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Marathon of Regret

A lot of family and friends have asked my why I ran the Boston Marathon. This is my

On April 21, 2003 I ran the Boston Marathon. I was 53 years old. It was my first
marathon. I finished in 4 hours 29 minutes and 37 seconds, behind 14,290 runners and in
front of 2,765. I trained for 13 weeks, after not running for 3 1/2 years on a solemn
promise extracted by an orthopedic surgeon wielding a knife. OK, a scalpel.

I ran track competitively in high school and was among the top schoolboy middle
distance runners in Massachusetts in 1968. I look like a runner. I grew up near the
marathon route. Those were my primary qualifications to run the Boston Marathon. On
the other side of the ledger: My left leg was crushed in a motorcycle crash in 1975,
leaving it an inch shorter and not totally functional. I herniated a disk in my lower back in
1992. It nags every day. I’m seriously bow-legged. My feet are flat. My left knee lacks
cartilage. That’s what I’m willing to own up to. Oh, and I never ran more than 5 miles.

So, why did I decide to run the Boston Marathon? Well, it had been a rough few years.
Certainly, many terrific things happened, but some really awful things did too. Early in
1997 my wife had brain surgery to remove a tumor. Technically, there are no benign
tumors in the brain, just non-cancerous ones. She was lucky. It wasn’t cancer and she
recovered fully. Two months later my mother suffered a severe stroke that stole her mind.
There ensued several years of grindingly difficult days, weeks, and months until her
death in July 2000. Late in 1999 my father, who was trying to care for my mother,
became severely ill with flu and pneumonia. He went into shock and subsequently
suffered an aftermath of congestive heart failure and kidney damage until he died in
December 2002 after a six-week hospitalization. In 2002 my job evaporated.

But that’s not why I decided to run the Boston Marathon. A few days before my father
died, my sister found a trove of his memorabilia. An average-looking cardboard box, it
overflowed with his private memories from the 1930s and 40s. It contained letters he
received from friends, family, paramours, and chums he met during his WWII service in
the Pacific in Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Fiji; letters he had sent home before and
during the war that his parents saved for him; random telegrams and newspapers; and
most importantly, two diaries. In one little book he tracked his depression-era job search
and kept minute track of his wages and spending. In the other he recorded 9 months of his
army tour: January 1943 through September 1943.

We were stunned. We fixated on the war diary. It starts on his arrival on Guadalcanal as a
medic. He’s already been in the Army for two years. On Guadalcanal he retrieves
wounded soldiers and “stiffs” from the front lines. He dodges bullets and bombs. He
admires the artillery barrages. He plays cards -- poker, pinochle, and hearts. Lots of
cards. He suffers from malaria and other maladies. He’s tortured with sebaceous cysts.
He’s anxious. He’s frustrated. He enjoys eating and gets excited when beer chits are

Stan Dolberg

handed out. He doesn’t get along with the officers. He’s desperate to get out of the
Medical Corps.

Then the scene shifts to Fiji. He makes it out of the Corps and becomes a military
policeman. More malaria, more cards, more food and beer. The occasional dicey situation
breaking up a fight, hunting down a rapist, and investigating a theft. More run-ins with
officers. More frustration about not getting a break.

A life theme emerges. Raw deal. Unfair treatment. Missed opportunities. Helpless to
forces beyond his control. Regrets. As life unraveled in his last few years, his bearings
lost in a growing fog of dementia, my father reviewed many of his life choices. He
always drew the same conclusion: Knew the wrong people. Took the wrong job. Held the
stock too long. Bought the wrong car. Married the wrong woman.

After my father died, I spent several weeks transcribing his war diary to computer. I
deciphered and became immersed in every word, every hyphen, every nickname on the
rain-damaged pages. I felt proud of him. I felt sad for him. I felt inspired to live a life
without regret.

And that’s why I decided to run the marathon. I didn’t want to miss my chance. At least
that’s how it started. But as I began training, my motivation branched out.

Because I didn’t qualify, I had to join a charity team to run with an official number. A
day before the deadline the American Liver Foundation team agreed to have me. So I ran
for my sister who’s fighting hepatitis C. Then the reality of training in the arctic horror of
Boston’s 2002/2003 winter hit, in 40 mph gusts. So I ran to beat the weather. My knees
and back started to hurt. So I ran to prove the doctors wrong and take my body back from
middle age.

As the training progressed and the challenges grew, I ran to make my wife and kids
proud. To raise funds for liver research, and to get some attention, I tapped friends,
family, and former colleagues. So I ran to merit their goodwill. On longer training runs,
some as long as five hours, I thought about my parents and all we went through. So I ran
to honor them and leave the pain behind.

I ran to punctuate my life. Any regrets? Nope.

Stan Dolberg