The Loser of the Pittsburgh Marathon


My wife and I were spectators at the Pittsburgh Marathon this weekend.  As we watched from the 11-mile mark, the African runners passed us in a flash, the first drops of water in a coming storm. Then the torrent began in earnest, with a constant stream of 30,000 runners thundering by. We cheered for the effortless runners at the front of the pack. We cheered for the runners in the middle who had trained for this for years. We cheered for the folks at the back who were about to lose a lung. And then, inevitably, the storm dissipated as the torrent became a trickle and the final runners limped past. And then there was silence as we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, Jonathan Powell turned the corner and crossed the Birmingham Bridge.

Jonathan is not the poster child for a marathon runner. He’s short. He’s heavy. He wears thick glasses. As he turned that corner and headed towards us, he was tired but smiling, decked out in a bright purple shirt from the Team in Training charity that he loves so much. Jonathan is a pediatric oncologist and he was sporting a bright orange digital watch, a gift from a young boy under his care at the DuPont Hospital for Children.  This young boy was worried that a car might hit Johnathan while he ran the marathon, so he used his Make a Wish money to buy Dr. Jonathan a brightly-colored watch as a warning to passing cars.

Inevitably, the yellow ‘sweeper’ school bus pulled up behind Jonathan and offered to give him a ride to the finish line. Traffic needed to resume, after all. He politely declined. He’d made a promise to ‘his’ kids that he was going to finish this marathon. And beneath the smile, there was steel in his eyes. He was going to finish.

At mile 15, a police officer gently asked that Jonathan move over to the sidewalk. So he did. The crowds were gone by then. There was only Jonathan, flanked and protected from oncoming vehicles by his dogged Team in Training coach, Angela Flannagan.

At mile 20, he had nothing left physically. But the same strength that allowed him to finish a pediatric oncology residency, that allowed him to hold the hands of hundreds of worried parents as days turned to weeks and months, that allowed him to smile through the tears as he cared for children who were suffering with leukemia and lymphoma—that same strength let him keep…moving…forward.

At mile 25, we joined Jonathan on the sidewalk. We made our way together down the gentle decline on Liberty Avenue and turned into downtown. We crossed Third and Grant, and Smithfield, and Wood Street, and Market. Jonathan’s wife and three kids joined us there, and we kept moving forward.

The loser of the Pittsburgh Marathon crossed the finish line at the eight-hour mark. Of course, the Finish Line was gone by that time, as were the banners and the crowds. There was the just the street littered with trash and steel scaffolding and barricades being disassembled by a construction crew. When the crew saw Jonathan, they put down their wrenches, set down whatever they were carrying, and started to cheer. With no other fanfare, the loser of the Pittsburgh Marathon was celebrated briefly but loudly by a rag-tag band of friends, family, and construction workers. And it was beautiful. The loser of the Pittsburgh Marathon is more than my friend. He is my hero.

Mile 11: Heading to the Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh

Mile 11: Heading to the Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh

John Loftis, Jonathan Powell, and Angela

Mile 25, heading towards the finish line