FALL RIVER, Mass. – As Zdeno Chara prepared to sign a one-day contract with the Boston Bruins in September 2022 and officially retire from the National Hockey League following a 24-year career, the future hall-of-famer skimmed the agreement and immediately began to laugh.
After signing the document which allowed him to retire as a Bruin, Chara turned to the crowd assembled.
“Do you guys want to know what it says?” Chara asked, grinning before filling them in. “Zdeno must agree to keep himself in good shape or physical condition at all times post-retirement.”
As folks in Boston have come to expect from Chara since he first signed with the Bruins as a free agent in 2006, he takes his contractual obligations seriously. His 2009 Norris Trophy for best defenseman in the league, 2011 Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award, career record for most games played by a defenseman in league history, and 14 seasons as Bruins team captain are evidence of that commitment, not to mention leading Boston to victory in the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Given that track record, it should come as no surprise that Chara’s commitment to his retirement contract has been equally firm. Boston residents and longtime Bruins fans got a glimpse of Chara’s follow-through on April 17 when – 12 days shy of a year after playing his final game – he ran the 127th Boston Marathon on Team Hoyt, finishing in an impressive 3:38:23 and raising $33,333 for The Hoyt Foundation and the Thomas E. Smith Foundation.
For many runners, the marathon is the pinnacle distance and the Boston Marathon is as big as it gets. For Chara, the Boston Marathon was deeply special, but it was also just a starting point. He already had plans to go farther.
A New Team
A few months after retiring, Chara began to put his post-retirement fitness plan in motion. He reached out to a friend, Ben Rawitz, for advice. Rawitz, who is Tom Brady’s longtime manager and business partner, completed the Antarctic Ice Marathon in December 2019. Rawitz quickly called Becca Pizzi.
“He called me and said ‘I’ve got a great find for you,’” Pizzi recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, the Bruins guy!’”
A resident and native of Belmont, Mass., Pizzi was the first American woman to finish the World Marathon Challenge, completing seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. She has accomplished the feat twice, in 2016 and 2018, in addition to having finished nearly 100 marathons. Pizzi helped prepare Rawitz for his race and figured she could assist Chara in pursuing his endurance goals.
“It was important for me to meet with him first,” Pizzi said. “Once we met together, I saw that he’s really cool, and I said ‘How do you feel about the Boston Marathon?’ He was only retired for like four months, and he said ‘Yeah, when is it? I’ll sign up.’”
In February, Pizzi connected Chara with her coach, fellow Belmont resident Scot DeDeo, and the pair helped Chara develop a training plan.
“[Becca] brought me to the team, and then we started running together,” Chara said. “Training under the guidance of Becca and Scot, we started doing the program training properly.”
They introduced him to other runners under DeDeo’s tutelage, Arlington resident Karalyn Spadaro and Belmont resident Lisa Engler. Chara fit right in with the group, and they developed a close bond during the course of training and many shared miles. In fact, that bond was so strong that Chara began plotting their next adventure prior to running the Boston Marathon. DeDeo had talked to the group about ultramarathons – he has completed many, and was training for the Tahoe 200 prior to its postponement due to excessive snowfall – and Chara suggested that the team tackle a 50K next.
“I just saw an opportunity,” Chara said. “Maybe I’m a little … I don’t know if you want to say too crazy … but you have to be able to be uncomfortable. That’s when you grow, and that’s when you push yourself to the limits.”
His teammates quickly agreed to join him.
“We were already doing Boston, and I think we were all a little worried about what we’d do after Boston,” Engler said. “We needed another excuse to hang out, and so Zee was like ‘let’s do this!’”
Chara suggested running the 50K at the Trail Animals Running Club’s TARC Spring Classic in Weston, just five days after the Boston Marathon, but the event was sold out. DeDeo looked into other options and pointed the group to the Watuppa 50K on May 13. That would give the group a bit of recovery time, as well as an opportunity to log some miles on trails.
Fresh off of a Boston Marathon where all four of DeDeo’s athletes ran well – Spadaro finishing in 3:25:08, Engler in 3:36:22, and Chara and Pizzi together in 3:38:23 – they pivoted to quick ultra preparation. After a few trail runs together at the Middlesex Fells in Medford and Prospect Hill in Waltham, Chara and his teammates were ready to go.
Teamwork and Toil
A quiet confidence settled over Chara as he stood at the starting line of the Watuppa 50K on Saturday, May 13, at Watuppa Reservation in Fall River. Unlike at the Boston Marathon where tens of thousands of runners took part in the race and thousands more spectators lined the course, this was a small, intimate atmosphere. Just 29 runners awaited the start of the 50K and another 83 split between the 30K and 10K distances.
Chara looked to his left and right and saw his friends and teammates by his side, Pizzi and Spadaro about to join him in tackling their first ultra and Engler her second. His coach, DeDeo, was even toeing the line to join the team in tackling five trips around the 10K loop course and its mixture of grassy doubletrack trails, paved and gravel roads, and winding technical singletrack.
Chara knew they’d put in the work, trained right, and were ready.
The moment the race began, Pizzi and DeDeo moved to the front. They ultimately ran together for most of three loops before Pizzi pulled away for the overall win in a women’s course-record 3:59:11. DeDeo would ultimately finish third overall and second among the men in 4:12:13, less than a minute behind men’s winner Donald Coletta (4:11:20).
