Thursday, March 20, 2014

Toto the trailer

 My father (his grandchildren called him Toto) entered his first marathon in 1976 or 1977, in Athens, when jogging was exploding in popularity. He did so because of a drunken bet that he had made with a bank colleague several months earlier. Relying on his past as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, he thought that he was easily within his grasp—until he went out the next day and could barely run a quarter of a mile. But he stuck with it, running ever further distances every weekend, and discovering a great number of local British pubs in the process.

He competed in the New York Marathon a year or two later, and then went on to finish over a hundred marathons. Trailing wasn’t very common at the time, but he did participate in the several mountain races in Switzerland (where we moved to from London in 1980) that did exist, such as the Jungfrau marathon and Sierre-Zinal. I particularly remember him having a very hard time walking after Jungfrau… He also entered the Bienne 100k race twice, but failed on both attempts to get past the checkpoint at kilometre 88 (mile 55).

Toto at the Marathon des Sables
  
When he heard about the Marathon des Sables in 1994, he immediately registered to participate the following year. He had crossed the Sahara desert by Land Rover in the early Sixties, had lived in Saudi Arabia, and loved the desert. He finished the MDS in 1995—last, to great applause—and returned every year until his 7th and last participation in 2001, finishing two more times.
Despite all that running—and most of his training consisted of walking/jogging to and from work and then some on the weekend—he continued to enjoy the corporate dinners and outings that his banking career required. He certainly didn’t have your typical runner’s build. At 5’10’’ and at the age of 60, he weighed 195 pounds—before he was diagnosed with advanced metastatic prostate cancer and the disease took over—as the picture below will testify (he is far right)—a picture taken at the departure of the 2000 Jordan Desert Cup, organized by Patrick Bauer, the guru of the MDS.

Departure of the 2000 Desert Cup

My father returned to the Marathon des Sables in 2002 as a volunteer to help the organization and accompany Swiss participants. He died the following year at the end of February, eleven years ago.  Today he would have been 80 years old.
To me, he represented the true spirit of trail running—no concern for time, the enjoyment of nature and life, the desire to find one’s limits and discover about himself in the process, always willing to lend a helping hand, fraternizing with other runners. He also had little concern for technical equipment, buying a surplus store pair of US Army desert boots for the Marathon des Sables or a pair of old tennis shorts as running pants. He wasn't much help to me when I prepared for my own first MDS.

Then again, I would never have gone he hadn't asked me to share his secret garden. I have him to thank for my early involvement in running, when he asked him to join him at the MDS in 2000 when he retired. I think about him on many long training runs, and before and after every ultra trail I compete in, knowing that in other circumstances he would be at my side—either to support me or, more likely, to compete.

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