Breaking3: Remembering My Dad Along The Path To Marathon Glory

Updated: Feb 7


My brother and me from the 2014 Chicago Marathon with my dad superimposed leading the way (far left). This amazing gift was created by my wife Joanne.


Chicago Marathon 2007 (3:51:13)

Chicago Marathon 2014 (3:29:53)

Chicago Marathon 2015 (3:13:23)

Sunburst Marathon 2016 (3:27:24)

Philadelphia Marathon 2016 (3:13:16)

Grandma's Marathon 2017 (DNF)

Philadelphia Marathon 2017 (3:07:43)

Boston Marathon 2018 (3:19:54)

Houston Marathon 2019 (3:06:13)

Boston Marathon 2019 (3:09:48)

Chicago Marathon 2019 (3:00:33)

Houston Marathon 2020 (2:59:53)

Introduction

As a kid I ran with my dad. I wouldn't say that I loved running, but I loved running with him. He was fairly serious, a product of the 1970s running boom and a frequent age group award-winner. He ran six of the first eight Chicago Marathons and approximately thirty marathons in total. Like many marathoners, he aimed to break the three-hour mark, but though 5k (18:20s), 10k (38:00s), and half-marathon (1:25:00s) times foretold a sub-three-hour result, the barrier remained forever elusive.

With a playful nod to Nike's Breaking2 initiative, a self described "moonshot designed to unlock human potential," Breaking3 is at once an exploration of my own limits and a tribute to my father. It's a look back, a step forward, and ultimately a celebration of family and the gift of running, which after four years and ten marathons, finally culminated in the sub-three-hour marathon that my dad so coveted.

My dad was the subject of this February 1978 Runner's World article.

Click here to read a larger PDF.


My Dad, The Runner

1972-1986

My dad was well known in our neighborhood. His long marathon training runs up and down the friendly suburban streets of Glenwood, Illinois made him something of a local celebrity. And, as my longtime soccer coach and a fixture at junior-high track and cross country meets, he further ingratiated himself to the community. "ANTONEE! GO ANTONEE," he passionately encouraged from the sidelines, his authoritative delivery and thick Italian accent so charming and distinguishable that - to this day - old friends and teammates still greet me with this refrain, accent included of course. Hilarious and sometimes awe-inspiring tales of my dad's athletic prowess abound from my youth. There was the time he saved our pet rabbits from a hungry, determined hawk; "the incident" that found him chasing down a youth soccer referee while on crutches; and my personal favorite, the junior high egging episode of 1984. I was in the 7th grade and hosting a "big" nighttime party for my friends (think "Purple Rain," slow dancing, and spin the bottle). A few 8th graders - who hadn't been invited, nor considered that my father was a marathoner and five-minute miler - decided to have some fun by egging our house during the festivities. This fairly common act of youthful mischief proved to be quite the mistake that night, and within moments of a barrage of eggs upon our house, my dad had his shoes on and was out the door. The poor kids didn't have a chance. My dad ran them down quickly, and as he loved to recount, "I knew once I got one, I had them all." The best part? Rather than calling their parents, he made them return to our house the following morning to clean up the mess. And one of them was the mailman's son. And it was a Saturday.


1986-1998

In 1986, we moved to N. Canton, Ohio and my dad kept on running. The streets of our new and comfortable neighborhood proved equally welcoming as Chicago Marathons gave way to those in Cleveland and Columbus. I was just entering high school and put running aside to concentrate on music, but I was eventually drawn to a somewhat new sporting interest, tennis. Much like running, I loved playing tennis with my dad, but as a former amateur tennis champion, he frustrated me left and right, whizzing balls by me at will and beating me pretty much every time we played. During my senior year, I joined the high school team and finally won a set or two off of him.

I went away to college, put everything I had into music and launched my career.

The May 20, 1990 entry in my dad's running log made me laugh. It reads "1 1/2 hr Tennis with Anthony. Lost 2 Sets. 6-3, 6-3." That may have been the one time I beat him!

