Sunday, December 19, 2010

Momma's Supper Table: A Running Son Remembers


          On Fridays I would take Momma out for supper. One Friday we ate at Pizza Hut where I could have spaghetti. She wondered why. It was because my first race, a 10K which I'd kept a secret, was on the next morning. Four days after her death, I had surgery, and, following recovery, trained for eight weeks and ran my first marathon. Running began a new life for me. For her, life itself was a hard run. By coincidence, it ended as my new one was beginning. Endurance had filled her days. She left it with me. 

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            On the Sunday supper table at Momma’s: chicken and dressing, giblets gravy, cranberry sauce, fried rattlesnake, boiled potatoes, fried corn, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, poke sallet, sliced tomatoes, green peppers, fruit salad, homemade relish, cornbread, biscuits, pecan pie and coconut pie.
            That supper was on September 23, 1984 in the Smith Bend community of Jackson County, Tennessee. Just an ordinary Sunday feast—except for the rattlesnake whose head I had chopped off after he failed to bite my brother and me. We dressed the snake, Momma cooked the meat. It would have been a feast even without it. Poke sallet? Momma served that delicious weed even in wintertime; she canned it.
            I know what was on the table that long ago day because as the women cleaned the dishes, I asked Momma for a pencil and piece of paper. She tore a sheet from a spiral binder and handed me a ballpoint pen, and I wrote down the list.
            Just before Christmas fourteen years later, we held Momma’s funeral. I gave the list to preacher Draper Murphy, a family friend. He read it at the service. When he came to the rattlesnake, he said, “She’d fix about anything those boys brought in.” Hearing him read out the items on that list, the people in the little chapel smiled knowingly. They didn’t doubt the lavish menu; they’d sat at Margaret Smith’s table. That list told more about Momma than a room full of sermonizing.
            Momma shouldn’t have died. At the age of seventy-eight she was in surpassingly good health. She stood five-four and weighed 105 pounds. She could outwork two good men—and often did. Her teeth, all still where God installed them, were porcelain white and contained not a single filling. Before I knew what toothpaste was, she’d taught us to brush our teeth with a mixture of salt and baking soda. No surgeon’s knife had gashed her skin.
            She died because of how she lived—allowing no concessions, yielding not an inch. Following Daddy’s death two years earlier, she had continued living on the farm, pasturing twenty head of cattle and a herd of goats. Neighbors unable to contact her on the phone would be shocked when they learned she had been back in the hills checking on her cattle. “Something could happen to you back there and nobody would know about it for days,” they’d say.
When we were kids—my sister, my two brothers and I—she used to take us to those hills in the fall to collect hickory nuts and walnuts. She used the hickory nuts in pies, doing the painstaking work to crack the hard shells and pick out enough kernels. No pecan pie could compete with her hickory nut pie.
On Friday nights I’d drive to her house, some thirty miles in the country, and take her to supper, and then go back to her house on Sunday for the big lunch and supper she’d cook up. One Friday I suggested eating at Pizza Hut, where I knew I could get pasta. She didn’t know why I wanted to eat there, since I had not before. The pasta was for my very first race, a 10K, on the next morning. I kept the race a secret until the following Sunday. Then I showed her my tee shirt and the two trophies, heavy mugs, I’d earned for winning both my age group and the master category.
She was proud. With that race, she saw the very beginning of my running. A few months later, it was too late. She never got to see my later success. I know she would have been surprised and pleased.
We didn’t take her high blood pressure seriously. She wouldn’t have listened if we had. Her abiding fatalism trumped any worry. “If it happens, it’s supposed to,” she had always said. Throughout her life, that sense of resignation gave her the endurance to work in the field all day, and to then come home and cook supper while the men rested. I think the running events I seek out express that ability she had to work, uncomplaining, at a steady pace for a long time. Any stoic endurance I have I got from her.
  Best we can figure she had the stroke on a Thursday. She had been out cutting weeds with a swing blade in the heat of a June day. That’s the way she was. It must have been a small stroke. People who talked to her Thursday and Friday noticed that she wasn’t quite herself. I, myself, took her to supper Friday night, and noticed she seemed a bit unsteady. But I didn’t suspect the awful truth.
Afterwards, I dropped her off at her house. “Wait a minute,” she said. She went into the house and came out with a present, a polo shirt for my birthday, which fell later in the week.
“My birthday’s not until Thursday.”
“I might not see you then.”  
She wanted me to stay the night. I had to go. I backed the truck out. I remember her standing there looking into the glare of my truck lights. Her oldest son was leaving; she stood helpless and utterly alone. I missed the best chance anyone had to get her prompt medical help, essential in the case of stroke. The next day, still ignorant, I remarked to a friend, “Last night Momma seemed old for the first time.”
My sister found her that day when she went for a visit. Momma was confused, and Sis checked her into a hospital.
At first, we were sure she would recover. But then she had another stoke, in the hospital, and was taken from Carthage to a big hospital in Nashville. A vigil began. We took turns staying with her night and day. My turn came on my fifty-eight birthday. Momma and I faced the struggle in the hospital room just as precisely fifty-eight years earlier we had faced a similar struggle in a two-room log house in Jackson County. Just the two of us again—except now it was my turn to help her live.
But I was inadequate. After six months Momma died in a Donelson Rest Home. We had chosen that particular home for its location, just a few blocks from my Sister’s house. Sis had visited her daily, bringing treats, staying to comb and plait her hair.
The night she died I drove to Donelson. My daughter Jill rode with me. In her room, Momma lay peacefully in the bed, her hands crossed. The nurses discretely withdrew. Sis, Jill and I stood there looking down.
After a few minutes, I left the room and walked outside. Jill followed. I walked along the path where I used to push Momma in her wheel chair—she always liked to be outside. The path led to a gap in a fencerow where we had always stopped. Looking west across a parking lot, we would watch the traffic on Donelson Pike.
It was a fencerow like the ones in Smith Bend where Momma had always lived, thick with tall Sassafras bushes, honeysuckle and briars. Jill and I stood there in the dark now, not speaking. I saw a wild grape vine hanging from the bushes. I slashed it off with my knife and yanked the severed vine with the sudden fury of a savage. Dead leaves and twigs rained down, branches snapped, bowing to the violence. I ripped the whole vine from the tree down to its last clinging tendril.
I rolled the fallen vine into a hoop, twisting the bushy branches around the main limb, and tucking the curlicues. When I finished, I had a platter-sized wreath.
I took it inside to Momma’s room and handed it to Sis. She turned it in her hands, admiring the curly twigs. “It needs a bow,” I said. Sis had an idea. A vase of flowers sat on the table, a small card attached by a pink ribbon. She untied the ribbon, and looped it into a graceful bow. Then she fastened the bow to the wreath and held it up. It was an elegant little wreath. She stepped forward and gently laid it on Momma’s folded hands. “It’s the last thing we can give you, Momma,” she said.
Two days later they closed the casket. It was twelve days before Christmas 1998.
My oldest son flew in from his Texas home. The night before the funeral, he and I spent the night in Momma’s house. Everything was just as she had left it six months earlier.
A rose bush Momma had recently planted stood at the corner of the front porch. It was thin and scrawny and hadn’t had much chance to grow. Though it was December, the sad little bush reached up a single red rose.
We gathered at Momma and Daddy’s house for Christmas that December as we always had. My sister, my two brothers and I, our families, kids and grandkids were all there. Gene, my youngest brother, had put up a cedar tree and decorated it just like Momma used to do. Gerald, my other brother, brought his shotguns for skeet shooting. We gathered around the tree and opened presents. Kids with new toys romped through the house squealing, raising a happy din.
The women brought a feast like Momma always fixed. Once again we sat around the big long table in front of the picture window that looks out over Cordell Hull Lake and the hills beyond.
It was a joyous Christmas obeying the spirit of past ones. But Momma now rested beside Daddy in the family graveyard a few paces from the back porch. A glance in that direction reminded us—it would never be the same.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Weather Report: Seville, Spain


A story about the weather seemed a good idea, considering what I see outside my window on this cold, snowy day. From Running Journal, December 2010.

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We went barreling into the roundabout too fast for the wet cobblestones. The car lurched into a sickening skid. Rafael jerked the wheel, and we swooped through the circle clean as a pin. The lucky fact that no other cars were about at that early hour helped.

My friend Albino was riding shotgun; his older brother, Rafael, was driving, and I was in the back. The brothers and I burst out laughing. We didn’t care. The danger seemed small compared to what we were rushing toward, the place where our minds already were.

Which was the XXI Marat├│n Ciudad de Sevilla. On this February day that had yet an hour to wait before dawning, we rushed along wet streets heading for a rendezvous with the brothers’ running club. From there, according to plan, we would all drive to the marathon at Olympic Stadium.

The Peugeot’s thermometer showed 4 degrees C and the wipers beat back the rain. A little colder and there wouldn’t be rain—which would be an improvement. As it was, we’d be both cold and wet. Staying warm enough would be a problem.

“This is as bad as it gets, unless there’s wind too,” I said.

Then the wind came.

To this warm and dry city, an unusual weather system had sneaked overnight; the Seville Marathon was going to be a wet piece of business. Rafael had tuned in a station playing old pop hits from the United States. Dale Shannon was inconsolate: His little Run-Away had, sure enough, run away. “I’m walking in the rain…,” sang he.

At the pre-race expo two days earlier, a sunny day, Albino had picked up a folded piece of plastic and extended it to me.

“We may need these,” he’d said.

I doubted that but took it anyway. It was a plastic bag with a neck hole, the usual marathoner’s raincoat. That bag saved my race.

