Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Man in Motion

The san Diego street life was more fascinating than the Rock and Roll Marathon. I hung around a few days to look around, and got a surprise. From Running Journal, July 2009.


It was my last night in San Diego when I saw “the man in motion.”

I was walking to supper east along Ash Street, a downtown street mostly empty after quitting time; the people who work in the office towers had already merged their cars with the traffic streams draining downtown.

I glanced down a side street and saw the man a baseball pitch away. He shuffled and waved his arms about, talking with someone only he could see. His body jerked with sudden movements. A bony wrist shot out of his cuff when he gestured; he wouldn’t have weighed 120 pounds.

He was a black man of vague age dressed in black shirt, black pants and a black baseball cap turned backwards. His dark clothes were consistent with those of the homeless men I’d seen here. Their clothes seem dark, whether by choice or from dirt of the street—maybe both. You see them in the distance—dark figures drifting languidly across the scene, invisible spirits people pretend not to see.

But the man in motion was anything but languid; he buzzed with misdirected energy. His clothes, though dark and a bit shabby, appeared recently laundered. Breaking the black theme, his sneakers shined brightly white. I couldn’t help but notice that. The white shoes described his foot trajectories like reflectors on bicycle spokes.

He glanced in my direction. I turned my gaze frontward and hurried on, not wanting an encounter with a panhandler.

I had come to San Diego for the Rock and Roll Marathon, a race famous for its glamour and noise, its Hollywood-like atmosphere. You feel like you ought to make a pilgrimage to it. By most measures I ran well, clocking 3:15 to earn second place in my age division. This was in 2003, before I entered the 65-69 age group.

A highlight came in mile 25 when I was beginning to struggle. I passed Frank Shorter going the opposite way! Amid all the hoopla, the only American man to ever win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon was out for a casual morning jog. Astonished, I turned and yelled to another runner, “That’s Frank Shorter.” But the race had tken my voice. The runner didn’t understand, or maybe he didn’t know who Shorter was.

My race was successful and memorable, but I discovered that the street life was equally interesting. I stayed a couple of extra days to look around.

Now on my way to get supper, I hurried down Ash Street, leaving the man in motion behind, shuffling, flapping and jerking, talking to spirits. I had walked along this same street two hours before daylight on race morning, dressed in my running clothes then. The distance to Balboa Park, where the race started, was two miles. The street was dark and lonely at that time of morning. I saw only one person then. At a parking lot where homeless men sleep, a man stood on the curb urinating in the street.

On this last evening, I went into Caparelli’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant on the fringe of downtown. It faces First Avenue, just off Ash Street. It was my customary place to eat. The salads and spaghetti were good, and those had been what I needed before the race. I needed the same food still, to recover from the race. The patrons were all local—and not many of them, at that. No tourists at all—save for one: me. My waitress was a high school girl in a tight sweater top.

I sat in a booth and looked through a wide window at the traffic on the street outside. The cars headed north, out of town on the one-way street. But the rush was over now; traffic was light. Directly across First Avenue set Mixon Deli and Market, a convenience store. Customers came and went at the store. I watched as I ate.

A car stopped on the curb in front of the restaurant. I was vaguely aware that someone got out of the car. A two-and-a-half foot tall man entered the restaurant. He walked to a table where two men sat—he was barely as tall as the table. After a loud conversation making arrangements of some sort, he left, and the car pulled away. I wanted to see how he could operate the car, but my view was obstructed. Did the car have hand controls like a motorcycle? Does he drive standing in the seat? I don’t know.

After the short man left, the man in motion appeared. He stood on the walk in front of the store, still jerking, flapping and talking to the wind. The white shoes flashed. He had energy. But he didn’t have anything else, any visible possessions. Most homeless men carry some belongings, if nothing more than a dirty blanket across their shoulder.

I finished my supper and watched a vignette unfold in front of Mixon Market. The man in motion yacked, and shuffled, bony hands flapping. My waitress came. She seemed to know people in the neighborhood.