Left: With my parents at the American Pianists Association Competition in 1995. Center: Another shirtless marathon (Cleveland). Right: My parents in NYC for my debut recital at Lincoln Center in 1998.


1998-2015

In 1998, when he was 57, my dad and I were visiting his hometown of Rome when the first sign of disease reared its ugly head. For the next 17 years, my dad would fight a host of disorders that included Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Kidney Failure, and Anemia. But, for as long as he possibly could, he kept on running. And when his condition worsened to the point that he could only run a minute without stopping, he would run that minute, walk two, and run again. He was known to repeat this determined and inspiring interval workout along the Chicago lakefront for hours on end, once joking, "If I get out of shape, we're really going to have a problem." My dad passed away on October 6, 2015, five days before my brother and I were slated to participate in the Chicago Marathon. He loved that we had become passionate about his sport, and the week before the race - knowing his death was imminent - he demanded that we run "no matter what." We did, and at his funeral a day later, we proudly laid our finisher medals in his casket, a last earthly nod to this passion we shared, a promise to forever continue in his footsteps...

My dad's 74th birthday party, September 25, 2015. A beautiful evening and a favorite memory.

Breaking3


In a 2012 Runner's World article, author Mark Remy noted that about "2% of runners who toe a marathon starting line will break three hours." He went on to further illuminate the mystique of the “sub 3:”


"Running a marathon is hard. Doing it in less than 3 hours is really hard. No, I mean hard. Like, really freaking hard. A 4-hour-something marathon is a feat, don't get me wrong. A 3:45 is nothing to sneeze at. A 3:15 is really pretty quick. A 3:05 will get an 18-to-34-year-old man into Boston. But none of those is sub-3:00. Sub-3:00 is sub-3:00, and it's damn tough.


Therefore, it's damn rare. According to Running USA, last year some 518,000 runners finished U.S. marathons. About 2 percent of them ran under 3 hours. Two percent. And those 2 percent busted their asses to get there, I promise you, every last one of them.


They also were fortunate. Because even after all the miles, all the speedwork, the hills, the drills, the long runs, the pain... Even after all of that, a sub-3:00 marathon can be elusive. If you're lucky, on race day you have decent weather and a good plan and everything clicks. You tap the mental and physical reserves you've spent months or years building and you cross the line, under that big digital clock, realizing that you've done it. You've beaten the odds. You're in the sub-3:00 club, with some very select company."


In one of our last conversations, my dad reminded me of the "sub-3" that never was. “I just couldn’t get it,” he lamented, his head gently nodding in disappointment, the furrow of his brow accentuating his regret. It was late September - a few weeks before the 2015 Chicago Marathon - and my father had just returned home from a long and brutal hospital stay.


Two months earlier, Peripheral Artery Disease had attacked his left leg, and after several failed attempts to restore blood flow, he was suddenly and unexpectedly forced to make an impossible decision. Amputation or hospice.


For as long as I live, I will never forget the heartbreak and anguish of those days. From the overwhelming sadness in my dad’s eyes when he awoke from the failed angioplasty, to the excruciating life or death decision subsequently thrust upon him. It was horrible beyond words. And years of infections, autoimmune attacks, and debilitating kidney dialysis hardly made amputation a fait accompli. Ultimately though, in an act of immense courage, my dad - the runner, the soccer star, the tennis champion - decided to sacrifice his leg to spare his life. As my wife would later write, “with the hope of seeing his sons cross scores of finish lines.”

My dad battled heroically until the end. Even in his last few weeks, despite everything that had been thrown his way, he could be found wheeling laps around the park outside of my parent's house, eager to see if he was getting stronger and faster. Though he wouldn't get a fair shot at recovery, he fought until he could fight no more, and I'll never ever forget that.


