Dr. Grene was the first to congratulate me on my gold medal, which I had won, not so much because I had finished in record time, but simply because I had aged into an older group and was now the youngest in a senior cohort where real competition was often sparse and occasionally nonexistent. Still, I was happy with my win and pleased by Dr. Grene’s recognition.
“I guess I’m one of the few people around thrilled to have finally reached the age of
sixty,” I told him, fully aware that if I stayed healthy enough to race, I would improve my chances of collecting medals as I graduated every five years from one age group to the next, while, ironically, probably falling further and further behind my fastest times.
“You’ll be in the winner’s circle more often than not now,” said Dr. Grene, patting me on the shoulder. “And, of course, you’ll never have to worry about me stealing your glory since I’ll always be ten years older. Nothing either of us can do about that. So, enjoy your birthday and your gold,” and then he left me as his name was called to collect his first-place medal in the seventy-plus bracket.
Dr. Grene was something of a phenomenon among the regular competitors in the 5k and 10k races staged along Chicago’s lakefront from early spring to late fall. I don’t recall, for instance, ever having seen him bested in his age group at either distance, and certainly none of his contemporaries ever came close to accumulating enough points to prevent him from receiving his annual “Best in Class” award at the Chicago Area Racing Association’s winter banquet.
For some reason he took a liking to me, perhaps because I was such a greenhorn when we first met and he regarded himself as something of a mentor. Or perhaps it was because we had both run track at Big Ten schools many years before—I in the sprints, he in the middle distances—although at that time I knew nothing of his past renown or of the peculiar end to his athletic career. Or maybe it was simply because we were two of the most regular of the senior runners and frequented the same races. In any case, he seemed to take some pleasure in my presence and—although I would never be a threat to his own standing because of the difference
in our ages—even greater pleasure in beating me soundly whenever we ran.
This last attitude, I suppose, was a product of our initial encounter at my first 5K. I had been aware of these events—usually organized around worthy causes—from the brochures distributed at my athletic club. But I had never thought to enter one until a severe tennis elbow forced me to give my racket away and seek some other sport to slake my competitive thirst. I had been a leisure jogger for some time, and when I received a pamphlet in the mail inviting me to enter the Race to Remember Rachel (a local newscaster who had died young of leukemia), I decided, after several weeks of hard training, to give it a try.
A frosty March mist hung over upper Hutchinson Field, obscuring Lake Michigan to the east, as I arrived shortly after sunrise, groggy from lack of sleep, for the 8 a.m. start. A frail, spindly man, who seemed to be many years my senior, was limbering up at one of the police barriers, and since from there I could see no signs identifying the event tents, I asked him if he knew where I could register. “Follow me,” he said, and he then led me to a table stacked with entry forms, showing me as well the corral where I could check my gear. “They’re a little late in setting up,” he said, “but as long as you’ve got twenty-five bucks in cash, I’m sure they’ll take
care of you,” and then he left me to return to his stretching.
I saw him again as we, along with several hundred others, lined up at the start.
“Do you mind if I run along with you?” I asked. “This is my first 5k, and I don’t have a
clue about pacing.”
“Be my guest,” he said.
“Just for the first mile or so, until I get the feel of it. I don’t want to pick up speed and extend myself too early.”
“Sure,” he said, “and then once you get the hang of it, you can turn on your after-burners and leave me in your dust.”
I smiled uncomfortably, realizing that he had sensed, not without some cause, a certain condescension in my tone. Fortunately, just then the starter’s horn went off.
I managed to stay with him for the first half-mile or so, but from the beginning, from the ease and naturalness of his stride in contrast to the ragged struggle of my own effort just to keep pace, I knew I was in trouble. As I fell behind, he seemed to gain strength and speed in direct proportion to my increasing exhaustion, and before long, he was nowhere in sight.
The final mile was a considerable ordeal, and although my finish time surpassed the best of my workouts. I was too fatigued and embarrassed to remain for the awards ceremony. A few weeks later, the silver medal I received in the mail for placing second in my age group—one of the few medals I’d ever received in an athletic competition—erased all trace of humiliation, and I was hooked.
