Monday, November 16, 2009

The Race No One Saw

Until this story happened I didn't know Megan Prandtl (I've changed her name), although I'd seen her running around town. But even a brief glance at her smooth stride is enough to tell you that you are seeing a good runner. On this day, I found out how good. From the Running Journal, June 2009.
To start at the end, this is the moral: Sometimes a door stands open, unseen until it closes. That’s the way of life. An opportunity sometimes passes before it’s even known to be one.

Megan Prandtl (not her real name) could have been a scholarship runner. I ought to know; I saw what she did.

You step through the revolving gate in the chain link fence that surrounds Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium and you find yourself standing on a nine-lane track encircling Overall Field. It’s the place I go to run intervals. A standard track, one lap is 400 meters long, a quarter mile.

It was 400-meter intervals I’d been practicing on that June morning, pressing hard for a full lap, followed by a one-lap recovery of easy jogging, doing the hard laps in a time of 1:30. That’s not too fast, but, then, I’m old and I have to take that.

The morning was pleasant, and I had the track, the football field, the stadium—the whole shebang—to myself. I’d finished the repeats and was jogging through a two-mile cool down when two college-aged men entered the area. They stood around on the infield near the 400-meter start/finish line, doing nothing much, putting in time, maybe considering some exercise. One was lean and wiry, the other pudgy. The wiry one was wearing baggy black shorts; he peeled his shirt off. They waited.

Then I saw her, a young woman, gliding across the parking lot, running tall, head and shoulders visible above the parked cars. She wore earphones and a sandy ponytail that swished about. In her hand was a water bottle. Her stride was easy and fluid—a Tech varsity runner, I figured. She soon joined the two guys in the infield.

I watched as I jogged. The three milled around, kicking the turf, making plans, mulling things over. Something was going to happen.

I soon decided I knew what it was. The wiry boy had a problem. He’d maybe shot his mouth off and talked himself into a corner. It had gone too far, and now there was no backing out. Only his legs could save him. And those legs looked too short, their appearance made the more so by his droopy pants. The pudgy one was going to be the timekeeper.

The short legs, the baggy shorts—they were clues. And I’d seen the woman float across the parking lot—another clue. I knew where I was putting my money.

They lined up, waiting while I approached the start line. That way I’d be past the line and out of the way when they came around. So it was going to be 400 meters then, a 400-meter battle between Man and Woman.

I drew near, the timekeeper signaled, the racers bolted. An audience of precisely two caught its collective breath, captivated by the sight.

I didn’t know Megan then, but on a recent jog she told me how that race had come about. The wiry man with baggy shorts had been a co-worker of hers. At work they’d been talking about running, something he knew Megan enjoyed. I guess he liked to tease her. He’d bragged that he could beat her.

“Was he a runner?” I asked.

“No. Thing was—what got me—he just thought he could beat me, you know, without even knowing…”

“You mean, because you’re a woman?”

“Yeah, yeah, exactly.”

Five seconds after the race started he was a wiser man. Megan snatched the lead at once. Going around the first turn she stretched the gap, piling yards on him like cordwood. Down the backstretch she opened the space to maybe 25 yards by the time she hit the 200-meter mark where the second turn begins.

She was sailing. The man’s legs whipped the baggy shorts into a flapping fury. He was running hard and ugly with all his might, hoping Megan would fade in the second half. It seemed to work—at least enough to stop the piling on. Around the first part of the second turn he managed to halt the deficit. Then he began to take back yards. He was game, but it was getting late.

The danger was that Megan had initially run too fast. Perhaps she was beginning to slow. If so, really, it was quite slight, I think. When she came out of the turn and entered the final straight, her posture was tall, gallant, her stride still fluid. I realized she wasn’t spent at all. The man gained very little after that point. His fate was sealed. As they sailed down the home stretch, the space between them froze, passed before the empty stands like a discreet entity, tangible and inviolate, attached at each end to a runner.

Megan beat him by 20 yards.

After the racers recovered their breath, the three walked around the track, laughing and talking, still friends. Continuing my jog, I pulled alongside.

“That was pretty fast. What did you run that in?” I asked.

“One-ten,” she said; her eyes said it too.

“That’s pretty fast.”

That’s pretty fast—a varsity runner all right. Three months later, she won a local 5K. I’d jogged the race’s companion10K as part of a 30-mile training run for an ultra marathon. After finishing the 10K, I continued on my jog without meeting her. Later that day, my route, by coincidence, took me down the street where she happened to live.

She and her mother were out for a stroll. I stopped to meet them. Megan has large striking eyes. I asked her if she’d won the 5K that morning. She had, of course. Was she a Tech runner? No. She’d already graduated from college, one out west, she told me.

“Did you run in college?”


No! I was astonished at that answer.

“I just like to run,” she said.

“But you could’ve had a scholarship! Saved Mom some money!”

She could have won a college scholarship, something she never realized or considered. That door is closed now. Anyway, as she says, “I just like to run.” In the end, maybe that’s the larger opportunity.

Despite her potential for speed, she doesn’t like speed training, preferring long slow runs instead. A few months later, I saw her taking those long runs more often than normal. Her easy stride and swinging ponytail graced the streets of Cookeville as she trained for the Boston Marathon—a dream for any runner.