So there we were, post surgery, my dad in a wheelchair reflecting on the sub-three-hour marathon that wasn’t. He was struggling and a bit disoriented that day, and I had run out of words of encouragement. I felt helpless. My only solace was the idea beginning to form in my brain. If he can’t run a sub-3, I’ll run it for him.


The seed of my marathon quest had been sown, but it received a shot in the arm a year later when Nike announced Breaking2 (December 2016). Nike's goal was to enable a sub-two-hour marathon, to assemble a diverse team of leaders across several fields of science and sport, and to imagine the impossible and embrace the "opportunity to envision the future of sport.” I was excited! If a human can run (or attempt to run) sub-2, I definitely can go sub-3! My idea was now a do or die proposition. All in. Breaking3! The dream of my father alive and well. My own potential on notice.


While the Nike project required a 3% improvement (from a then world record of 2:02:57 to 1:59:59), I would need to go approximately 7% faster, dropping more than 13 minutes from my personal best marathon time of 3:13:16. If I were 35, this goal would have struck me as formidable, yet well within my capabilities. In my mid-forties, with a history of injuries to navigate and Father Time on my heels, I knew it would be a challenge.


It was.


Here's the story.


Chicago Marathon 2015 (3:13:23) - An emotional run following my dad's passing. I remember seeing cousins Hal and Rose Higdon around mile 2, my Uncle Tony (my dad's younger brother) at 18, and my mom and Joanne everywhere. It seemed like everyone was cheering for my brother and me, and I floated down Michigan Avenue at a 6:30 pace en route to a 16 minute personal record (PR).

The 2015 Chicago Marathon with my brother David. Shirtless of course to honor our dad!


Sunburst Marathon 2016 (3:27:24) - A Hail Mary attempt to improve my 2017 Boston Marathon qualification chances. I blow up spectacularly at mile 20 and the course is inexcusably long.

With my beautiful mom post Sunburst marathon. This picture was about the only good thing to come from this one.


Philadelphia Marathon 2016 (3:13:16) - An incredibly windy day, but a PR nonetheless!

Philadelphia Marathon 2016


Grandma's Marathon 2017 (DNF) - My sub-3 goal comes into focus during this build up, but despite a great training cycle that features two weeks in Boulder, Colorado, the wheels come off at the end. I happen into a scary overtrained state and I'm "dead man walking" at the start. I give it a shot, but my heart rate quickly soars and I can't get out of this one soon enough. I step off the course at mile 9 where my mom and Joanne are waiting. My first and only DNF (Did Not Finish).

When you crash and burn, it's good to have your future wife by your side. I've been very fortunate to have Joanne with me at every one of these marathons and, as she likes to say, she's got the "one-woman-support-crew" down to a science. She's usually behind the camera, so there aren't too many photos of her, but she's played an integral roll in my running success, and I'm very grateful for all of her support... not to mention all of the food during training!


Philadelphia Marathon 2017 (3:07:43) - I begin working with a fantastic coach, Dan Walters, and join his DWRunning team. A half-marathon PR of 1:27:56 in Naperville, IL on October 22 leads to a 6 minute PR in more brutal Philly wind. A nice breakthrough!

Philadelphia Marathon 2017


Boston Marathon 2018 (3:19:54) - My first full marathon training block with Dan and DWRunning and easily my best one to date. I run another half-marathon PR (1:26:18) at the challenging March Madness Half-Marathon in Cary, Illinois, and for the first time, a sub-3 marathon is in play. But, the early downhill miles destroy my quads and it turns out to be one of the most epic weather days in Boston Marathon history, "a meteorological trifecta of headwinds gusting to 35 mph, more than half an inch of steady rain, and 40 degree temperatures (Boston Globe)." A brutal race to say the least!

Left: A picture is worth 1,000 words. Center: David, Joanne, and my mom braving the elements to cheer me on at mile 10. Right: Post race with the crew!


