man who I can honestly say I’ve idolized and called “my hero” even into adulthood I felt awestruck in a way that you can only feel when getting this close to your hero. I know that sounds a bit amateur but this man’s career and accomplishments have influenced me from the time I was 13 years old. At that moment, for those fleeting seconds, I felt like the 13 year old who listened to Penguin games on his transistor radio, living and dying with each game and each shift that this man took for his beloved Penguins. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him and have only come within a few feet of him a few times back in the 90’s when I stood at the railing by the team entrance for warm ups. Here I am, 32 years later, approaching my idol, my hero, and he extends his hand to me. As I run by I simply say, “Mario,” and reach out with my hand. Two athletes from different planets, sharing a brief exchange of appreciation for one another. A simple hand slap that meant “good job” to one, and “I thank you for the 32 years of memories” to the other. After 32 years and a lifetime of watching sports and living life in general, yesterday is the day in which I brushed with greatness.