My favorite marathoner never won a race.
He ran like a wounded soldier, left arm in a sling, left leg dragging behind him as he shuffled and cantered at the back of the pack and watched even the slowest runners fade from his view.
Long before the starting gun sounded on race day, Carlos Ramirez knew where he would finish when that day was done. He would come in last. The damage wrought by a stroke he suffered on Sept. 25, 1996, guaranteed that. And try as he might to get his arm and leg to pick up the pace, they remained obstinate and uncooperative.
His paralyzed limbs slowed him to a ground-scraping crawl, but they never stopped him from entering and finishing a race.
As I watched him move on a local track one day, I wanted to know what made him turn out for race after race when he knew the result ahead of time.
“My goal is to finish,” Carlos said. “I watch the lead runners go by, and I wish I can do that, but I know in reality I can’t compete with those guys. I have a lot of troubles and all that, but I like to finish.”
After surviving the stroke and heart attack, he spent three months in the hospital and watched his condition gradually stabilize. The paralysis was permanent, he was told. It was then he asked himself a question: “I am not going to die now, but do I have the courage to live?”
He found the answer at the park one day as he played with his son, Samuel. He watched a jogger stride around a nearby track and felt the runner’s rhythm in his soul.
“I decided to try,” Carlos recalled. “I said to my son, Samuel, ‘Now I remember how to do it.’ But when I tried, I ran like a kangaroo.”
The tears flowed that day as he flailed away and his body betrayed him. Then he began to laugh at himself.
It was then he knew what the rest of his life would be about.
“It was my goal to get back to running and to show people, ‘You can do it,’ ” Carlos said. “I’m a survivor. I’m not a stroke victim. A victim is someone who got robbed or something. I’m surviving this. I’m going to make it through.”
And he did. Until his tired body finally gave out last week, Carlos Ramirez devoted himself to telling the world that there is life after a stroke. He was 59 and suffered from esophageal cancer.
He competed in hundreds of local races and a number of marathons. At times he suffered mightily for his devotion, being hospitalized after more than one race. Though at times his pain was intense, he never let it keep him from finishing and reminding those around him that life goes on.
“I don’t give up easily, you know,” he said. “I keep moving. Even in the hospital they tell me, ‘Stay still, Carlos. You can’t move up here. Don’t get out of bed.’ At first I worked all night long to get into my wheelchair to go to the bathroom. I am a very religious person. I knew when this happened if I get better, I get better, if I don’t, I don’t, but at least I’ve done something.”
His daughter, Margarita Ward, was inspired by her father’s simple courage.
“He taught me that no matter what disability or health issues you have, you shouldn’t quit,” Ward said. “Just keep trying. He taught me that there’s nothing I can’t do. There’s nothing my kids can’t do. Regardless of his disability, he set his mind and set a goal and was going to reach that goal.”
Carlos often ran with the Las Vegas Track Club, and this year he was accepted to enter the Boston Marathon. He volunteered with the local offices of the heart and stroke associations and at the YMCA taught swimming to stroke survivors.
In short, Carlos Ramirez spent his time in the service of others.
Now that his final marathon is run, his life is a reminder that the race is not always to the swift.
Some champions are timeless.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.