"There is no way I'm going to make it," I thought. I was twenty-five miles into the South African Comrades fifty-four-mile ultra marathon and my body was spent. The rhythmic pounding of one foot over the other continued automatically, but I was certain my glycogen levels were too low to keep it up much longer. It was 1994 and, after a ten-year hiatus from running, this was going to be my last big race.
In the early 1980s, I won three consecutive New York Marathons and the Boston Marathon in 1982. I qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 and 1984 and had set US track records in the 5K, 10K, and five-mile run. My 1981 marathon time of 2:08:13 was a milestone for U.S. runners at that time.
To say I was self-assured back then is an understatement. I would predict I was going to win a marathon or set a world record, and then I would go out and do it. I pushed myself relentlessly.
On more than one occasion, I actually collapsed at the finish and had to be revived. It was mind over matter and winning was what mattered. But sometimes, not even dogged determination could override physical reality. In 1978, while still in college and competing against Bill Rodgers in hot, humid temperatures, I collapsed at the finish. Some people were concerned enough to have the sacrament of last rites administered to me in the medical tent.
My endocrine system became so stressed over time that I eventually became plagued with chronic health problems. I consulted doctors all over the world before finally realizing that my competitive running days were over. My belief had always been that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to - and I usually did - but now I had to accept defeat over something that was beyond my control.
It was around this time that I began to turn to God and religion in a serious way. My human frailty perhaps led me to more fully understand that it is God (and not me) who is ultimately in control. It was what my mother and father had always taught me.
My parents were devout Catholics. That is actually what brought us to the United States from Cuba. My father was working on the construction of a planned community. The only thing left to build was the chapel. Fidel Castro stepped in and told them there would no longer be a need for churches in the new society he was building. The year was 1959. My father wanted no part of a "new" anything that did not include God. We soon moved to the United States, and he and my mom raised their four kids as practicing Catholics.
Despite my physical setbacks, there were short periods of improvement, only to then run poorly again. The few races I did enter, my performances were mediocre at best. Then, in 1993, my running consistently and steadily improved. "One last race," I thought when I heard about the South African Marathon. I would be thirty-six.
The old adrenaline surge pulsed through my body at the starting line. "I can do this," I thought confidently. But now, halfway through, I determined it was impossible. "I can't do this," I thought. It was at that point, it hit me: I really was "my old self" when I started the race. Not once had I thought to pray or call upon God. "I can't do anything without You, God," I realized.
"Lord, I'm putting this race in your hands," I prayed. I then, began praying the rosary. My legs somehow kept going. When I was still going an hour later, I thought: "Maybe this is God's plan for me today."
When I crossed the finish line, I had outrun 12,000 other entrants, winning the fifty-four-mile marathon in five hours, thirty-eight minutes and thirty-nine seconds - nearly a record.
Knowing how I felt physically, it was pretty amazing that I even finished that race, let alone won it. Once I acknowledged it was not in my power to keep going, I put myself in God's hands. In the end, this is the only success that matters.