Houston Marathon 2019 (3:06:13) - Injuries keep me out of the Fall 2018 marathons, so I jump into Houston as something of an afterthought and prelude to my Boston buildup. Though I don't know exactly what to expect, I feel better and better as the race wears on and run the last 10k at the magical 6:52 pace. A 1:30 PR and a fantastic weekend!

I felt great coming home in this one.


Boston Marathon 2019 (3:09:48) - Another awesome build with no payoff. I run a second consecutive PR (1:24:50) at the March Madness half, but the Boston hills are still punishing and the humidity as unhelpful as anything we experienced in 2018. The real story of this trip, however, turns out to be my mom. She falls badly while chasing me along the course and has to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. She’s beat up pretty good and an X-ray to check for a fractured sternum reveals lung cancer. Fortunately, it’s in an early stage and within two months, after many tests and surgery, it’s gone and she's given a clean bill of health.

Left: At the finish line with my dad's 1982 Boston Marathon bib (which my mom found just weeks before in a random book). Center: Boylston Street! Right: The DWRunning team.


Chicago Marathon 2019 (3:00:33) - I'm confident that I'm going sub-3 until unexpected headwinds over the final 2.5 miles knock me out. It's still a 6 minute PR though, and I can now taste 2:59:59.

About mile 22 of the Chicago Marathon. I was feeling pretty good at this point.



Houston Marathon 2020 (2:59:53)


January 19 - I’m up at 3:30 am, beating my alarm by about 90 minutes. I try to fall back asleep, but I predictably fail, excitement and adrenaline tough foes to combat on marathon morning. I’m ok with it though, I still managed about 8 hours of sleep each of the last two nights. More significantly, this has been my best marathon training cycle ever. Higher mileage (an average of 57 per week), no injuries, and a half-marathon PR of 1:24:16. I’m ready.


After my stretching routine and standard breakfast consisting of a toasted almond buttered bagel with bananas, two double espressos, and a bit of beet juice, I’m out the door. It’s 6:15 am. I jog into the dark armed with a couple of dates, extra nutrition to be taken at precisely 6:40 am per my wife. Within minutes I’m at the entrance to start corral A. That was easy! Runners are milling about and porta-potties line both sides of the street. “Is this the line for the bathrooms” I ask a small group of participants. “No, no line” one responds. Fantastic! I love smaller marathons.


The temperature is ideal, but the wind is an issue. It’s about 15mph. I’ve had experience with windy races though and I’m confident that I have enough fitness to neutralize the conditions. The gun sounds at 7:01 and I’m across the start line within 30 seconds.


As expected, it’s congested so I remain patient. No need to waste any energy. 6:56 for mile 1. Perfect! Other than a gust here and there, the wind is not a factor as the race unfolds.


I officially cover the first 10k in 42:29 (6:51 mile pace). Right on target. My heart rate is a few beats per minute faster than I’d like though, up to 149 by mile 4. I try to relax, but I’m a little unsettled and not entirely comfortable. Maybe things will fall into place, maybe they won’t, but I remind myself that I’m here now and I’ve got enough fitness to give myself a chance. Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.


With Henry Ford’s words in my back pocket (courtesy of pre-race Instagram motivation from @irun26point2_ ) I do my best to shake off the negative thoughts and roll with what I’ve got. I see Joanne at about mile 7.5 and take my time chugging down a fair bit of water. Mile 8 is understandably slower at 6:57, but I’m cool with that. Have to stay hydrated! The half-marathoners are now gone, the course has opened up, and the battle is about to begin. I get back into rhythm. 6:50s for miles 9-10.


“Looking good,” a voice pulling up on my right encourages. “I’m Jacob, whats your name?” “Thanks, you too” I reply. “Anthony.” We’re approaching mile 11 and it’s flat, straight, and surprisingly still. For a moment we’re in a groove, but the partnership quickly dissolves as the first mighty gust of wind hits us smack in the face. “Here it comes” I bemoan. Guys run for cover, jostling for positions. I won’t see Jacob again.


