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Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Red Sox pitcher who helped me get through the 2017 Boston Marathon

Snow couldn't stop him either. (Robert Bukaty, AP)

When I tightened my laces one last time and walked toward the starting line of the 2017 Boston Marathon on April 17, I was 15 days into my second half-century and about to run far further than I ever had in my life. The thermometer was pushing a dangerous 70 degrees, but I had a secret weapon I was counting on to get me from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

A pitcher in my pocket.

Before leaving my office the previous Friday, I grabbed something off my desk -- a baseball card that has leaned up against my monitor for the last decade or so. It's a 2002 "Future Stars" card of Greg Montalbano, a left-handed pitcher who had been named the top minor league hurler in the Red Sox system the previous season. Greg's sister, Kristen, was my colleague in the Dana-Farber Communications office for several years, but that's not why I keep the card there.

The card was a reminder of why I've been a writer and editor at Dana-Farber for the past 18 years. In helping chronicle the clinical care and research going on there, I'm spreading the word and generating attention to the disease. which will hopefully translate into research funding that ends it. It's also why I was running the marathon -- in addition to fulfilling a lifelong dream (I grew up on Heartbreak Hill), I was hoping to raise $10,000 or more for research at Dana-Farber. Thanks to many of you, I had already done so by race day, for which I am deeply grateful.

All well and good, but what does this have to do with a minor league pitcher? Only everything.



Greg Montalbano had the drive and talent to become the first Massachusetts-bred Red Sox pitching ace since the Kennedy administration. A Westborough native who starred at St. John's Prep and Northeastern University, he overcame a bout with testicular cancer diagnosed his freshman year of college to pitch a no-hitter as a senior -- the same year (1999) he was drafted by the Red Sox. 

Success continued in the minors, where after splitting 2000 between the Gulf Coast League and Single A Lowell, Montalbano has a breakthrough 2001 season. He was a combined 12-6 for Sarasota and Double A Trenton, with 122 strikeouts in 139.1 innings, and appeared on the fast track to Fenway Park. 

The Red Sox have a special connection to Dana-Farber and its Jimmy Fund charity dating to the 1950s, so I figured between Montalbano's toughness and Boston-area roots, and my small personal ties to his family, his card would provide plenty of good karma for the marathon. It would also serve as a way of honoring all the pediatric and adult patients -- many of whom I've written about through the years -- who have received treatment and care at Dana-Farber.

So a plan was hatched. In addition to covering my bib with the names of family, friends, and colleagues impacted by cancer, I'd have one more talisman to salute those for whom I was running. Before heading to the starting line, I stuck Greg's card in the back pocket of my shorts.

Remembering many on race day.

A few weeks before, I was not even certain I'd make it to the starting line. A knee injury had kept me off the road for a month. Excellent advice and encouragement from Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team coach Jack Fultz, my friend and life coach Debra Bennett of Core Harmony, and the magic hands of Emily Bliss, PT, and her colleagues at Marathon Physical Therapy in Newton Corner all contributed to getting me back on the road.

The race-day strategy Jack devised for me was to employ the "Run-Walk-Run" running method developed by long-distance guru Jeff Galloway. The idea is to run three minutes, walk briskly for one, and then run for three more -- repeating the process for all 26.2 miles. This would cause less pounding on my bad knee and preserve my energy, hopefully making up for the long training runs I had missed.

Jack won the 1976 Boston Marathon on a 100-degree day, so he knows something about conserving body fuel. I gave the Galloway Method a try during some last-month training runs, and it worked like magic. Walking one of every four minutes, I was actually significantly faster overall for each mile completed. I couldn't believe my watch.

On race day, however, something happened. More than 40 years of desire to be doing just this -- fueled first by a childhood spent handing out water to marathoners as they crested Heartbreak Hill, and then by decades spent dreaming of joining their ranks -- took over. The first three minutes came and went, and I did not switch to a walk. Before I knew it the first mile marker was coming up and I was still running -- and at a terrific pace. I was usually a 10-minute miler, but I did the first one in well under nine.

Did I listen to Jack, the '76 champ? Nope.

