“I’m a runner,” Rishi announces. He says it like Michael Imperioli’s mafia lieutenant character on the Sopranos says, “I’m a soldier.” He says it macho, like it’s an honor, like it’s an archaic trust in a modern world. He says it as though he has no choice – and wouldn’t want one.
At 38 years old, #Rishi Ali has run close to 40 marathons, including 15 New York, five Boston, and several in Trinidad and Tobago. Rishi started out young and took up marathon training when he was 13 years old. He’s run under two hours and 50 minutes in over 25 of these marathons, and clocked a personal best of two hours and 43 minutes – that’s not too far below the elite level. He’s actually made the cover in a group photo of the 1993 New York marathon for a training book called “Advanced Marathoning.”
“When I say I’m a runner, I mean I’m not a jogger,” he clarified.
The question that day – approximately 16 hours before the #runners lined up before the monolithic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island – was, would he be #running the New York marathon this year? He wanted to know. Almost every hour for the last four he’d either call his Serbian marathon contact or the Serbian would call him with an update on the race number. Rishi’s shadowy running community connections were trying to work some magic.
His wife wanted to know. Twice for the day his daughter had called and nervously said: “mom wants to know if you’re still running.”
She’d called because his wife wasn’t speaking to him.
“She knows for a fact I’m not prepared for it,” he smiled a guilty smile. “She’s concerned about my health.”
Only 35,000 people are accepted into the marathon, over 78,000 applied this year. A race number is a real commodity. Not that Rishi would ordinarily have a hard time getting in. Even if he hadn’t run the required nine New York Road Runners’ Club races, or run the automatic qualifying time for his age group in the 2006 marathon, or completed 15 or more New York marathons, Rishi was still connected. He was a member of the New York runner (not jogger) community. The only other recourse an outsider had was getting lucky in the entrant lottery. Rishi’s problem was that up to the last minute, he had no intention of running.
“I don’t think you should run it Rishi. You won’t be able to walk for two weeks,” this from Jon Biles, his co-worker at the Upper East Side location of Super Runners Shop. Super Runners Shop was one of the few specialty running stores in the city, a hub for New York’s relatively large running community. The owner, Gary Muhrcke, a hard-boiled former fireman, was the winner of the first New York Marathon in 1970. Biles himself was an All-American, Division One college runner.
“I know, I know,” Rishi responded to his co-worker’s advice, but the vague, excited stare off into the distance seemed as if he was already picturing himself, arms raised coming across the finish line.
Another call from the Serbian, he was having difficulty securing the number. The Serbian was himself a very good runner, a former Super Runners Shop employee. One of his countrymen had decided not to run so he was trying to secure the number for Rishi. He’d sent his wife down to the sprawling Marathon Expo at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center in Midtown to get it. The problem there was that the Serbian was male. Rishi couldn’t go because he was managing the store, and besides, he didn’t look too Serbian.
An Indo-Trinidadian, Rishi didn’t really even look like a runner.
“Most runners are geeky and introverted,” Mitch Lyons, another early 20’s former track runner and Super Runners employee said.
Rishi normally wore resplendent silky racing clothes. He wore humongous wraparound athletic sunglasses. He owned both a tank-like Ford Explorer SUV and a Nissan Maxima with heavily tinted windows that he called the “White Ghost.”
“Listen, listen,” he said, on a trip to his Forest Hills home, the Ghost’s tinted windows throbbing from stereo system bass barrage as he played recordings of himself singing old Indian tunes.
He stopped at a karaoke bar in his predominantly Guyanese neighborhood to sing some more, and drink some more beers. Arriving at his house around 11 pm he showed nearly a wall’s worth of running trophies. Short runs, 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons, he probably had more than 50 trophies, a 100 little metal arms outstretched in victory.
“I’ve got more boxes in the garage,” he said.
“You’re talking too loud! The children are sleeping,” his wife of 17 years, Julie, said, still speaking to him at that point. They have two children, Kevin age 18 and Tiffany age 10.
Rishi came to the United States when he was 18 for the usual immigrant reason of “finding a better life.” For the first couple years he had the usual immigrant experience.
“I came to America to go to school. But I didn’t have anyone here for me. I never went to school because of that,” he said, recounting days of sleeping on cold floors during winter and paying for meals with travelers’ checks.
“I think if I wasn’t a runner I couldn’t have gotten through it,” he said, acknowledging the distance runner’s strongest traits – endurance, tolerance for pain.
His running inspiration, marathon great Alberto Salazar, was almost a mega-masochist. Salazar ran through so much pain that at the end of his famous Boston Marathon victory, they had to pack him in ice and put him on life support.
“A priest read him his last rites,” Rishi said with reverence. “There was no other runner with determination like him.”
In his own running, Rishi has tried to emulate that determination. As a boy in Trinidad he would run the more than ten sweltering miles along the highway from his job in San Juan to his Chaguanas home every day. During his peak training years, 1985 to 1995, he ran every day, taking a break only when circumstances forced him. Last year, after running New York, he trained all through winter to run the Trinidad Marathon in 2006.
“It was really tough to go out and run three hours by myself in under 10-degree weather. To train for Trinidad you have to do most of your running in December,” he said.
But Trinidad didn’t go well. He went from running in cold weather to an 85-degree race. He was forced to stop and walk, a clear defeat for a runner.
“I made a lot of sacrifices for that race,” he nodded. The last months have been more karaoke and beers than training.
By 5 pm on the day before the race it was just about certain he wouldn’t be able to get the race number.
“I’m a little disappointed,” he said, looking a lot disappointed. “I wanted to do the first seven (New York races) of 2000. But I’m relieved because I wasn’t prepared.”
His co-workers laugh. The last of the pre-marathon retail traffic is filtering out.
“Rishi’s like a dying breed,” Biles said later. “He’s one of the very few non-elite runners in it for racing. He’s not there for a party topic or to put it on his resume. He’s not even doing it for fitness. He runs to go fast.”
Checking off the day’s receipts with a pen, someone asks him if he’s planning on running Trinidad. Suddenly the guilty smile comes back over his face, and the distant look in his eyes, as if he were seeing two new tiny arms outstretched on his wall.