Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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               Jim Bailey was sitting at a table with his wife and two other women, at the Quicklee’s in Dalton, happily visiting and laughing. I had just run 26.2 miles and I wanted a picture of myself and I asked him if he would take it.


               It was a vindication run. The Saturday before I had been pulled from a trail marathon. I missed a cutoff by two minutes, and 17 miles into a race I had run and finished 13 times before, I was done. They disqualified me. For the first time in my life, I had started a race that I would not finish. Fifty-two years of running races and I had finished every one, and nine miles from finishing another one, on pace to do so in the allotted time, it was over. I was over.


               And it messed with my head.


               I am not a good runner, I am not a good anything, but I am not a quitter. I never quit. And if you never quit, you never fail. If you never quit, ultimately you overcome. Persist and prevail. That’s our family motto. Persist means don’t quit, prevail means you win. If you don’t quit, you will win. That’s my whole sense of self.


               And there I stood, at the 17-mile aid station, slathered in mud from the trail, a failure.


               A failure, and not sure anymore who I was. I had let down my family, I had let down myself, I had violated the ethic of a sport I have pursued since the seventh-grade. In that moment and in the days that followed I didn’t know if I was a runner anymore, I didn’t know if I was a man anymore. In a life of robust capability, I was demonstrably incapable.


               And I feared that it was age, that I had played out the string.


               I’ve been slower over the last several months, and have to stop periodically now while running, to walk and regain my strength. And not finishing was a thunderstrike. It’s stupid, but to me it was real, an existential crisis of the psyche, one of those nightmares from which you can’t awake, some cross between self-loathing and self-pity.


               After a couple of days, I decided to get back on the horse, to run 26.2 miles right away to show to myself that I could. Whether I ever ran again or not, I didn’t want to go out on a DNF. I wanted to finish something I’d begun, and walk away from running if I had to without the bitter taste of failure in my mouth.


               And so on Saturday morning I put on a hydration pack and took some ibuprofen and set out from my house. If I go from my house to and through Letchworth State Park, and then on to Portageville and north on 436 to Route 70, and follow 70 to the convenience store in Dalton, that’s 26.2 miles. I ran it first in 2020 when the New York City Marathon went virtual, and again in 2021 when the Air Force Marathon went virtual, and I figured one more virtual wouldn’t hurt.


               It was a good run. The woods were beautiful. The leaves on the trees were exquisite. The rain came, a couple of times in torrential downpours, and I ran where I am most comfortable – in the woods and across the farmlands of upstate New York. It was a sweet experience, and as I ran I prayed that the Lord would let me understand about running and about aging and about a looming stage of life where I might be diminished in body and mind.


               I finished my 66th marathon at the Quicklee’s, called my wife to come pick me up, and walked inside to see if I could get someone to take my picture.


               I had never met Jim Bailey, but I had seen him before, sitting at that same table, an elderly man of good height and good cheer. He hopped up and took my phone and said he’d be glad to help, and he asked me what I was doing.


               When I told him, he told me about the time he ran home from work. That was at Rochester Products, where he eventually retired as general foreman. Rochester Products is 56 miles away. It was in the early1960s, and President Kennedy was pushing physical fitness, and said that a healthy person ought to be able to cover 50 miles by foot in a day. Jim Bailey wanted to try it. So one morning, after working the overnight at the factory in the city, he set out running home.


               Fifty-six miles later, before the sun had set, he had done it.


               Which is one hell of a run, a full 30 miles farther than I had just spent six hours doing.


               And he kept talking, this gregarious elderly man, with enthusiasm in his voice, a smile on his face, and a palpable sense of vitality to him. He told about one of his sons, who’s 66, who used to be the fastest bicyclist around and who still does triathlons. And his grandson, who was an undrafted walk on in the NFL and earned a Super Bowl ring.



               In the middle of nowhere, at a country crossroads, having an afternoon snack. A great-grandfather with stories to tell and lessons to teach.


               He sat back down beside his wife and said that in June they’ll celebrate 70 years of marriage, and told about the Alaska cruise their kids sent them on for their 50th anniversary. He recounted weeks-long camping trips to the national parks of the west and the adventures of their lives.


               Euchre and family gatherings, friends everywhere, a sense of interest and excitement about the world around him. An appreciation for then and for now, the days lived and the day that is being lived. Jim Bailey isn’t having a crisis of the psyche.


               I asked how old he was.


               Ninety-two, he said. Ninety-two.



               And he still works every day. Years ago he and his brother-in-law opened a garage and, while he’s cut back, Jim Bailey still does the inspections. The New York state vehicle inspections.


               Every day. At 92.


               My wife had come by then, and I introduced her and we visited a bit and then got in the truck and headed home.


               And I thought about how God answers prayer, and how people teach each other, and how Jim Bailey mentored me on a day that I needed it.

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