Culture

No Race? No Space? No Problem.

The cancellation of the Pittsburgh Marathon didn't stop ultra-runner Jeff Gleason any more than a knee replacement did.

Jeff Gleason isn’t one to accept reasons that he can’t run. That includes having his knee replaced three years ago, and it includes having his race calendar cancelled this spring. Instead of giving up, he a couple of friends got up at 1:00 this morning, and, keeping six feet apart, ran a marathon in the dark in and around Pittsburgh’s North Park.

A runner since college, the now 62-year-old started doing ultras soon after the turn of the century and has now completed over 60 of them, including four Badwaters, the 135 mile crossing of the Mojave Desert from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. It was during the 2016 Badwater, however, that Gleason’s right knee, that had been progressively getting worse, finally caused him to stop.

“At 60 miles, I said, ‘That’s it,'” Gleason recalls. “I had to admit that I had a serious problem, my knee was bone-on-bone, with no cartilage.” After doing research, Gleason heard about Dr. Richard Berger, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, who performs joint replacement without cutting muscles, ligaments or tendons.

Berger’s procedure appealed to Gleason for two reasons, he says: “First, recovery was very quick, compared to traditional surgery, and second, after the replacement, you’re able to do anything, because if the artificial knee wears out, it is much easier to replace than with traditional surgery.”

Gleason was running again with weeks, and three months post-surgery, completed the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. A year later, he did his first post-surgery 100 miler, and he hasn’t looked back.

This spring he was planning on running the New Jersey Devil 100-miler and his home-town Pittsburgh Marathon before both were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Heading out, keeping their distance / photo: courtesy Jeff Gleason

So this week, Gleason and a couple of friends decided they still wanted to get in a marathon. But, given concerns about social distancing, plus the busy 7-day-a-week work schedule of one of the friends, tax accountant Wayne Kurtz, they decided to run it in the middle of the night.

“Well, that and just because,” says Gleason. “Wayne said, ‘Let’s do our own marathon before work.’ So we got it done early. It was a good time, to get out, spend time on our feet, solve all the problems of the world. We didn’t see any one else out until near the end when we saw a couple of early morning runners.”

All of the friends are used to offbeat, some might say extreme efforts. In 2013 Kurtz participated in the Triple Deca in Italy — 30 Ironmans in 30 consecutive days. Thompson has run across Tennessee. So getting up and starting a marathon at 1:00 a.m. was a way of keeping things normal for this crew.

“Everybody has their own way of dealing with this,” Gleason says. “We’ll get through this thing. We need to keep some sense of normalcy. Running long with friends is normal. Fortunately, I have some friends who are crazy enough to run over 26 miles with me in the middle of the night.”