I would like to nominate a friend for your Lifetime Achievement Award. I feel this person exemplifies what it means to be a special human. Lajos Virost, my friend, is 57 years old. A little young for a lifetime achievement award, but old enough if you ask me. If he knew I was doing this he would laugh in my face. To say that Lajos is a modest man is putting it mildly.
He was born in Cleveland, barely, in 1956 when his parents fled Budapest while he was still in his mother’s belly. He is married for 37 years now and has 7 children. All girls! He has never been apart from his family. They are practically joined together at the hip. He likes it this way.
Lajos started a company cleaning apartments with his wife a few years ago. They call their company Shiny Happy Peepholes. Their love of REM and fresh smelling living quarters inspired them. Their daughters, who range in ages from 13 to 35, help run the business.
I first met Lajos in 1973. He was 17 years old and I had just turned 19. Our fathers belonged to the Hungarian Business Club. Distance running is what brought us together. At the time, the US had a handful of elite distance runners who had won some major races. They had ignited in this country a big running boom. People of every skill level began jogging. Some even organized running clubs and their own races. Running magazines and books hit the newsstands. Men and women became obsessed with improving themselves by going out on daily long distance runs.
Not to be outdone, the Hungarian Business Club formed a cross country running club for young men. Lajos showed up for his first day wearing jeans and a pair of secondhand Chuck Taylor high tops. I remember his laces kept coming undone and when he tried to retie them they kept breaking. So he would tie one end to the other with a knot until he barely had enough room to make a loop. Then he would sprint back up to the lead pack and us older guys would shrug him off and say, “who’s this little gnat and why won’t he shoo already!” After a few miles, he settled into a comfortable pace and finished the 8 mile run four minutes ahead of us. Even back then I could see the determination in Lajos’s eyes. If this first run with him was any indication of how competitive he would be in anything he might do in life, the world was going to be in for a treat.
Lajos eventually scraped up enough money to buy a pair of Tiger running shoes and as the years went by he began to look like a real runner. Skinny but muscular, chiseled face, relaxed but never sitting still for too long. Always thinking of his next race. But not for a minute did he forget about us and where he came from. Lajos had a heart of gold.
Something was always eating at him though. He racked up wins at local races. But it bothered him that he was in the shadow of runners like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. To make himself better, he entered races with some of the country’s best runners to see how close he would come to them. He was frustrated to be 19 years old and still a couple minutes off the world class runners. But I knew he was closing the gap. I knew he could catch them one day.
He married Katarina on his 20th birthday. They honeymooned in Pittsburgh so he could compete in a 5-miler and she could take in all of Pittsburgh’s amazing bridges. By now, Lajos had been running for nearly 3 years. He was very strong, almost like a machine. He and Katarina moved to Chardon, about 30 miles east of Cleveland, to work on her uncle’s farm. He ran early in the morning before work and again right after work, about 15-17 miles each day. Except on Sundays when he ran 22 miles before going to mass at St. Margaret’s. Lajos was always doting on Katarina and telling me how lucky he was.
I should tell you right now that Lajos had more going for him than your average man. He was good looking, hard-working, and healthy. And he could grow a mustache with the best of them! Please note the picture I have enclosed. This photograph was taken by my wife, Barbara, at the 1981 Cleveland-Revco Marathon. I think it was at mile 18, which if you know anything about long-distance running is the part of a marathon that could either make you or break you. I remember Lajos telling me that this is where a runner either has a bear jump on his back or he hits a wall. I can never remember which. What the photograph doesn’t show you is that he took a few minutes after mile 18 to talk with a high school cross country team that had gathered to cheer on this local celebrity. Then he gave his two-year old daughter a big hug before jumping back in the race.
To demonstrate just how intense Lajos Virost was when he ran, I have included an entry dated September 7, 1980 from his running log…
I am the ultimate underdog. They say I am not fast enough. Some days I believe them, but I work at my shortcomings and my body feeds off my desire to prove them wrong. They say I possess a blue collar work ethic, whatever that means.
