(Editor’s note: Adam Reinherz begins a new roving column in which he will profile people and tell what may otherwise not be reported.)
Thirty-four years ago, atop New York City’s Verrazano Bridge, Dr. Alex Sax began marathoning. Since then, he’s traversed Chicago, Boston, Miami, Detroit, Cleveland and his hometown of Pittsburgh — 51 marathons in all. Sax has run so many miles he can trace the equator twice.
Now pushing 63 years of age, after nursing a yearlong foot injury, Sax is pursuing marathon number 52. You might think the Squirrel Hill dentist has nothing left to prove. But you would be wrong.
• • •
Sax was born on a Czechoslovakian farm. After the war, his Holocaust surviving parents moved to America and settled in Carnegie. From the age of 9, he rode the bus to Hillel Academy in Squirrel Hill.
Athletically inclined, Sax played basketball and led his high school team to two Jewish Community Center championships. He attended Duquesne University in the mid-1970s and later starred on the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine’s basketball team.
After completing a residency at Montefiore Hospital, Sax began practicing dentistry full time in 1978. For exercise, he would run three miles on his lunch breaks.
Three miles became 10 miles, and before long much, much more.
Throughout the ’80s, Sax would venture up to Oakland and join elite runners at Pitt Stadium, though he claimed, “I was the slow one in the group.”
Soon, Sax, and his new running friends would travel across the country entering marathons. Sometimes, they would go together; other times Sax traveled alone.
“For the first few years after we were married, Jackie [Sax’s wife] would come with and cheer me on. That ended,” Sax recalled with a smile, “though she came to Big Sur, when I ran on Route 1.”
• • •
In Pittsburgh, Sax became known as “the Shaman” to other runners — a person with supernatural powers. As the years passed, his lore grew.
In the ’70s, while in Greece, Sax hopped a fence into the original Olympic Stadium. Admiring the long straightaways and short bends, he decided to run the historic course. A few laps in, a security guard chased him, arms waving, shouting at Sax in Greek to get off the track. Not slowing down, the Pittsburgh dentist looked back at his pursuer and said, “I got to finish my mile.”
Back in America, nearly 20 years later, Sax entered the Chicago Marathon not feeling quite right. Having aggravated his foot a week earlier, he ignored the discomfort and chose to run through the pain.
“I had already made the reservation and trained for the race,” he said.
Not even a mile into the marathon, Sax stepped on a Chicago street curb and heard his foot pop. “I knew it was fractured,” he said, “but I decided to finish the race.”
Sax’s recent injury, a navicular fracture, the one that cost him a year in a boot and on crutches, resulted from a run up Mount Washington, to his office, in a pair of snow boots. “I felt like I needed a run,” he said.
• • •
The hour grew late as Sax rested at the kitchen table of his Squirrel Hill home. Apart from a few lights, the house was dark. Jackie had gone to bed and Sax sat recounting memories of earlier years: of runners, races, even his parents, Ike and Marie Sax. He mentioned physicians, writers and chess champions — all internationally known individuals he encountered by running the streets of Pittsburgh. Most of the people he named were out of the sport — some too old, some too broken, some dead.
Sax opened a bag of his grandkids’ toys and located the nearly 50 medals he’s won in his running career. “I never ran for the medals,” he said, “not for notoriety, not for personal gain.”
Then he mentioned his dad.
“My father was an officer in the Czech army, spent two years as a slave laborer in a labor camp, escaped, and somehow joined the Russian Army identifying SS officers who had murdered Jews.”
In the camps, Ike Sax worked as a butcher, secretly dispensing food to Jews at the peril of his own life — a fact Alex discovered after his father’s passing. When he came to America, Ike Sax brought certain things, like his trade as a butcher; other things he left behind, like a prior life with a wife and kids who were killed in the war. Ike Sax spent his days encouraging other survivors to appreciate “God’s gifts that He gave you today.”
“My father was a forward thinking individual who didn’t dwell on the past. He was mentally tough. You have to move on,” said Sax, “You have to move on.”
• • •
Sax stopped marathoning years ago. His medals testify to a celebrated career: 51 registrations, 51 completions — he never entered a race he didn’t finish.
Now, at almost 63, the Shaman is coming back for one more marathon.
His body aches, his veins are weathered, yet Sax keeps showing up on Sunday mornings at Serpentine, like he’s done for the last three decades, ready to run with his group or on his own.
“I’ll finish that race, unless they have to carry me off,” he said. “No question about it. I’m not going to start a project I can’t finish.”
And with two words, Sax explained the meaning of marathon number 52: “the challenge.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.)