Running for Tim

by Mike Scopa, contributing writer

Running for Tim, et al

Maybe you will understand, Then again, maybe you won't. I'll try to explain it, to make sense of all that I'm about to tell you.

This is a recollection of my first Walt Disney World Half-Marathon. How it went. What happened. How I made out.

For over a decade I thought about the possibility of doing this race. It was a dream I never thought would be realized. My orthopedic surgeon told me that due to an exploded anterior cruciate ligament I suffered back in 1981, I'd probably never be able to do more than six miles at any one time

Then in January 2005 a former ballplayer of mine, who I had coached in basketball and baseball, was killed in Iraq. Tim was a fighter, small in stature but who had the biggest heart. That heart led him to being named captain of his high school baseball team and quarterback of the football team. Tim never gave up. He loved a challenge. He was a fine young man and loved helping people. I took his death very hard.

I had many fond memories of Tim and always remembered him as someone who never backed down from a challenge. I thought, “I'm going to run the Walt Disney World Half-Marathon.”

So I trained for 11 months. I lost 45 pounds. Got up every day at 5 a.m. and ran and trained hard for this thing.

I had Tim with me every moment of the way.

Two of my friends also were determined to fight the odds and attempt this race. They had a challenge of a different kind. These are two of the most courageous women I know.

Nancy was a year in recovery from battling leukemia and chemotherapy. She needed to prove something to herself and to her daughter Mary Catherine. After returning from her last Walt Disney World trip some three years ago, she was told it was probably her last trip.

Three years later, you can imagine the emotion Nancy felt when her plane landed in Orlando a few days before the half-marathon.

Amy never let anything stop her, including epilepsy. Her last 10 months had been some of the most challenging months of her life and would have stopped most everyone, but not Amy. The word “defeated” is not in her vocabulary. She was determined to complete this Half-Marathon and nothing was going to stand in her way. Nothing.

Together, these two would support each other during the race and hopefully achieve a dream that would prove that sheer determination and believing in yourself is the key to achieving any goal. Just getting to the starting line of the Half-Marathon made these two women winners in my eyes.

So on the morning of January 6, 2006 the three of us rode to Epcot at 3:00 a.m. not just to run a race, but to prove something to ourselves.

There must have been some 12,000 people walking through the Epcot parking lot at that time of the morning.

It was cold and getting colder. The temperature was dipping into the 30s. I was convinced that we all would be wearing our extra layers. For the first hour of the race I would be wearing a sweatshirt over my running shirt.

At 5:00 a.m. we headed for the corrals. Most of my friends were in Corral G and I was in Corral C.

Excitement was building. Huge speakers played familiar music from Illuminations. I could not wait for the start.

The Star-Spangled Banner was sung by one of the performers from Tarzan Rocks!

The countdown finally began, and then fireworks and we were off.

Since I was on the right side of the corral, I was able to get a high five from Donald, Mickey, and Goofy.

I must have been on adrenalin overdrive because my pace was a bit faster than planned, yet my energy level was such that I felt I was okay.

I reached the five-mile mark at something like 55:55 and felt great.

I was passed the Contemporary and right near the security shack at Magic Kingdom. The sun was about to come up and the temperature was up too. I was thinking it was time to shed my sweatshirt.

While maintaining my pace, I peeled off my sweatshirt and tossed it to the side. It was starting to warm up, and things were perfect. I was realizing a dream, running well, already experiencing a runner's high.

…and then it happened.

All of a sudden my left foot felt like I had dropped off a curb.

I felt immediate pain that shot up through the ankle, foot, and shin.

I stumbled, but did not fall. I was hobbling. Everyone around started asking me, ”Are you OK?”

All I remember thinking and saying out loud was, “I'm not going to stop!”

Apparently I had either stepped on some clothing, a water bottle, or maybe some uneven pavement and had landed on the outside of my left foot.

Do not try that at home; I am a professional.

I was in some major pain, and knew that I had either sprained or badly bruised my ankle. At most I had gone only 5.5 miles. I was looking at eight miles of pain ahead of me.

But I was determined to continue.

We turned onto Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom, and there were many spectators lined along the course.

Oh the pain.

I trudged into Tomorrowland and turned left, and lugged my way to the castle and down the front and over to Liberty Square and eventually to behind Splash Mountain.

As I lumbered out to Floridian Way, I kept wondering how long I would last and if the pain would do me in.