We turn at mile 11.5 into a more sinister wind. Sensing that it is here for good, I allow the three-hour pace group to swallow me up in hopes of finding shelter. I hang out there for a bit, but I’m not at ease running in the pack. Something to work on. I look to find positional advantages here and there, but unless I’m on the side to combat a cross wind (with no feet right in front of me), I can’t seem to lock in. I’m also still not comfortable. I’m working, make no mistake about it, and I don’t feel good. As we climb the first hill on our way to the halfway point I feel my right quad tighten. Damn, way too early.


The mental game intensifies and I coach myself to pick up my feet, “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 …” I count my steps up the hill and descend into a half-marathon time of 1:29:41. 6:50 pace, 18 seconds ahead of my sub-three-hour goal. Right where I need to be.


The ensuing 6 miles suck, but I concentrate on staying in the moment. The wind is a factor, but I can’t allow it to steal away time. I need a cushion and I’ve lost confidence that mile 19 will grant us the reprieve that it did last year. I learned my lesson in Chicago. Mile by mile I fight, each 6:50 a victory. I’m gradually slipping off the back of the three-hour pace group, but I twice dive into heavy wind gusts to bridge the gap. I might not be comfortable running with them, but I fear that I’ll begin to settle if I let them out of my sights. My average HR is 153, higher than at this point in Chicago, but I toss that aside. If you think you can, or you think you can’t…. I got it Henry!! I allow myself to think about my dad for a few seconds and commit to the struggle.


I arrive at 30k (18.6 miles) in 2:07:35. I’ve managed to hold a 6:51 pace and I remain about 20 seconds ahead of my goal. I pick up water and dates from Joanne, but I have absolutely zero recollection of it. The lights are dimming. We’re now heading east towards the finish, but it’s not getting any easier. A series of rolling hills awaits, and as I feared, the wind is spitting in our faces. 35k (21.7 miles) in an official time of 2:28:58, 22 seconds ahead of my goal.


It’s mile 22 and I’m hurting badly. I’ve lost track of the three-hour group. They can’t be far, but I’m in my own world now…. I implore myself to lift my feet, “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 …” More counting, more hills, more wind. Where’s mile 23?


On a good day, the 8 small hills strewn about the last 10k of the Houston Marathon course don’t seem like much, but this morning they’re mountains and they’re taking a toll on me big time. I’m running as hard as I can, but I’m in the dark and miles 23-25 aren’t going well. I slow to a 7:05 pace and reach the 40k mark (24.8 miles) in an official time of 2:50:55. I’ve lost a massive 40 seconds over this 3 mile stretch, my 22 second cushion now an 18 second deficit.


1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ….” As I count myself up the last hill and into mile 26 I hear my name in the distance. Repeatedly. Who is that? I get closer and I lift my head to see that it’s my cousin Kyle. He just ran the half-marathon, yet he is somehow showered, changed, and in street clothes at mile 25? What? He’s fast, but… no matter… He bellows encouragement and I feel like a punch drunk fighter being sent out for the final round. “Go Anthony!” Get your head up!!”


The bell sounds and with a renewed focus and the hills behind me, I count: “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8…” I find my rhythm and gradually pick up the pace, each 8 count just a touch faster. It’ll be over soon…


I’m passing runners as we mercifully head into downtown Houston. My quads are screaming, but they are silenced by the fear of regret. The buildings shield us from the wind, the crowds thicken, and my pace quickens to 6:30. I’m anxiously on the lookout for mile 26. Where is it? We’re getting close and I’m going into an all out sprint once I see it, but not before. That could be suicide.


Where’s mile 26!?!?!


Finally! There, there on the right, the mile marker emerges from the crowds. 2:58:35? I think that’s correct, but I can’t trust any of my calculations at this point. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won back time, and I’m in the game, about 3 seconds off the sub-3 goal. I rage on towards the finish. Less than a lap around the track!