Just one more mile until I get there. Okay, I’m here. 4:51. Jeez! Let’s try this again.
4:48. Nope, not good enough. I’ll stay here all night if I have to!
4:44. That’s better, but surely I can run faster than this.
Ears pop, chest cries uncle, lactic acid runs like lava down the slope of my quads and puddles in my calves. Lesser men die out here. Trust my training. Live to tell my kids about this.
Cross the line and look down at my watch. 4:37. My lungs burn so much I can feel them bent over and gasping for air in my throat. Big strong blue collar lungs that just went the distance with Dave Wottle. My heart beats 160 times a minute. Now I’m ready to win a marathon.
I am an underdog. I will always work harder than the guy who finishes second. I will become a highlight reel.
After the accident on the farm, he stopped running. He had no choice. His running life became a dusty box of race numbers, trophies and old photos. By now a father of three, he closed this chapter in his life and set out to reinvent himself. He washed dishes, he worked at a car dealership, he studied business part-time at Lakeland Community College. He and Katarina left the farm in the hands of her capable uncle and moved back to Cleveland. The babies kept coming and Lajos kept working. And he put on weight. But through it all he never complained. Why should he? He always told me that he was right where he wanted to be. And though I believed him, I knew there was one ingredient missing in his life. His need to feel the wind in his hair, which by this time was growing thinner. His desire to race up and down hills, which would have required a miracle. He moved around slower. But like I said before, he didn’t dwell on it.
As the years slipped by he moved further away from his identity as a runner. But he was there for his daughters when they took up the sport in high school and in college. He loved taking them to practice and yelling words of encouragement while they ran by. But he stopped doing this after he noticed how embarrassed they’d get. One time he overheard some of the other runners teasing his youngest about getting a ride to practice from “that homeless guy.” He didn’t argue with his daughter when she informed him that she’s a big girl and can get to practice on her own. That she no longer needed him the way that he wanted to be needed.
So another chapter in his life closed. What he liked best about his daughters running in their early days was watching them run and being amazed how these young athletes made everything look so easy. They stretched without uttering the slightest groan. They moved their limber bodies this way and that without tearing muscles. They worked out without reaching for their hamstrings. He stood there and wondered where all of the time had gone. He thought of his PRs. He thought of his wins and losses. He thought of how sad he was.
Every serious runner remembers every PR they set when they were young. It is emblazoned in their mind, if not scribbled on a piece of paper or typed neatly and tucked away as a permanent record. A PR is a runner’s social security number. It is time standing still along a continuum in space. Lajos Virost knows exactly what he was doing between 8 AM and 8:25 AM on November 22nd, 1979. He was running his best 8000 meters ever.
The prime of his life took place between 1973-1981. These were his club years. He logged some serious miles back then. A year-round training program kept him primed and ready to run with the front pack in our neck of the woods. Wins and losses defined him. Numbers nagged him. At 22 he averaged 4:50 miles over 5000 meter races while running 100 miles a week and consuming 3000 calories a day and possessing a 28” waist on a 5’ 9” – 125 lb. frame. Fast-forward 35 years and he is an old man still controlled by numbers. Only he’s traded in his splits and PRs for a mortgage and college tuition costs for his daughters.
A few months ago he started watching his girls run again. His 2 oldest daughters are in their 30s and compete in road races. His 3 middle daughters run cross country in college. And his high schooler may make all-state this year. His youngest daughter, Mary, told him that he will always be Lajos Virost, the man who nearly caught Bill Rodgers. More than this, the man that will always be her father.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of runner he might have become if it weren’t for that one time he acted so silly, and so drunk, at the wheel of that tractor so many years ago. If his leg hadn’t been crushed when it flipped over and it fell on him.
For not running from his responsibilities and for seizing the opportunity for a second chance in life, I nominate Lajos Virost for a Lifetime Achievement Award. Just don’t tell him I put you up to this!
Theodore P. Nagy
Illustration by Audrey Sajovie