Crossing the Finish Line: Nick Greco, 1940-2014

Nick Greco photo

Once in a while you cross paths with someone who makes you wish you’d known them better. This happened to me with Nick Greco.

I met Nick last June while doing some yard work for a friend. I was poking around in a bed of ornamentals, and I suddenly felt somebody near me. Looking up, I saw a tanned, wiry man looking down at me. He had a bright smile.

“Hi, I’m Nick,” he said.

“Hello. I’m Pete.”

“I live over there,” he said, pointing to the house next door. “Do you do small landscape jobs?”

I followed him to his house, a tidy-looking ranch with a very nice landscape. He introduced me to his attractive wife, Judie. He then showed me a cluster of overgrown knockout roses that had evidently suffered from severe winter kill. I told him I’d be happy to clean them up a little, and we made arrangements for me to stop by the following week.

Later on, I learned a little bit about Nick from my friend. She said that, like me, Nick was an avid runner (and being in his ‘70s, he certainly had the lean look of a distance runner). She also said he’d had a bout with prostate cancer. His marathon running and struggle with cancer had caught the attention of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who offered him the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch through Cincinnati, Ohio. Which he did, in 2001.

Then I recalled the license plate on his sports car. It said “Torch 1.”

Although Nick had beaten the prostate cancer, his fight wasn’t over yet. He was now battling another foe: lung cancer. His doctors claimed the two were unrelated. Talk about lousy luck.

Well, I spent about two hours pruning Nick’s roses. Later, he told me he liked my work, and asked if I could trim up the rest of his shrubs. I agreed, and stopped by a few days later. It was a gorgeous sunny day. A few wispy clouds floated in the sky, and some mallards were skimming across the pond in his backyard. Then I caught a familiar odor. A local “lawn doctor” was treating the public spaces in Nick’s neighborhood, and the smell of 2, 4-D weed killer filled the air. The unnatural, clinical odor was a dark cloud that ruined an otherwise beautiful day. I hopped in my truck, rolled up the windows, and left.

But I returned later, and Nick and I got to know each other. I told him I liked the Mediterranean ring of his name, and that my son was also named Nick. He said he was originally from the East Coast and his running had taken him as far as the granddaddy of all races, the Boston Marathon, which he ran an impressive five times. He’d also run the New York Marathon twice. This was after he’d made a decision to change his lifestyle. Before his first New York race, he’d quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and lost over 50 pounds.

rosesNick also invited me into his home (something that doesn’t often happen to dirty, clammy-skinned landscapers). He showed me some running photos, as well as his marathon finisher’s medals. I also noticed a boxed set of Rolling Stones CDs in the den.

“Nick, looks like you and I have a few things in common!” I gushed. He flashed a smile.

Over the next few weeks I made several visits to Nick’s home to putter around his yard. He always came out to meet and talk with me, and a couple times he opened up about his sickness. He showed me the medicine patch on his chest, which he said helped reduce the pain. Occasionally, the pain in his back was so bad that it forced him back inside his house.

We also talked about running. When I drove to Duluth, Minnesota in June to run Grandma’s Marathon, he promised to follow my running progress on the race website. I thought this was really nice of him, and I occasionally thought about this while I was up in Duluth. It was nice to know that someone from back home was keeping tabs on me. When I returned home, I gave him my souvenir race t-shirt in appreciation of his support… though I’m sure yet another marathon shirt was the last thing he needed.

In August, my friend told me that Nick wasn’t doing so well. The cancer had spread throughout his body. I saw Nick one more time after that. He was leaning against the side of the garage. He was waiting for Judie to help him into the car to take him to the hospital. I walked over and put my hand on his frail shoulder.

I didn’t know what to say, other than the lame “Hang in there.” His own voice was but a whisper. All I could make out was “Pete, I’m in a bad way.”

He died just a few weeks later. His family was at his side. At his funeral, his friends wore running shoes in tribute to him.

***

Yes, Nick and I shared a few of the same interests. But even if we hadn’t, he impressed me with his charm and friendliness. He’s another one of those people who, though I didn’t know very long, I wish I’d have known better. His passing was another dark cloud on an otherwise beautiful day.

I’m not real religious. But I’m sure one day we’ll see each other at some marathon finish line somewhere. We’ll talk about our latest race. Maybe we can listen to one of those Rolling Stones CDs from that boxed set in the den. That’ll be cool.

running shoes

2013 Boston Marathon

marathon

At this stage they don’t know who is responsible.  Some are pointing to anti-U.S. fundamentalists, and some suggest domestic terrorists.  A suspect believed to be a foreign national who was carrying a mysterious backpack was implicated.  But the fact that the bombings took place in Boston on Patriots Day, and on the day Americans’ taxes are due, has some people blaming U.S. right-wing extremists.  There’s just not enough evidence yet, so it could be none of the above.

The Boston Marathon brings citizens together from across the globe in a non-competitive athletic pursuit (“non-competitive” in the sense that the runners are testing themselves more than trying to outdo their opponents).  Even though world-class runners are involved, the 26.2 is special because it’s open to everyone.  You don’t have to be exceptionally skilled or selected to an elite team, as in most other sports.  You just need to be reasonably healthy and put in the work.  The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most prestigious race, and extremely popular worldwide, so qualifying times are needed to limit the field.  For those who reach the starting line – never mind finish line – it is a special moment.

I did the race back in 1999.  Truthfully, it wasn’t one of my favorite marathons.  Thousands of us were corralled in a large field in nearby Hopkinton for several hours before the start, and the long wait was frustrating.  After the gun went off, I was hoping to run a certain time, but I surrendered this idea when I realized my pace was compromised by the huge pack.  Although the crowd support was phenomenal, the mass of spectators and narrow streets created a claustrophobic sensation.  Forget infamous Heartbreak Hill; I felt like peanut butter smeared between two slices of bread the whole race!  My finish time is still a personal best.  But I couldn’t wait to grab my banana and bagel and get over to Walden Pond.

But maybe I missed the point.  The Boston Marathon, and in fact all distance races, are about feeling good about yourself, celebrating your health and life, and making contact with others: runners, volunteers, spectators…being human together in a community.  The runners all have separate stories, and live in vastly different places and under different circumstances, but we all have a similar, small achievement to be proud of.  The barriers are broken down.  The university kid from Ukraine is on equal terms with the fruit stand clerk from Brooklyn.  It’s  a democracy.   In the “corral,” I met a guy from Germany who shared his background with me.  And I shared mine with him.  I didn’t see him after the race, but I later saw his name in the results brochure and circled it.  He may have done the same with me.

The finish on Boylston Street was extraordinary.  Here, the road widened out.  On either side were hundreds of spectators and family members, seemingly ten feet deep.  The cheering was tremendous.  I knew my wife was there somewhere, but didn’t know the exact spot.  She saw me and took a couple pictures of an exhausted old man (at least that’s how I looked when I later saw the photos).  She’d also made the acquaintance of a couple from Holland, who were there to cheer on their loved one.  I remember stopping to stretch my calves about a hundred yards from the finish line.  I wasn’t pooping out, just wanted to stretch.  But these two big guys came up from behind, lifted me up under my arms, and literally carried me to the finish.  I tried to tell them “It’s ok fellas, I just want to stretch,” but they didn’t hear me due to the eruption from the spectators, who were affected by the scene.

I’ll never understand how humans can be so hateful as to want to take innocent lives.