After linking up with the running club—an indefatigable group as sunny as the dawning day was cloudy, everyone wearing matching warm-up suits—we arrived at the Stadium to find the parking lot layered with water. We posed for a foggy group picture there, one that turned out blurred because Albino’s camera was inadvertently set for close-up photographs.

In cold conditions, what to wear is hard to decide. I don’t want any extra clothes to slow me down. On the other hand, freezing doesn’t help either. The plastic bag, I held in my hand. Sitting in the security of the Peugeot, I decided on shorts, tee shirt and glove liners, not gloves, for my hands—lightweight clothes for speed. I pulled the bag down over my head, and we walked through the rain to the start, a block from the Stadium.

I faced the gray day in just shorts and tee—and a plastic bag, which I planned to throw away after a mile or two, when I got warm. My guess was that once the sun came up, the rain would stop and the sky clear. And that was not only optimistic but also wrong.

It turned out to be a day of unblemished gray. The rain never let up. We slopped along wet streets. Water pooled at intersections. We cut across curbs and corners, or went splashing through, high-stepping like a guy wading through snakes. The sun never showed, the air never warmed, the rain pattered, and the wind rattled our plastic coats.

Early on, I had punched two holes in the plastic bag so that I could stick my arms outside for a natural arm swing. That didn’t work; my arms got too cold. I pulled them back inside. Thus cramped, I ran. Huddled, I ran. Nursing cold hands, I ran. Suffering wooden feet, I ran. Losing faith, I still ran.

It was easy. I couldn’t do anything else.

A woman passed me. She had a crooked left leg. It bowed outward at her knee. I guess she knew it. To compensate, she ran leaning to the side. Her short hair ran in matted spikes down her neck. She had no coat to protect her from the wind, the cold, the rain. She faced it like the runner I am not. And she ran faster than I could.

But her race is not my race, and her truth is not my truth. Whatever happens to her is as singular and as lonely as whatever happens to me. We share the cold, and the hard miles. And, together, we are ever separate.

Marathon fans can be counted on. They came out to watch, huddling under umbrellas and storefront shelters.

“Animo, animo!” they shouted.

A man with slicked-back hair and horn-rimmed glasses stood puffing a cigarette under a kiosk. I hopped up on the curb and ran by him. He looked at an apparition in flapping plastic. Our eyes met.

“Vamos!” he said.

The encouragement helped fight back the cruel weather for a few strides. Which is the way one runs a marathon—one little piece at a time. An observer might imagine a smooth continuum of passion. It’s not. Instead, one stitches together many patches and pieces along the way, finally unfolding a 42-kilometer pattern of random color previously hidden and hardly imaginable, like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Strange, what one remembers of the scenery. It is racing, after all, not sightseeing. The course crossed four bridges spanning Rio Guadalquivir. Two are modernistic and the most unusual I’ve seen. Having once designed bridges for a living, you’d think I would have noted each one.

But I can clearly remember crossing only one of those, the last one, Puente de la Barqueta. I remember it only because it was close to the finish line and because of a thought I had at the time: I need to remember this. From a high arch overhead, stay cables stretch down to the deck median.

The first one, Puente del Alamillo, I recall admiring from the car but not from the race. Parallel cables slant down to the floor median from a single massive column on the west bank. The column soars high and leans precariously away from the river, as if falling over backwards. The column’s weight pulls up on the bridge floor, putting those two great masses in exquisite balance, tugging at each other in a tensile standoff engineers call equilibrium and poets call a miracle. The taunt cables look like giant strings to pluck. The bridge is a harp for God to play.

Twenty-four kilometers into the race the crooked-legged woman quit. She was standing in the rain talking to a volunteer, a tall man. He was pointing down the street to a waiting ambulance.

The sound of wailing sirens spread over the city and became part of the race.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Winning Year

With this post I broach a topic it's been my policy to avoid ever since I started this blog: me.

It's true, I write first person stories which have me in them, but those are adventure stories in which I've been directly involved. (Sometimes they were told to me by someone involved.) In any case, there is a big difference in writing first-person stories and, on the other hand, writing stories about...you know, "Me," Me with a capital M, facts and data about me. The first focuses on the adventure, events that actually happened.

So this is new. But it is not an enduring change. It is an exception, and I'll soon shut up about the boring topic and return to my policy of staying quiet about the ever-indulgent "me."

So, what brought this on? Why did I think anyone in the whole round world would want to read about what you will find below?

I had a pretty good year.

As a racer, that is. Maybe a remarkable year. My annual racing report summarizes it. I decided I'd put it up for whatever informational, instructional or inspirational value it may hold, and maybe it holds none. But if you are a racer also you may find it interesting. Or maybe not. Anyway, here it comes.

Beat it if you can.

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Annual Racing Report, 2010
Dallas Smith, Age 70; DOB June 25, 1940


Summary:

Miles run: 2612
Total no. races: 26 (2 ultra marathons; 7 marathons; 1 half marathon; 2 10-milers; 2 15Ks; 2 10Ks; 1 8K; 1 4-miler; 8 5Ks)
State records: 11 (6 at age 69, 5 at age 70)
Age-group competition: undefeated
Times in top 10 overall: 11

Race List: (age-graded time in parentheses; Rec. = single-age state record)

01. Callaway Gardens Marathon, Jan. 31, 3:26:26 (2:32:30), 9th o.a.
02. Mercedes Marathon, Birmingham, Feb. 28, 3:28:13 (2:33:39)
03. Fall Creek Thaw 15K, Mar. 6, 1:05:22 (48:03), Rec.
04. Tom King Half Marathon, Nashville, Mar. 13, 1:33:07 (1:08:30), Rec.
05. Running to Beat the Blues, Nashville, Mar. 27, 21:07 (15:30), Rec.
06. Mule Kick 5K, Columbia, TN, Apr. 3, 20:57 (15:23), Rec.
07. Purity Moosic City 10K, Nashville, Apr. 10, 42:08, (30:55), Rec.
08. Country Music Marathon, Nashville, Apr. 24, 3:21:11 (2:28:15), Rec.
09. Strolling Jim 41.2 ultra marathon, May 1, 6:59:38.2, (5:09:04)
10. Scenic City Trail Marathon, Chattanooga, May 22, 4:38:11 (3:24:46)
11. Cane Creek 5K, Cookeville, TN, June 5, 20:58 (15:22), 3rd o.a.
12. Race for Jordan 5K, Carthage, TN, 21:05, (15:26), 4th o.a.
13. RC Cola-Moon Pie 10-miler, Bell Buckle, TN, June 19, 1:14:51 (54:52)
14. Goodlettsville 4-miler, July 31, 27:28 (20:05), Rec.
15. After Dark 8K, Cookeville, TN, Aug. 8, 33:58 (24:49), Rec.
16. Blister in the Sun Marathon, Cookeville, TN, 4:32:11 (3:19:52), 7th o.a.
17. Baxter Street Fair 5K, Baxter, TN, Sept. 4, 20:09 (14:43), 3rd o.a.
18. Fall Fun Fest 10K, Cookeville, TN, Sept. 11, 44:21 (32:23), 5th o.a., Rec.
19. Run4Don 5K, Gainesboro, TN, Sept. 18, 21:11 (15:28), 2nd o.a.
20. Heavenly Host Lutheran School 5K, Cookeville, TN, Sept. 25, 22:07 (16:08), 2nd o.a.
21. Komen 5K, Cookeville, TN, Sept. 26, 20:39.62 (15:05), 5th o.a.
22. Shelby Bottoms Boogie 15K, Nashville, Oct. 2, 1:05:07 (47:34), Rec.
23. Nashville Ultra 50K, Oct. 16, 4:37:49 (3:23:35)
24. Team Nashville 10-miler, Goodlettsville, TN, Nov 13, 1:11:39 (52:17), 9th o.a., Rec.
25. Flying Monkey Marathon, Nashville, TN, Nov. 21, 3:35:36 (2:37:48)

26. Miss Gulf Coast Marathon, Waveland, MS, Nov. 27, 3:25:02 (2:30:04), 10th o.a.

Friday, November 12, 2010

One Day in Funkytown


From Running Journal, November, 2010.

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Morning comes to Barcelona.

The window in our seventh-floor room faces south, overlooking dark patios and balconies of apartments below. The crescent moon hangs low and a pale glow washes the eastern sky. It’ll be daylight soon. Our time is near. The marathon Albino and I’ve long aimed at will start at 8:30 this March morning, just two hours from now. I open the window and stick out my hand, the old anxious question about the weather. Barcelona hums and answers: perfect, calm and warm.

Albino and I meet our bunch in the lobby for the walk to the race. Alejandra, Jorge’s gracious wife, who is not running today, carries my camera to make pictures for me. We drift up Gran Via, a loose collection of six warriors. Morning is creeping over the city. There’s no sense of rush. Eduardo, the youngest of us, strolls with me, the oldest. Today he makes his first marathon attempt.

“How do you feel, Eduardo?"

“Pretty good. A little nervous.”

“Don’t worry. That will fly away as soon as the race starts.”

“I know.”

I would go into battle with this bunch. A man could do worse. Angel, talking with Albino at this moment, is competent and tough, a natural leader, always showing generosity to the others. Jorge is a big man with the muscle strength for strong-arm jobs, an engineer and problem solver. He has a booming laugh that keeps everyone in good humor. And who could guess the depth of quiet strength in Alejandra, the lone woman.

Look at Albino and Eduardo—two smart young guys, bold and successful, intimidated by nothing, Eduardo serving in the economic office of Spain’s president, Albino managing the finances of a multinational company.

A good team all right. We have to split up today though. Each has to go separate and alone. At the Placa, the five marathoners line up and pose for Alejandra.