The Mystery of Water

It should be no challenge for a writer to fill a page - should be able to fill a page writing about filling a page. And a page is what the editor of the Funrunner needed, facing a lean content one month. Her request for a page arrived. I thought about it and remembered some images of running I'd stored away. A poem seemed a good idea. Since I already had an article scheduled in the issue, and to avoid my byline appearing twice that month, I wrote it under a pseudonym. From the Funrunner, May 2006.
The Mystery of Water

Everybody was waiting for me to die
I kept falling asleep, then waking up
It was trying all around

I arose from the dream
And bolted out the door
Running, running, running

Green plastic penguin
Fat with water
Flaps its arms
Fingertips shooting jets
Swirling, flapping, swirling
Little girl squealing, runs away
From the cold sprinkle
Comes back dancing barefoot
Daring the water
The mystery of water

Rusty circle on the road
Marks the dog’s end
Used to chase me
Belligerent little wiener
Screaming invectives
Loudmouth: “Don’t come back!”
Belligerent little wiener
Rusty stain on the fog line

Bulldozer scraping bushes away
He won’t wave
But I know the smell better than he
Anybody would know sassafras
Who does he think he is?

Storefront window in the town
Full of glaze and curved buildings
White bearded ghost flashing by
I taste salt on my lips

--Jargo Fotcher

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Porch Is Gone

D.J., a.k.a Porch Patrol (Embroidery by Jo Ann Smith)

Throughout his long happy life he never once snarled, bared his teeth or raised his hackles at a human being. Despite his fierce contenance, athletic build, and warrior lineage, a gentler dog was never born.

When he died my fingernails stopped growing. When growth started again, the stop appeared as a shallow groove spanning across each nail. Toenails, too. It took weeks for that reminder to grow out.

It has been three years now, and I still miss him. These were my thoughts on the day of his death. From the Herald-Citizen, Thursday, August 31, 2006.


Porch is gone.

The tan Shar-Pei the family had named D. J., but whom I always called Porch Patrol, is gone. It’s Monday, and he had a stroke Saturday a week ago. Since then he has gradually lost his strength.

Yesterday he was very weak, and he got weaker throughout the day. He was just limp in my arms when I’d take him into the yard to try to stand. But he could not stand; his legs dangled helplessly when I’d lower him to the grass. He drank only once all day long, in the morning. With help he could still stand then, and I’d put some ice water in his bowl. He wouldn’t eat anything, even Kibbles ‘n Bits, his favorite treat.

I stayed with him on the back porch last night until eleven. I’d put his bed, a carpet remnant, in the middle of the floor, and I laid him on it. I turned him from his left side to his right side occasionally and back again later. A few times he found enough strength to lift his old head. I stroked the side of his wrinkled face and put my cheek against his.

“You my little buddy, you my little buddy,” I told him, my usual saying. In thanks, somehow that good dog would find the strength for a feeble tail wag.

He was breathing awfully hard, trying to get enough oxygen. I measured his respiration rate by my running watch—64 breaths per minute. Yellow mucus oozed out of his eyes; I’d wipe it away with facial tissue.

I thought he’d not make it through the night. But this morning he was still lying there, his old ribs heaving with each hard breath. He’d moved a little—enough that I knew he’d tried to get up during the night. He still managed a faint tail wag when I stroked his head and spoke to him. I felt of his feet, and they’d gotten cold. Circulation to his extremities was waning—his body was shutting down.

Jo Ann and I didn’t want him to suffer any more. I called the veterinarian. Dr. Thomas Holt came out. His examination confirmed what needed to be done. He filled a syringe with a pink solution of Phenobarbital and shaved a place for the needle on Porch’s left front leg.

“Are you ready for me to do this?” he asked.

“I am if you’re ready to see me cry.”

He pushed the needle in. The dog’s blood pressure was so low he couldn’t pierce the vein, even after sticking the leg several times. Probing, he wagged the needle back and forth, but couldn’t find blood. He decided to try for the jugular vein and stuck the needle in the dog’s neck several times. That didn't work either. Finally we turned that patient dog to his left side so as to try his other leg.

“He likes laying on that side better anyway,” I said.

Several more sticks, still no success. Finally, Dr. Holt said, "let’s try this." We raised his head and chest to an upright position. I knelt beside his limp body and cradled his head in my hands. His tail gave the faintest of wags, little more than a few trembling jerks, but unmistakably a wag.

"Did you see that?" I said, looking up at my wife—her eyes were wet and red. She nodded; she had seen it too.

Dr. Holt pushed the needle in. I saw blood rush into the syringe.

"There it is," the vet said. He emptied the syringe into the leg. Almost at once Porch relaxed the weight of his old head into my hands, and I eased him gently to the floor.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Holt said. “I’m sorry it took so many sticks.” We knew he couldn’t help that.

The dog’s body rests there on the back porch yet, covered with one of the towels I used during my swim training for Ironman. It’s a garish rag, red, yellow and brown swirled together in an African motif. I’d rescued it from the throwaway box, and it became my favorite towel—a canine funeral shroud now.

I have to go dig a grave.

This place won’t be the same without him. He leaves an empty space. The empty space will be everywhere: on the cool concrete under my front porch chair; in his corner near the French door on the back porch; around my folding chair in front of the shop when I sit watching the sky at night and eating popcorn; in Jo Ann’s garden when she waters her flowers…

Who knows how many times I've laughed because of him, how many stories I’ve told about him? What is the value of laughter? Of stories?

I spent more time with that gentle dog than with any human. In my day-to-day routine he was a constant presence, watching for me after my morning run, trotting across the yard to wait at the top of the driveway, my simple return being his happiest present. And on and on.

I wrote about him in 2003, in the last paragraph of my book. In equivalent human years, he was at the age of 63 then, as I was. Out of pure exuberance he’d run back and forth fast across the back yard each night. He was old but still strong. I imagined in his running a metaphor for mine.

He came to our back porch in May of 1994, a little pup. Twelve years and two months later he lies on that porch. He ended up where he started out.

I have to go dig his grave.