Everything I had been taught by Jack and others told me this was a mistake. You don't go out too fast in a marathon, and you most definitely don't do it if you're running on a knee that could give out at any time. But the crowds were so enthusiastic, I felt so great, and I kept thinking about Greg Montalbano and how he didn't let cancer slow him down in his desire to make the Red Sox.

I decided to devise a new plan. I would walk, but only for about 30-45 seconds while grabbing water from the wonderful volunteers set up just past each mile marker. I would drink one small cup, pour the other over my head (a great idea from Jack I did follow, thankfully), and then tap the card in my back pocket and start running again.

As the miles accumulated, the plan worked like a charm. By the 10-mile mark I was on pace to finish the race in well under four and a half hours, and I didn't feel the least bit tired. The heat that was clearly bothering other runners seemed to have no effect at all on me, and every time I felt like slowing down I would just reach back and give a TAP-TAP to the pitcher in my pocket. Greg's strength gave me strength.

While passing the screaming women of Wellesley College at the half-way mark, I noticed my times begging to slow. Soon I was no longer on pace to finish in under 4:30:00, but figured my original goal of under 5:00:00 hours would be a cinch. I still felt great, and now -- passing my brothers, my sister, and other family and friends gathered along the course to cheer me on -- I couldn't help breaking into a silly grin every half-mile or so. Even in the hills of my hometown Newton, which Jack had implored me to walk, I kept running.

A Smiling Fool ... Before the Wall.

My wife Michelle and daughter Rachel were waiting a block from our house at Mile 20 (just before Heartbreak Hill) and my parents and son Jason were at Mile 22 (just after it). So like a madman, I just kept grinning like an idiot, and as I hugged them all and headed toward B.C. I swear I was almost laughing. When the crowds got real large and raucous around Cleveland Circle, I gestured with both arms for them to yell louder -- which they did. I high-fived kids and enjoyed creative posters like "Find a cute butt and follow it to the finish!"

Before I could take this advice, however, I ran into trouble. As Jack and others had warned, the course sneaked up on me. The straight and mostly flat two-mile stretch of Beacon Street through Washington Square and Coolidge Corner seemed to go on for hours, and my legs became leaden tree trunks. If I stopped running at this point, I worried, I might not be able to start up again. More and more others, worn down by the earlier sun and the Newton hills, had reached their breaking point already.

When one guy near me staggered to the sidelines and plopped down on a lawn chair, apparently done for the day, my mind veered a bit off-course as well to a Stephen King novella I last read about a decade ago. "The Long Walk" is set in a dystopian near-future USA; a group of 100 teenage boys are selected from a list of willing applicants for an annual test of mental and physical endurance. They must walk day and night with no rest across the highways of Maine and New Hampshire toward Boston, with the winner promised riches beyond belief (hence the willing applicants), There is one caveat, however: anyone who dips below four miles an hour more than three times during the walk is shot on sight by soldiers.

Visions of Ray Garraty danced in my head.


Amazing myself by remembering the protagonist's name -- "Maine's own Ray Garraty!" -- I tried to channel some more of his and Greg Montalbano's grit.

TAP-TAP.

In the end it was arm injuries and not cancer that derailed Montalbano's path to Fenway Park. Set to pitch for Triple A Pawtucket in 2002, he suffered a frayed labrum (cartilage disc) in his pitching shoulder during spring training that required season-ending surgery. Arm injuries cost him most of 2003-04 as well, and when he did pitch he was ineffective. By 2005 the Red Sox brass felt they had been patient long enough, and Montalbano was released in spring training. He was 26. .

By now I was most definitely walking, no doubt slow enough to get a bullet from Stephen King's soldiers. I was also starting to get my first real doubts that I could finish in 5:00:00 hours, Then I heard a yell of "Hey Saul!" over my left shoulder. This was no typical fan cheering me on after reading my name off my legs, arms, or singlet, but a yell of familiarity. It was coming from the side of the course nearest the C-Line trolley, a stretch closed off to fans, and when I turned toward it I saw my high school buddy and frequent Red Sox seat-mate Scott chugging along behind the barriers with a smile and a wave. In no mood for talking, Appreciative beyond belief, but in no mood for talking, I managed a few stammered sentences of thanks as he continued alongside me for about a half-mile.