“What about the man in black, do you know him?” I asked. She studied him through the window a second.


“I thought maybe he was a local character,” I said.

“Nope. Never saw him before.”

She wasn’t interested.

A sedan stopped on the curb in front of the store. A tall black man with a shaved head got out. His clothes looked expensive, professional at the least. He was big. He could’ve played linebacker for the Chargers. He talked across the car to the man in motion a bit. Then he walked around the car and stood towering over the little man, who talked and gestured fast, only now it was to a physical presence. Whatever he was saying, he pled the case with emotion.

“Parole officer,” I was thinking. The man in motion is going to get busted for violating parole. The tall man pulled out a cell phone, turned away from the man in motion and made a call, while the little man talked to his triceps. The squad car will be here soon, I thought.

Error is the risk of guessing. I was wrong. Soon, without ever entering the store, the tall man got into his car and pulled away, leaving the man in motion on the walk by himself, still talking and flapping.

The man in motion went into the store. He returned to the walk with a bag of chips. He waved each chip like a baton while he talked and chomped. The store clerk, a tall skinny white man, came out and ran him off. The man in motion retreated to the side of the store, an empty parking lot. He leaned back against a metal post, the kind that stops cars from hitting the building, and ate the chips. Chips dropped to the ground without his notice.

Suddenly he wheeled around and looked intently at the post he’d been leaning on. It seemed a new discovery. The incessant motion ceased. He bent forward and tenderly caressed the post, a new thing he’d found. A few seconds passed while he gazed at it lovingly, like a mother watching her baby sleep.

The moment passed: suddenly he dismissed the post and turned his back to it. It was just a post. He casually propped on it again and resumed waving, chomping and yacking. Finally he drifted from the store to the center of the empty lot, where he stood talking and flapping his hands.

I paid for my supper and crossed the street to the convenience store. I wanted to buy a snack for later on in the evening. I laid my snack items and money on the counter in front of the tall clerk.

“What’s the story on that man in black waving his arms all around?” I asked.

“He was in here a few minutes ago—he waved his arms around...” I said.

“There was a black woman in here.”

“...had on black clothes and his cap turned backwards,” I continued.

“It was a woman freaked out on drugs...or something.”

“I thought it was a man,” I said.

“She’s freaked out on drugs, or something.”

I thanked him, took my snack sack and headed back down Ash toward the hotel. The man in motion stood in the middle of the parking lot waving and talking just as before, white shoes flashing. Only he wasn’t a man.

The man in motion was a freaking-out woman.

It was the last lesson San Diego taught me. I left town the next morning.

Runner's Misconduct Clouds Identity of Age Group Winner

I entered this race hoping to capture first place in my age group. But my run did not go well. Afterwards, it appeared I 'd lost out to another runner. Then I discovered there was more to the story. From Running Journal, October 2009.


In the Chicago Marathon of 2008 some 2,000 runners went to the limit of their endurance and stared into the abyss. They failed to finish the 26.2-mile distance. One ended up crawling. Each pushed the edge and felt its raw contour.

As I nearly did. To each runner, the edge brings unique evil. In my case, leg cramps, springing from dehydration, nearly dragged me down. Had that happened, I might have been unable to get back up. Starting six miles from the finish and becoming deadly serious three miles later, my legs and feet alternated episodes of cramping, hard and hurting.

My stride jerked into a grotesque lurch, favoring whichever muscle was seized at the moment, hoping it would ease up. At times I ran wooden-legged, my foot twisted grossly to the outside. I gave up precious minutes, shuffling forward like a busted scarecrow.

I was competing for first place in the 65-69 age division, or hoping to. Once the cramping began, I doubled my fluid intake. By then, as usual, it was too late, especially when the day is hot. It was hot. The official high for the day was 84, which tied the high for that date set in 1960.

The official temperature is measured in shade four feet above grass. The street was paved with asphalt, not shade and grass. One runner said she saw 96 on a thermometer.