The race starts on Avenida de la Reina Maria Cristina, a short street stretching from Placa de Espanya to Museu Nacional D’art Catalunya. I stand with 8,000 marathoners, among the “blue” group, up front due to my projected finishing time. The Plaza lies 200 meters ahead, an ornate monument anchoring a traffic circle flanked by two elegant towers. Behind us on a hill sets the Museum of Art, a palatial building fronted by Font Montjuic, the Magic Fountain. A more glorious place to start and end a race would be hard to find.

The Magic Fountain, asleep until now, springs to life. A soprano’s voice ascends high in the morning light, then swoops and soars over us, the Fountain choreographed to her singing. A few thousand jets, articulated and synchronized, create water acrobatics.

The central jets shoot founts of water higher than a tree. Peripheral founts dance and waver like ballerinas. Suddenly the central founts sweep outward, forming a giant water blossom of hurling water. The whole display trembles and collapses into a frothing cloud of angry mist and chaos, then recovers and dances again.

It’s a glorious send-off. I stand facing backwards, looking over the anxious faces of scowling runners. They appear oblivious to the water ballet. Why are they so worried? I wonder. Thus I am when the race begins, and I know we are under way when the throng surges forward, pushing me along like flotsam on a wave.

The race has started.

The first three miles it’s all elbows and heels, and body odor of others. I want a fresh breath.

At the end of the first 5K, I check my watch and discover I’ve fallen one minute behind, due mostly to the crowded conditions and twisting turns, I figure. During the next 5K, I make a point of fighting off the feeling of lost time and run no harder than before, monitoring my breathing to keep my effort in check. Even so, I gain back half the lost minute.

The thinning of the crowd makes the running quite easy. The markers pass me by: 10K, 15K, 20K.... My speed holds with little effort from me, varying only a few seconds from my planned pace of 23:17 per 5K.

A couple of young men, surprised at the old man running so swiftly through their town, cheer wildly.

“Muy bien, Senor!”

The scenery is hardcore. Barcelona is a complex city, a mixture of crass and sublime, sacred and profane. Ancient buildings and monument-filled plazas scatter throughout the city. On top of that, Barcelona boasts several architectural icons singularly unusual. The course takes us by some of them.

Catedral de Sagrada Familia, Church of the Holy Family, is a religious shrine like Las Vegas is a summer camp. Dark, imposing and forbidding, it squats before us, shooting spires of curvilinear taper high aloof. Its front is covered with statuary of saints and drips all sorts of scabby relief I can’t quite make out. No place looks plain. It is all busy, like a cave turned inside out. Pale salamanders would not surprise you.

A cathedral’s purpose is to instill a fear of God. Fearsome is the word for this temple. So gloomy and morose, it strikes me, paradoxically, as downright sinister. The Dark Lord of Mordor hatched his evil plans in a place like this. The church was designed by architect Antoni Guadi, who died in 1926. It’s still not finished.

Three miles later we come to a recent addition. Torre Agbar is as unusual in its shiny and garish way as the cathedral. This 474-foot tall structure of curving sides and round nose sets on the Plaza of Glories like a spent bullet clad with tinsel, a phallic paraboloid rising bluntly to a helpless sky.

Not actually tinsel, the second skin is assembled from glass sheets, some 59,619 of them, I’ve read, which open and close under command of the building’s climate system. At night its 4,500 LED lights glow myriad colors. The water company of Barcelona innocently owns this gaudy shaft.

The marathon fans are as friendly as the city is picturesque, helping me along with their shouts.

“Vamos! Venga!”

“Animo!”

This race transports me. We head across a cobblestone plaza where a drum corps bangs away. I fall in step. My foot slaps down smack on the beat. They’re playing my 7:30 pace! How did they know?

“Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom,” goes drum.

“Left-right, left-right, left-right,” goes me.

The music merges with me and me with it. We become one.

“Left-boom, left-boom, left-boom,” goes Me-Drum.

We run conjoined. Barcelona plays the root rhythm of my marathon soul, the canonical cadence of my Barcelona being. I race on, the sound fading, my eyes filling with water.

Oh. Trouble begins. I spot a grey man in a yellow tee 30 yards ahead. He looks to be in my age group. I have to go after him.

It soon becomes hopeless. He’s going too fast. After a half mile I give it up, unable to gain a whisker. To stay with him would take energy I will need later. I might ruin my race down the stretch. It is a tricky business to meter out as much energy as possible, but not enough to go busted.

I let him go and put him out of mind. You don’t always win. You shouldn’t expect it. This is Europe.

Around the 19-mile mark we come to the ocean front and follow it a couple of miles. I glance dully at the water. Water. Suddenly, I realize, the Mediterranean! A wind-rippled, sun-dappled water I’ve never seen before.

Meanwhile, the marathon sound track rolls on, pulsing from speakers unseen, surging in hot waves like the heartbeat of the city, its blood coursing streets and narrow alleys. I know that song: Donna Summer, gettin’ down on “Funkytown.”

If I’m wrong about the singer, Donna Summer lodges herself in my head anyway. I run along thinking about the meaning of it, the song ringing. I can’t connect the two, first view of the Mediterranean with Funkytown. Is there some lesson, some metaphor? The race has made me crazy. Some things just are. The Mediterranean just is. Donna Summer just is. Funkytown? Yes. Boogie on, woman!

Two miles to go, suddenly right in front of me is the man in the yellow tee! I hadn’t expected to see him again. I gauge his new situation: His juice is gone. He’s not dangerous now. No need to wait. I sprint around his right and don’t bother to look back. He won’t challenge; he’s finished. I know that story.

That was the moment, I believe, when I took the lead position for the over-65 age group. That night Albino and I were back in Burgos, having driven the 379 miles home that same day. Next day I checked my e-mail to find a message from Marato Barcelona informing me that I’d finished first in my age division, hitting the finish line in 3:17:05.

That was 35 seconds slower than I’d meant to run.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Burning Up the Road to Barcelona



This was an innocuous story about traveling to a marathon - or so I thought. But it drew a blistering letter to the editor. The writer thought I had disrespected Barcelona, a city I loved. She blasted me with both barrels. It was snarky. Best I could ever learn, she was married to a man originally from Barcelona and had strong nationalistic feeling about Catalonia as a region distinct from the rest of Spain. Filled with references to Spanish history, her letter must have been virtually unintelligible to the readers of a small-town newspaper in Tennessee. She even criticized me for calling Barcelona a town, an endearing term I'd thought. She then went on to educate me about how big it was, as if a guy who had run a marathon through its streets wouldn't know that. I never answered the letter. You never know who will read a story. From the Herald-Citizen, March 30, 2008.

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We were cruising through the mountains of northern Spain in Albino’s BMW. It is 379 miles from his home in Burgos to Barcelona, and we were headed there for the marathon, Marat├│ Barcelona, which was scheduled for two days later.

My running watch thought it was already tomorrow, showing March 1 as we drove along, having forgotten about leap year—it was 2008. I scrolled up February 29, creating myself an extra day.

Albino had brought along a couple of soft cases filled with CDs for our listening pleasure during the long haul. He sat with a case spread open on his lap and flipped through the choices, occasionally minding the wheel while we rolled along at the sensible speed of 90 mph. He has an eclectic taste in music and we listened to everything from Andre Segovia to Miles Davis to Etta James.

That last one was on a CD called Night Train to Nashville, which Albino bought at the Country Music Hall Of Fame during an exhibit highlighting Nashville’s blues heritage. He held the CD up for me to see.

“You wanna hear that?”

“Sure, why not? Plug it in.”

The very first sound to come out blasted me backwards fifty years. It was disc jockey John Richburg—John R his own self!—introducing his blues show from Nashville’s WLAC-AM clear channel station. At night that station ruled the airways over two-thirds of the nation during the 1950s and 60s, days before FM radio. The sun went down, WLAC jacked up its power and all stations with the same frequency blinked off. It didn’t matter if you lived in a holler in Appalachia or drove a taxi in Chicago, you listened to John R advertising Ernie’s Record Mart, White Rose Petroleum Jelly and Silky Straight.

“…John R in Nashville, Tennessee, smack in the middle of Dixie!” John R was saying on the recording.

Dadgum! I swear I hadn’t heard that voice in nearly half a century. They’d captured his voice from that long ago time and stuck it on the CD. It was as if the space-time continuum stretched and twisted and folded back on itself. No longer was I hurling through arid mountains in northern Spain but instead lying on a feather bed in the unheated room of a farm house in Jackson County, Tennessee listening to an old white AM radio that sat beside the bed. John R talked me to sleep at night.

I never saw a picture of John R, and I hope I never do. I don’t know if he was black or white, and I don’t give two hoots which it was. What I have is his voice. And I’ll have that until they take away my drool bucket.

That’s how we drove 379 miles to a marathon—listening to obscure musicians that many people never heard of. Albino knows that old music from the 50s and 60s even though he grew up in Seville, Spain and wasn’t born until 1971. He collects vinyl records and owns 500 CDs. He moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 2003, and quickly fell in love with Nashville. He had fetched along a bit of Nashville for our trip today.

At 90 mph you can drive 379 miles in 4 hours and 13 minutes. Practically speaking it doesn’t work out that way. You lose time. We had to stop and buy gas, and eat lunch, and pay tolls. Three times we paid the toll takers. Two times it cost 26 Euros, or $39 US, non negligible, we thought.

The driver got sleepy, too. I suggested we pull into a parking area because I wanted to make a picture. Albino stretched out for a nap and I took a little hike to get my picture.

What picture? Of something that had bothered me a bit—the way the landscape is changing. We were traveling through a scrubland of brown rocks and badlands reminiscent of Wyoming, terrain familiar to fans of early Clint Eastwood westerns. Now and then we saw a compact town huddled on the slopes, some cropland.

