Marathon Challenge

Video Diary Steve DeOssie

Playing Against Type

Q: You joined Team NOVA a little differently than most of the runners—we invited you. But why did you say yes?

Steve: I did this because it is so out of character and so absurd. It is so ridiculous that I had to try it. It's so far afield from anything I've ever done athletically, or emotionally, or in terms of discipline or whatnot. I just saw it as a challenge. I've been challenged a lot in my life, especially athletically. But this was about as big as it gets.

Steve played in the NFL as a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants (where he was a 1990 Super Bowl champion), and the New England Patriots.

Q: How is it out of character?

Steve: I am designed and built specifically to run five yards and hit something with a lot of violence. I did that very well for many years. The conditioning for that is the exact opposite of marathon conditioning. You know, if I'd had rubber tires or blocking dummies along the 26 miles, I think it would have been a lot more comfortable for me. I would have felt in my element a little bit.

Q: What was the hardest thing to adapt to, in terms of the training?

Steve: The prolonged conditioning. My football conditioning was always 20 to 25 seconds of high-intensity workout, and then 45 to 60 seconds of rest. I could do that for hours on end. I could go forever. And that was my training from the time I was nine years old to when I finished with football at the age of 34 or 35. It even carries over into my everyday life—if I have something that I need to get done, I go in, I attack it full force, and then I kick back a little bit.

Marathon training was the exact opposite. It was building up to a point where you could be consistent over two hours, three hours, four hours, and eventually five and a half hours. Which made it interesting first off, and also made it strange and a little bit scary too. I knew very well that if I had to play a football game for three and a half hours with high-intensity flashes, I could do that. That would not be an issue. Could I focus long enough to run 26 miles? I had no idea. I had no idea whatsoever if I could.

A different sort of team

Q: You started later than most of the NOVA runners. Did you worry about catching up? How was the running at first?

Steve: The first time I joined the group, I said, "Okay, I'm going to run three miles and see how I feel." I got to three quarters of a mile and had to stop and put my hands on my knees and come to grips with how out of shape I actually was.

Notes taken by a NOVA producer after Steve's second group run, October 17, 2006
Steve really enjoyed the run on Sunday. He ended up running with Betsey who insisted that they run 3 minutes on/3 minutes off and discouraged him from walking. He said that he'd take Belichick or Parcells over Betsey any day...  He ran 6 miles. Really likes the NOVA group although he says he needs to take it easy early on to get accepted. The key, he says, is to be sure to work as hard as they are.

Q: What did you think of Team NOVA?

Steve: The first thing I noticed right off the bat is that they were already a pretty solid team. They already had a whole team dynamic going—a very supportive group and a very close-knit group.

I've played on dozens of teams all across the country and in a lot of situations. And I've always been a leader. But you can't come in and just assume a role. At first I said, "Well, I'm just going to lay back and see how it works out." But later I realized that there really wasn't a true leader in the group. I realized that this was a group that fed off of each other, supported each other, worked well with each other. Nobody was saying, "Okay, I'm going to take the helm."

Now, some people were running faster than others. But it didn't matter, because everybody was supporting each other. I realized very quickly, too, that there was no coach sitting there threatening you. There's no paycheck on the line. You weren't going to make or break being able to support your family with it. So it was a completely different dynamic than I'd been used to. It relied a lot more on self-discipline.

Some people were more prepared than others. I remember saying, "Okay, this person's going to make it. This person's not going to make it." Just like you do in training camp in the NFL. After the first two days of practice you say, "This guy's going to get cut. This guy's going to make the team." Whatever. I remember looking at the team at the beginning and saying, "Eh, she's not going to make it. He's not going to make it." Stuff like that. That was in early fall. I realized, probably in February or so, that I was completely wrong. I was so far off base with who would or wouldn't make it.

Q: On the regular Sunday runs, some people liked to run together—talk while they were running, keep each other going. But you liked to run solo, right?

Steve: At first, I had to run early in order to cover the Patriots and do all my TV and radio and whatnot. [Steve hosts "The Real Post-Game Show," which airs on WEEI after Patriots' games.] So I had to run earlier than everybody else. And I got to the point where I liked running by myself. I wanted to put my music on. I wanted to put my head down. And I wanted to just grind it out. Even when the football season ended, I still wanted to make it through this journey, or whatever it was, this personal pain that I was going through, I wanted to do it by myself.

But I liked being with the group after running. I liked the group before running. I liked going to Betsey's hot tub for her team gatherings at her house. I liked socializing at the events we did.

Mind games

Steve: I never really wanted to talk with anybody while I was running. The only time I really liked it was when I ran with Uta for the first time.

E-mail from Steve to NOVA producer, November 3, 2006
Story I was telling to my buddies about Sunday's run:
Uta's Jedi Mind Trick
Sunday I was starting the 6th mile of our 8.5 mile run and Uta came up next to me to do a little coaching. ... This was my first time meeting her and I was admittedly a little nervous when I realized she was going to be critiquing my running on TV. I have spent more than half my life around world-class athletes but for some reason I felt anxious about meeting and getting coached by Uta. Maybe because what she has accomplished is so far out of the realm of my understanding and experience. She was so nice and energetic and helpful and straightforward with her coaching that she put me at ease right away.

