Physicians of Inspiration by James Abilla

Last October 12, over 33,000 runners congregated near Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.  As the morning sun began inching above the horizon, sweaters, enough to clothe a small village, began piling up on the sidewalks around Grant Park.  Among the sea of runners are Cebu’s own local physicians Peter Mancao and Yong Larrazabal, anxiously stretching, waiting to make their way to the Start.  It is sixteen minutes after the gun before they pass the first of many timing pads along the meandering 42-km Chicago Marathon course.  By the time they cross the Start gate, it is 8:16 am, and the temperature has risen 7-degrees.  The seeded runners from Kenya had taken off 16 minutes earlier and were already 8.5 kilometers in front of the pack.

Dr. Larrazabal (Yong), a soft-spoken, highly disciplined individual, is no stranger to the marathon scene.  Driven by a need to accomplish tasks that are not for the faint of heart, he approaches his running fitness with the same methodical process he employs for each of the numerous ultra-precise eye surgeries he performs daily.  Dr. Mancao (Peter), in contrast, is more pragmatic about his involvement with the sport, ever-cognizant about his physical limitations, never pushing beyond what his body tells him is out of reach.  A masterful cardio-thoracic surgeon, he knows full well the extent to which the heart can endure challenges and yet maintain normal function. Both struck me as remarkable individuals since the three of us began training together for long-distance running.

Yong breezed through to the 21-km sensor at his planned pace, well on track to finish at 4 hours.  Peter logged 3hrs-2min at the half-marathon sensor, but still within his planned finish time.  By this time, it is almost noon in Chicago, not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature a searing 32.7 degrees C.

Yong passes the 30-km sensor an hour after he crossed the half-marathon mark when both quadriceps suddenly knot and he is forced by pain to sit on the gutter.  A group of Canadian spectators rush to Yong’s aid, one holding his arms from behind, that the rest stretching his legs.  At around that same time, Peter just crosses the 25-km mark, his legs screaming to rest, seeking to stop the incessant ice-pick stabs to each calf and thigh.  Amid the cheering spectators, Peter walks and ponders quitting.  His sisters, who were tracking his real-time progress via wireless feed, became concerned when they saw his sensor stop on the course map and immediately called his cell to check on him.  Peter decides to press on, this time walking, to contain the debilitating pain in his legs.

I crossed the Finish to find Yong drained of all energy, taking shelter behind a billboard, head bowed down between his legs, still sweating.  He was spent like I was, and we both wondered how Peter was doing.  Two hours after I finished, we saw the familiar gait of Dr. Mancao, head held high as he lumbered past the finish.  Around his neck was a Chicago Marathon finishers’ medal.  It was 35.6 degrees C, and Peter had been on the course for over 7 hours.  The Kenyans had packed, checked-out, and were boarding their return flights at O’Hare.  Peter’s broken body was in stark contrast to the radiant smile on his face – an infectious one that elicited even a bigger smile from Yong.  I was proud to be there with them at the finishers’ gate, as we each wore our medals and realized that we had, once again, done the impossible.

Most people do not realize the dedication, strength, and perseverance it takes to prepare for long-distance running.  In a way, it is similar to the way one should plan for a healthy, long life, having the will to cut down on maybe a favorite but utterly unhealthy dish, or to get out from a comfortable bed to be less-than-comfortable in the midst of a brisk walk. These two physician-friends of mine seem to actually yearn for that which is difficult.  I asked them what drives this compulsion to subject themselves to a mind-boggling 42-km run year after year.  “We just want to be fit and live longer”, both modestly reply.  I think there is a larger message they want to convey, although they would hesitate to admit it. Rather than lecture us on why we should get off the couch, our running doctors seem to prefer showing us that it can be done.

James Abilla lives in San Francisco, California and owns the international gourmet brand St. James Premium Water.

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