And across the ridgeline marched rows of metallic invaders, tall aliens stalking the land, now facing windward at rigid attention. Legions of wind turbines turned lazily. The unearthly-looking machines provide clean energy all right but, in their imposing strangeness, they completely alter the value of landscape for the human spirit. As global oil production diminishes, I expect their numbers to grow. Spain, as well as all nations of the world, will need their help to meet energy needs. I made my picture, and photographed the future.

When we finally reached Sunotel on Gran Via in Barcelona, our nerves were whacked. It had all worn us out: Trying to find our hotel in traffic worse than New York City, getting the strap on my backpack caught in the car’s hatch so that it wouldn’t open while traffic backed up behind us, a guy insistently blowing his horn. Albino: “That’s why I don’t carry a weapon; I would have shot him!”

Albino asked a surly red-faced clerk for a late check-out time for Sunday, the day of the marathon, so that we could take a shower before starting our 379-mile drive back to Burgos. Hotels usually comply happily with that request. Yeah, he could do that but it would cost us 30 Euros extra. Sure. Another insult. Albino fumed, but we had little choice.

And then Angel arrived, a friend from Madrid, a generous hombre and also a formidable one. He had made our reservation. He dismissed our fear. Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay that, he assured us. He was as good as his word, we found out when we checked out that Sunday.

Eduardo and Jorge, two more Madrid friends, arrived. Jorge was escorting Alejandra, his esposa hermosa.

We all went to the marathon expo the next day, the place where you confirm your registration; pick up your timing chip, bib number and other miscellaneous stuff, a place where you can also shop for all sorts of running gear. It was crowded; about 8,000 runners had registered for the race.

The men’s water closet was crowded too. A woman worked to keep it orderly—while men were there. Men did arrive and men did go right in front of her, including myself. I was squeamish about that but overcame it.

In the words of Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a book I was currently reading, Ernest Hemingway said, “There are no other countries like Spain.” I believe that’s true, and in many ways. Barcelona is maybe an example.

As far as the rest of Spain is concerned, the town is perhaps too proud of having its own language. Catalan, which is spoken by its seven million citizens, is distinct from Castilian, the Spanish language. The reality then is that people of Barcelona must be able to speak several languages in order to talk to anyone.

Nevertheless they cling to their history and culture. As we made the rounds of the various counters, booths and tables at the expo, Albino came up to me.

“Did you notice that nobody will open their mouth until you start talking? They don’t know what language to speak. There are so many languages here!”

Angel has refined taste, and he had made lunch reservations for our gang of six at Seven Doors, Siete Portes, a white tablecloth place where the waiters wear black ties and dinner jackets. It’s been in business since 1836 they claim. We had paella—good race food, rice based—and wine and beer. I abstained from those last two, in abeyance to race needs. The tab for six came to 220 Euros, roughly $330 US.

That night I passed up a visit to still another white tablecloth place, opting instead for marathon snacks, rest and television: professional basketball, the ACB, Europe’s answer to the NBA; and, maybe better, the Miss Espanya contest, a gaggle of gorgeous women in tiny Bikinis. One by one, they did prance, each gliding the runway like a walking horse hitting its gait.I was pulling for Miss Tenerife, but Albino came in around midnight and we turned in. I didn’t find out who won. Come 8:30 AM next morning we had a marathon to run.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Lonely Mesa a Rude Visitor Comes Calling





This is a newspaper story written for a special Halloween feature. It's as true as a double-bitted axe. From the Herald-Citizen, Oct. 30, 2005.

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It was getting dark and I was driving the two-lane blacktop north along the Utah mesa known as Island in the Sky, a monolith a few miles wide and 20 miles long rising into the air on vertical cliffs 1200 feet high. On my eastern flank jutted Dead Horse Point, a precipice named for the horses that once ran too close to the edge before they realized the awful truth.

Immediately around me the mesa looked like ordinary high plains. But I knew better; the abrupt cliffs are out there like the ultimate edge. A few miles north the cliffs play out enough that the road can wind its way down.

I was drifting through spring that year, on a solo trip around the Four Corners area. I’d been walking on the southern tip of Island in the Sky, a place known as Grandview Point that overlooks the junction of the Green and Colorado Rivers. At the mesa’s tip, the very last rock juts out into space like an anvil’s point. I’d climbed out on that rock and gazed down into the terrible swooping distance below. The vista before me was as forbidding as it was immense, one scarred by deep canyons, standing rocks and mesas, raw naked rock, a case of geology gone mad. The Point earns its name.

The long walk over, I was leaving now, driving north. I needed a place to sleep. I spotted a Jeep path angling off to the west that looked like a good bet. I headed the truck down it, looking for a likely place to park. After a half mile, I came to a wide spot where it appeared campers had stayed before. I turned the truck around, ready for a quick get away, and parked it level beside the path.

The sky was clear and the moon was full, casting a yellow glow over the desert rocks. I looked forward to a peaceful, lonely night.

Stretching a hundred miles to the west lies some of the most barren land you can find—land so profoundly worthless as to be infinitely valuable. At least to the human soul. If a laser weapon high in space burned the whole region, it would kill precious little; the sage bushes would turn black and the black bushes would just get blacker.

The next day I planned to venture into that space and find a canyon where the ancient ones, the Anasazi, left elaborate petroglyphs on the walls. Extended drought 700 years ago decimated the Anasazi and drove them from this region. But their stark art still decorates the canyon, ghostly images of spirits long departed.

It was too early to go to bed. I sat in the truck cab for a while and discovered an FM station in Salt Lake City playing mainstream jazz, a rare kind of program I was glad to find.

Suddenly headlights came bouncing along the truck path toward me. This was disappointing; I wasn’t expecting company. A van rumbled by without stopping. I watched as it went on down the path. Probably just some camper looking for a place to sleep. Soon the taillights dipped out of sight over a rise. Good. Whatever they had in mind, it didn’t look like they’d be doing it close to me.

It soon got too cold to sit in the truck without running the heater, and I wasn’t going to do that. I stood around outside and sat on the tailgate. The moonlight was a pale liquid falling on an austere landscape of sand, rock and shrub. To the west the view faded to darkness, as if that harsh land swallowed light.

I had dismissed the van. It was time to go to bed. My truck had a camper shell and my sleeping bag was already stretched out in the back. I climbed in, closed the main tailgate, the camper gate, and slid into the warm bag, removing only my sneakers. Moon glow came through the windows, lighting the inside. I was tired and soon drifted off.

Crunching metal jarred me awake like a garbage truck. I sat bolt upright, grabbing my .38. Somebody’s outside! What do they mean? You can’t come into a man's camp raising hell! You’ll get shot!

I sat there holding my breath, trying to get a fix on their direction, see if I could hear talking. It had sounded like guys stomping beer cans just outside my truck. Anyone would have to know the hostility of that. Menace was their clear intent, and they probably weren’t through, I thought.

My pulse was roaring. It seemed like all the blood in my body was trying to rush into my head.

I couldn’t see anyone outside the windows. They could have crouched down beside the truck, I knew. As quietly as I could I leaned over to each side window and looked down, but saw nothing. The same for the back window. They may have retreated to the rocks a few yards away or be hidden toward the front of the truck.

One thing was obvious to everybody concerned—there was only one way out of the truck bed, and that was through the back. I had to get out. I was a sitting duck inside. I slipped on my sneakers as quietly as I could and got set to jump.

Here goes! I flipped up the camper door, slammed the main gate down and hit the ground facing the truck, pistol ready.

And saw nobody.

Not at the sides of the truck, not at the front. I fetched my flashlight and swept underneath the truck, but nobody was under there either. They had retreated to the rocks, I figured.

I checked the ground near the left rear wheel, where I thought the can crushing sounds had come from. There were no cans there. Neither was there any metal left over from a previous camper that could have caused the noise. From that, I assumed they had taken the cans with them when they ran—all the better to annoy a lone camper.

Well, I wasn’t leaving. I stood around, wondering. A hard moonlight fell on the desert rocks—which now took on a new evil dimension.

Oddly, I remember noticing the beauty of it all, too. The moon was so bright I could clearly see the snow on top of Tukuhnikivats, flagship peak of the La Sal Mountains, thirty miles to the east.

I went back to bed. I lay there not quite asleep.

The sound started again.

Again jerking upright, I couldn’t see a soul outside the truck. The sound had changed, I noticed, to a metallic crunching, something like a hack saw on sheet metal, a rhythmic sound akin to gnawing. Gnawing?

Ah, yes, there was my answer. It must be some kind of desert rodent gnawing on my truck. The metal bed of the truck had amplified the sound, making it louder, especially to my ears so close to the floor. I decided I’d get out and find the little varmint.

The commotion of my getting out made it stop the sound, of course. It’d be hiding. I scanned the underside of the truck with my light, expecting to see a furry scurrying. But it held tight.

I knew where it would be—the engine compartment. There’s tasty stuff there. I raised the hood. It was cagey and probably small, but I figured I could find it or, at the least, make it run away. I inspected closely, looking inside the fan shroud, underneath the AC compressor and alternator, wherever it might be crouching.

I satisfied myself that it wasn’t there, that it had already bailed out. Everything was quiet. Good enough, I thought, a lesson learned for both of us, a happy outcome all around.

I returned to the back of the truck, prepared to go to bed once again. For some reason, before climbing in I decided to have one more look underneath the back of the truck. It wouldn’t be there, of course. The commotion of slamming the hood and door would’ve already scared anything away.

I stooped down and shined my light on the rear axle and the spare tire area.
As if cued by the light the metallic crunching suddenly started.

It was in front of my face, just past the tailgate, at precisely where I was pointing the light. As if mocking me, my light, my futile search, it scrunched and screeched, metallic and undaunted.

