Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Rick Bayko

Today is Rick Bayko's 61st birthday. Those who have read a few chapters of my upcoming book are aware that Rick's time in the service paralleled my two years in the hospital. He is also the person most responsible for my return to running after an 18-year absence.

Rick Bayko of Newburypot MA, AKA "the Polish Rifle"

I have been blessed thoughout my life with the best set of friends anyone can have. Surely, that's what got me through the toughest times. At the top of the list is Rick Bayko. We met at a race in Merrimac MA in July 1966 and have been part of each other's lives ever since.

Rick Bayko at my side at Hartford Hospital, January 1968, shortly before he was shipped to Viet Nam. We corresponded nearly every day of my two-year stay in the hospital.

When I first left the hospital I had three options: (1) wheelchair, (2) crawling around the house on my rear end and hands (especially on the stairs), and (3) my locked-kneed long-legged braces and crutches. I gradually went from exclusively option (1) to a combination of (2) and (3) by the summer of 1970. I couldn’t drive but I commuted with other Bentley students from Milford. In the fall of ’70 and spring of ’71 I lived in a dormitory on the Bentley College campus in Waltham. By the time I got married in August of 1971 I had short braces (to the knee) and a cane.

Meanwhile, in May of 1971, I was riding in a car driven by a Bentley fraternity brother when he got into a minor “fender bender” type accident. However the impact pushed my brace against my left tibia and caused another fracture. They put a cast on it at Waltham Hospital but the doctors there had difficulty determining from the x-rays what was new and was old. So they didn’t set the fracture properly and it healed crooked (very crooked). I didn’t have it straightened until 1979.

The combination of crooked left leg, osteoporosis, weak leg muscles, limited joint mobility, severed nerve in lower left leg, non-union of the left fibula (which still exists), leg braces and 4”-6” heels made it impossible to consider running as an option in any foreseeable time horizon. My leg muscles gradually regained strength between 1971 and 1980. I also gained weight (from 105 to 213) so the extra poundage offset gains in strength in terms of ability to give running a try.

I played wheelchair basketball one season (1971-72), which built up my upper body strength and dropped 17 quick pounds. But I moved away to Cornell where there was no wheelchair basketball outlet. A teammate of mine on the New England Clippers was Bob Hall who later pioneered wheelchair marathoning. I often thought of trying to be the first person to run and wheel the Boston Marathon in under three hours but never had the time or sufficient motivation. I still might some day. I once thought breaking three hours in a chair would be a piece of cake, but not so any more.

During all those years, Rick Bayko was a constant source of encouragement. He made sure I never gave up.Rick Bayko, Diana Murray and Frank Niro, circa 1989. Diana was also born on October 15th, so today is her 57th birthday. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone.

My first attempt at running again came in the summer of 1973, but physically I wasn’t ready yet. I was on Cape Cod with Rick Bayko for the APCL convention and chess tournament. Between rounds he went to run along the Cape Cod Canal as we had both done in the ‘60s. I went with him and while he was training I decided to see if I could get both feet off the ground at the same time. It seemed to me that this would be a fundamental prerequisite to being able to run again. At that point I had only one short-legged brace on my left leg. I couldn’t stand up without shoes (e.g. in the shower) because of foot drop. I was able to get about three strides, but it was quite painful. I worked at it for about an hour until Rick came back. As he watched I actually ran the distance from telephone pole to telephone pole (about 35 yards). On that date both Rick Bayko and I knew that someday I would run again.

Rick contacted Jeff Johnson of NIKE. Jeff had a pair of shoes specially made for me using Bill Bowerman’s new waffle design that had not yet been released to the public. They had lifts on the heels and extra padding inside to protect my feet. NIKE gave them to me for no charge. I used them about a dozen times at Cornell to “run” on the indoor track but, by that time, I weighed 185 pounds. The heels pronated so I couldn’t use my custom NIKEs. I would need stronger counters. There is no doubt that the use of the custom shoes set the groundwork for my return to running a decade later. But there were some physical issues to be surgically corrected first.

I stopped wearing the brace on my leg around 1976. But my left leg was still very crooked and my limp was quite noticeable. I tried to run a few times in the fall of 1978 but developed back pain for the first time in my life. My weight had climbed to 195 and probably had something to do with it. I visited my doctor in Connecticut and asked for his advice. He didn’t rule out running again but suggested three things: (1) lose 30 pounds, (2) get the leg straightened , and (3) don’t rush it. My body, he told me, would let me know when it was time to run again. I accomplished (2) in 1979. But it was a physical and psychological setback because it required surgery (operation #19) and I was back on crutches and in a cast for several more months. Meanwhile, I was worried about the back pain returning, so I put the idea of running again out of my mind for a few more years.

The weight has continued to be the real struggle. I was 213 lbs in June 1985. Diet and exercise have been continuing parts of my vocabulary and I have become the poster child for yo-yo dieting ever since. My comeback was made after 18 years, but I often wonder how much better it would have been if I had dropped the excess baggage along the way.

Nowadays, Rick Bayko is pushing 150 pounds. Happy birthday, old friend! And Happy birthday, Diana, wherever you are.

Some Rick Bayko links:
Knowing the biz made Bayko’s business by Jill Anderson
Still in great shape, Rick now competes at online stationary rowing. Click here