First Person / A Pittsburgh Marathon story: And the moral is ... I'll be running until I die
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I first fell in love with storytelling back in the late 1940s when I was a kid growing up on Pittsburgh's South Side. On cold wintry Saturdays, I'd sit cross-legged on top of the oven of our kitchen stove, sip a cup of angel's tea (that's what my English mother called tea with milk and sugar), and listen to "Let's Pretend" on the radio.
Every Saturday, "Let's Pretend," sponsored by Cream of Wheat, spun a story for its young listeners out of a fairy tale or fable, but always with a moral at the end. I still remember, maybe because I was a working-class kid, the tale of the spoiled prince who had no appetite until he became lost in the forest and had to chop wood for a simple meal of bread and butter.
"Let's Pretend" was likely the reason I collected "Classics Illustrated" comic books and loved reading "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Ivanhoe" while attending South High in the 1950s. And it probably had something to do with my decision to become an English major at Edinboro State College in the 1960s and go on to spend a good part of my life teaching literature.
When I first ran in the Pittsburgh Marathon two years ago, I was so enthralled at running over the Clemente Bridge on the way to PNC Park and Heinz Field and jogging through my old South Side neighborhood on the way out to Pitt's Cathedral of Learning and the Carnegie Museum, that I made the mistake of thinking the marathon was like a pop-up storybook. For all my love of storytelling, I failed to look for a moral to the story, though it was all around me.
No sign held up in encouragement is more compelling at a marathon than the one that says, "Remember why you're running."
Every year, runners at the Pittsburgh Marathon raise millions of dollars for charities, while others, on a more personal mission, run to inspire or remember a friend or family member. Of course, there are also recreational runners looking to be a part of the festivities, seasoned runners seeking to beat their personal best and even a handful of ancient marathoners still refusing to act their age.
It's a bit of an imaginative stretch to say that running in five-fingers shoes over Pittsburgh's bridges and hills is like dancing down the yellow brick road in ruby slippers, but what I've learned from running in the Pittsburgh Marathon is pretty close to what Dorothy discovers in "The Wizard of Oz." The movie so terrified me as child I had recurring nightmares of flying monkeys chasing me around the lawn outside the South Side branch of the Carnegie Library, but, for all its fabulous creatures and terrifying perils, "The Wizard of Oz," in the end, is really a story about coming home to family and friends.
There were three generations of Petersons at this year's Pittsburgh Marathon and old and new friends cheering us along the way. A friend showed up at the Kids Marathon to snap pictures of our grand kids, while others dined with us at our marathon eve pierogi fest on the South Side. One even sacrificed his own time in the marathon by setting the pace for my daughter and me in the half marathon.
On the South Side, there were my old ball-playing buddies and girlfriends (my wife Anita calls them my grandma groupies) to cheer me along, but my favorite encounter came along the Boulevard of the Allies when I spotted an older runner with what appeared to be his son. I jogged over, asked his age, and found out we were both 73. We shook hands, wished each other well and merged back into the crowd. That was my personal best moment until I crossed the finish line, picked up my medal and headed for the Family Reunion tent.
I made a pledge to run in the Pittsburgh Marathon until the Pirates win another World Series, so I have to confess that I did make a side trip to PNC Park during marathon weekend to check on the rumor that the Pirates were using bats with holes in them this season. The Pirates, with perfectly normal bats, scored one run and lost the game, but I'm keeping my word -- and staying in marathon shape, just in case.
Two years ago, when I decided to run in my first marathon at the age of 71, my daughter-in-law, an emergency room nurse, told my son his father was going to die on the streets of Pittsburgh. After this year's marathon, she told me about an emergency room patient who had tried to commit suicide by cutting his ankles, wrists and throat. When I asked her why she was telling me such a grim story, she said she was just wondering if he were a Pirates fan.
First Published June 23, 2012 12:00 am