Robert has been running marathons since his 20s. Though always athletic (he was an avid tennis and soccer player), it wasn’t until he immigrated to the United States from Rome that he added running to his repertoire. Though his mother was fastidious about keeping his tennis shorts as white as Chicago snow, once he married, he traded in most of his tennis shoes for running shoes. And because Robert never did anything unless he was going to do it well, by the time he had two boys of his own, he had crossed the finish lines of dozens of marathons.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that his boys — particularly his older son— followed in his sneaker’d steps. Because Robert was generally a happy and loving man, he was able to appreciate the many joys life offered here in Chicago. But, very little pleased him more than seeing his boys excel at something that he himself understood so well. He would teach his sons all about picking up their feet, wrestling with the wind, training through Chicago winters. But the most important lesson of all, always, was about finishing strong.
Well into his 50s, Robert continued running marathons. He accumulated PRs, medals and racing bibs like stacks of phone bills. I’d like to say he kept his goals “modest,” but they weren’t. A sub-3 hour finish remained as elusive to him as the sunlight that splashed across the Lake during his Sunday runs. And though he chased these finish lines long after others would have turned away, eventually, his body wasn’t able to keep up.
Though many of his running buddies were still running marathons, in his 60s, Robert started having pains in his joints — pains that couldn’t be foam-rollered away as “running injuries.” He would soon learn that his most loyal running partner— his body — would be bowing out. For the next several years, in lieu of an easy jog along the lakeshore trail or long run around the neighborhood, his days would be filled with visits to the local dialysis clinic or emergency room.
But as Robert’s body continued to decline, his pride in his boys was on the rise. In 2007, his older son, Anthony, ran his first marathon. Though he ended up having to walk a part of it due to injury, he finished and he finished strong. Years later, he did his father proud again when he trained with his younger brother, David, to run an injury-free marathon in 2014, finishing together at just under 3:30. And although his father’s PR was something Anthony could only dream of, the allure of Boston was as strong as a bowl of his father’s pasta. Perhaps 2015 would be his year to Boston-qualify.
So, on June 8, 2015, exactly 18 weeks out, Anthony started Day 1 of the Hal Higdon training program with a cup of black coffee and his most trusted companion — his foam roller. Over the next several weeks, he would run easy, run long, run hard, and run fun. He cut back on junk food and incorporated groceries he’d never eaten before — beets, spirulina, chia seeds, kale. He joked that he should start a fund just to finance his frequent visits to the local physical therapy clinic, because this year, he was taking no chances.
I wish I could say that the next 18 weeks of Anthony’s life consisted of nothing but the wind at his back, loose legs, and a series of confidence boosting PRs. But that wasn’t in the cards for him. The man who taught him how to use his legs would be told that he’d have to spend the rest of his life without one. In August, just a couple months before the 2015 Chicago Marathon, Robert was given a choice between having his left leg amputated or hospice care.
At this point, this story becomes less story-like. I cannot emphasize enough the amount of agony Robert had been living with for years, most of which he’d successfully kept hidden from his boys. Shooting pains throughout his body, crippling fatigue from dialysis three times a week, and life threatening infections that would camp out in his organs whenever they pleased and leave behind a wreckage of unimaginable anguish. So, while the average person — the average athlete — might easily choose amputation, the choice was not nearly as clear cut for Robert. In an act of indescribable courage, he determined that life from a wheelchair — with the prospect of seeing his sons cross scores of finish lines — was better than no life at all.
And though things were really really hard, everyone thought eventually, Robert would be home and that it would all go back to a different kind of normal. And although Robert would come home, briefly, to spend a weekend celebrating his and Anthony’s birthday (a couple days apart), he would soon be wheeled back into the emergency room from yet another infection. There, the doctors hemmed and hawed over his right leg — the one he still had — and articulated the very same dilemma a different set of doctors had laid out before him over his left leg just two months ago.
This time, he chose different.
Robert decided to discontinue dialysis and go into hospice care on October 1, 2015. Amid the revolving door of doctors, nurses, technicians and extended relatives, he asked his boys for a private moment to impart one final instruction.
“Run the marathon. No matter what.”
Robert died in his sleep on October 6, 2015.
Per their father’s parting instructions, Anthony and David ran the 2015 Chicago Marathon on October 11 — just a few days after saying goodbye to the man who taught them to love the sound of feet on pavement. They finished and they finished strong. Both PR’d. At their father’s funeral a couple days later, they nestled their medals right next to his hands before he was buried.
A year later, on a blustery wet day in Philadelphia, Anthony would run his best marathon yet.
Over a cup of coffee a few days later, I asked Anthony whether he had any goals for next year’s marathon. He looked at me as though it were the most obvious thing in the world:
“A sub 3 finish.”