Standing 6-foot-3 and tipping the scales at around 280 pounds, Georges Laraque is not your typical marathon runner.
You’ve seen them. The lithe marathoners with sinewy physiques. Males: 5-foot-6, maybe 118 pounds. When they run in a pack on the pavement, their feet pitter-patter off the surface. It’s music, accompanied by the slightest hint of breathing.
And then there’s Georges Laraque—a marathoner, yes, but not a runner.
For one, Laraque is not lithe. He stands 6-foot-3. Depending on if it’s pre- or post-meal, the scale registers around 280 pounds.
“You know how some people wake up in the morning, they get out of bed, go running and it’s fun? That’s not me,” says Laraque. “Every time I run, it hurts.”
Yet Laraque will be at the starting line Sunday for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Oasis Montreal Marathon. He lined up a year ago to prove, he said, “whales can run.”
He’s back again this year, lured by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team-In-Training program.
“I know how hard it is to run,” says Laraque, 37. “But it’s not nearly as hard as fighting leukemia.”
Laraque was born in Montreal. By age 3, he was lacing up skates, a hockey stick in his hand.
“When you are born in Montreal,” he says, “hockey is a religion.”
Laraque would play 13 seasons in the National Hockey League, the last in 2009-10 with the Montreal Canadiens. He was an enforcer. A fighter. A goon. Look it up. Try 695 NHL games, 53 goals, 100 assists, 1,126 penalty minutes.
Yet he loathed dropping the gloves and throwing punches.
“I hated it,” says Laraque, who is the kind of interview subject you say hello to, then you just shut up, let him run with the ball, let him regale you with stories and leave you thinking, “This guy beat up people for a living?”
“[Fighting] wasn’t me as a person. I did it because of my size, and I knew I had to do it to be in the NHL.”
After leaving the NHL in 2010, Laraque’s exercise decreased but his diet did not. He played at 253 pounds. One day the scale read 330.
He bought a one-year membership to a gym and showed up once.
“Why do I want to train?” he asked no one in particular. “I did it enough.”
Zippers started busting on his pants. Buttons flying off his shirts, nearly blinding innocent victims.
“I looked like a sumo wrestler,” he says.
Hence, last year’s appearance at the marathon. The weight-loss motivation.
“I’m at the start line and people are starting at me, asking, ‘Are you doing the 5K? Maybe the 10K?’ They were laughing,” he recalls.
But primarily through sheer will, he made it, all 26.2 miles, requiring 4 hours, 58 minutes to complete the feat.
“I almost died,” he says. “Felt like I lost 20 pounds. I was low on electrolytes. You know how whales get stuck on the shore and die? That’s what I looked like. When I woke up after crossing the finish line, I had IVs in both arms. I remember a doctor telling me, ‘Physiologically, a man your size? You’re not supposed to run marathons.’”
He was quite the sight, though. And sound.
“I have to listen to music when I run because otherwise, listening to me run, I sound like a choo-choo train,” he says. “It sounds like I’m having an asthma attack. People around me are always asking, ‘Are you OK?’ I mean, they look traumatized. Plus, when I rumble along, it feels like an earthquake.”
Yet, he’s back for a second go. About six months ago, representatives from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team-In-Training asked if he would be the program’s marathon ambassador.
Next thing Laraque knew, he was being asked if he’d run the marathon again, doing it for the people suffering from cancer.
A great big softie, Laraque replied, “How can I say no?” This, despite after crossing the finish line last year and coming to his senses he vowed, “I will never run another marathon.”
His training is, uh, distinct. He runs three times a week. His longest run in training: half a marathon.
“Every time I go out for a run I’ll say, ‘Today, this time, I’m going 30 kilometers. But I get to 21K and can’t run any farther,” he says. “I say, ‘OK, next time … Next time. … Now, Sunday’s here and there are no more next times.”
He pauses. “It’s going to be hell.”
But he has dealt with far uglier challenges. Try being black and playing hockey. Racist slurs? Laraque heard them all.
“I heard the ‘N’ word, I heard it all,” he says, with no trace of bitterness. “I would hear it so much in minor league games I thought it was my name. It was insane. But I knew I couldn’t get even by fighting with people in the stands. Plus, like I said, it wasn’t my nature.
“For me to beat them, I had to show them they couldn’t break me. To prove them wrong, I made it to the NHL. For giving me that inspiration, I thank them.”
He has accomplished much since hanging up the skates. Public speaker. Autobiographical author. Restauranteur. Health-drink entrepreneur.
And yes, marathoner. Although, he confesses that he’s not pretty in shorts and a singlet.
“I look like a wooly mammoth,” he says. “A fat blob.”
And a man on a mission, running for a cure. Running for those who cannot.