From then on, in my fifty-eighth year, I ran competitively almost every weekend until Thanksgiving, and almost every weekend I encountered the frail, spindly gentleman, who eventually introduced himself to me as Dr. Grene, a professor emeritus in the Department of Pediatrics at Northwestern Medical School. He also lived on the Near North, and we often ran together at the lakefront races along Montrose Harbor or through Lincoln Park or east of the Museum Campus and Soldier Field. I hadn’t built enough stamina for 10ks or longer distances, and although Dr. Grene had finished several marathons, he preferred the 5k, too, where his kick over the last mile not only gave him a strong advantage, but was considered to be something of a miracle for someone of his age. By the end of my first season, I managed to keep pace with him for almost the first two miles, but grew accustomed to seeing him fade into the distance over the last long stretch of the course.
But no matter. Although the chance to compete successfully initially drew me to these races, it was the experience itself I learned to value. Running in the early morning hours with a community of athletes and amateurs of all ages, the soft green of the park lawns sloping down to the lake, the sun reflecting low and bright off the surface of the water, running past and below Japanese cherry trees and crabapples in full bloom, through shimmering green galleries and under the gold and yellowing foliage of late autumn, leaves crunching beneath our every stride,
the cornered and spired skyline, grey-black in the distance to the left, and then to the right, and then back in front, the pleasure of nearing physical limits and the exuberant acceleration as the finish line approached, and even the often stale doughnuts and bagels and greenish bananas at the end, washed down with Gatorade or bottled water, all in an effort to defeat Parkinson’s Disease
or renovate fieldhouses or feed the hungry—these were the experiences I looked forward to during the week and around which I planned my weekends.
The following year I ran even more frequently, branching out into the neighborhood races—Ravenswood, Wicker Park, Pilsen—and out to the suburbs, running through forest preserves, schoolyard playing fields, and over the sloping hills of farmland now landscaped into subdivisions, municipal parks, and country clubs. By then, I had begun cross-training and increased my running workouts to four times a week and invested in thermal wear and high-end motion-control shoes, and although I still preferred those mornings where the clear blues of the
sky and the lake met at the horizon and the sunny running paths were speckled with the shadows of maples, elms, and sycamores branching overhead, I was no longer intimidated by city streets dampened by cold and rainy fogs or by frozen dirt trails powdered with snow or speckled with ice.
But the following season, when I had turned sixty and entered the winners circle over and over again, my performances began to level off. Although I increased the length of my workouts, I could not better my times of the previous year. I felt as if I were running as fast as ever and finishing as strongly, but the watch on my wrist and the timer at the finish were telling me a different story.
And, of course, I could gain nothing on Dr. Grene, who seemed to be running even faster than the year before.
“I don’t understand it,” I said nibbling on a hard bagel after another disappointing
performance. “I can’t seem to improve at all, no matter how hard I work during the week,” and then I told him I was considering training for longer distances, perhaps even the Chicago Marathon, where simply finishing is as much of a goal as a fast time.
“You want to improve your speed?” he asked. “Have you ever tried fartleks?”
“A Scandinavian term. It basically means incorporating bursts of speed—maybe twenty or thirty seconds worth—into your workout, and then slowing down until you can do another one and keeping it up throughout most of your run. From then on, you can increase the length of your sprints until you’re ready for more formal intervals—running, say, two hundred meters at three-quarters pace, then jogging four hundred, then running another two hundred until you can’t do any more. And then you gradually increase your running distances and shorten your jogging
“That sounds pretty rigorous.”
“It is. More than most recreational runners are willing to tolerate. But it worked for the Swedes. On the other hand, you can slow down, increase your distances, and work your way up to the marathon. But remember, they shut things down after six hours.”
I think Dr. Grene underestimated my desire. Over the winter, I incorporated his
suggestions into my regular routines, and gradually I began to sustain my speed over longer and longer stretches, deepening my endurance, and by the time the following season began, I quickly surpassed my own personal best, and began to approach times that I formerly assumed were far beyond my reach.
Most of the early races I ran in my sixty-first year were in the suburbs—once as far south as Munster, Indiana—and I didn’t encounter Dr.Grene until the Monsters of the Midway March in late spring. I noticed him in the crowd before he saw me, and as I trailed him by a few yards to the starting line, I wondered if he had been aware of my progress, since the official results of many of these races had been posted on the Internet.
“You mind if I tag along?” I asked as I lined up next to him.
“Be my guest,” he said. “Think you can keep up?”
“I’ll give it a shot,” and the horn went off.
