November 18, 2023 7 min read 3 Comments
Ron Friedman on the Verrazano Bridge in the 2023 New York City Marathon.
*78 years old, he ran the New York City Marathon on November 5, his third straight NYC Marathon.
*He was bullied in grade school for being un-athletic, but Ron was busy building a steely resolve.
*Tragedy, cancer, a heart ailment, and a broken neck were no match up against that resolve.
By Ray Glier
Raise your hand if, one by one, the crowd of kids thinned around you on the playground. They were chosen for a team before you. Always.
You weren’t just the last one picked, but the captains complained, “Oh, geez, I had him last game.”
This Geezer Jock story is for you.
For the athletic freaks among you, the major domos of the 6th grade playground, the boys and girls who were always first off the draft board, Ronald Friedman was the nerd you ridiculed.
Now 78 years old, he’s the nerd you want on your team. He ran the New York City Marathon two weeks ago. It was his third marathon.
What makes him worthy as a teammate is he channeled resolve and eagerness for discovery into being an athlete despite immense physical and mental health challenges, which included:
1) Surviving with one kidney after the other was removed because of cancer.
2) Beating back a heart ailment that made it a chore to get out of bed because the meds gave him the resting heart rate of a dairy cow.
3) Thriving as a 10k runner and marathoner after a fall and broken neck that put him a whisker from being paralyzed.
4) The suicide of his first wife when he was just 25, which could have been deeply damaging.
That’s who you want on your team, right? Someone to show the rest of the team a fighting spirit.
He is Dr. Ronald Friedman now, a school teacher, then superintendent of a large school system on Long Island, N.Y. His work earned him Long Beach Person of The Year and plaudits from communities for other endeavors through the years.
Seventy years ago, he was perceived as feeble—as kids will do to one another—but Friedman was anything but. Even back in grade school in Brooklyn and for two years in Columbus, Ohio, he was training his mind to be disciplined and curious. He was adding that metaphoric layer of armor unseen to his tormentors.
That a man who has gone through so much physical stress could run the New York City Marathon at 76, 77, and 78 years old reveals the thickness of that armor.
Being athletic on any level, as you Geezer Jocks know by now, involves more than bones and muscles. It is binding the mind with the bones and muscles.
“I have always been determined and if I needed to do something, or wanted to do something, I set my sights on it and I did it,” Friedman said. “And I think I learned that from my parents.
“And so, no matter what happened to me, I always felt it was a combination of determination and some luck that got me through."
His father, Mike, was in the covetous world of retail clothing where you had to get out of bed every morning thinking of yourself first. His mother, Iris, was an English teacher and while her son couldn’t kick a ball very far, Ron wrote very well and it took him further than athletics ever would.
His development was not disrupted by the trauma of being the target of playground barbs. His astute mom, who taught him to read at 3 1/2 years old and his stalwart dad, had his back. He earned a degree in theoretical physics from The Cooper Union in N.Y., and soared from there.
Ron arranged these skills— science, the ability to research, and writing—with getting people to rally around a cause. A career was made as a community schools figurehead.
While he was building his career in schools, that which was unattainable—athletics—just happened. Friedman, by chance, found a runway for that long-ignored itch to be one of the chosen.
“I was coming home with my wife one day and the road was closed because all these crazy people were out there running on the street with numbers on their chests," Ron said. "And they weren’t all trying to win the race.
“I said ‘Let me try this running thing. Maybe I can do that. It's solitary. I don't have to compete against anybody. I could go with whatever speed’.”
On October 10, 1990, Ron Friedman drove to a parking lot at the local beach and ran the perimeter of the lot. He made a couple of loops.
“I learned two things,” Ron said. “Number one, I kind of enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of freedom, a sense that I could do something athletic without being made fun of. And I also learned that I wasn't very good at it. I was kind of slow.
"So I ran on the coldest days of the winter and the hottest days of the summer. I just felt like I was never going to stop."
