In 1996, at the age of 43, former Liberty High School principal Gene Clare suffered a heart attack that changed his life. Now, more than a decade later, Clare's heartache has given way to heartbreak as in the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill.
Clare, now the school district's director of community education, was diagnosed with a pre-diabetic condition three years ago, and at that time his doctor gave him two choices: add diabetes medication to the medication he'd been taking since his heart attack, or, start dieting and exercising regularly.
It was then that Clare, who had been out of the routine of regular exercise for nearly 30 years after enjoying success as a high school and collegiate track athlete, decided to dust off his running shoes and lace 'em up. Clare began jogging around Brentwood, and soon he was feeling strong enough to begin competing in local 5- and 10-kilometer races.
After two years treading through East County, the 55-year-old set his sights on a historic road trip. We each in our lives have our own personal victory, and the thing about the marathon is that you aren't really running against anybody; you're running against yourself. So there's a personal victory in that, said Clare, who qualified for this year's Boston Marathon in December, running the California International Marathon in Sacramento his first marathon in a time of 3 hours, 44 minutes.
The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the world, and Clare was overwhelmed and awed by the experience of participating in its 112th running. More than 25,000 runners began the 26.22-mile course and only 21,000 finished.
Clare said the event featured a considerable amount of cheering on the old guy, as all but 7,000 of the race's participants were under the age of 40, putting Clare in the distinct minority and providing perspective on just what an awesome accomplishment it would be to cross the finish line.
It's a very hilly, very challenging course. And they have Heartbreak Hill when you've gotten to about 20 miles which is actually a series of four hills. The whole time I was exhilarated just being there and being able to do this, said Clare. I had a heart attack at 43 and now at 55 conquered Heartbreak Hill and made it to the top. I think the message there is that as long as the spirit is strong, people can accomplish their dreams. Just set your goal and keep after it.
Upon returning to Brentwood, Clare made a point to thank the entire community for all its support and kind words of encourment, including all the local motorists who'd honk or holler support when they drove past him while he trained. He also thanked the staff and students at the Community Education Center, and most of all, his loving wife Gretchen, who helped him work up the energy to get up in the early hours of the morning and hit the road.
Clare has also managed to do something that many of the greats, including Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Willie Mays, could not: step away from his sport on top.
I'm retiring from marathon running, said Clare. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I think I'm going to keep it that way. But I'm going to continue running 5k and 10k distances, maybe a half marathon. I'm competitive for my age group and I have fun running those distances.