'Survivor' ready for Grandma's Marathon
Donny Sazama was asleep at his parents’ home in Hermantown on the morning of June 5, 2005, when his mother yelled up the stairs, saying there was somebody there to see him.
Sazama assumed it was a sheriff coming to take him to jail again.
Sazama took his time getting dressed and walked down the stairs to see his family sitting there, along with a social worker, in what Sazama calls his “intervention moment.”
“Hi Donny, we’d like to talk to you,” the social worker said.
“When I walked around that corner, and saw that guy standing there, I thought, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Sazama said. “That’s what went through my head, ‘What took you guys so long?’ The pride was broken at that point. For at least two years of doing the drugs and living that type of lifestyle, I was so tired. I had never been that tired in all my life, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, just exhausted. I was just wasting away.”
Now nine years later, Sazama is preparing to run Grandma’s Marathon, where the 36-year-old likely will be one of the top local finishers. He clocked a personal record last year, completing the 26.2 miles in 2 hours, 43 minutes, 40 seconds, good for a pace of 6:15 per mile and a 75th-place finish out of nearly 3,300 male finishers.
Sazama, who works for Halvor Lines, Inc., in Superior, could be one of the fastest truck drivers on the planet. And, perhaps, one of the most famous after a photo of him carrying an American flag at the Boston Marathon in April became an iconic symbol, viewed worldwide.
Sazama (pronounced Saz-muh) never considered himself overly patriotic, but the Boston Marathon terrorist attack in 2013 struck a personal chord and brought out something special inside him.
Running helped Sazama get his life back, and having run Boston, he couldn’t think of another event that brought so many people from around the world, with a variety of cultures and backgrounds, together. And he’d be damned if he didn’t run it this year.
“I knew I had to do it. I knew I had to go to Boston after what happened last year,” Sazama said. “I knew I’d run Boston again, but I just didn’t know when. That tragedy that happened is the reason why I went there.”
Sazama’s mother, Denise McDougall, found the American flag at a Home Depot near Barnstable, Mass. McDougall told them what it was for, and they gave it to her for free.
Sazama found his mother, along with his stepfather, Kent McDougall, and Donny’s 14-year-old daughter, Hannah Sazama, 25.5 miles into the race, where they handed him the flag. He took it the final half-mile across the finish line. He finished in 2:46:13.
“That was one of the heaviest flags ever, but I carried it as high as I could. It was great,” Sazama said. “The crowd was just going crazy. They were chanting, ‘USA! USA!’ Everybody was yelling and clapping and applauding. I was really tired, and my arms were hurting, but it was so uplifting. That crowd carried me through.”
RUNNING ON EMPTY Growing up in Hermantown, Sazama was a straight-A student through sixth grade when things took a turn for the worse as he struggled to handle his parents’ separation and divorce. He started smoking and getting high when he was 12, drinking when he was 14 and experimenting with cocaine and other drugs when he was 16.
Sazama used to be into sports, in particular football and hockey and even tried cross country and track. He didn’t play anything as a senior in 1995-96 because he was ineligible for drinking.
Sazama later got hooked on methamphetamines and didn’t work for three years prior to going into treatment. He had stints in jail for not paying child support. He was a bad partner to his girlfriend, he says, and even worse father to Hannah.
“I lost everything to drugs and alcohol,” Sazama said. “I was a despicable human being. I was living a very despicable life.”
Sazama doesn’t remember much about that time, but he remembers enough.
“I was in a haze,” he said, “but I remember my little sister’s letter, where she said, ‘I want my big brother back.’ I get choked up just thinking about it.”
After meeting with the social worker, Sazama began treatment. He said the first three weeks were the worst. He had night terrors and nightmares, woke up sweating or had an occasional bloody nose. He acted out in anger and was extremely temperamental, but eventually started to calm down.
Sazama went to inpatient treatment in the Twin Cities for 44 days and then to a halfway house in Duluth for 90 days. He started a job and began to repair his relationship with his daughter. His outlook began to change.