Heat was a factor in the outcome of the marathon. Some 45,000 had registered. Only 33,000 showed up to start. Of those, some 31,000 finished. For whatever reason—one guesses the hot forecast—some 12,000 registered runners, many with bib number and timing chip already attached, decided: “Nope, I ain’t going.”

Indirectly or not, that particular circumstance led to a puzzler in my age division, sending me to scrutinize the rule book.

A man beat me by one minute and eight seconds.

I didn’t know that until I’d left the race site, taken a shower and a nap. Since I don’t lug a laptop around, I called my wife back in Cookeville to get the bad news. Online results were unofficial at that time, the runners arranged in alphabetical order, not by order of finish. She had to scroll through the list and, when she did, she found that a Dick Byrd (I’ve changed these names) of North Carolina had finished in 3:24:12, beating me by 1:08.

It was a buzz-kill. I sank into a morose hole. But I had to accept the hard numbers. I hadn’t run well enough to win. Nutritionally, I’d prepared more carefully for this race than any I’ve done—only to blow it during the race itself, ignoring the heat and drinking too little.

I’d had a string going. I’d not lost first place in a marathon since June of 2004, on a hot day in Stockholm, Sweden, thirteen marathons ago. Hard leg cramps that day, too, muscles like frozen snakes. After that race I lay on the ground for a long time, a long way from home, alone and unable to get up. My string stretched back to that blue Scandinavian sky where a white gull soared over, clouds drifted in from the south…

That string was snapped now.

A couple days after Chicago I was back home in Cookeville. I looked up Dick Byrd in the online race results. He was 66. Results were still unofficial, but I made an interesting discovery—he was missing most of the split times, including the starting line itself. The rule book says a runner must have a starting time or he will be disqualified. Also, anyone missing multiple splits will be disqualified. Byrd faced double jeopardy.

The splits need explaining. At Chicago, a runner gets split times (accumulated time to that point) at 11 check points spaced out along the course. These include: the starting line, the half-marathon, the finish line and at each 5K—5K, 10K, 15K, etc. A missing split may mean the runner took an illegal shortcut. Dick Byrd had split times for only 40K and the finish line, just two of the required 11.

It appeared he had skipped the race and had jumped onto the course about two miles from the finish line. Was he a cheat? If so, he made a clumsy attempt, displaying gross ignorance of the marathon rules familiar to all runners. Maybe his timing chip had been defective, I thought, somehow fixing itself at 40K.

Never forget Google. I looked for previous marathon times for Dick Byrd but found none. I did, however, find three recent half-marathon times. All were over two hours. One was 2:08. That answered the question: He didn’t actually run the Chicago Marathon. A two-hour half-marathoner, inexperienced at the full distance, would push five hours in a hot Chicago Marathon. If he is able to finish at all.

He didn’t run it.

But why did he fake it? It would take colossal arrogance to expect spoils from such an awkward trick. The race director would resolve all timing irregularities, I knew, before publishing the official results. At least I hoped he would.

On the third day after the race, the word “disqualified” appeared in the results after Dick Byrd’s name. Correct outcome, but it didn’t answer why he had pulled the stunt.

Then MarathonFotos put pictures online of all the racers. I looked up Dick Byrd’s photos; there were a few. In each, he was running with a young woman. They crossed the finish line together and had a photo taken together.

I looked up the young woman, too. She was Pamela Byrd, 36, from Georgia. She had exactly the same finishing time as Dick. I had my answer. Same last name, different states and 30 years younger—she was his daughter.

By race morning in Chicago, Dick had already pinned on his bib and attached his timing chip. Then when he saw the weather forecast he realized the marathon could not go well for him, a first-timer.

Prudence demanded he sit it out. Some 12,000 others came to the same decision. But Dick, I figure, so wanted to share in his daughter’s adventure that he came up with the perfect plan: Walk south on Michigan Avenue and wait for her at a point two miles from the finish. When he saw his child, he jumped in and ran beside her, a jubilant, smiling, proud papa.

