Tartar sauce is fuel for life's challenges

November 22, 2007|by JOEL HUFFER

"When facing a difficult task, act as though it is impossible to fail. If you are going after Moby Dick, take along the tartar sauce."

It was about 20 years ago, I guess, that I discovered this quotation.

I don't recall where I found it, nor do I remember who is credited with saying it. None of that really matters, though.

It's the message that is important to me and one of my closest childhood friends.

And never has it been clearer than in the past few weeks.

After we graduated from high school, I went to college and Bill joined the Coast Guard. I've had newspaper jobs in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, and he's been stationed in such places as Philadelphia, Houston, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Honolulu.

Though there have been many miles between us at times, we've maintained our friendship and have continued to support and encourage one another. And the quotation has been there every step of the way.


Every time he took a test to advance in rank, I sent him a note or an e-mail reminding him to "take along the tartar sauce." And when I applied for a job at a new company or for promotions here at The Herald-Mail, he did the same.

It was a simple reminder that though we might physically be separated by thousands of miles, we were with each other in spirit.

I began training for the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon about two years ago. I started slowly, with runs of a few miles and gradually increased the distance to the point that I was able to complete a pair of 10-mile races and a half marathon (13.1 miles).

During training, I kept Bill posted on my progress and he kept reminding me of the ultimate goal - 50 miles on Nov. 17, 2007.

I joined a Wednesday morning workout group in September and kept piling up the miles through the end of October. When November arrived, with a little more than two weeks until race day, I backed off the miles and began to rest my body.

The e-mail arrived on Saturday, Nov. 3, and my wife read it first.

"There's something here you need to see," she said.

I could tell by the tone of her voice that what she had read wasn't good.

As I sat at the computer, reading the words Bill had sent from his laptop in Hawaii, my heart sank as I read "cancer."

He outlined the tests he had undergone, what the possible treatment options were and said that he was hoping to be able to have some more answers in a few days.

I responded to the e-mail, telling him that he was in our thoughts and prayers, and I offered to help in whatever way we could but knew that distance was going to be a major roadblock.

Two days after receiving Bill's e-mail, I went to Robinwood Medical Center to donate blood at a Red Cross drive.

While I was there, I went to the food court to grab some lunch. As I was getting a couple of napkins, I noticed something among the condiments that stopped me in my tracks.

Tartar sauce.

So I grabbed two packets - one to carry in my shorts pocket on race day and one to send to Hawaii.

A few days after mailing the packet to Bill, I learned that he was coming home to have his surgery and treatment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

In fact, he would be home in time to be part of my race-day crew.

Race morning arrived bright and early for me at 5:45.

I rolled out of bed, dressed in my racing clothes, grabbed a banana and some cereal, and left the house at 6:15.

Rather than fight the crowd at Boonsboro High School, I parked in front of Bill's father's house about a block from the starting line on Main Street.

I arrived about 20 minutes before the 7 a.m. start.

To my surprise, a light was on in the house and Bill was awake. He said he figured he "might as well join me" since he was "up anyway."

I unzipped my shorts pocket to reveal my tartar sauce, and he unzipped the pocket of his winter coat to reveal the same.

The race unfolded for me better than I expected.

I arrived at the first two checkpoints slightly ahead of schedule, and by the time I met my wife, kids and crew at 27.1 miles, I was on pace to break my goal of 10 hours.

As I reached the Shepherdstown bridge at 30 miles, I began to experience some mild leg cramps. But I ran through them, occasionally giving a gentle tap to the tartar sauce in my pocket.

I crossed the finish line in 9 hours, 26 minutes and 46 seconds, more than 30 minutes faster than my goal.

Bill was there waiting, ready to help me stand in my moment of weakness.

After catching my breath, I asked him if I could have his tartar sauce. I told him I was going to toss it in the trash can because he wouldn't need it anymore.

He looked a bit confused, but he handed it over. Then I took the one from my pocket and gave it to him.

"Here, take this one," I said. "We know it works."

Joel Huffer is assistant city editor of The Herald-Mail.

The Herald-Mail Articles