For the first two miles I stuck close to him, but I doubt that he was aware of my presence several paces behind. In fact, if he gave any thought to me at all, I’m sure he’d assumed that I’d already fallen far back, since when I passed him with about a half mile to go, and he looked over and recognized me, a surprised, almost stricken expression appeared on his face. Remembering his usual strong finish, I pushed myself hard over the remaining distance, knowing that if he, in turn, passed me, I would probably deflate like a punctured balloon. For the final hundred meters
or so, I leaned forward into a sprint, pumping my arms, refusing to look back, certain I could hear him breathing heavily behind me, coming ever closer, sure to pull ahead at the very end. When I crossed the line, completely exhausted and well ahead of my previous best time, Dr. Grene was nowhere in sight.
When he finally staggered across the finish, he seemed to have aged considerably from the start of the race, frailer than ever. As he bent over, palms on his knees, his cheeks sunk more deeply inward with each subsequent breath.
“You have only yourself to blame,” I said, approaching him when he finally straightened up. “It was those fartleks you told me about.”
He looked at me without comprehension, as if he were concentrating too heavily on his breathing to respond coherently or to even recognize my existence.
“I never could’ve done it without those fartleks,” I said, patting him on the back, but
when he shuddered at my touch and again bent over, I retreated a few steps back.
“Well, see you next Sunday at the Run for the Zoo?” and when he nodded, I think it was rather more to get rid of me than to agree, and when he straightened up again, he turned away to search for a bottle of water.
I didn’t see him at the Run for the Zoo, nor in any other competition in the subsequent weeks, but it hardly mattered to me, since by the middle of the summer, I had withdrawn from the circuit myself.
From the beginning of my renewed interest in racing, I had always feared injury,
knowing that at my age, recovery from any serious problem would be protracted and frustrating, and that a return to competitive form would be equally slow and arduous. For that reason, I followed a regular stretching routine, endured long warmups and equally long warmdowns, and although I suffered an occasional muscle strain or twisted ankle, I took exceptional care whenever I felt a twinge of pain or excessive soreness, cancelling workouts and missing races to prevent more extensive damage or complications.
I managed to avoid all the usual ailments—tendinitis, ACL tears, as well as such chronic syndromes as plantar fasciitis and patellofemoral pain. But one morning, after a steep uphill climb in Hinsdale, I felt a sharp soreness deep within my pelvic region, and when it became more intense with every subsequent workout and then failed to diminish after two weeks of inactivity, I consulted my doctor.
He diagnosed an “athletic pubalgia,” and decided to refer me to a specialist in sports
medicine. “It’s commonly called a sports hernia,” he said, “but that’s really a misnomer, since it’s not really a hernia. In fact, I’m not sure we know exactly what it really is, and depending on whom you listen to, there are a variety of preferred procedures, Anyway, Dr. Sax will probably schedule some tests—X-rays, MRI—to rule out anything else, but if it continues to persist, I wouldn’t be surprised if he recommends surgery. Then you’ll have a decision to make.”
But before I could meet with Dr. Sax, I got another opinion, from Dr. Grene. I ran into him during an intermission at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, to which we both subscribed, although usually on different nights. But before we could discuss my own condition, Dr. Grene surprised me by revealing that he had given up running altogether.
“An injury?” I asked.
“No, not exactly an injury,” he said. “I seem to have lost both my strength and desire
together in equal measure, and I no longer have the will or the energy to turn things around. No one within fifteen years of me used to pass me anywhere in the last half mile, but recently. . .” and then he shrugged his shoulders and refused to look me in the eye as if I were somehow to blame. “But now,” he continued, “now perhaps I’ll take up golf again. I used to be pretty fair on the links when I was young. But what about yourself?” he asked, and then he added innocently
enough as if having entirely forgotten our last race together, “Are you still thinking about moving up to the marathon?”
“No,” I replied, “since I’ve turned things pretty much around, one personal best in the 5k after another . . . until this, anyway,” and I pointed to my abdomen. “Ever hear of a sports hernia?”
“An athletic pubalgia? Sure. They either disappear after a while or stick around forever,” and then he smiled, and his smile seemed odd to me, not so much because it was twisted or that there was anything wrong about it, but because, although he had always been friendly and cordial with me, I suddenly realized I had never seen him smile before. “It occasionally appears among professional hockey and soccer players, although now that all you baby boomers are pushing your physical envelopes way past your prime, it’s showing up more frequently in the clinics. It’s still something of a mystery, though.”
“So I’ve been told,” I said. “Anyway, whatever it is, I sacrificed half of my running
season waiting for it to go away, and now my doctor has referred me to a specialist who, I understand, looks after the Chicago Bear’s offensive line.”
