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The Ragged Edge: A Runner Chasing Greatness Finds His Muse

Through the spring, NPR will be tracking eight runners competing in the 2014 Boston Marathon. This is the story of Eric Ashe, the fastest of the eight.

At mile 10, he could tell it was going to be close. Eric had consistently run each mile at a 4:47 pace.

He had to finish 13.1 miles in 65 minutes to qualify for a spot in the Olympic trials in Los Angeles in 2016.

But he was hurting by mile 10. It's at that point, Eric says, "where your mind starts telling you to slow down." But the conditions were perfect. A little humid but just the right temperature. And Houston is a fast course.

So he didn't listen to his brain and kept going at a blazing speed. If he were a car, he'd be rolling through the flat Houston streets at 12 miles per hour.

The 25-year-old is staging a sort of comeback. He was injured all of last summer and his college career finished with heartbreak in 2011. He had had his eyes set on making the Olympic trials in the steeplechase and missed his goal by four seconds.

"I thought it was over," Eric says. "I thought I would run again, but road races, for fun."

But less than three years later, he was testing his body again, trying to become one of the 80-or-so American men who get to compete for a chance to make the Olympic marathon team. Less than three years later, his life was again ruled by the measurement of seconds.

Mile 11 went just as planned, like clockwork, a 4:57 pace. But by mile 12 his brain had won out. He lost 11 seconds that mile.

He was back on pace by the time he hit mile 13. Flanked by the skyscrapers of downtown, he could see the finish line, the clock above it ticking off the last 30 seconds before the door to Los Angeles slammed shut.

"When I crossed the finish line," Eric says, "I saw the clock showed 65:00."

He didn't get his hopes up. That clock is unofficial. The official time would be determined by a computer that read a chip embedded in Eric's race bib as he crossed the start line and again when he crossed the finish line.

About 20 minutes passed and the computer handed down its verdict: 65:01.

He was one second too slow.

If you take a calculator to it, Ashe finished the race in 3,901 seconds. That's a pace of 297.786 seconds per mile. A pace of 297.709 seconds would have gotten him to the Olympic trials in Los Angeles.

Hundredths of a second per mile. That's what separated Ashe from becoming one of the chosen.

Houston had become another heartbreak. But he wasn't done. His next shot at qualifying comes at the Boston Marathon on April 21, where the magic number is 2 hours and 18 minutes.

***

I met Eric at a coffee shop close to his house in Brookline on the outskirts of Boston.

The Boston Marathon course winds its final miles through the neighborhood. It comes just after runners crest Heartbreak Hill, a nasty piece of road that tests everyone with a steep 91-foot climb just as their energy is plummeting from the exertion of making it that far in the first place.

Brookline comes at mile 23 in the marathon. It's peppered with cruel little hills. But by that point, runners can smell the finish line. They can see the top of the Prudential Building in central Boston, reminding them that Boylston is within reach.

By the time I got to the cafe, Eric was already sitting in a corner, nursing a cup of coffee.

That morning he had won a 10-mile race in Amherst, Mass. With the warm up and the cool down, he logged 20 miles that day. But he decided to run to the coffee shop, anyway, to get in a mile or two of recovery.

Ashe's life is ruled by running. By the time his training for the Boston Marathon peaks, he'll be racking up more than 100 miles a week. He pulls out his phone to show me his training log. He points to February 16.

"That was my first day off in like three months. I was sick."

The rest of the calendar is replete with two-a-day entries: Five miles in the morning, 10 miles in the afternoon. A 20-mile Sunday is followed by a 15-mile Monday.

What's even more astonishing is that, in a lot of ways, Ashe is putting in this kind of effort for free. He's one of those runners who is just seconds-per-mile slower than some of the athletes who are paid to run by major shoe companies.

While the Boston Athletic Association sponsors him, Eric is essentially on his own. So he has to juggle a few gigs — including a sales job at a running store in Newton — to sustain his running. Every once in while, he also enters some races, like that 10-miler in Amherst, to try and win a few hundred dollars in spending cash.

I ask Eric what keeps him going. He thinks about it, says he's always tried hard at everything he's taken on.

"I know I can improve 5 seconds," he says. Houston taught him that his lungs are ready for the kind of pace it'll take to break 2:18 in Boston.

"Now, it's a matter of whether my legs can do it. It's possible."

He's aiming high and he's giving up a lot for what seems like a far-fetched dream. However slim his chances are of becoming one of the best, Eric already lives in rarified air.

