118th B.A.A. Marathon
One Boston Marathoner’s Journey
Severely Injured Boston Veteran Sheds Wheelchair For Patriots’ Day Comeback
April 21st, just over one year after the 117th B.A.A. Marathon was
marred by the cowardly and murderous act of two rogue terrorists, 36,000
runners will jam East Main Street in the quaint town of Hopkinton for
the annual 26 mile 385 yard race to Boston’s Back Bay. The expected
pre-race buzz surrounding Boston’s world-class athletes can easily
obscure the intriguing personal stories that accompany many of the
Patriots’ Day competitors. Each Boston runner has his or her own tale
of disciplined training, recovery from injury, and success over a
variety of other obstacles – many unexpected – that allows them to stand
in the Route 135 roadway next to the Hopkinton Common awaiting the
starting pistol. But none will have a story quite like the compelling 7
month journey to the Boston starting line that has been traveled by one
multiple-time Boston veteran.
You’ve never heard of Don Luscher. He is not a national class athlete. As a prep, he was the 5th man on his high school’s state championship cross country team. As a Division I distance runner, he ran on the Cleveland State University varsity, clinging on as the 7th man. When the team qualified for the national championship meet, Luscher won a match race to apparently capture the final spot on the CSU squad that would run at nationals. But a coach’s reneged promise denied him that opportunity. After college, Don Luscher – as many do – found ways to integrate running into his lifestyle. He continued to train and to race and, by doing so, he continued to build a tremendous mileage base, to become stronger, and to become more competitive.
One the best aspects of distance running is that natural talent – while helpful – counts for very little. Conversely, unwavering adherence to a thoughtfully-assembled training program can mean a lot. Whatever Luscher – now 57 – may have lacked by way of natural talent, he has more than made up for with undistracted discipline and sheer grit. He is a joyful training warrior. He makes every workout – no matter how daunting – a playful challenge. He even devised his own mantra: “The ‘Gotta Do It’ Rule” – a lighthearted training credo that absolutely mandates that all workouts started must be finished. This is not a maxim to be employed in the face of authentic injury, but is implemented to ensure that mere annoyances such as a driving nighttime blizzard in near-zero temperatures do not interfere with the completion of a dozen mid-winter hill repeats in the dark.
Utilizing his simple and inflexible training philosophy – and combining it with his pure cussedness – Luscher early on embraced a Lydiard-like training approach. Almost through sheer will, he forged himself into a very, very good runner. As a road racer, Luscher has posted impressive personal bests: 32:30 in the 10K and 1:11:10 in the half marathon. In the early 80’s he ran a marathon PR of 2:32 to ring up a come-from-behind win in a local Cleveland 26 miler.
The Boston Marathon – a race he has run “about 20 times” – is an annual springtime ritual for the veteran marathoner. Like all of last year’s Boston competitors, Luscher was deeply touched by the horrific finish line bombings. And like many marathoners, he vowed to return in 2014 – along with his son and first-time Boston qualifier Kendon – to compete in what all knew would be an emotional, symbolic, and triumphant competition.
But everything changed on September 8th, 2013. Biking around a marathon race course to provide fluids and offer support to fellow training partners, Luscher sustained multiple serious injuries resulting from an awkward cycling accident. Luscher broke his clavicle and – more seriously – crushed the socket in his right pelvis. “My femur acted like a battering ram, jamming into my shattered pelvis socket,” explains Luscher. Within hours after the accident, physicians drilled through Luscher’s right femur to install an essential metal rod to reposition the meddlesome femur and facilitate a critical traction process.
Luscher – and all who know him – knew that this horrible accident would test the fortitude of his mettle. Few were surprised when they immediately witnessed how their friend would respond to his crippling challenge. The day after the biking accident, while being wheeled into the operating room for hours of reconstructive pelvic surgery, the intrepid marathoner – who had multiple pre-accident qualifying times for this year’s race – was tapping away at his cell phone, busily registering for the 2014 Boston Marathon. During the weeks that followed in a rehabilitation center, Luscher pressed his medical team to learn his prognosis. “My orthopedic surgeon told me that I would probably never run again,” Luscher reveals. “He also explained that I would probably be in a wheel chair for 4 months and using a cane for another year.”
Don Luscher had other ideas. He discarded his wheel chair in 7 weeks. He pitched his cane three weeks later. After several weeks of walking, in early December he gingerly resumed the most tentative and painful running. Through it all, his irrepressible attitude was his biggest asset. When he ran his first mile in December, he was elated by his sub-15 minute clocking. “I had to push to break 15,” he smiles. He knew then the journey would be long and arduous. But he pressed on. “Every mile of every run for the first two weeks was a post-accident PR,” an exuberant Luscher explains. He was on his way.
It became clear that Luscher had constructed a personally-crafted shrewdly-assembled training program that incorporated the Lydiard basics of long runs, tempo sessions, and track work with generous doses of more forgiving aerobic pool running workouts. Slowly, Luscher’s scheme was beginning to work. “I kept adding a mile here and there,” offers Luscher. “By the third week in February, I ran a 15 miler. And then the next week I started my six weeks of 20 mile runs.”
Improvement emerged, pain began to ebb, and strength became evident. And his running pace improved as Luscher was able to push some of his road miles down below 8:00 pace. Luscher could see that his goal of running Boston with his son could realistically be within his reach – as he had hoped. But he wasn’t the only one lifted by this emerging development. Just like that, the skepticism of his cohorts who initially questioned the sanity of his dogged approach was transformed into awe and inspiration.
Not even the harshest Ohio winter in 35 years could discourage Luscher from what he saw as his goal. He piled on the miles as his consistent weekly mileage total peaked at 65. The indomitable self-made marathoner was on an Ahab-like mission to conquer his white whale: the 2014 B.A.A. Marathon.
With the Boston race nearing, no one – not even Luscher himself – is quite sure what type of finishing time the Boston veteran will post on Patriots’ Day. His PR time of 2:32 of nearly three decades ago is – of course – not in danger. A sub-three hour time is out of the question as well. And it is doubtful that Luscher will ring up a Boston qualifying time or even break four hours. That’s not the point. For Luscher, to stand at the starting line, to run the race Boston Strong, and to savor what may well be his final trip down Boylston Street to finish the race – that is his quest. And everyone who knows Don Luscher and has been inspired by his miraculous comeback has no doubt he will succeed. How can everyone be so sure? Simple. He’s gotta do it.