You can do anything for a minute!


Quick feet, lift your feet dammit!


The crowds cheer, yet I hear nothing but the sound of my youth:


“Antonee! Go Antonee!”


I run as hard as I can. And as the finish line comes into view, I try - if not run - harder.

Crossing the finish line (marathoners on the left, half-marathoners on the right).


Did I get it? I’m a little dazed as I cross the line and looking for an official time. "Did I get it," I ask no one over and over. Where’s Joanne. I need confirmation. I look to my watch. 2:59:55, but in the moment I can't trust that. The celebration is on hold.


We’re herded away from the finish area and through the George R. Brown convention center. Other than a quick picture and “how’d it go?” with DWR teammate Dean Orvis, I keep to myself. Though I consider asking a million strangers if they can check the marathon app for my official time, I ultimately opt for quiet. I’m content with the uncertainty.


Outside, I enjoy the slow, solitary walk back to the Four Seasons. The sun is smiling and I’m strangely in no hurry. I’m happy to no longer be running. I'm happy to prolong the journey.


Once in the room, I go straight to my phone, immediately swiping away the flurry of notifications in favor of the marathon app.


Loading...



2:59:53! Yes!!! A pump of the fist. A promise delivered. Satisfaction.


My phone’s lighting up and Joanne soon returns.


I call my mom…


Left: Halfway there. Center: Outside of our hotel. Right: Celebrating with cousin Kyle.


Epilogue


The Sub-3 Club feels real good! More so given how hard I had to fight for it. Perhaps on a perfect day I bust through the barrier a little more comfortably, but in the end, I'm glad that it played out the way it did. I ran the last 1.4 miles (2k) at a 6:35 pace and my Garmin says that I covered the last .4 miles at a 5:35 clip. All I know is that I fought back and ran as hard as I possibly could.


As for my limits, I plan to continue the search while getting faster into my 50s. But, if that doesn't happen for whatever reason, I'm good. I got what I needed!


Nike's Breaking2 turned into the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, where - on October 12, 2019 - Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge became the first human ever to run 26.2 miles in under two hours. Absolutely incredible! Check it out here. It was one of the most exciting and inspirational things I've ever seen!


In case you're wondering about my dad's marathon PR, I have in mind that it's 3:02, but the fastest time that I was able to confirm is 3:06:32 at the 1981 Chicago Marathon. Tracking down race results from the 70s and 80s is not easy!

My mom and me at the Chicago Marathon offices in 2017. We managed to find all of my dad's results, as well as those of many friends and relatives. I also enjoyed seeing the course map from the early years, which featured a double start at Daley Plaza with the finish in Lincoln Park, both of which I remember vividly. A few other interesting items: in 1978, the entry fee was $5; and in 1981, 301 people ran under three hours. A beautiful walk down memory lane!


As I reflect on my journey, I can't help but think back to the years when I spent more time injured than healthy. Injuries and more injuries, the three herniated discs I suffered in 2009 the worst of the lot. After the umpteenth calf strain, I nearly hung it up. But, with a lot of work and discipline, plus frequent sessions with my amazing chiropractor, Dr. Ryan Verchota, I'm proud to have slowly and methodically managed my way out of the injury cycle. By the beginning of 2019, I was seeing Ryan weekly because that's what it took.


Thanks to my coach Dan Walters and all of my DWRunning teammates. I'm pretty sure that if my dad had had the benefit of this team (and perhaps some vaporflys :-), he would have gone sub-3 on his own.


All my love and gratitude to my mom, David, and Joanne for the incredible support over the years, for traveling to Boston, and for hanging together to weather the storm.


Finally, to my dad - We did it! A lifetime of thanks for absolutely everything! It's an honor to follow in your footsteps, and when we someday meet again, I'll have a little present for you...

The real purpose of running isn't to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart."

- Bill Bowerman