Well we ran for a mile and she was fairly complimentary of my technique (probably too nice to tell me the hard truth). It was a great mile and when she was done she said goodbye and simply turned it up a notch to catch the guys in front about a half mile up (I can just imagine how easily she closed the gap).

I had been averaging around a 10:15 mile for the longer runs ... I checked my time after Uta left and was amazed to see that I had just covered my 6th mile in around 8:55!! I had no idea that I had run that fast. It actually felt like the easiest mile of all. ... I kept looking around hoping Uta would come back and remind me how to run. It was all hilariously pathetic.

Q: How did Uta help you, in general?

Steve: Her love of running, first off, is something that you saw right away. And she was able to take her knowledge and make it available to us. Again, I think of football. I've known guys that were great players—great players. But they couldn't be great coaches. Her ability to speak in a language that we could understand was invaluable.

Q: What about the impact that Don [Coach Don Megerle] had on you?

Steve: I've had the pleasure and the honor of playing for a number of phenomenal coaches—Tom Landry, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick—just some tremendous individuals. And all had their own style and their own way of getting the most out of people.

When I first met Don, he was so upbeat and so positive that I thought it was an act. I thought, "Whoa, whoa, what's this guy doing to try and pump me up?" And then, as I got to know him more, I realized that that's Don. Not only is he knowledgeable, but he also understands the mentality of the athlete. You know, with football, all the coach had to do was threaten my job. But in this running thing, Don couldn't yell at me and threaten to take away that million-dollar salary. He couldn't tell me that he's going to get some guy off the bench and have him take my job. He knew that he had to give me enough reinforcement, to let me know that I was making progress. But he also didn't blow smoke up my skirt either. When I wasn't doing as well as I should have, he had no problem telling me.

He handled other people in different ways. Other people had to have just straight hugs at the end of the run and encouragement. The best coaches I've ever had know that there is not one single way to deal with a team full of athletes.

More mind games

Q: How much of this training was physical and how much of it was mental?

Steve: I think the first half of it was physical. Right around New Year, when the runs started getting really long, it became more mental. I would do mind games, math games: "Okay. I'm one mile into my 10-mile run. I'm one-tenth of the way. I'm 10 percent." "Okay, I'm two miles into my 15-mile run," whatever. Or I'd have songs going on the iPod, and I'd say, "Okay, I can't look at my watch." (I had the GPS watch going to track my mileage and everything.) "So, okay, I can't look at the watch for 12 songs, for 15 songs, for 20 songs." I had an Elvis song on there—it was two minutes and ten seconds—I wouldn't count that one.

I didn't have to play these mind games the first few months. But I had to find ways to distract myself and make little accomplishments within the longer runs. On the 17-mile run, I had to break it down into two-mile segments and then geographical segments. "Okay, I've got to this hill. I've got to that spot. I've got to Wellesley or whatever." It was all about tricking myself into finishing a long run.

Highs and Lows

Note from Steve to a NOVA producer, February 13, 2007
... This is a very exciting time in my life. Quite possibly the most fun time since the births of my kids. The Super Bowl was exciting but this is different.... It would be exciting enough that my son Zak is graduating from Brown and his twin sister Christina from UMASS. But the single most exhilarating thing in my vast history of sports is going on with my son right now.... He has a shot at getting drafted into the NFL.... All of this ... has been made even more exciting with the NOVA project. I have not had this type of physical and mental challenge since playing in the NFL. I have had so many former teammates and friends that have retired from the league who have been missing something since retirement. ... After years of working your ass off to achieve something that is so difficult and requires such discipline as winning in the NFL, very little compares to that. ... Of course there is one glaring difference. I absolutely knew I could and would play in the NFL. While I am confident about completing the marathon, I realize that I won't really know till I actually do it!!  I love that feeling.

Note from Steve to NOVA producer, February 28, 2007
Not a good weekend. Injured Achilles that I was running with got worse. Been getting treatments every day. Not happy.

Q: Tell us about when you hurt your Achilles.

Steve: I was running along the Charles [River]. I felt pretty good at about four and a half miles and figured I could make an 11-mile run. And right at five miles, my Achilles just seized up on me. I said, "Okay, I'll just walk back to the car." It took me 45 minutes to just walk one mile. I had to actually hop in a taxi. Just picture me explaining to some cab driver that I'm hurt: "I'm training for the marathon, and my money's back in my car, and bear with me. And I'm really not quitting because I'm tired, I'm quitting because I can't walk." [laughs] You know, this guy barely speaks English and I'm trying to make excuses for myself.

I've played in pain my whole life with various ailments from muscle pulls to broken bones. When my Achilles started acting up, I actually ran with it for about a week and was doing okay. And then it got to a point where I couldn't even walk, let alone run.