By now I had covered about seven miles and was a little over halfway there. I felt like I was running on one leg. My 10- to 11-minute-mile pace was probably down to about a 14-minute pace, but at least I was still running.

I knew I had done some damage to my left ankle but I figured it was just a sprain. Perhaps if I kept going, the adrenalin and endorphins would help to lessen the pain.

Knowing that Tim would not quit in a situation like this, as I took each stride I found myself whispering, “We can do this Tim! We can do this!”

Just after the nine-mile mark, I saw one of the race officials with a bottle that labeled “Bio-Freeze.” I figured, “Maybe I can get this guy to spray my ankle and numb it up so that at least I can continue to run without pain and possibly pick up the pace.”

However, the deal was that I had to remove my running shoe. I did not think that was a good idea so I continued on. Someone was handing out Tylenol. Sure, I'll try it.

Then I came across water and PowerAde and some edible gel stuff named “Buzz” something or other. It was probably stuffed with caffeine. I took everything I could to help the pain.

Nothing helped.

Finally at around 9.5 miles the pain was halfway up the leg. I had to stop and walk.

That was a very low moment. I had energy to spare but the pain threshold told me I needed to stop pounding on my foot.

I walked for about two and a half miles and as I approached Epcot I could see the crowds and I thought, “I just can't walk across the finish line.”

I tried to run a bit. Major pain made me stop.

I tried to walk faster figuring that eventually I could transition from a power walk to a slow jog.

As I passed mile 12 I was just outside Epcot and the crowds were just amazing. I decided that I'd take at least a half-dozen strides and see how I felt and then take it from there.

Each stride offered me new insight into the world of pain, but my ego was battling the pain and as we hit Epcot and the side of Spaceship Earth my ego was winning. There was something else driving me to the finish, that I'll mention later on. I think adrenalin also played a part in this as well.

I ran up to World Showcase Plaza and turned around for the last leg. At one point, I passed a choral in gold robes and felt inspired from their singing. This final stretch was similar to the Race for the Taste 10K I had run in October.

When I turned the final corner I saw a huge crowd waiting at the finish. I held back from the group I was running with so that maybe, just maybe, I would be running by myself and maybe the PA announcer would mention my name.

He did.

“Here comes Mike Scopa from Merrimack, New Hampshire. Come on Mike, finish strong.”

Okay, so tell me. After seeing several thousand people along the way to the finish line and hearing my name being called out, was I about to stop?

No way, baby.

The pain left me. After 11 months of training and eight miles of pain, here was my reward. I sprinted across the finish line and finished about 35 minutes past my expected finish time—but I finished.

I limped to the people handling out mylar space blankets and the volunteers who cut my racing chip off my running shoe. My foot was on fire as was the leg.

Then I waited. I waited for 48 minutes. You see, besides Tim there were two other people who unknowingly had helped me gut it out and finish this thing.

You guessed it: Nancy and Amy.

The deal was that I was to be waiting for them at the finish line. It was a promise made months before and I was going to honor that promise.

The wait was worse than my run. Were they going to finish? Had one or both of them dropped out? My mind was racing.

Then I saw a glimpse of them. They were going to make it. Even from a distance I could see their tears.

I could see Nancy looking for me.

I caught up to them about 20 yards after they crossed the finish line and our group hug led to group tears. We couldn't let go; we couldn't stop crying; we had no idea how important this silly race was to all of us. We did know, however, that somehow, each one of us played a part in the other's achievement.

Somehow Tim was in that hug as well.

I know I trained all year and prepared as best I could for this race, but I would have never been able to continue had it not been for Tim's spirit and the courage and determination that I was able to draw from both Nancy and Amy.

Those three people are the reasons for my crossing the finish line… you cannot convince me otherwise. Without them, I would have dropped off long before finishing.

That is the only explanation I have as to why I was able to finish this race. It was truly a case of the heart and mind overruling the body.

I did not fully realize this until returning home a few days later.

You see, it was during a visit to my orthopedic surgeon whereby the good doctor came into the examining room and, shaking his head, said to me, “Mike, I want you to come back for a follow-up visit next week and I want you to bring in that medal you got for finishing this race.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well,” he said holding up some x-rays, “I'd like to see what could possibly have made you run that race on a severely sprained ankle and (holding up the X-ray) a broken foot.”

Huh? A what? Broken foot?

“The medal? Sure Doc. I'll bring it!”

The Donald Duck medal. Sure, doc. That's what got me to the finish line.

Right Tim?

Right Nancy?

Right Amy?