Crouched there on that harsh lonely mesa drowned by cold moonlight, I pointed my light at a grating sound made by something I could not see—and conveniently re-affirmed a long-held position, one unsupported by the immediate empirical data: I don’t believe in ghosts.

With that, I climbed back into the truck and slipped into my bag. While it gnawed on the steel bowels of my truck I drifted gently into a sweet sleep.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wretched Undead Hound the Haunted Half


Angie Clark sprints down Churchill Drive in Sparta, Tenn. She is one of the 300 runners expected to participate in Cookeville's second annual Haunted Half Marathon next Saturday. (Photo, Jim Clark)

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Never thought the paper would let me get away with that title. From the Herald-Citizen, October 17, 2010.

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The horde of hollow-eyed ghouls making a death march along Cookeville city streets next Saturday will turn out to be a pack of sleepy-eyed runners competing in the 2nd Annual Haunted Half Marathon. For some, the worst nightmare ever; for others, a glory-dream.

The long trek starts at 7:00 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 23, on Dixie Ave., in front of the University Center at Tennessee Tech. Race-day registration is from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.

Runners can register online in advance at http://www.active.com/, on which website racers are promised a “Spooktacular time…a wonderful weekend of health, wellness, fun and activity…”

Well, maybe.

Dream? One dream weaver will be Angie Clark. No scar-faced guy with blades for fingers will catch her. The Celina native, now living in Sparta, follows a rigorous training program, regularly running farther than the race’s unlucky 13.1-mile distance.

“I follow a combination of two or three training plans, and I run 40 to 50 miles per week and do two days of speed work and one long run,” she says.

If the Tennessee Titans football team trained so thoroughly, they might wake up from their turnover nightmare.

For Clark, the training pays off. The accomplished racer, who is 31 years old, won the women’s division of the recent Fall Fun Fest 5K, posting a time of 21 minutes, 8 seconds. On the Saturday two weeks later, she was the second woman at the Heavenly Host Lutheran School 5K.

That hardly tells the story of the last race. Saturday is the day she does her long runs. To accomplish both the 5K race and her long run, she compromised:

“I ended up doing that same course five times that day. I did it two times before the race and two more times after the race.” One guesses that the two prior trips around the course might have taken some edge off her 5K speed. Her total distance for the day came to 15.5 miles.

Clark works as an academic advisor and instructor in the general curriculum program at Tennessee Tech. She earned a B.S. in business marketing there in 2002 and her M.B.A. in 2004.

Interestingly, she neither ran cross country in high school nor college. Rather, she took up running on her own while in college, in 2002.

“I’ve always been into exercise, but I never enjoyed it until I took up running. I like the way runners look and so that’s why I tried it. I like the sense of accomplishment I get from it,” she says.

The Haunted Half Marathon is largely the creation of race director Summer Brown—plus a committee of others she is quick to credit. Brown, who is the mother of three, is associated with Cookeville Regional Medical Center in the area of patient financial services.

Race sponsors this year, among others, are: Tennessee Heart, Gaw-Bernhardt & Associates—First Realty Company, Save-A-Lot, First National Bank, Chick-fil-A, and Hooper, Huddleston & Horner.

Last year’s inaugural race benefitted the YMCA. This year the net proceeds go to the Cookeville Regional Medical Center Foundation, and will be used in the patient assistance program to directly help patients in financial need. Distribution of proceeds was decided by an independent committee of volunteers, Brown wrote in an e-mail.

For last year’s race 250 runners registered. Brown is preparing for 300 runners this year. The race draws runners from other states—and from other realms. Look for Neytiri, the Na’vi from Pandora; for Leatherface from Texas; for a lurching hockey mask; Lady Gaga; Darth Vader; the Wicked Witch of the West; and bats out of hell.

A map of the course can be found at http://www.mapmyrun.com/. In brief, the course stretches down Dixie Ave., turns east on E. Spring and eventually heads down S. Maple, a beautiful shaded street. From there, it meanders northward on Neal St., which becomes first Old Kentucky Rd. and then Salem Rd.

At the intersection with E. Broad, runners will head east and take a tour of the White Plains area, after which they emerge onto E. 10th Street just two blocks shy of running down Elm St., thus avoiding any chance of a slasher nightmare on that evil street. Finally, E. 10th St., with the help of a few excursions, brings the suffering runners back to Tennessee Tech. The finish line is on the quadrangle in front of Memorial Gym. Runners can collapse on the grass.

Metaphors flutter like bats, but the suspense and misery in any race comes from the running itself. Each runner must exorcise the seductive little voice whispering oh so sweetly: You can stop. It will feel so good. Why don’t you stop?

The race goes to the fit, the trained. Others fall behind, some way behind. Bad luck for those poor wretches. Laggards will be arrested and thrown into the pit where porta potties are pumped.

Speaking of which—porta potties, that is—they will be positioned at three locations spaced along the course, available to any runner who actually manages to travel far enough to find them.

Angie Clark will quickly and readily travel that far. “I’d like to do it in under 1:35,” she says, speaking of the total distance. She’ll blow past the leather-faced cannibal before he can get his chainsaw cranked.

No stranger to long distance, Clark has run four marathons, including Country Music, Louisville and Rocket City (Huntsville, Ala.). At Rocket City she finished the 26.2-miles in 3 hours, 28 minutes, winning third place in her age group and—more importantly—qualifying for the Boston Marathon, the dream of every runner. She will run that storied race next April.

She has a more outrageous adventure planned before then. The first weekend in November, her relay team of 12 members will run from Chattanooga to Nashville, 168 miles, in the so-called Ragnar Race.

Two of her teammates in that adventure are swift runners from Cookeville, Katherine Kopinsky and Mary-Ellen Parsons. The three amigas plan to run the Haunted Half Marathon, too. In that race they will be competing against each other, not running as teammates. The 13-mile race will be a warm up for them. Look for all three near the front.

There is hellish effort in running a competitive race. Athletes call it pain. It feels like a nightmare. The only escape from the running is to keep running…until the end. Or quit and face the shame of failure. Between the pain of running and the shame of failure, most runners choose pain.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Special Guest at a Special Race

- Photo by Kathy Piper -

It was the most ordinary and routine of races - a small-town 5K. But a race is rarely so ordinary and routine. Surprises always seem waiting. Never would I have guessed the manifold surprises awaiting at this one. From Running Journal, September 2010.

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This I didn’t know when I went: Each year they have a “special guest,” and this year it was little four-year-old Emma Smith, who was born with spina bifida and who is my great niece.

I’d never been to the Race for Jordan, had never run any race in Carthage, Tennessee. Driving down that morning I could not have known I was heading for an intersection of racing and family.

It was not the normal date for the race. The seventh running had originally been scheduled for the first Saturday in May. That was a day of storms. Dangerous lightning forced cancellation, and the race was re-scheduled for June 12th.

But I had not known any of this prior to the Sunday before the race, and the way I discovered it then was unlikely: I went to a family reunion.

Hadn’t planned to go. My only reunion connection was my paternal grandmother, who died when I was only five. I barely remember her. So, I expected to see a lot of people I barely know or don’t know at all. In the end, I decided to go in order to take my 87-year-old aunt. She always loves it. While I was there, a tan young woman came up to me.

“Can you run a 5K?” she asked.

“Uh...yes, I think so.” I said, surprised.

“I thought so, since you’re wearing a marathon tee shirt.”

She was right. I was wearing the tee of the Country Music Marathon, which I’d finished just six weeks earlier. The young woman was Karen Hackett, and she was the Director of the Race for Jordan 5K.

Jordan was her son. He’d been born with a heart defect. He only lived four months. His short life was filled with medical procedures. After his death, Karen and her husband Steve started the race to raise money for other afflicted children and their families.

“We raised $30,000,” she said.

She was talking about last year alone. A thousand people had registered for the race, “donated,” she called it. Around 500 people actually showed up to run.

“It’s good that you can make something good from...,” I stammered.

“Try to...”

Still, I probably would not have run the race except for a final unlikely event. A few weeks earlier, a running friend had asked me to find a race near Cookeville for June 12. He and his son were coming to town for a wedding, and they wanted to run a race that day. I didn’t know of any. After Karen told me about the Race for Jordan, I sent my friend a message. His reply: they would probably run the race.

That meant I had to run it, too. To not make an effort to see them during their visit would be rude I thought. Out of courtesy, I had to go run. The final irony: they failed to show up.

A race re-scheduled, a reunion visit not intended, a tee shirt worn, visitors who wanted a race—all these unlikely events colluded in a crazy defiance of mathematical probability, so that as dawn spread its light across the mid-state that morning, I found myself barreling down I-40 toward Carthage, Tennessee. From a universe of infinite opportunity an infinitesimal probability explodes to outrageous reality. It happens all the time.

Upon arriving, the first person I saw was Karen. She was walking across the parking lot waving. That’s when she told me about the “special guest,” and that this year it was my nephew’s daughter Emma. I was amazed. I see Emma’s family only occasionally.

She told me another thing: “This year we got it certified.” That meant that the course had been certified by USATF to be the correct length for a 5K. A record finish time could thus count as an official state record.

Until then I’d not even considered the issue. Suddenly it became important. The course starts at a playground and runs out-and-back along the road to Cordell Hull Dam, nearly flat most of the way.

Age-group state records are kept for each year of age in Tennessee. I had set the 5K record for a 69-year-old male on March 27. That course was not favorable to a fast time. So a week later I went to another 5K and broke the record I’d just set. That second course was hilly and not fast either. I was frustrated that the record didn’t reflect my true capability.