Asked if he would still be here today if he hadn’t cleaned up, Sazama knows the answer.
“Oh no, not at all, I would have been dead a long time ago,” he said. “I thought I was a goner. I didn’t want to live. I wasn’t going to kill myself, but I didn’t know what else to do. After about three weeks being sober, I started to pick it up mentally a little bit. I came out of there on fire. I started to believe I could actually do this.”
Sazama came to grips with certain things. He realized he had an addictive personality and needed to find something over the top to satisfy him, yet not kill him. He also realized he could no longer associate with old friends, some of whom he had known since grade school, unless they were sober, too.
“There’s an old saying, ‘If you hang out in the barber shop long enough, eventually you’ll get your hair cut,’ ” Sazama said.
HOOKED ON RUNNING Sazama was at the Grandma’s Marathon finish line watching relatives complete the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in 2006 when his life changed.
“At some point into recovery we find ourselves with nothing to do and some people drift back into drugs or just get bored and complacent,” Sazama said. “The stars aligned for me. I just happened to be at that finish line, one year after my intervention, and I was just awestruck by the glory of it. I couldn’t stand it. I had to do it.”
Sazama drove to the Duluth Lakewalk the next day and ran about 6 miles. He felt great. Afterward, he lit a cigarette to celebrate (he no longer smokes but smoked a pack and a half per day at the time).
“I was thinking, ‘This is going to be great,’ ” he said.
The next day he couldn’t move.
“Then I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” he said.
Sazama stuck with it. He was determined to have running fill the void in his life. He ran the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in 1:47 the following year, and his first marathon, Grandma’s, in 3:53 in 2008. While those are quality times, they’re still relatively pedestrian compared to what he’s running now.
Sazama lopped 38 minutes off his next marathon, completing the 2009 Grandma’s in 3:15, and he broke 3 hours for the first time the following October, completing the Whistlestop Marathon in Ashland in 2:57.
Not bad for someone who jokes he doesn’t even like running.
“I like the exhilaration of it, I like the feeling I’ve accomplished something,” Sazama said. “I had this desire when I started running that I was going to set a world record. Of course that wasn’t going to happen, but that’s mentality I had, and I still have it. If I wanted to get faster, I’d have to run faster and train more. That’s all I do is run.”
Sazama, who splits his time between Superior and Hermantown, ran his first Boston Marathon in 2010, training all winter by running outside near Hermantown, bundled up and facing 20-below wind chills while preparing for the April race. He ran sub 6-minute miles for the first half of the race before fading, finishing in a then-PR of 2:52.
It was back at Boston where he’d ultimately make his mark.
Murray Morgan, a fellow runner and Halvor Lines truck driver, has a photo of Sazama crossing the line at Boston this year while waving the flag.
“I don’t know about the other drivers, but Donny is certainly an inspiration to me,” Morgan said. “He is just a really nice young man. If he had any fault at all, it’s that he overtrains. Seeing what he did at Boston, it just made me feel good.”
Sazama’s life has gone from the depths of despair to increasingly new heights. In that way, it is reflected in the change at the Boston Marathon, from tragedy in 2013 to triumph in 2014, a true microcosm of the human spirit.
Sazama has that iconic Associated Press photo of him carrying the flag as his Facebook profile picture. He returned to his hotel room after the race and was bombarded with messages from friends sharing the photo.
Sazama didn’t know where the photo came from, so he asked an old friend from high school.
“He said, ‘That’s an AP photo. Dude, it’s all over the Internet,’ ” Sazama said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow.’ I had no idea. What a proud moment for me. What a proud moment for America. That flag represented everyone, and I felt very strong about it then, and I feel very strong about it now. Thinking about where my life was to where it is now — I like what I’m doing, I like what I’m doing here. That flag was the culmination of everything I’ve been through.
“I’m a survivor, definitely.”