YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Donnie Gray was on the section of the course known as “Heartbreak Hill.” He had completed 20 miles of the 108th Boston Marathon, with Boston College on the right, and the finish line was just 6-plus miles ahead.

But at the 22-mile mark, as he approached Chestnut Hill reservoir, the Air Force staff sergeant’s legs began to fail as the thermometer reached 85 degrees. Suddenly, he blacked out, a victim of heat and dehydration.

Quick medical treatment on site and a visit to a hospital rehabilitated Gray. But it wasn’t the ending he had hoped for in what he calls the Super Bowl of marathons.

“I felt ashamed that I didn’t finish,” he said Tuesday in his 374th Communications Squadron office, days after returning from the United States. “I feel I would have made it if it weren’t for the heat.”

Gray, an Austin, Texas, native, has been running 26-mile, 385-yard races since entering the Houston Marathon in 1992. But his first encounter with the Boston Marathon took place on April 18.

Almost 2,500 of the 20,500 people who’d entered “didn’t show up at the start line because of the heat,” Gray said. And during the race “there were people falling out left and right,” Gray recalled.

Still, he made it to the 22-mile mark in 2 hours, 59 minutes, and was on pace to finish in 3:36:35.

“That was slow for me, because of the heat,” he said.

Cramping came quickly and painfully as he pressed toward the reservoir. Calves, hamstrings, thighs tightened. “Even my toes curled up,” Gray said. “Then all at once, I just blacked out.”

He was taken to a first-aid station on the course and given ice. He then was transported to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, where he was given three bags of intravenous fluids during a four-hour stay.

The Boston Marathon, held as part of the city’s Patriots Day celebration, “is my dream goal, the Super Bowl of marathons,” Gray said. “I’ve always wanted to run in Boston. If you make it to the Boston starting line, you’ve accomplished something.”

Gray qualified for the event by running the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 14 in 3:15:08, less than a minute under the qualifying time for his age of 3:15:58.

Gray runs six to eight miles daily during the week. Each Saturday, he hooks up with a Japanese running club; on Sundays, he runs up to three hours in the Ome hills, near Yokota.

Getting to the Boston starting line not only involved hard work but plenty of money, much from Gray’s pocket. He got donations of about $750 from the base’s Chiefs Club and other organizations. His unit gave him permissive temporary duty orders to travel without having leave charged — support, Gray said, which made him feel as if he’d shortchanged his benefactors.

“I wish I could go back and rewrite things, but some things you can’t control,” he said about the weather. “The day before, it was 55 degrees, and we were all praying that it would stay that way.”

But the marathoner said he’s learned some lessons, and he vows to return to Boston next year, this time representing Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he’ll transfer in October.

“Lord willing, I’ll be running the race in around three hours. That’s my goal,” Gray said.

He plans to qualify for the 2005 Boston Marathon by running in Germany’s Frankfurt Marathon, in October.

But even though he didn’t reach the Kenmore Square finish line last month, Gray said he was grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s the best experience you can get as an avid runner.”

author picture
Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now