I can’t blame him. His daughter ran an excellent race. He was proud. He meant no harm. But his caper sank me in a multi-day funk. On the fifth day after the race, the online results were finally revised, the runners listed in their order of finish. My name moved to the top of the 65-69 age division. The name Dick Byrd disappeared altogether.

The race director had enforced the rules. Dick Byrd was missing multiple splits, including the starting line. Hence he had been disqualified.

I had won.

Twelve Gather for Supper

It was only a party, but it turned out to hold lessons reaching beyond the walls around us. From Running Journal, May 2009.


We sit around a long table in a restaurant on Nashville’s Music Row, five women and seven men, eating, drinking and talking. A meeting is in progress.

But this meeting is not one called by any of the usual functionaries; it’s more important than that. It is a meeting of friends sharing the simple joy of companionship, the comfort that in its better moments, human society sometimes provides.

Susan, in fact, called this meeting. We gathered thirty minutes ago this Saturday night at her boyfriend’s apartment, a short block from here; then we walked to this restaurant for supper. After supper, the plan is to walk back and sample some of Susan’s homemade dessert.

Susan and her boyfriend, Hal, a music publisher, are bothered by over-use injuries which curtail their running. But they miss seeing their little training group. Susan decided why not get together anyway. So she sent out invitations to their running buddies and to some of their friends.

And here we are.

Being friends of friends, some here didn’t know the others until thirty minutes ago. But no onlooker would guess that; there is an instant friendly connection between runners. I’m here because Albino, a member of their little group, is also a friend of mine. He visited me earlier today at my Cookeville, Tennessee home for a morning run.

Originally from Seville, Spain, Albino now temporarily lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where as an accountant he monitors the financial matters of a Spanish-owned company there. Three years will not pass before his work calls him back to Spain. But on the summer night of this supper, he doesn’t yet know that. At 33 he is perhaps the youngest at the table; at 64, I am easily the oldest.

Hal, the publisher, originally from Oklahoma, sits at the center with his back to the wall. He is tall and slender and his graying hair sweeps back stylishly; his kindly manner and soft voice suggest serenity. By his side sits Susan, a Connecticut Yankee, educated in Florida, an intense young woman whose wavy auburn hair frames a finely featured face you’d likely call beautiful. Hal tells about how she became his girlfriend.

“We went running four or five times. She kept talking about how her love life was all screwed up,” he says.

Susan jumps in quickly: “I’d gotten so used to talking about it on runs with Stan that I didn’t realize I was still doing it!” she explains.

After a few runs spent listening to her lovelorn tales, the Oklahoma boy began to get ideas. As a result, Susan’s troubles flew away like gray birds.

By “Stan,” I reckon Susan is talking about the man sitting on Hal’s left, one of her running buddies. Stan, in his fifties, is a songwriter from Massachusetts; he’s accompanied by his friendly wife, Joy. Stan is a strong man with close-cut hair and a neat mustache. He seems perfectly comfortable, always at ease. The surface calm masks the fire in his poet’s heart. He brought his guitar to Hopkinsville for Albino’s 33rd birthday party a couple of months ago and sang some of his songs. A favorite of this Massachusetts man is Flatt and Scruggs’ Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy (written by A. P. Carter) a song about a poor boy who sells the morning paper to help his mother. Though not his, Stan sang that song at Albino’s party, too.

I admire Stan for his songwriting. Songwriters have precious ability to wring emotion from just a few words. Henry Mancini’s A Slow Hot Wind says more in the title alone than some books I’ve read.

Jimmy Brown connects with me, too. I used to hear Flatt and Scruggs sing their songs every morning on the AM radio that set on top of the refrigerator. Momma listened to their program while she cooked breakfast. The Hot Rize theme sang me out of bed before daylight. It was like my alarm clock. Into the dark and cold I went to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Shoot a monkey! I remember those mornings.

That was long ago. Here at the table tonight, a dozen people are having a roaring good time. Teasing questions and snappy answers fly back and forth; stories spin out.

“What time you running tomorrow, Dallas?” Lu asks me.

