Running the Line

by | Sep 23, 2016 | Health & Wellness

Don Vulich, more affectionately known as Stickman, has left 85,000 miles of road and terrain in his wake – and he’s not done yet.  A small portion of that total, 812.2 miles to be exact, earned him the prestigious position as a Los Angeles Marathon Legacy Runner, signifying the completion of all 31 marathons since the race’s inception.  But it’s the thousands of miles of life, from one finish line to the next, that paves his true legacy: the ability to show up no matter what.
In 1969, Don was a track star and a rebel.  He signed up for his first marathon and quit halfway through.  In just two years, he underwent two knee surgeries, married his “flower-child” college girlfriend, and began drinking and smoking marijuana.  Running was a mere afterthought.
In 1978, Don’s father survived a heart attack at age 49.  He knew heart disease is genetic, and he didn’t want to be next.  Don signed up to be his kids’ track coach and began running again, working up to 3,000 miles per year.
Then came the inaugural LA Marathon in 1986.
“My motivation was that first failure; I had to make amends,” he recalled.  “I ran it in 3:50.  Every year since then, I’ve said, ‘That was cool.  I’ll do it again next year.’”
Incredibly, as his mileage increased, so did his drinking.  What had started as recreational was now full-blown addiction.  He drank a pint of vodka with Gatorade – “because that was healthy” – seven days a week before his daily run.  The alcohol didn’t slow down his time, though.  Four months after his third arthroscopic knee surgery, he posted a 3:46 at the 1991 marathon.  What was hidden by his running times, however, seeped into his life at home.  Tired of the chaos, Don’s wife decided she needed Jesus.
“I was threatened by this and thought it would destroy our marriage,” he said.  “It took me several years, but I eventually came around and was baptized in 1997 at Shepherd of the Hills.”
In March of 1998 his marriage hit rock bottom.  They found a counselor who agreed to help them under one condition: Don must stop drinking.
“I had a pint of vodka with Gatorade in my car.  I drank half of it and poured the rest out.  I stopped cold-turkey,” he said.  “During my afternoon run, I would make a promise to God: ‘I’m not going to drink today.  Please meet me here tomorrow, same time same place.’  Day after day, He got me through.  And my marriage started improving, as well.”
Ironically, his heart problems began to surface as soon as he stopped drinking.
“I had begun feeling fatigued, just sub-par while running.  The typical man talk started in my head: ‘Maybe I should start taking vitamins.  I’m not training hard enough.  I should eat better.’  I just rationalized it away with all kinds of excuses and kept training.”
Don ran the next marathon in 4:46, in May of 1999.  By the time June rolled around, he still wasn’t feeling right and decided to look into it.
“I called the doctor and scheduled for 2 p.m. and thought, ‘I probably won’t have time to run after the appointment, so I should get it done before I go.’”
Don ran the five-mile loop through Towsley and headed to the doctor.
“That decision most likely saved my life because the EKG showed the stress of my run,” he said.
Don saw the cardiologist about two hours later, and the EKG reflected normal results after his resting period.  Following an angiogram, Don was diagnosed with two blocked arteries and one partially blocked artery.  Doctors immediately scheduled Don for a triple bypass surgery.
“Collaborative veins took the place of the blocked arteries to supply proper blood flow to the heart, lungs and head.  Without this, I would have been a goner,” Don said.  “My lifestyle of running most likely saved me from a fatal heart attack.”
Six weeks after surgery, Don was back to running four to five miles per day.  At the next marathon in 2000, Don finished with a 4:49.
Five years later, Don faced yet another physical challenge: total knee replacements in both knees.  After the surgery, his doctor said he would never run another marathon, but Don showed up at the starting line.  It was the 20th anniversary for Legacy Runners – he had to run it.  And he shaved 41 minutes off the previous years’ time for a 5:37.
“I will always have to say I quit my first race.  I cannot erase that failure,” Don said.  “That’s why now it takes something very, very serious for me to stop.”
Not even a torn hamstring a month before the 2016 LA Marathon stopped him.
“Because of the Legacy streak, I will do anything to get there,” he said.  “I finished in 7:7.  That’s a long time out there.  It’s tough to handle mentally.”
Don also has completed 14 Santa Clarita half-marathon events, a handful of Bulldog 25k events, 20 years of College of the Canyons 5K Summer Series events, and several Bandit 15K events.
Today, more than his running game is strong, as well.  Don and his wife just celebrated 45 years of marriage.
“God gets the credit.  I am blessed with strength and stubbornness, but it’s because of Him that I’m still here,” Don said.  “I won’t ever say I’m too old to run.  I might say I’m too old to work – but never too old to run.”

photo by Jennifer Calderon