Marathon Men

City Desk IconIn a bid to clumsily localize the story of the disastrous Chicago Marathon this week, the News made a passing mention of one of this city’s most problematic racing stories. But, they didn’t go quite as deep as the story deserves.

Long-time residents of the city may remember the tale of Erlin Degrassi, runner-up in the city marathon in 1983. Degrassi was leading the race with less than a half-mile to go, but seemed to be trailing one Michael Phipps, who went on to “finish” first. As it turned out, Phipps had achieved this result with a little help from a yellow cab – “little” in this case meaning about 24 miles worth. Degrassi, well on his way to bettering his personal best by more than two minutes, was so disappointed to see Phipps in the lead that he offered no resistance when passed by Martin Odoyo, the eventual “real” winner of the race. Degrassi ran again in 1984, and – with the city in one of its many budget crises – stepped in an unfilled pothole, breaking his leg in three places. But even that wasn’t the darkest chapter of this particular story.

The reason Degrassi’s leg snapped like kindling was damage from a tumor caused by bone cancer. Doctors were unsure whether he would ever walk again, let alone run. But after days of hospitalization, weeks of radiation, months of recovery, and years of physical therapy, Erlin Degrassi was once again at the starting line of the city marathon in 1996. Though unable to stand, and wearing a prosthetic left leg following a 1993 amputation, from the passenger seat of a ceremonially-decorated Mustang convertible he fired the starter’s pistol that sent thousands of able and disabled competitors on their way.

Six days later he was moved to the Saguaro Heights Assisted Living Facility in Tucson, Arizona, where he still resides. Most of his expenses are covered by insurance, and he lives modestly on Social Security disability checks. He has no family, but he has won the Saguaro Heights wheelchair table-tennis championship four years in a row, since the death of fellow resident Min Zheng Cheng from Taipei. When the opponent is bone cancer, even this modest existence could count as a significant triumph.

While Degrassi struggled with disease and disability, Phipps went on to become a dot-com millionaire, before taking his own life in 2001. After achieving U.S. citizenship in 1984, Martin Odoyo finished fifth at the Olympic Trials marathon in Buffalo, New York in 1984, and ninth in 1988 in Indianapolis at 10,000 meters, before retiring from competitive running. Ironically, he is now the Community Relations Director for the Xavier Torres Museum of Prosthetic and Orthotic Devices here in town. Asked if he ever thought of inviting Erlin Degrassi back for a visit, and maybe some free publicity, Odoyo replied “that’s a good idea.”
- David Andrews

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