Chara also took the approach of running with a teammate. He and Spadaro ran the entire race together, matching each other nearly stride for stride at times. They settled into an easy rhythm during the first loop, sticking in the back half of the field and covering the first 10K in just under 57 minutes. After a comfortable first loop, they picked up the pace a bit and clicked away the miles, passing a few runners and completing the second lap in 55:57.
The hard work began during loop three. Fatigue began to set in and the temperature climbed into the upper 70s. Chara was soaked in sweat, but he and Spadaro stuck together, trusting each other and taking turns pulling each other along as they moved into the top 10.
“We were working together,” Spadaro said. “It just comes in waves. It’d be like, ‘Ok, I’ve got this part; let’s do it.’ And then I was dying and he’s like, ‘Come on, we’ve got this!’ We were just helping each other all the way, which was really, really fun. It made all the difference having a buddy out there.”
They finished the third loop in 58 minutes, and eventually the fourth in 1:04. By loop five, it was 84 degrees and the sun was beating down on them. Adversity was at its utmost as they passed the marathon marker and entered unknown territory.
Chara knows all about staring down the unknown and persevering, of sticking with teammates when the going gets tough and finding a way to succeed. He made a career of it, so in that sense he’d been here before. Still, this wasn’t quite the same.
“There are situations that prepare you maybe for some of the situations here, but this is different,” he acknowledged of running an ultra. “This is something that you don’t do for money, for a prize, for records. Not that you do play hockey just for that, though you have motivations to win the Stanley Cup – that’s the main goal. But this is all about you inside, going through some of the barriers, some of the challenges that you’ve just gotta battle through. You’re really going to find out who you are in some of the moments. That’s what I mean when I say that you’re so uncomfortable in these situations that you’ve gotta feel almost comfortable, because you know they’re coming and you’re going to face them in long runs like this, and you have to find a way to deal with it and not panic and just stay strong mentally and just push through.”
Together, Chara and Spadaro dug deep and pushed through the final loop, working together and sharing words of encouragement until they ultimately reached the final stretch of singletrack trail, navigated the tangled web of tree roots and emerged from the woods. With the end in sight, Chara grasped Spadaro’s right hand and hoisted it in the air as they ran the final 50 yards and crossed the finish line together in 5:07:29.
Chara and Spadaro tied for eighth place overall with Spadaro finishing second in the women’s field behind Pizzi. Five minutes later, Engler joined them at the finish line in 5:12:37 as the third-place woman. An elated Chara hugged each of his teammates in celebration of their podium sweep.
In the minutes that followed, the friends and teammates shared high-fives and hugs, snapped dozens of photos, and snacked on pizza and other goodies at the aid station. They also took time to reflect on their shared experiences during the past few months and what they’d just accomplished together.
“I kind of initiated it,” Chara said of taking on an ultramarathon, “but I would not have been able to do it without the whole team agreeing to it. It was a little bit of a brave idea I would say on my part, but I think that it shows what great, classy, supportive friends I have in this because three of us had never done ultras and they all committed to it. Without them, this would not have been possible.”
Engler agreed that they were stronger together.
“I think it’s everything,” Engler said. “It’s why we keep coming out. It’s why I get up at 4:30 in the morning to meet Zee because that’s the only time he can run. It’s motivation, it’s encouragement, it’s good friends, it’s fun, it’s everything – that’s why we’re here.”
Added Spadaro: “I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Just Getting Started
Barely one year into retirement, Chara is firmly upholding his contractual obligation with the Bruins. He has already checked off some big goals for his post-retirement athletic agenda – first marathon, first ultra – but the 46-year-old is just getting started.
“He’s got a lot of goals,” DeDeo said. “He’s definitely looking to go even farther than 50K. He’s looking to do some triathlons. He does a lot of cycling; he’s a really strong cyclist, and I think that’ll be really good for him as well.”
Chara said he is enjoying striking a good balance in his training, mixing road and trail-running, cycling and mountain biking, all while continuing to build his fitness base. His goal is to complete a half Ironman before September, then possibly another marathon in the fall.
“My goal is to get the Ironman done, the full one,” he said of the 140.6-mile race (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run). “But I know where I’m at, and I need to be humble about it and go slowly and surely to get there instead of being overconfident and not doing well. Let me put it this way: when I do these types of things, I want to make sure I’m ready for it. I don’t want to just go for a fluke or luck; I want to be confident when I stand on the starting line that ‘ok, I’m ready.’ That was the case for the marathon, and for this race, too.”
DeDeo believes Chara’s goals are realistic and that he will put in the work to achieve them.
“He has an immense amount of willpower,” DeDeo said. “He’s got some hockey injuries that flare up here and there, and he’ll push through anything.”
For Chara, disciplined preparation will be key to earning that Ironman finish, as well as to achieving any other endurance goals he sets his sights on in the years ahead. Just as critical to that success – as he learned during his professional hockey days and has already rediscovered as a runner – will be keeping a good team around him.
“I can’t ask for a better team,” he said, naming DeDeo, Pizzi, Spadaro and Engler, as well as Pizzi’s husband and sister who crewed for the team at Watuppa. “The knowledge, the experience, the professionalism that is combined of all of my friends, the amount of marathons and ultramarathons they’ve done, it makes my journey and experience much easier because I can get the best advice for the race and training from them. They deserve all the credit. I’ve run my first marathon and first ultra and everybody’s a little bit surprised, but I am not because when you have the right people around you then these things are possible.”
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