"YOU GOT THIS!" he screamed, but I still wondered.

The Mile 23 and Mile 24 checkpoints came and went, each marked with one cup for the head and one cup for the lips, I bucked convention and did my best not to walk as I poured; Scott's visit had given me a boost, but I still wasn't sure what would happen if I stopped again -- and I don't want to find out. The soldiers might be waiting.

TAP. TAP.

No other big-league team signed Montalbano, but he found new baseball life as a reliever for the Independent League Worcester Tornadoes of the Canadian-American League. Perhaps, he must have thought, he could get another crack at the majors.


Montalbano's story took another twist with Tornadoes.

Then the cancer came back.

By now Montalbano had been through so much that he didn't feel like stopping even if his body was again betraying him, and who could blame him? He continued pitching as well as ever through his treatment, recovery, and another remission, and earned a level of respect from teammates, fans, and coaches normally befitting a Hall of Famer. Perhaps being treated like Pedro Martinez went to his arm; he had an ERA of 3,13 in 2006, and 1.80 in 2007 (when he returned to being a starter).   

The downhill from Coolidge Corner toward Kenmore Square was a Godsend, and suddenly I was looking at the same view I've seen thousands of times driving into work and ballgames. Just past where the C-Line trolleys make their descent underground, Beacon Street takes a last rise to pass over the Mass. Pike and into the square. Overland Street, my office, and Fenway Park are on the right, Boston University's Metcalf Science Center is on the left, and in the middle is by far the most beautiful thing I'd seen all day:

The Citgo Sign.

"HERE HE COMES!! GO SAUL!! GO  SAUL!!"

This is where I reached sudden and very fleeting rock star status. Halfway across the small bridge leading into Kenmore Square is the official viewing spot for the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge (DFMC) team. Many of my colleagues from Dana-Farber Communications were gathered there, along with Jan Ross and her amazing Dana-Farber Running Programs staff and dozens of pediatric cancer "patient partners" awaiting their DFMC runners. I looked over at the sea of waving posters, and noticed at least 10 were covered with my name in big block letters and even bigger blow-ups of the photo from my DFMC donation pager. As I high-fived as many familiar faces as I could, my legs no longer felt nearly so heavy.

Memory of a rock star moment.

The whole wonderful moment lasted no more than 10 seconds before I was back to being another anonymous charity runner struggling to the finish. My jog slowed to a not-so-fast walk as the course met back up with Comm Avenue, passed through the square, and then dipped down and under Massachusetts Ave. The right turn on Hereford Street and left onto Boylston were all that remained.

Then I looked down at my watch, and my eyes widened as the numbers become clear.

4:55:00.

CRAP!

How in hell was I going to make it in under five hours now? I wasn't, obviously, not with a half-mile left and a pace that has gone from 9:40 to 10:40 to 11;40 miles since Natick. By ignoring Jack's advice to use the 3-1-3 Galloway Method at least through the first half of the race, I had cost myself the chance at finishing in the range of middle-aged, first-timer respectability that had been my goal since starting this endeavor.

Back in high school, as a fledgling half-miler, I drove my track coach Hank crazy by always running the second lap of the two-lap race disproportionately faster than the first. I would pass several other runners in the home stretch, but never catch the leader. Hank kept telling me I'd do much better if I could just go out faster, but I doubted my ability to keep up with the top guys all the way through. Each meet, I'd repeat the pattern.

That was my junior year. I figured there would be a chance to change my ways as a senior, but then the stomach problems that would lead to ulcerative colitis kicked in and I had to quit track. Looking back, I wish I had pushed myself harder to ignore the pain and keep at it. But I was a kid and there were college applications and a million other things to get done -- so I just let it go.

Monty chips in for the Jimmy Fund. (Stan Grosfeld)

Greg Montalbano, I am guessing, never did this. Life threw him more curve balls than any one person deserved in a lifetime, all by his 30th birthday, but he kept heading back to the mound for another crack at it. In my case, while it was clearly too late to win the 1984 Suburban League half-mile,  maybe I could still pull off something here.

I reached back a last time.

TAP. TAP.

And I was off -- cranking up whatever gas I had left and taking the sharp turn onto Hereford.