Q: So what went through your mind at that point?

Steve: All the thoughts go through your mind: Are you going to be able to finish? Are you going to be able to start the marathon? Literally, I was eight weeks away, maybe a little less. And I can't walk. I'm going in and getting treatments, making a nuisance of myself over at the [Tufts] training room. I'm getting treatments every day, seeing if I can get two treatments, because always my reaction to getting hurt was get more treatments. And push it and push it and push it.

And Nick [physical therapist Nick Mitropoulos] and Don both told me, "You've got to back off. This is not something you can fight your way through." Everybody in the NFL plays with pain. They both told me, "You can't do that. This is not the NFL. This is the Boston Marathon. You can't fight your way through 26 miles. It's just not going to happen. I don't care who you are. I don't care what kind of tough you are. It doesn't matter. You're not going to be able to do it."

So they convinced me. And I took two weeks off from running. Actually, two and a half weeks off from running. And every day was another level of anxiety, because I'm falling behind. I'm not getting ready. And I'm not doing what it takes to be ready for the marathon.

Marathon day

Q: So, day of the marathon. How did the Achilles feel?

Steve: You know, I always prided myself on the ability to play with pain. And from the first steps in the marathon to crossing the finish line, I felt it, and a lot of it. That was pain management. That was just, "Okay, I've got this pain. I know I've got to deal with it. I have a choice: I can let it control me, or try to control it." And fortunately I was able to keep on.

It felt better after three or four miles. But after 15 miles it started feeling worse. And by mile 21-22 it started to feel pretty bad. At mile 13 I thought, "I'm going to be okay." As a matter of fact, not only did I think I was going to be okay, I was actually getting cocky. As soon as I passed the halfway point, I said, "Okay, I got this."

My daughter joined me right at the same point and ran with me the rest of the way, even though I tried to discourage her. I said, "Hop on the trolley. Meet your brother in Cleveland Circle." She wouldn't do that. And then I said, at Cleveland Circle I said, "Hop on the trolley with your brother. Meet me downtown." She wouldn't do that.

So I remember at mile 13 feeling cocky, and then at mile 21 turning to my daughter and saying, "I'm in trouble." And she would run off and get me water so I wouldn't even have to stop at the water thing. She would grab me water or treats or jellybeans or whatever. But in terms of my energy, the pain took a toll. It absolutely took a toll.

Q: So at mile 21, you don't look pleased. It looks like it hurts. And you've got all these people saying, "Hey Steve. Hey Steve." So you have to deal with that.

Steve: Yes.

Q: To a certain degree it seemed your daughter became your diplomat.

Steve: She did. She was giving the high fives. She was waving back to people. Apparently I even passed Dan Roach, a very good friend who I work with in TV, and I had no idea. Right near Boston College, he's sitting there with a camera crew. He yelled to me, waved to me. I looked at him. Waved to him. Kept on running. I had no recollection of it whatsoever. None whatsoever. He tells me the next day, he says, "Oh, you looked like you were struggling a little bit when I saw you." I said, "Where were you?" He goes, "I was at Boston College. You waved at me. Pointed to me. And smiled." "Nope. That wasn't me," I said. "That must have been some other 280-pound pink guy running down the road. That wasn't me."

The way I've always dealt with pain—whether it's a broken thumb that I've played with, a separated shoulder, a pulled hamstring—the way I've always dealt with it is to just mentally focus on that pain. I just think about it and think about it—the opposite of what I probably should do. So from mile 21 on, I don't really remember the race, probably from the top of Heartbreak Hill. I remember seeing my son at Cleveland Circle and his buddies, and getting a hug from him. But that's about it.

Q: So, a lot of pain, a lot of suffering. Was it worth it?

Steve: It was absolutely worth it. No two ways about it. Would I do it again? I'm not sure. I'm not 100 percent sure if I would. If I were to train for another marathon, I think I'd like to try a different marathon, one where I wouldn't have to train through the winter in Boston, because you're dodging in the ice and puddles and whatnot. And you wake up, and it's 18 degrees out with a wind chill of five degrees. You know, maybe if I could go to Arizona and train for the marathon, that might work.

But it was so worth it. There were so many experiences—and not just finishing it. Finishing it was great. But the best part of it was my daughter running with me the last 13 miles—crossing the finish line with her and holding her hand up in the air. And she had something like "Go Dad" on her shirt.

Of the three or four athletic experiences in my life, I would say that my son getting drafted by the Giants and my daughter crossing the finish line with me at the Boston Marathon were the absolute highlights of anything I've ever done athletically. Winning a Super Bowl was great. But those two things—watching my son get drafted to play in the NFL and crossing the finish line with my daughter—right there, 1 and 1A, or co-champs in terms of the most memorable athletic events in my life. It was so worth it.

Interview conducted in May 2007 by Dan McCabe and Hillary Wells, producers of "Marathon Challenge," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

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