Monday, May 06, 2002

Flying Pig

Alone and happy at the finish

        He came rolling up the last 385 yards, half-hobbling, as if his feet were strangers and the street had trap doors. The winner had finished four hours ago.

        The calliope music stopped before Helton arrived. The wonderful old steamboat noise rolling up from the Public Landing had been greeting runners for hours, as they suffered past mile 26 and into their final 385 yards. Dan Helton never heard it.

        He didn't run the gauntlet of cheers, either. The avenue of well-wishers had all gone. Not 10 minutes ago, a man named Tom Cooney picked up the last mile marker and time clock and placed them in the trailer attached to his truck. Helton didn't know how far he'd gone or how long he'd been.

        A bus known as the Sag Wagon rumbled past, hauling marathoners who could not finish. Dan Helton finished. When he was done, in six hours, fifty minutes and 36 seconds, two women greeted him, dressed in quilted, pink pig outfits. A man put a medal around Helton's neck. Then he walked away. Construction workers were taking down the finish line.

        Quitting not an option

        You begin with nearly 7,000 others, this great clot of dreamers and strivers and people who want, for a few hours, to be better than they ever thought they could be. You end almost seven hours later, running alone with your persistence.

        “I'm very emotional now,” Helton said when he finished.

        He had cramps in his calves and blisters on his feet. He's barely 5 feet 9 and fully 260 pounds, which is a lot of body to be thumping on asphalt for 26.2 miles. But he finished. Finishing is the essence of the thing.

        “If I was able to move, I was going to move,” Helton said. “Now I feel like, Wow, I know what I'm made of.”

        The cramps struck at mile 6. “Like electricity,” Helton said. The blisters arrived by mile 8. For 18 miles, he ran on the rims. Helton stopped at mile 22. A volunteer Vaseline-d and bandaged his feet. “I wasn't going to stop,” he said. Helton began training in October for the Flying Pig. He is a former Marine. The Corps taught him quitting was not an option.

        A medal winner

        I saw him first in Newport, on the Memorial Bridge over the Licking River, just short of mile 25. There's a crease in the hills there, so you can see the Taylor-Southgate Bridge and imagine the home stretch that is just below its northern end.

        The view is a blessing and a curse for those who have run 25 miles. “I'm almost there,” you can hear them say. Then: “Why am I not there yet?”

        Keep moving, Helton told himself. Just keep moving.

        The last miles are more about your head than your legs. Helton didn't see a mile marker after 23; Cooney had taken them down. Helton just kept going, a life lesson for the unmotivated.

        His time didn't disappoint him: “You have what you have that day,” he said. Finishing mattered greatly.

        As Helton hobbled the last 385, Sugar Ray's “I Just Wanna Fly” boomed from the sound system. Dan Helton flew, in a manner of speaking. He looked at the pendant hanging from his neck. “I love this medal,” he said.
       Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; e-mail:


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