Friedman was slow for a reason. His heart was strong from all the running, but it’s circuitry needed to be re-wired.
In 2012, his heart started going into arrythmia. The attacks would last from several minutes to three or four hours and he would have to chew up beta blockers to get his heart calm. It left him woozy.
“The heart stuff was the most stressful since it took a few months to control it,” Friedman said.
He was determined to keep running and sought out expert doctors who could keep him running. Ron “dismissed” the doctor regarded as the top electrophysiologist on Long Island. He found a younger doc, a triathlete, who sorted out Friedman’s heart issues and got him running again.
“A person has to be relentless and intelligent in understanding their medical issue," he said.
Nine years later, Friedman did not qualify for the NYC Marathon because of speed. He qualified because of persistence.
When he didn’t get picked for the NYC Marathon lottery in 2021, he raised $4,500 for Cystic Fibrosis. To get in, you hand the race organizers a credit card and you have until December 31 to raise at least $4,000 so they don't charged your card. He got $500 more than required and paid his entry fee.
Friedman ran the race in about nine hours, which is slow, but he was chasing the challenge, not a medal.
In 2022, a coach who works with disabled athletes told Friedman he should try and qualify for the NYC Marathon because of his heart disability. He got in the race in 2022 and 2023.
“You know the old saying ‘the journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step’,” Ron said. “Give yourself that first step.”
The calamities of a fall and cancer and tragedy could have derailed his march to the New York City Marathon.
In 2013, after finally getting his heart issue squared away somewhat, Ron was out on one of his 10k runs in Florida when he tripped and fell. He found himself packed in an ambulance and headed to a trauma center in West Palm Beach, his neck broken. It was scary, he said.
The doctor described himself as “a carpenter for the neck.” He was going to put a “lag bolt” in Friedman’s neck and try and bring the break together.
“If you wake up facing up, that’s good news, the bone was strong enough,” the doc said. “If you wake up facing down, that’s not such good news. You’ll have very little movement in your neck the rest of your life.”
Ron woke up…looking at the ceiling, not the pillow.
“I never felt much stress except the two nights in ICU (after the surgery), which were very uncomfortable with pain and restrictive movement,” Ron said. “I just felt from the time I was told I needed neurosurgery that it would turn out all right. Maybe it was the pain meds, I think they played a role, and the doctor was reassuring.”
And the cancer?
“I'm a poster child," Friedman says, "for the saying 'Never skip your annual physical'.”
There was a trace of blood in his basic urine sample at the physical in late December, 2013. An attentive doctor asked for more tests. One thing led to another and cancer was found inside the kidney, not outside where it could be scraped off. The kidney came out.
Friedman was superintendent of the Syosset, Long Island School District. He woke up from surgery and asked for his cell phone. He called his deputy superintendent and asked what fires were burning. A mom had called and her disabled son had an issue. Ron micro-managed the situation from the recovery room after having a kidney removed.
That was February 7, 2014 and Friedman could not run for six months. It was not pleasant, but the boy from Brooklyn had been through a lot: the heart, the fall, the cancer and, worst of all, the suicide of his young wife.
She had bipolar illness and jumped in front of a train November 29, 1970. He was 25.
Maybe it is the gauntlet he has been through, but Friedman feels somewhat invincible.
“Even though I'm 78, in a lot of ways, I just feel ageless. I really do,” he said. “And I know there's a limit somewhere down the line. I'm gonna die. Something's gonna happen, whether it's a serious disease a year from now, or whether it's complications of old age at 100. There's no way of knowing.
“But right now I can run. I’m very dexterous, and very agile.”
And pay attention to his motivation, which is part of his success story. He found a blind spot to fitness.
“Either nature, or God, or whatever you believe in, gives you maybe 45 good years just by being born," Ronald Friedman said. "And, after that, you better start doing something to take care of yourself, or you are going to go slowly downhill. So I started running."
Running has given Ron some dignity in athletics. With modest ability, he is one of the chosen now.
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