Given a chance before my 70th birthday, I knew I could improve the record for a third time. Suddenly a certified flat course had dropped in my lap two weeks before my birthday, a last chance. I don’t know if a runner has ever set three records for the same distance in one year. I doubt it.

About 500 runners showed up. The race started under a blistering sun at 8:00 a.m. The first half-mile I ran in eighth position. Then I began picking off runners, eventually moving up to fourth. That’s where I finished, unable to catch number three, a 32-year old man, just yards ahead. My time of 21:05 went seven seconds over my state record.

It was failure. The flat, and certified, course had been a gift. The day’s heat took it away.

Suddenly I spotted little Emma, across the parking lot with her dad, Chris. When I walked up in sweaty racing clothes, Chris was flabbergasted. The last thing he expected was to see his uncle. Not a runner, he had dutifully brought Emma so she could be part of the festivities.

After a bit of amazed talk, Chris left Emma in my care temporarily while he went to his truck. Emma, who walks well without braces, was wearing a ponytail, blue sunglasses and a tiny maroon race tee. She looked like a doll ought to.

We walked to the finish line to welcome runners home. Emma stood smiling, clapping her hands the way I had showed her. Her mom Ashley was still out on the course.

Emma’s dad returned and shot a syringe full of pink fluid into her mouth. She drank it without a whine. The medicine she takes prevents sweating, Chris explained. They have to be careful in hot weather. The doctors think she can get off the medicine soon.

A little later, at the awards presentation, they lifted Emma into the bed of a pickup and introduced her. She looked out over the crowd, smiling. A lady with a bullhorn stool beside her and read her story. It detailed the family’s desperate trips from Gordonsville to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, how that hospital had helped them, had saved Emma, had saved them.

Hearing that, it suddenly hit me like a brick: Children’s Hospital is an organization I usually contribute to. I’ve written those checks without once realizing the hospital might be helping an actual member of my family. But it is so.

The lyric to a pop song goes something like, “All you give is all you get, so give it all you’ve got.” Proving the songwriter’s truth, little Emma smiled at the enthralled people.

The photographer made pictures of me holding the special guest in my arms. Emma smiled for the camera. On cue, she leaned over and kissed her old grizzled great uncle on the cheek.

The crowd drifted away, the parking lot cleared out. I stood on the pavement alone. I wanted to think about what had happened. The best way to think is to run. I started running and lapped the course again.

Life plays out at a race. Life intensified, life distilled and pressed into a small space. Surprises are part of it. A race is never just a race.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Two Women, Two Stories, One Goal




(A) Jill White runs down a Putnam County lane in preparation for next Sunday’s Komen 5K. (Photo by Dallas Smith). (B) Uber-runner Margie Stoll completes a track workout in July of 2008, running on the Harpeth Hall School track in Nashville where she does most of her training. (Photo by Hans Stoll).

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Most of the work I do these days falls under the heading of either "home maintenance" or "public service." Neither one pays me any money. And I'm not counting running. It doesn't pay either. Pro bono, I believe, the lawyers call that kind of work. But I'm not whining. All that fits neatly into some kind of plan, I suppose.

One public service gig I got talked into was to write a promotion story for the local Komen Race for the Cure 5K. Fortunately for me, I knew a couple of interesting women to write about. If the story of their experiences helps bring in some runners, well, then I'm glad I put it in the paper. From the Herald-Citizen, September 19, 2010.

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Two women of different generations, different backgrounds, will join in common cause next Sunday when the second annual Komen Race for the Cure 5K kicks off. Hundreds of runners will join them. The 5K starts at Tucker Stadium at 2:00 p.m., September 26. Race village opens at noon.

Local runner Jill White is half the age of Nashville’s Margie Stoll. Mrs. White was reared in rural Smith County and has always lived in Tennessee, while Mrs. Stoll lists the urban locations of St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as her past homes. Both women are seasoned athletes. Their paths converge next Sunday.

Mrs. White attended the Komen 5K last year. Her blond hair was just then growing back out, and she wore a baseball cap for cover. Despite her recent bout with breast cancer, she may have won that race. She thought she was the first cancer veteran across the finish line. Then she realized she’d failed to put the timing chip on her shoe. “No chip, no time,” is the warning all racers know. “I was so mad!” she says.

Don’t count on her making that mistake this year.

She learned competition early, when she was growing up on the family farm near Gordonsville. Her father put up a basketball goal. He showed her how to shoot a hook shot. The hook shot didn’t take, but other shots did.

Mrs. White, who stands 5 feet 8 inches and is now 33 years old, played forward four years for the Gordonsville Tigerettes. She was co-captain during her senior year.

She recalls many games. In one, against Trousdale County, she scored 28 points. “I was a three-point shooter,” she notes simply.

And so she was. She recounts another favorite moment.

“The real highlight was my senior year and playing Celina, a big rival, and we were down by two points.” Although not the intended shooter, as the last naked seconds ticked off the clock, she found the ball in her hands and could not help but do what instinct and her dad’s teaching and four years of basketball playing demanded: she put up the shot. It went in.

“I shot a three-pointer, and we won!” The gym erupted in celebration. “And it was crazy!”

Then life after high school settled in. A stint at Volunteer State, interrupted by work in a factory and in the office of a nursing home, eventually led her to Tennessee Tech. In 2003 she earned a B.S. in Business Administration.

She also won the Golden Eagle 10K that spring just before graduation. She’d taken up running in the late 90s and had finished several road races and even several sprint triathlons. She had transferred her competitive spirit from basketball to racing.

“I took up walking and then walking got boring. I started running.” She has been running ever since. Except for one rude intermission:

Just six months after marrying insurance agent John White, in March of 2008, she discovered breast cancer. And her course changed.

Margie Stoll’s story began some 36 years before Mrs. White’s. Mrs. Stoll, who is 69 years old, has re-defined running in the state of Tennessee, at least for the older set. Age group state records are maintained for each year of runner age. Mrs. Stoll has set, and holds, some fifty such records, ranging from the 1-mile distance through the half marathon. Running Times magazine ranked her as the third best runner in the U.S.A. in her age group. At the 2009 National Senior Games Mrs. Stoll won two gold medals and two sliver medals.

Born in 1941, Mrs. Stoll grew up in Lombard, Illinois. She describes it as, “a pretty small town in those days. There was a cornfield at the end of my street.” The house she grew up in had been in the family since 1936. “So I never had to change friends. I had the same friends from kindergarten through high school.”

The bucolic beginning was bound to end. She went off to Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a degree in French in 1963. After working briefly for a brokerage firm, she resumed studies, at the University of Chicago, where she gained a teaching certificate.

But she gained much more; it was there that she met husband-to-be Hans, who was working on a Ph.D. in finance. They married in 1967. By then Dr. Stoll’s work had taken him to the University of Pennsylvania.

There then came a two-year stint when they lived in Washington, D.C. while Dr. Stoll worked a year for the Securities and Exchange Commission, and another year when he did research as a visiting professor for the Federal Reserve.

It was there, in 1969, that Mrs. Stoll took up running—and in a very unusual place. “We lived near Arlington National Cemetery, and I used to run through the Cemetery. They probably wouldn’t allow that now,” she says wryly. She ran for exercise and because she liked the feel of running.

Meanwhile, her husband was becoming a distinguished scholar of finance. The family returned to Philadelphia, and then eventually settled in Nashville in 1980, when Dr. Stoll accepted a position at Vanderbilt University. (Until his recent “semi-retirement” there, he held an endowed professorship and was the director of a research center.)

They had been settled in the new town for a year. Then cancer called. That brought a brand new challenge, one unlike running or finance, either.

It is that challenge that the Komen Race for the Cure seeks to help women meet (men, too, occasionally). It is a challenge that Mary Jo Smith knows all too well; she is this year’s race chair. Tennessee Tech First Lady Gloria Bell is the honorary race chair.

Says Mrs. Smith, “I had a really good friend who passed away from breast cancer. And I never want to see another sister or friend go through that.”

Mrs. Smith expects up to 1,800 runners in this year’s race, leading to a significant organizational challenge. It is one Mrs. Smith is well prepared to manage. Until recently, she was the special events coordinator for the state of Ohio. She retired and moved to Cookeville in 2007.

Since 2008 Komen Upper Cumberland has funded over $300,000 for education, screening and treatment for breast cancer throughout the 14-county region of the Upper Cumberland.

The signature event, says affiliate president Eileen Stuber, is the Komen Race for the Cure 5K. The race course has been certified by USATF. Chip timing will be used. More race information can be found at http://www.komenuppercumberland.org/. Runners can complete online registration there.

Cancer comes around at unhandy times. Mrs. Stoll would tell you that; her discovery came in 1982 when she was new in Nashville and without nearby friends. Mrs. White would tell you that, too; she was just beginning a marriage. Although the cancers of the two women fell 30 years apart, there seems a weary sameness to their treatments: a round or two of surgery followed by six months of chemotheraphy.

Those treatments are dreadful and make a patient feel awful. Mrs. White described the mood in the car when husband John would drive her to Nashville. “It was quiet. We didn’t talk very much. I had to mentally prepare myself.”

All her hair came out: “Eye brows, eye lashes, everything.” For her, losing her eyebrows was the worse. Their loss most made her appear enfeebled, she thought. “The good thing was I didn’t have to shave my legs,” she said laughing.

Mrs. Stoll went through a similar routine in 1982, but with a special cruel twist: she couldn’t talk about it. Breast cancer was somehow considered embarrassing and shameful back then, hushed up. Stricken women suffered in silence.

Mrs. Stoll can talk easily about her experiences now. But she notes, “I wouldn’t have said all this until about five years ago.” The Komen races in Nashville changed that, released her. Remembering the 2002 race, she says, “It seemed like a festival, a total different atmosphere than the hospital.”

