TRAVERSE CITY — He's known as the "Bayer Aspirin Marathon Man."
It's a moniker Gary Lake picked up last year after he and his wife appeared in a national television ad touting the benefits of Bayer aspirin.
The 66-year-old Honor resident will run his 44th marathon Monday when he toes the line in Boston — his 10th marathon since suffering a heart attack in February, 2004. That medical episode ultimately led to fame last year when he was featured in a 30-second Bayer ad.
The thrust of the ad — a marathon runner in "absolute perfect physical condition" is felled by a heart attack "out of the blue" and then takes two Bayers until help arrives — has turned Lake into somewhat of a celebrity.
"It's amazing how many people, strangers, see me and say, 'You're the Bayer Aspirin Marathon Man, aren't you?'" Lake said. "Yes, I am."
Actually, Boston and Bayer are linked in his story.
"In 2011, I ran the Detroit Free Press Marathon and finished second in my age group and qualified for Boston," Lake said. "I called my friend, the former race director of the Free Press Marathon, because the entry deadline for that spring's Boston Marathon had closed in September and this race (Detroit) was in October. That would mean I would have to wait until 2013 to run Boston. She said she didn't know anyone on the Boston staff, but said she just received an e-mail from a casting agency looking for runners that have had heart issues. People who know me know I'm crazy, meaning I did not change my lifestyle after the heart attack. I kept on running.
"I e-mailed the casting agency and told them my story. They said thanks, but casting had already closed. If they thought they would need my story, they would keep it for future use. Well, three weeks later they called me back. 'Are you interested in doing a commercial? Can you do a Skype interview the following morning?' We did two Skype interviews that week and they ended up flying us to Los Angeles to make the commercial."
The couple spent five hours filming the 30-second spot.
"All the while that my wife and I were doing this commercial, she kept laughing and saying that nothing was going to come from this because we were in front of that camera for five hours," Lake said. "She said we must have been pretty bad for them to spend that much time with us. It kept us laughing. We thought we were going to end up on the cutting room floor."
Not so. The day the commercial first aired, the Lakes received 13 phone calls from friends and relatives who had seen it. That ad ran for 11 months and can still be viewed on YouTube.
"No matter what races I run in now," Lake said, "people keep asking me, 'Are you taking your Bayer aspirin?'"
Lake laughs when he tells that story, but it wasn't a laughing matter that winter day nine years ago. The Lakes were four days into vacation at Walt Disney World when the heart attack occurred.
"I had gone out for an easy five-mile run, came back, showered and was ready to go to breakfast," he recalled. "It was the classic elephant in the middle of your chest kind of thing. I said to my wife, 'Get me an aspirin, get me an aspirin quick.' She was standing next to me. She thought I had pulled something because I don't take medications for anything. She said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'I think I'm having a heart attack.' She reached into her pill box and gave me two Bayer aspirin. I chewed them up and laid down on the bed. When the emergency people came, I ended up getting life-flighted to Florida Hospital in Orlando where they told me I had a 100 percent blockage in a major coronary artery. They did a roto-router, cleaned out the artery and put in a stent. Two days later, when the cardiologist was getting ready to release me, he said, 'I want you to promise me you'll take your medications every day.' I said, 'Wait a minute. Not so fast. I want to talk about getting back to running.' He said, 'I don't know if I want to recommend that to you.' We talked about it a few more minutes and we agreed that I would take the medications the rest of my life if he allowed me to run. We shook hands on it and I've been running ever since."
While in the hospital awaiting surgery, Lake started thinking of races he had yet to do. The Marine Corps Marathon, slated for that October, was at the top of his list.
"During the rehabilitation process, my cardiologist said he wanted me to walk for one month, take the next month and run easy, and then take the third month and build up into competition," Lake said. "My goal was to run the Marine Corps Marathon. That was part of my recovery."
That was marathon No. 35.
For Lake, this will be his third Boston Marathon. He ran it in 2003 and again in 2005. Qualifying did not come easy for him.
"When I first turned 55, you get extra qualifying minutes added on, so that year I ran five marathons in a two-year period in an attempt to qualify, which I finally did," he said. "When I turned 65, I ran three marathons in an attempt to qualify, which I did."
Lake needed to run the 26.2-mile distance in 4 hours, 10 minutes to meet Boston standards. He met that by running a 4:08.21 in Detroit. But since Boston officials cap the number of runners in the race, and receive so many requests from qualifiers, Lake felt he needed a better time to ensure his spot. So last April he ran a 4:05 in Toledo's Glass City Marathon.
"They usually cap the Boston Marathon at approximately 20,000 to 21,000 runners," he said. "Last year's Boston Marathon was so horrendously hot they allowed runners an option: If they opted not to run it, they could roll over into this year's race. My registration number, and this is based on where you qualified, is 20,654. Had I not run the 4:05, I most likely would not have made the field."
Although his Detroit and Toledo times were over four hours — both were in windy conditions — Lake said he typically runs a marathon in less than four. His personal best is 3:07:09, but that year he would have needed a 3:03 to qualify, he said.
"That 3:07 I ran is an average 7 minutes, 7 seconds per mile," he said. "That's fast for someone who was not a high school or college runner."
Lake completed his first marathon — Glass City — in 1981.
"I went through a divorce and started a new lifestyle," he said. "All my friends, who saw me run 5K and 10K races, said before you know it you'll be running marathons. I said, 'No way.' The very next year I ran my first marathon."
Now comes No. 44.
"For runners, Boston is like the Olympics," he said. "It's the highest level of participation we can reach. It's always a goal for me. It took me a lot of years to finally make that qualifying time. But, again, it's about being among the best marathoners in the world. That's what makes Boston so significant."