As Runner's World has reported, about half-a-million people in the United States finished a marathon in 2011. Just two percent finished in under three hours. Only the most talented athletes in the world finish in the lower end of the two-hour mark. About 80 U.S. runners will make the Olympic trials. And only three of those go on to represent the country at the Olympics. Frank Shorter was the last American to win gold. That was Munich in 1972.

I ask Eric, again, why is he doing this?

"I guess I want to be great," he says, laying out a plan in which he knocks a few minutes off his marathon time for the next few years and eventually makes it to the summit.

Right after the disappointment of his final college season, his fifth, Ashe all but gave up. He decided he would use his degree in international relations and criminology to get a job and live a normal life. He got a job at Fidelity as a building security supervisor, earning decent money. But running never left his heart.

"I have a cousin who's really good at singing and he moved to Los Angeles to follow his dream," Eric says. People may question his decision, he explains, but they understand. Running is a lot like that; running is a lot like art.

So, less than a year after he started his corporate job, Eric walked away from it to follow his muse.

"If I didn't do this, I would regret it."

***

It's a cold, windy Boston afternoon, but Tom Derderian doesn't bother with a coat.

He's a guy you've probably never heard of, but he's a central character in the story of American long-distance running. In the mid seventies, Derderian was running alongside greats like Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers and he was being coached by Bill Squires at the Greater Boston Track Club. He is also the author of the definitive history of the Boston Marathon. He's a man who has spent countless hours thinking about running and writing about running.

We talk a bit about what separates the greats from the second tier. He's says it's a blending of three things: talent, ambition and durability. When I ask him where he places himself, he doesn't blink.

There's no need for a subjective rating, he says.

"In the sport of running, unlike other things, there's numbers attached to it. So there is all your performances, all the times and all the places, that's that," he says. "That's what track and field is: rating human performance as precisely as possible."

About Derderian we know: He made the Olympic trials in 1972 and 1976. We also know his crowning performance at the Boston Marathon was a 2:19:04 effort in 1975. That's far behind the 2:09 and 2:08 efforts that made Rodgers and Salazar American legends.

The severity of Derderian's answer struck me. Subjectiveness, after all, is an essential part of art. I asked him what he thought about Eric comparing himself to an artist.

"That's not just a comparison; it's exactly the same," Derderian says. "The purpose of art is to create an emotional experience in those who are experiencing the art. That's the same with racing."

Derderian says that's what happened during the 10-mile race Ashe won in Amherst. He was competing against Ruben Sanca, who represented Cape Verde in the London Olympics.

"It was Eric and Ruben; they broke away from the pack early, man against man," Derderian says. "That's an emotional thing. That's artistry. How do you have your brain communicate with your body to do what it needs to do to create the emotional experience in whoever is paying attention, principally the other guy."

Racing is like a fist fight, Derderian says, the cadence of his speech quickening. Then he draws a distinction: Racers are not runners. Racers are concerned about those around them, while runners are concerned with themselves.

"Racers are out there on the ragged edge," Derderian says. "They have to go to that line, to the edge of collapse, either in the short term during the race itself or in the long term during training because most of the competition in running takes place during the training."

Right before we say goodbye, Derderian stops me to drop another piece of running wisdom. That's his style. He talks about running like Robert Hughes wrote about Goya.

"People who hate to lose are not going to go through with a running career because you have to lose and lose and lose to get to a point where you can win, to get to a place where you'll lose again."

***

The track feels like a highway.

Eric is standing in the middle, holding a stop watch, a wrist watch and a phone he's using to time the athletes. He works part time as an assistant track coach for the University of Massachusetts Boston.

"Thirty-five [seconds]. There you go, Danny. 42," he shouts. "It's not easy for these kids practicing at night."

The snow and the cold mean that on this recent Tuesday night, Harvard's indoor track was busy. Some of Eric's Boston Athletic Association teammates were there; they were the ones whizzing past on the inside lanes.

The runners move elegantly; they're fleet-footed. But the sound of their feet pounding the track is like the sudden roar of a motorcycle exhaust. You feel the wind as they speed by and then the staccato fades as they make the turn.

This is one place Eric looks totally comfortable. He's not much of a talker. But he seems confident and at home in this building.

Over several interviews, Eric never really admitted doubt. But that night he admits Houston was "pretty heartbreaking."

He stops for a second. His athletes cross in front of him. Now they are cooling down, trotting in the opposite direction on the track's outermost lane.

"It's really easy to give up. And that's what I'm not allowing myself to do, even if I get hurt or come up a second short. I'm going to give this my best shot until I'm at least 30, if not longer."

Boston, he hopes, will be his breakthrough.


Follow along with Eric Ashe on the road to Boston in NPR's Running Toward Boylston Tumblr blog.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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