Mrs. Stoll can look back on breast cancer with the accumulated wisdom of nearly 30 years. She prefers the word “veteran” over “survivor.” Her thoughts on why are compelling:

“I think of a survivor as someone who has gone through a lot of pain and hardship…I like to think of myself as a veteran. The ones who are the real heroes are the ones who went through the pain and had a harder time…and somehow it was stacked against them. Because they died, that’s why there is an organization like Komen.”

Margie Stoll and Jill White will toe the line in common cause next Sunday. They know how to suffer hard and they know how to run hard. Expect one of them to be the first cancer veteran across the finish line.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The King of Caribbean Marathons and a Boy Who Wanted a Watch


It seemed likely I'd never find Jason. A couple months after I'd sent an e-mail inquire to the race director, I quit thinking about it. Then a message suddenly arrived from Gail Jackson. "I know that kid," she said.


Gail owned the hotel in Negril where I'd stayed and she'd worked on the marathon's registration committee. "I was at his school yesterday...and asked if after the race did he go for a swim and talk to a white man?" she wrote. The boy's answer had been yes. He was the one. His real name was Oraine.


I promptly mailed one of my 100-lap Ironman watches to Gail to give to the boy. It was a watch I'd actually used in an Ironman triathlon. Sending him a watch I'd used seemed more personal than buying a new one. I put it in the original box with it's instructions along with a note of good wishes from me.


A month later, Oraine sent a letter thanking me. He liked to draw, and he included a pencil-drawn portrait on green paper. In his letter he said, "If there is anything you want me to do for you in drawing don't be afraid to ask."


Here is the story, from the Herald-Citizen, April 10, 2005.


**********


After I crossed the finish line I quit running and starting staggering, stumbling like a backward-walking drunk. I was okay. But my legs were confused—by fatigue and the sudden non-running. The music was pouring down and the heat was humming.

I’d just crossed the finish line of the Reggae Marathon at Long Bay State Park in Negril, Jamaica. It was December, 2004.

A young man sharply dressed in a white polo shirt and dark slacks handed me a cell phone.

“Want to call home?” he asked.

Good idea! The free call was a promotion of the carrier for which he worked. I dialed my home number but couldn’t get an answer—or rather I couldn’t tell if I got an answer, the music was so loud. So I walked a 100 yards away from the stack of speakers pumping out Reggae, across a field of grass toward the ocean, and tried again.

And there was Jo Ann’s comfortable voice from far-away Tennessee, bouncing off a satellite, yet sounding next door. She’d answered the first time, she said, but couldn’t hear anything except noise. I told her I was okay, that I’d had a poor run, but that I wasn’t surprised by that. The usual stuff.

After returning the phone, I went to check on partial results posted on a board past the booming speakers, and discovered that for the male age-group 60-99 I’d finished first with a time of 3:37:25. At most places where I run, that wouldn’t win a cakewalk. The competitive field here was not very deep, and the heat was a factor.

Under the female age group 20 to 29, I saw that a young woman named Shannon from West Virginia had finished third. With about a mile to go, I’d pulled even with her. We were both just trying to survive, and we chatted a bit. But she was running a little slower than I was. Finally I went on. I knew she was feeling terrible.

“I’ll see you at the finish line—if I get there,” I said.

“Oh, you’ll make it; you look strong,” she said.

Runners! Bless their happy little hearts—always upbeat and encouraging. They’ll say you’re looking good and running smooth, even when you’re dying—even when they’re dying. They can’t help it; it’s how they are. Running makes them crazy.

I meant to keep my promise to Shannon, so now I went back toward the finish line looking for her. I found her glued to a chair under a beach tent. She hadn’t gotten very far. When I told her she’d taken third she was so pleased she began warming to the idea of going to the Country Music Marathon that I’d told her about.

“That’s not very far…” she said, and trailed off, visualizing another marathon—even while the pain of this one was still in her legs. Here you see another trait of runners: terrible memory.

When I was a kid my dad liked to drink coconut milk. He’d drive a nail into the eyes to make holes and pour the milk into a glass. I learned to like that, too.

At this race, that was a piece of good luck. A man was trimming the shucks off coconuts with a machete, deftly whacking away over a plywood board that served as a chopping block. With the last whack he sliced the top off one and held it out to me. I dropped in a drinking straw and walked away sucking on the coconut, a new kind of post-race hydration—one lacking carbonation, artificial coloring, preservative or sweetener.

Race management had set up a medical center in the beach house, an open-air, wooden structure the size of a five-car garage. Dehydrated runners lying on cots and tables were getting IVs and massages. I didn’t need either one. I asked the woman doctor if I could leave my shoes in the corner.

“That’s an unusual request! But I guess it’s all right,” she said.

I didn’t want to lose my shoes—it was a mile walk back to the hotel.


“I’m going for a swim,” I told her.

“Go north. We’re only 90 miles from Cuba,” she said.

“I need to practice.”

I walked straight into the Caribbean wearing my sunglasses, cap, running shorts and singlet, race number still pinned to it, marathon medal dangling around my neck. The water was exactly the right temperature.

Nearby a half-dozen Jamaican men and women of mixed age tossed a soccer ball around. A young boy dived in my direction. I watched as he swam the whole distance under water. He came up facing me wearing a friendly smile, a handsome lad with short dense hair.

“Did you run the marathon?” he asked.

I told him I had. He said he had run the half-marathon distance as a member of a three-man relay team, a special competition organizers had provided for the school children, one I didn’t know about until that moment.

It’s a wonderfully idea to involve the children in something as positive as a race; they face an uncertain future in a country wracked by poverty, drugs, HIV, a soaring murder rate and a floundering economy.

Here we were, an old white man standing in the ocean with an eighth-grade Jamaican boy talking about running. We shook hands. I told him my name, and he said his was Jason. His relay team had taken second place. That was great, congratulations, I told him.

Jamaica’s children left a poignant impression on me, none more so than Jason. His easy, endearing smile was as natural as sunshine. He admired my sports watch, an eye-catching black and yellow number Jo Ann had given me.

“I want to get a watch like that,” he said.

I told him he could get one about like it at Wal-Mart for 30 or 40 dollars. I actually said that! And with that utterance I proved I could be as arrogantly stupid as any North American tourist who ever landed on Jamaican soil.

Exactly which Wal-Mart should he go to, one in Miami or Key West? Well, he’ll just have to check the airline schedules. And what about the 40 bucks?—just a bit over 2,000 Jamaican dollars. He’ll have to save his lunch money. The hard truth is a watch is not likely for him any time soon.

I wanted Jason to have a watch. To develop his running skills, he needs basic training tools. Who knows what he might accomplish? My impulse was to strip my watch off and hand it to him on the spot—I had two others at home. But Jo Ann had given it to me; and, too, it held my mile splits stored in the memory, not yet transferred to my file.

A few weeks after the race, I mounted an e-mail campaign to find Jason. Weeks went by. No luck.

What could Jason accomplish? Most Jamaicans are of African or mixed African-European descent, and, hence likely share the genes of the Kenyans who currently dominate marathon competition.

The success of Pomenos Ballantyne suggests the potential. The King of Caribbean marathons—so-called by the Sunday Gleaner, a Kingston paper—is from neighboring St. Vincent, and he easily won today’s marathon.

At the Negril Tree House on my first night in Jamaica, I had gone to the lobby, an open-air room. A leanly chiseled black man came up to me.

“Did you run the Stockholm Marathon?” he asked.

My T-shirt proclaimed it; I admitted it. At first I was wary and not very warm, thinking he might be a crook. He told me he was Pomenos Ballantyne. After we chatted a bit I realized that the man was indeed a marathoner. And when he told me that his time in the Trinidad marathon was something like 2:17—the number I recall—I realized more.

“Oh…you’re an elite marathoner.”

“Yeah, elite,” he said.

Over the next few days I talked with him several times. I asked him how fast he thought he could run a marathon in cool weather away from the Caribbean heat.

“Two-eleven,” he said.

“That would win the Country Music Marathon! They give big prize money and a new car,” I said.
In fact, that time would win most marathons.

On the Sunday morning after the marathon, I went up to the roof terrace of the Tree House for the breakfast buffet there. In the corner a jazz trio—bass, keyboards, drums—was playing the barn-burner “Mercy, Mercy.” People were still celebrating the marathon. Hotel owner Gail Jackson herself was there, wearing a flowing chartreuse dress, marathon metal around her neck, smiling at everyone. She had run the race, too. Not only that, but the race winner, Pomenos Ballantyne, had stayed at her hotel.

Pomenos was there too, busy talking with people. A tall picture had appeared in the Sunday Gleaner, showing his calm intensity during yesterday’s race. He was a hero. Not wanting to intrude on his party, I sat down at another table.

The band went through Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and then took off on “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Pomenos showed why men run races. Women crowded around, waiting to have their picture made with him.

Bette Midler’s familiar melody about soaring higher than an eagle wafted across the terrace and drifted out over a calm blue ocean. Her voice wafted through my head.

Pomenos stood with his arms wrapped around two smiling young women—and soared higher than an eagle.

As he left the terrace, he angled by my table to say goodbye. He was heading back home to St. Vincent. I urged him to come to Nashville for the Country Music Marathon.

“I’d very much like to do that,” he said.

But I didn’t expect it. Travel money was a problem.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blister in the Sun - Cookeville's first marathon draws 14 "elite fools"





Photo Captions
1. For those about to rock...runners wait for the start while race director Josh Hite, right, checks his watch. Photo by Martha Hite.