This was the only part of the course I had not run at least once during training, my superstition telling me that I should lay off such hallowed pavement until Patriot's Day -- when it would be all the sweeter. But now I was in such a frenzy to reach the finish that I couldn't enjoy the huge crowds of screaming fans waving from the street and windows as I zig-zagged around other runners and took the last turn onto Boylston. The finish line was now in my plane of vision.

It wasn't really that close, but I started sprinting toward it. The screaming of the crowd seemed to get louder, and I convinced myself they were yelling for me. I remembered what DFMC veterans told me about looking up to the finish-line camera and striking a pose as I crossed, but there was no time for that now. I was looking straight ahead with tunnel vision. and only as I reached the beautiful blue-and-yellow finish line did I notice the big digital timer with my official time.

5:01:40.

I blew it.

Before I had a moment to start cursing myself, someone was hugging me. It wasn't Michelle, and it wasn't Coach Hank ready to chew me out for waiting too long yet again. It was Uta Pippig, the three-time Boston Marathon women's champion and a friend of Jack and the DFMC team. "Uta, you're fantastic!" I managed to blurt out n surprise, to which she smiled and replied, without missing a beat, "No, YOU'RE fantastic. That was quite a kick."

Uta made me feel like a champ. 

For a second, I felt 10 feet tall, with a full head of hair. Then I remembered the 5:01:40 on the clock and got pissed all over again.

A few minutes later, after picking up my medal and calling Michelle, I spotted Jack. "I didn't listen to you, and I blew it," I told him. He smiled and said I did great, and I felt a bit better Then, when I met up with Michelle and Jason a bit later on, I felt A LOT better.

Michelle had been getting BAA text updates on my time sent to her phone throughout the race, and showed me the last one she had just received, I gasped in disbelief, and then realized what had happened. Because there were so many runners in my wave at the starting line, I did not actually pass it and activate my tracking chip until nearly two minutes after the "official" start. So subtracting that time from the 5:01:40 on the clock, my actual time was...

4:59:51!

I DIDN'T blow it -- and I couldn't wait to tell Jack. When I did, he smiled again and said, "Great, but imagine if you had done the Galloway method?"

He's probably right. More than a month later, I'm still playing it over in my head. If I did follow the run-walk-run plan that had worked so well on those last training runs, maybe I would have finished in closer to 4:30:00 -- or even better.

But like I explained to Jack, I just felt too good to walk, beyond those few seconds at each water stop. And even though walking more might had led to a better time on the clock, I think it would have made my overall experience less enjoyable. People who saw me along the course said I never looked tired or uncomfortable -- and actually appeared to be enjoying myself, even at the top of Heartbreak Hill. The pictures people took bear this out; I'm smiling in all of them.

Still smiling. 

So even though I maybe could have run faster, I could not have had more fun.

Again, I'm only speculating, but I am pretty sure that's what baseball was like for Greg Montalbano those last few seasons in Worcester. He probably knew, at least in the back of his mind, that he wasn't going to make it to the big leagues. But he was playing because he loved the game, and it was still FUN. 

Later, when the cancer finally made pro baseball no longer possible, he still enjoyed himself while working as an engineer and making speaking appearances for Dana-Farber at various events. He made time to be a volunteer assistant baseball coach at St. Johns Prep, and for a South End baseball team, and to educate high school and college students in how to easily check themselves regularly for signs of testicular cancer.

Greg Montalbano died on Aug. 21, 2009, after fighting cancer for 13 of his 31 years. Northeastern retired his number 30, making him the first Huskies player so honored, and the Red Sox had a moment of silence for him before their game against the Yankees at Fenway the next day. Kevin Youkilis, a former minor league teammate of Greg's, wrote "GM" in his cap and had 2 homers and 6 RBI in Boston's 14-1 victory. 

Each season, the Red Sox now give out a Greg Montalbano Minor League Player of the Year Award. Mike Benintendi won it last year.

Speaking of wins, Boston won on Patriot's Day -- 4-3 over Tampa Bay. The victory went to Steven Wright, but less than a mile from Fenway Park, Greg got the win for me. And now he's back on my desktop, always within eyesight if I need a lift.