His crooked grin tells me he’s teasing. Lu is from Vietnam; he smiles easily. In his mid thirties, he would have been around seven years old when Saigon fell. If growing up in that ravaged country left a scar, you won’t see it in his smile. He seems genuinely content.

“The war scattered everyone,” he says pleasantly.

“The war scattered everyone,” I reflect. “And now it’s a tourist destination. I have a friend who just left to go there.”

“Really?” he says, smiling, pleased to hear someone say something good about his homeland.

Lu goes back to Vietnam frequently, even though the trip is expensive. Later he will tell me about his best friend. On his last visit home, he and his friend made a 1,000-mile trip together on their motorcycles. “He’s 63 years old, but he’s still my best friend,” Lu tells me.
That comment touches me. His friendship with the old man is like Albino’s friendship with me, somehow bridging a gulf of nearly two generations.

Lu has come to the party with Luz Maria, a 33-year old engineer from Mexico—she has a beautiful name that I love. Sitting between Lu and Albino now, she exudes charm and strength equally. The strength is real too; she runs a blazing marathon.

Sitting next to me is Tammy, an engaging woman with bright eyes and short blond hair, originally from Smithville, Tennessee. She’s telling Susan and me a lively story about how she met her Tunisian boyfriend. At first sight she had been smitten by the man. But because of timidity, she had missed her chance to get acquainted. She was crushed by the loss, angry with herself.

But providence intervened for her, and she found her nerve—both later that very same night! She was a passenger in a friend’s car. As they backed out of their parking spot beside a convertible she suddenly saw the Tunisian man getting into that convertible. Defying improbable odds, their car had been parked beside his.

“Wait, wait! Pull back in!” she yelled to her friend.

She wasn’t going to miss another chance. She jumped out of the car, ran up to the man and pressed her phone number into his hand.

“Call me sometime!” she told him, and quickly ran back to her friend’s car, leaving a very surprised man sitting in a convertible.

“By the time I got home, I had a message from him,” she says.

She finishes the story. Her eyes sparkle as she laughs at how wickedly bold she had been, surprised at herself still.

The man from Tunisia sits beside Tammy now. As she finishes the story, he strokes his chin and smiles shyly. Tall and handsome, with wavy black hair, he works in telecommunications and fluently speaks a number of languages. But he had never had a chance. The woman from Tennessee reeled him in like a largemouth bass. They’ve been together a year and a half.

Sitting at our table is only one person who admits to being a homegrown Nashville native—Nick, who looks strong enough to drive fence posts. His supportive wife, Carla, loves going to Bell Buckle when Nick runs that annual race.

Suddenly I’m startled by a remarkable thought: These twelve humans come from places flung across the globe. They represent five countries. And that’s not counting Massachusetts. Four continents! Grounded in academia, I’m accustomed to a cosmopolitan crowd. But this is not an academic setting; it’s a casual gathering of friends, here by choice rather than institutional imperative.

This group shatters every boundary of culture, religion, politics, geography and rearing. Backgrounds vary from urban to rural, from aristocratic to red-dirt poor. Some are Roman Catholics; I can estimate a Muslim, a Buddhist, maybe a backsliding Baptist, and a heathen or two. And who knows what else?

And who cares? That’s precisely the point. Because, the most amazing thing about it all is this: no one here seems to notice. Despite all the walls erected by politics, religion, and even tectonic plates, we are happily gathered here tonight. No one thinks it’s unusual that we are. In microcosm this group represents the world John Lennon naively dreamed of in Imagine.

These friends have been convened here by a thing as innocent as running, by Susan and Hal reaching out to their training buddies. In this, I find reason for hope. Running, the most elemental of all human athletic skills, has trumped all the hate-engendering bugaboos contrived through millenia of humankind invention and generalized bungling.

It seems child-like to notice.

Running can’t stop war. It can’t reverse melting of the Arctic ice shelf or stop the dogwoods from dying. It can’t prevent world hunger or cure HIV.

Running can’t save the world.

But on this Saturday night it has brought together a dozen souls in a harmony of goodwill, friendship, joy, and even love.

And that’s a lot.