2. From left, Chris Estes finished second, Josh Hite first and Joshua Holmes was sixth. Photo by Joshua Holmes.

3. Anoine Moore finished first among women, fifth overall. Photo by Trent Rosenbloom.

4. Cookeville's Thomas Holt braved the heat to finish his second ever marathon. Photo by Trent Rosenbloom.

Runners

Name Age Gender City Time

1 Josh Hite 32 M Cookeville 3:32:07
2 Chris Estes 38 M Murfreesboro 3:43:44
3 Gary Krugger 25 M Edinboro, PA 3:54:36
4 Jeff Matlock 45 M Ashland City 3:57:21
5 Anoine Moore 43 F Pleasant View 4:04:38
6 Joshua Holmes 32 M Jackson 4:09:24
7 Dallas Smith 70 M Cookeville 4:32:11
8 Thomas Holt 33 M Cookeville 4:43:55
9 Naresh Kumar 27 M Chennai, India 5:33:46
10 Mikki Trujillo 34 F Cookeville 6:31:23
11 Angela Ivory 42 F Nashville 7:42:03
12 Diane Taylor 53 F Nashville 8:33:58
13 Bill Baker 59 M Nashville DNF
14 Trent Rosenbloom 40 M Nashville DNF

A Sucky Run

Looking up from the celly, Josh Hite interrupted the caller to confirm what he had just told him:

“Wouldn’t you say that the sucky part of the course was Cane Creek School parking lot?”

“Yeah, that’s about right,” I agreed.

Several runners were sitting around Josh’s dining room table eating, drinking and recovering from having just finished the first-ever marathon in Cookeville, Tenn. And Josh was talking to his friend about the course, specifically the sun-blasted part that meandered around the perimeter of Cane Creek Elementary School.

Here’s what do: Start at the Recreation Center in Cane Creek Park. Run down CC Camp Road to the Park entrance; circle Cane Creek Lake, returning to the center. Continue on the park path past the softball fields to the Tommy Thomas Bike Path on Jackson Street. Follow that path past the school a short ways and make a turnaround. On your way back to the center, just for good measure, detour around the perimeter of the school parking lot.

You will find that you’ve just run 5.24 miles. If you repeat that five times you will run precisely 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon.

At 7:00 a.m. last Sunday that is what 14 “elite fools” attempted to do: Run a marathon. In the South. In August. On a course largely exposed to the Sun.

Your doctor won’t recommend it.

How did such a thing happen? Credit elite Cookeville runner Josh Hite. A couple of months back he decided to host a marathon in Cookeville. He listed the “Event” on Facebook, sending messages to various running friends, inviting them to run it. At the time, he was calling it something like “Not Yet Named Marathon.” He advertised it as “NO FRILLS marathon... No certification. No shirt. No fee.” Along with the narrative, he also posted two inviting photos of Cane Creek Lake.

Enter Trent Rosenbloom, friend of Josh and the director of Nashville’s Flying Monkey Marathon, a joke of a marathon that has become the Rocky Horror Picture Show of all marathons, so popular that this year after online registration started, the race filled up in only 32 minutes. Trent knows how to promote a sadistic joke.

Trent hung the handle “Blister in the Sun Marathon” on Josh’s race and listed it on the website of the Marathon Maniacs. The name “Marathon Maniacs” explains itself.

Thus, the race was born, or at least a virtual storm of electrons about it was.

Replies rolled in: Maniac Jeff Matlock allowed “I’m in for the…No Name Run In The Sun Running is Stupid Hot Hilly Humid Marathon.” Later he tried to back out, calling it “crazy…insane.” But Josh shamed him into coming.

Photographer Elly Foster demurred, claiming, “As much as I would like to be in the company of such elite fools, I regretfully decline.” Susan Ford declined with the dubious endorsement, “This is crazy. I just love it.”

A smattering accepted. Josh switched to e-mail for those doomed runners, twice sending out race updates and bad news about hills and heat—six days before and 48 hours before. Those messages were addressed to “Masochists,” and ended with the signature “Sadist.” The last one announced, “You have only 48 hours until the soul in your shoes start to melt.” It’s not clear that the word “soul” in the place of “sole” was really a spelling error.

In any event, Sunday came, as it always does. Trees stretched their early morning shadows across the 14 runners standing on the pavement before the Recreation Center, where Queen City Timing had set up an electronic start/finish line.

We shoved off.

Josh was hoping to win his own marathon, but he was afraid of Gary Krugger, a compact, angular runner from Edinboro, Pennsylvania, who wears a plaited ponytail hanging to his waist and who had won the 2010 University of Okoboji Marathon. They took off together. The rest of us strung along behind, trotting along at various speeds.

The race dragged on. For me, it would be a special challenge to just finish. The night before I’d run the Race After Dark 8K (5 miles), which had started at 8:58 p.m. By the time I’d finished, taken a shower and had a snack, I got in bed around midnight. And I had to get up at 5 a.m. for the Marathon. I got precious little sleep. But there was a bigger factor than sleep deprivation—rest.

In lieu of competing in that 8K—a race he could have won, along with its prize money—Josh elected to pace me through the distance. His high-tech runner’s watch reads out instantaneous pace, distance, and elapsed time.

The state record for a 70-year old male is 37:00, and I was hoping to break it. Josh’s pacing helped me do that. I finished in 33:58, running an average pace of 6:48 per mile. I ran a pending state record, I was the first finisher over 55, and I won $100 prize money.

I had gone all out and saved nothing for the next morning’s marathon. In the last half-mile stretch my speed had steadily increased to 6:15. But at a terrible cost.

Now knee-deep in the marathon, I had to pay. I could only go slowly, a reality the heat would help assure.

On my first outbound pass toward the school I met extreme runner Angela Ivory. She is fighting cancer and cannot run as fast as she once could. After a bout some seven years ago, the cancer recently metastasized to her spine and has since spread to her liver, lung, and skull. Josh gave her an early start so that she would not finish so late in the day. She has completed some 170 marathons and 100-plus ultramarathons. A wounded warrior, she soldiers on.

Despite the heat and threat of cramps, my race ironically passed pleasantly. Ha! Thanks to going slow. It’s the racing that makes it hard, not the distance.

Drama started on my fourth lap. As I approached the boat ramp someone was calling. I turned to see Josh 100 yards behind. He was in his fifth and final lap, a lap ahead of me. He was alone and in the lead, but he had blown up.

“Dallas, wait!”

I stood waiting. He was reduced to walking. He wanted company to help him keep going.

“Go with me,” he said.

He had done as much for me the night before. We went into the woods together.

“Dallas, this sucks.”

“Yeah.”

He was irrational, afraid Gary Krugger was going to catch him. Although Krugger was nowhere to be seen, Josh kept mumbling pace numbers:

“…if I can just run 10-minute miles…” Then a few seconds later: “…if I can run 12-minute miles…” Then he’d go over it again.

But it made no sense figuring pace without even knowing where Krugger was. Josh had dropped him on the second lap and then gone hard on his third lap to put him out of sight. In his fourth lap then he had gone deep into his energy reserves. Finally, now, he had hit bottom. He could only run brief distances, and then he had to walk again. He was obsessed with Krugger suddenly catching him.

We reached the high trail on the north shore. It offers a commanding view of the trail behind us, including the long levee. Krugger was nowhere to be seen. I looked at the woods across the lake.

“If he’s out there, he must be in the trees,” I said.

“He’d be over there,” Josh said, pointing farther back, along CC Camp Road.

I didn’t know why he was worried. To finish, Josh had only a half-mile to reach the center. After that all that was left was the two-and-half miles out-and-back to the school.

“He couldn’t catch you if he had a motorcycle,” I said.

Then I remembered where I’d last seen Krugger. Martha, Josh’s wife, had set up a table loaded with food and drinks in the shade at the center. When I left there on my fourth lap —which was slightly before Josh left on his fifth lap—Krugger wasn’t going to catch anybody.

He wasn’t running. He was standing in the shade having a hushed talk with his girl friend, a pretty blond woman named Morgan Cummings. She was on crutches from a stress fracture in her hip. She is a marathoner, too, and she sometimes even runs on her crutches.

We returned to Martha’s table, Josh yelling, “Ice water! Ice water!”

Krugger wasn’t there. We headed toward the school, Josh’s last segment, and suddenly met Chris Estes, a man with the physique of a body builder. He was maybe three miles behind Josh.

“Did you get Krugger?” Josh asked.

“What?”

“Did you pass Krugger?”

“Yeah.”

“Way to go, dude.”

Josh had it. Krugger wasn’t even second; Chris was. And either one was farther behind Josh than Josh was from the finish line. Josh had only to go to the school, pass through the parking lot inferno, and return to the Center. He could walk all the way.

Which he mostly did, winning with 3:32:07, a time far off his capability. Chris held onto second, and Gary Krugger ended up third.

Meanwhile, Angela Ivory had joined with a friend, Diane Taylor. When Angela completed her last lap, Diane still had a whole lap to go. Angela decided to stay with Diane for another lap, thus covering a distance of 31.4 miles, 50K. Hence Angela finished Cookeville’s first marathon, and created, and finished ad hoc Cookeville’s first 50K ultramarathon.

Most runners talk about their PR, by which they mean “personal record,” or their best finish time. After this hot, hilly race, I heard a new term—PW, “personal worse.” I set one myself.

Twelve of the 14 starters finished. Once runners returned home, Facebook crackled.

Chris Estes thanked Josh for, “putting that insane race together.”

From Jeff Matlock: “The weather was too hot!...I’ll be back next year!!”

Trent Rosenbloom: “That was silly.”

Naresh Kumar, who calls himself the Indian Monkey, says he “…was stupid enough to continue with the race and foolish enough to finish it.”

Cookeville marathon virgin Mikki Trujillo summed it up: “That was the hardest thing I have EVER done…”