I recently had an early-morning flight home to DC on which I had been upgraded and had the first-class cabin to myself. It was one of those clear sky mornings when I could sip coffee and look out the plane window to the south, not yet caffeinated enough for my mind to skip around but no longer interested in sleep. As we flew eastward, crossing the Ohio River into West Virginia, I found myself thinking about Patrick Muturi.
My second marathon was in Carlsbad, California, in late January, in a race then called the San Diego Marathon. It is still run, now as the Carlsbad Marathon. That was 2001. I went there almost on a whim, and being in the middle of the US v. American Airlines litigation could not devote the time to a vacation, so I flew out on Saturday, raced on Sunday, and flew back that afternoon. It was a marvelous race. I remember coming through the first mile at 7:00, actually saying out loud "that was way too fast!", and somehow proceeding to run a steady 7:00 pace from start to finish. The race started in Carlsbad, headed south a short ways before turning inland into the coastal hills and the Lego-land theme park, re-joined Highway 101 at about mile 16, and then followed the highway back north to finish in Carlsbad. Somewhere there was an out-and-back early enough to see the race leaders, and it was my first ever experience watching elite marathoners running up close. My finishing time was a massive personal best, placing me 38th overall out of some 2000 runners, and remained my best until late in 2011.
In the San Diego airport, while standing in line for my seat at the gate (this was a Southwest flight), I saw a diminutive man with a chiseled face and a gentle expression. I might have mistaken him for a DC street vendor if I had not just come from the race. As it was I knew he had run, and flush with my excitement over my own time I was bold enough to ask, Did you race today?
Yes, he said, quietly.
Did it go well?
No, he said, I had trouble in the second half. I was fourth. And you?
I lost the excitement about my own amateur performance. I stammered something like, I ran, but it was nothing like you. I'm just a weekend warrior.
He asked, Was it your best time?
Yes, I replied.
That is good, then. You ran well.
And that was it. We both flew back to Baltimore. I returned home and he to his home, which I later discovered was in Maryland. I looked on the Internet and discovered I had been speaking with Patrick Muturi, a Kenyan-born American who had run sub-2:09 a few years prior in Chicago. In Carlsbad that day he had stumbled to a 2:25, but maintained the grace to tell a presumptuous amateur that the amateur had run well.
That race stuck with me for a long time. It is the first time I remember feeling like an athlete. It may have been the last, too -- there was something magical about running fairly well for a weekend warrior when I didn't know enough to realize that many, many were running much better. In contrast, now I am faster, but I hang out with runners -- so it seems that everybody is faster.
And that meeting with Patrick Muturi gave me a glow that did not dissipate. I remember telling my then-girlfriend C__ that "he was beautiful. He looked like he was made to do one thing and he knew what that thing was." Even as I said it I felt ashamed, as if I was minimizing him somehow, but Muturi had made a life choice, at that point in his life, to be a marathoner -- and a marathoner he was.