Here’s the story of how one humbling hunt led to one man’s journey to losing weight, feeling great, and hunting harder than ever before…
Roughly 16 years ago I huffed, puffed, cursed and sweated while struggling up a Wisconsin oak ridge one morning with my daughter Leah, closing on a roosted turkey gobbling in the predawn darkness. I can’t say that climb made me confront my poor physical condition, but it got my attention. We were only 15 minutes into a five-day hunt in the Driftless Area west of Madison. How could I last with already-rubbery legs and a jack-hammering heart?
My extra weight and forsaken conditioning reduced our options and, therefore, our fun. I didn’t realize it then, but that humbling hunt at age 44 was the first leg of a long road to Hopkinton, Massachusetts, where I made a 26.2-mile run to Boston with 27,000 other people in sweat-wicking shorts and shirts.
Friends and family sent encouraging text-messages that morning, April 18, and some shared last-minute tips for running the 120th Boston Marathon. Another reminded me that no one runs Boston by accident. True. You can’t just sign up or win a drawing. You must beat Boston’s time- and age-specific qualifying standards.
Still, most of my journey to Boston wasn’t by design. I’m not a five-year-plan guy. I think life, love and careers are about maximizing your skills daily, realizing you’re endlessly evaluated, and seizing opportunities when they appear.
But maybe that’s why I lifted weights four years before shedding one pound, and then lost several 10s of them in 2004 by eating sensibly for the first time in my life. That’s also when I started cardiovascular workouts on stationary bikes and elliptical machines. By the spring 2004 turkey season, I climbed the Driftless Area’s hills without taking breathers, a feat I once thought humanly impossible.
Along the way, I rediscovered hunting’s fun. In September 2005 I hunted elk for the first time, camping at 9,000 feet in Colorado and climbing at dawn to 10,000 feet to bowhunt till dark. I smiled when recalling a warning from my elk-guiding friend to prospective clients who asked if he could guarantee at least one shot: “I won’t even guarantee you a good time. If you’re not in shape when you arrive, you’ll be in worse shape when you leave.”
In September 2006 I scouted Idaho for a do-it-yourself elk bowhunt, and have returned every year since. My site’s peak elevation is “only” 7,000 feet, but the terrain is steeper and more rugged than what I hunted in Colorado from 2005 through 2007.
But not until early 2007, at age 51, did I run for exercise. I started with slow intervals of two-minute runs and two-minute walks, gasping, coughing and dreading every step. My shins hurt and my feet ached, but I had promised my brother Tom I’d run the “turkey trot” that November with him.
I kept the promise. That Thanksgiving, as I approached a roadside sign on what seemed a run to Hell, I assumed it was the 2-mile mark of the 3.1-mile route. Surely I overlooked the 1-mile flag. Nope. That was Mile 1. I shuffled onward. Despite aching Achilles’ tendons, I smiled triumphantly when crossing the finish line.
Gradually, running and weight training became their own rewards, but hunting kept benefiting. I haven’t owned an ATV since 2001, relying on my legs, oars, paddles, freighter packs and game carts to hunt remote areas. Likewise, a stubborn determination forged in long, cold waits on tree stands helped me persevere in ever-lengthening endurance runs. I ran my first 8-kilometer race in March 2009 and my first 10-kilometer race that September.
A former intern then suggested a half-marathon – 13.1 miles – in May 2010. “Come on, old man,” she taunted. “You can do this.”
And I did. My reward? Swollen feet, two black toenails and matching “cankles” at bedtime. I declared I would never try a marathon. But in 2011 I registered for the Journeys Marathon at Eagle River in early May. My daughter Elle drove me there, and met me every four or five miles to shout encouragement and supply GU packs and Gatorade. After 4 hours, 26 minutes and 46 seconds, I finished with ugly blisters, chafed thighs and another black toenail.
Still, I had no illusions of running Boston until shaving about 32 minutes off that first effort during my ninth marathon in June 2013 at Manitowoc. Six marathons and 22 months later – and five more minutes faster – I ran my “BQ,” or “Boston Qualifier,” at the 2015 Oshkosh Marathon for the 60-64 age group. I hadn’t been so happy since our third and final baby girl, Karsyn, arrived in 1988.
And so there I was last week in Hopkinton on Massachusetts’ Patriots Day, seizing my opportunity to run the world’s premier marathon. Unlike most training runs and shorter races, marathons aren’t predictable. Each uniquely challenges your legs, lungs, heart and will. And each makes you appreciate every cheering spectator, and every friend or loved one – living or dead – who helped get you there.
In Boston, that means about 550,000 cheering souls, which this year included my wife, Penny, and my siblings Tom and Jaci. They met me at Wellesley, just past the “Screaming Tunnel” of Wellesley College girls and the 13.1-mile mark. My crew waved their “Team Durkin, Go Pat!” sign, injecting a morale boost that carried me to Heartbreak Hill, just past the 16-mile mark.
Burning quad muscles slowed me for the final 10 miles, forcing me to power-walk Heartbreak’s four hills and trot the rest. But really, I had no choice but to keep moving. Boston’s boisterous spectators take every runner to heart, forever finding ways to inspire.
For instance, I wore a U.S. Navy shirt from “Lt. Leah,” who’s entering her ninth year of active duty. People shouted “Go Navy!” at me hundreds of times along the course, and twice impromptu choirs of young men sang “Anchors Aweigh!” to me. My dutiful acknowledgments wore out both thumbs.
But eventually, finally, I turned right on Hereford and then left on Boylston, and saw the John Hancock finish line at Copley Square about third-mile ahead. I so wanted it to be over. And I so dreaded its end.
Either way, my race clock stopped at 4:15:42. I’ve run faster marathons but I’ve never felt more accomplished.
And just think: Some loud-gobbling turkey made it all happen by luring me up that hill when I was 50 pounds heavier and 16 years younger.