“He won’t help you,” said Dr. Grene, still smiling at me. “Not if it’s persisted for this
“Oh? There’s nothing I can do, in your opinion?”
“Sure. Give up running. Switch to long walks. Maybe take up golf.”
“My doctor mentioned the possibility of surgery. He said it was a simple procedure, that…”
“They try to keep it simple and not too invasive, although it seems to vary from doctor to doctor. And that doesn’t mean there can’t be complications.”
“There can always be complications. Look, if you were a young athlete, I certainly
wouldn’t discourage you. But you’re not, and . . .” He paused, as if uncertain on whether or not to continue.
“I know of two cases personally. Both Chicagoans in their late fifties. Of course, it
could’ve just been a coincidence. Acute septic shock is far more common than most folks realize.”
“Acute septic shock?”
“Nobody really knows what triggers it, and that’s what would particularly concern me in these two very similar cases. In postoperative occurrences the body reacts as if it were being attacked by some toxic agent, but occasionally there’s no source of infection to be found. A precipitous drop in blood pressure followed by a sudden, almost total systemic shutdown. Steps can be taken to counter the symptoms and reverse the syndrome but they need to be taken at once, and that simply didn’t occur in the case of an acquaintance of mine, whose kidneys and liver had, according to the postmortem, been turned completely to mush. And, in the other case, a similar simple procedure to alleviate a similar pubalgia led to a similar postoperative reaction, although this time the patient was luckier. He only lost both feet just below the ankles. But then, of course, it could’ve all been just coincidence, although I’ve heard about other such coincidences, too, all involving similar cases. Of course, this is all such unexplored territory.” The smile returned to his face. “Ah, there’s the bell for the second act. Perhaps we can discuss your situation further at the next intermission.”
But this was only a two-act opera, and I never saw Dr. Grene again.
As Dr. Grene had predicted, Dr. Sax, after several consultations and tests,
“I can refer you to a colleague in Milwaukee,” he told me, “whose had considerable
success with similar cases. It’s a simple procedure, but quite innovative, and he’s the only one in the region performing it. The athletes I know who have had the surgery are back in training within weeks.”
“But someone of my age . . .”
“You’re in excellent shape, and I don’t see any cause for concern. As I’ve said, this is
generally a simple procedure, relatively painless, with a high rate of success.”
“But could there be complications?”
“There can always be complications. Nothing’s a sure thing. But I haven’t heard of any, certainly nothing serious.”
“But you can’t guarantee . . .”
“There are no guarantees in surgery,” said Dr. Sax, who, in view of my apparent
apprehension, seemed now to have adopted a more cautious approach.
“So your advice is . . . ?”
“It’s your call.”
I decided to take up swimming, and although the sports hernia eventually vanished, I have not returned to competitive running, both from a fear of a recurrence and a reluctance to undergo the long rehabilitation required to regain my former competitive edge, if such a thing were even possible.
The following year, at about the time I entered my first Masters Swimming tournament (where I finished sixth in my age group in the freestyle, although medals were awarded to all competitors), Dr. Grene’s obituary appeared in the Tribune. Apparently, he had been “courageously battling leukemia” for some time. The Tribune also informed me of his position of leadership in the medical profession, the seats he held on various nonprofit boards, and his
many contributions to the community.
It also reported on his extraordinary athletic career, many years before. Unbeaten as a high-school miler, he had gained three consecutive state championships at that distance. At Iowa, he concentrated on the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events, where he continued his winning streak. Known for his “blistering final laps,” he won several NCAA championships, and he remained unbeaten until the 1952 Olympic trials, where he was defeated in the finals at both distances by relatively unknown runners from small colleges, and failed to make the team. At the time, his losses were considered to be two of the most surprising upsets in the history of American track and field, and afterwards, according to the Tribune, he gave up his final year of eligibility, never to compete in another collegiate race, devoting himself entirely to his medical studies.
But the Tribune also commented on his running career following his retirement from Northwestern Medical School, quoting the Executive Director of the Chicago Area Running Association, who knew him well: “The fact is, Dr. Grene took great pride in his unbeaten record in the 5 and 10ks he entered as he competed his way through the senior age groups. And not only was he a familiar, indeed legendary, figure in the winner’s circle, but also in the early morning hours along the lakefront and on the running paths of Lincoln Park and with all those amateur runners and joggers who made his acquaintance along the way. He gave freely back to the
community, and offered both his time and helpful advice to all enthusiastically and selflessly.”
According to the Tribune, he was survived by two sons, both of them surgeons, and six grandchildren.