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Peabody boys track coach Fernando Braz keeps time as assistant coach Mark Dawson leads senior Danny Anastus through a distance workout during practice on Friday.

Fernando Braz had a decent marathon record from 1987 to 1995, despite two surgical procedures.

He made his debut in Dublin, Ireland, eighth overall in 2:18.26, and the first American. He ran the California International next, then the Columbus International, 21st overall, 2:19.36; the Vermont City Marathon, third overall (after surgery) in 2:24.30 and the Huntsville, Ala. Marathon, eighth overall, 2:24, in his final challenge of the 26.2 mile test in '95.

His active career covered 21 years from the time he was a schoolboy sensation at Peabody High, graduating to a scholarship situation and Hall of Fame success at Boston College, and then adding other achievements in the long distance world.

It's been 12 years since he retired from the roads, but Braz will be running his first Boston Marathon today with no specific goals other than to finish (after just three weeks of preparation) and to raise funds for the Peabody Track Foundation along with Peabody natives Eric Buckley and Maurice Pratt, and rookie David Gravel, a long-time public figure who has been a fund-raising crusader for the Peabody-Lynnfield YMCA.

"I'll try and hang on to those other guys," Braz joked, showing minor concern about a recent stress fracture.

He had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 1988 and 1992 and failed by two minutes of making the Trials for a third time at Huntsville.

"When I fell short in Alabama I felt it was time to go on to something else," Braz said. "I wasn't forced to retire. I had surgery on both knees, once for a meniscus tear, another time to remove bone spurs beneath my knee cap, but injuries occur to runners all the time. I recovered from those ailments. I also thought I had achieved many of the goals I had set. There were other interests I wanted to pursue."

He wanted to begin using his degree in special education from BC, for one thing.

"I had made a commitment to myself it would be my final race (in Huntsville) if it didn't work out. I guess it wasn't meant to be," he reflected. "The (Trials) standard was 2:22 and I ran 2:24."

He never did land in the private sector or in a classroom in his post-race life.

Braz, a native of the Azores, did land on his feet, however, thanks to a heads-up from his best friend, Paul McGovern of Lynn, who was 22nd overall in the '84 Boston.

As a result of McGovern's tip, Braz now heads the 1,100-member Merrimack Valley Striders. He joined the organization as head coach and running coordinator in 1992. MVS has enjoyed tremendous growth under Braz's direction. It barely had 250 members in his inaugural year. The running club caters to the novice, the very experienced and the elite.

He can always thank McGovern for a successful transition and fulfilling the same passion and commitment that enabled Braz to answer the challenges of his racing days.

"I had nothing specific in mind for a job when I ran into Paul and he mentioned this club needed a coach and fitness person. Somebody (at MVS) had contacted him and asked if he knew of anyone who would be interested. I went up and had a long conversation and part of the agreement was that I'd have Paul as part of the staff."

About 350 members have a legitimate ranking in running circles.

"I enjoyed the challenge of athletics and my specific sport was running. I was wondering what would fulfill that desire and the coaching opportunity did that. I never had any regrets about my decision to quit running. Now MVS is a full-time position. I had taught eight years in the Peabody school system, then one day my wife and I sat down, talked about it, and I decided to go full-time into coaching. I loved it. It was my new focus, a new venue of concentration."

As the years go by it becomes more and more difficult emotionally and physically to raise the bar if you're competing, he pointed out.

"Ultimately the biggest battle facing you as a runner is, 'Can you do it emotionally?" he said.

"Coaching certainly took me down a path that I needed to take. I know it's an old cliche, but I'm living my dream job. It's what I've always known and I feel lucky to have evolved in this position. I'm familiar with the intangibles and sacrifices which are such a huge part of realizing your potential. I tell the members there's no getting around hard work."

Braz was nationally known at Peabody High, a three-time All-America (twice in cross country, once in track) and 12-time state champion who authored the second best scholastic time in the country (30:42) in the 10,000 meters.

He was a three-time captain along the way at BC, set six records in his Eagles' tenure, was an NCAA qualifier in cross country three times and a qualifier once in track.

Braz was introduced to running in the Peabody Junior Olympics program and recalled his great experience at the high school under George Smyrnios, then the guru of track on the North Shore.

"I'll be eternally grateful to George, who is known for his wisdom and communication skills," Braz said. "He encouraged me early on to stay with it and told me what possibly could happen if I listened and worked hard. He had great vision. He was a difference-maker with a lot of kids. He's the reason I could continue my education at the next level. He had a great impact on every runner he ever had."

Especially one Fernando Braz.

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