When most Mississippi readers last heard from my good friend Mike Knobler, he was the award-winning sports editor of The Clarion Ledger. He was a Harvard-educated intellectual flying his own airplane to and from Mississippi ballgames. Physically, he was, shall we say, portly. He was also, without question, one of the worst golfers in history of this planet.
That was nearly 20 years and more than 50 pounds ago.
Now, Knobler is a former sports writer-turned-California tax attorney who flies his own airplane all over these United States to run marathons. This Saturday morning, he will run the Mississippi Blues Marathon, which will start and end at the Mississippi State Capitol.
Should he finish, this will be Knobler’s 40th marathon completed. And Mississippi will be the 36th state in which he has run a 26.2 mile race.
Impressive, you say? You haven’t heard the half of it.
Knobler, now 58, didn’t start running marathons — or any distance, really — until 2004, or about a year after he left the Clarion Ledger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. After seven years in Atlanta, Knobler left the journalism business and went to law school. He started at Georgetown, finished at Yale. He aced law school, of course. About the only facet of life Knobler doesn’t ace is anything athletic. Something tragic occurs between his brain and his muscles. His muscles just don’t get the message.
I’ll give you a sample. We were once playing in a scramble golf tournament at Whisper Lake. Knobler was attempting a wedge shot from 100 yards. His three teammates were standing behind him. Knobler swung and the ball flew right back at us. We ducked in unison. Never saw that before. Never since. His ball didn’t hit anything. It just went backwards. His game was so bad, he was the inspiration for a newspaper-sponsored golf tournament. We called it: “Mississippi’s Worst Golfer.” Alas, Knobler finished second, carding a 154. It wasn’t just golf either. I once saw him try to shoot a basketball after a ballgame in Starkville. He missed the entire backboard from six feet away. Wide left.
So, about these marathons…
“You don’t have to be an athlete to run marathons,” Knobler says. “You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other one. It’s all about perseverance and persistence. You just keep going.”
Easy for him to say. I once was an aspiring marathoner. I made it through a 20-mile training run, then cramped all night and could barely walk the next morning. I quit. Knobler never has. He keeps on going.
He ran one in Wyoming at 8,000 feet. That was the hardest. He has run Boston. Funny story: At the Boston Marathon, runners take buses from Boston to the suburb of Hopkinson for the start of the race. Knobler departed the bus, saw a sign that said “Athletes Village,” and entered proudly.
“I guess this means I am really and truly an athlete,” Knobler remembers saying to himself.
And there was that time at the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, where high school cheerleaders volunteered along the race course to cheer the runners. “The first time I had ever had cheerleaders yelling for me,” he says. “I kind of liked it.”
In Helena, Montana, he finished second in the masters division and won 50 bucks. “So I am not only an athlete, I am a professional athlete,” Knobler says.
He is also by far the smartest person I have ever worked with, quite possibly the smartest I have ever known.
During his newly 15 years in Jackson, he dabbled in chess. He dabbled enough to win his division at a state tournament. Once, when my boy child won the county chess championship for fourth graders, I purchased a Bobby Fischer chess computer to help his game along. There were 10 levels, the highest called grand master. The boy and I never got past level 5. Knobler came over one night and we set it at grand master level.
After a few moves, Knobler said, “Hmmm, I think I can see where he’s going…”
He mated the computer in under 10 minutes.
Once we were covering at football game in Gainesville, Fla., and on Friday night before the game we found ourselves at a party attended by some university professors. Talk turned to the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle, notoriously difficult but especially so that day. Somebody handed Knobler the puzzle. He solved it under 10 minutes, using ink. Jaws dropped. “Would have been faster, but I was a little drunk,” he told onlookers.
And, oh, did I mention that now he sometimes constructs crossword puzzles for the New York Times?
The Clarion Ledger once bought a brand new, state-of-the-art computer system and brought in a team of experts to show us how to use it. Knobler showed the experts what the system would really do. Yes, and he ended up teaching the classes.
That intellect doesn’t help him one bit — not even one step — when he runs marathons.
“You just keep going,” he says. “No matter what, you keep going…”
Yes, Knobler says, he plans to run a marathon in all 50 states.
With no hesitation at all, he says, “Continents.”