ROBERDEL — During a six-mile run on country roads, Lee Watson is willing and able to share a pretty remarkable story.
The Hamlet native celebrated his 60th birthday on Friday. And he’s about to be at the starting line of the Seaboard Festival 5K on Saturday in Hamlet.
It’s a race that began 29 years ago. He hasn’t missed any of them.
Running is, in Watson’s words, the best thing that’s ever happened to him — with the lone exception of meeting his wife.
The fact that he’s able to run so far, so fast — well, it’s astonishing even to him, because at one point, the book on his life told a very different story.
A little more than 30 years ago, Watson was into hardcore drugs. Heroin. Crystal meth. Cocaine.
Drugs were “my escape from reality,” he said.
Then he simply made the decision to do better. Feel better. And Watson was reborn. He took the shape of a runner. Watson likened a long distance run to drugs, in a small way. Both serve as a way to escape life’s doldrums and, pardon the pun, run off some steam. Running, though, offers a key distinction.
“The difference is, when you come back from a run, you’re better off than you when you started,” Watson said.
It wasn’t easy at first — especially the fitting in part. For two years, all the miles Watson logged, up to six at a time, were solo. He wore not high-end sneakers but work boots and cut-off jean shorts.
When he heard the Seaboard Festival, in its infancy back then, was about to start up a five-mile road race, “I said, ‘I can do that.’”
Watson, a carpenter by trade, figured he better do a better job of fitting in and purchased his first pair of running shoes since his days in the Marine Corps. He placed first in his age group and “boy, I was hooked.”
It’s been nearly three decades since he’s started and, with the exception of an injury here and there, he hasn’t stopped. In fact, Watson continues to push himself to new heights, and new distances, as his body allows. Last month, he completed 73.06 miles during the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic in Rockingham. It was his first time over 50 miles and the distance put him well over the 100K (62-mile) mark. His goal for next year? The magic number of 100 miles.
He’s logged more than 1,400 miles in the first 10 months of the year and projects to about 1,700 for the year. That’s a lot of miles.
“I kind of went crazy this year,” he said. “I always thought (being) 60 was going to be a lot different.”
The miles have helped Watson stay away from drugs. Early on, he succumbed and snorted a line of cocaine but realized it had an adverse impact on his next training run. Marijuana was, for him, a gatway drug. And friends on harder drugs opened the door to the harder stuff.
“All of a sudden, you’re addicted to it,” Watson said. “You can’t quit, or you don’t think you can.”
Watson said he is not a religious man, but he did some praying for the strength to kick the habit. Whatever it was, Watson said, it worked.
His addictive personality latched on to, by most accounts, something far healthier. His 28-year streak hasn’t come without a few family hitches, though. His niece scheduled her wedding on Seaboard Festival weekend. That was a no-no, Watson said.
“If I went to the wedding, my streak would be over,” Watson said. “I told her, ‘if I don’t come, you’ll still be married.’”
No more drugs, but Watson then realized he had a new master. This one, though, offers a far better ending.