Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nobody Wants to Crawl

A story about extraordinary courage and endurance. Or maybe it's not extraordinary at all. From the Herald-Citizen, November 9, 2008.



The video clip from Fox News shows a runner collapsing within a few feet of the finish line at the Chicago Marathon of October 12, 2008.

The runner braced himself on the side wall and gingerly regained his feet. His knees buckled and he crumpled to the pavement again. Standing no longer possible, the fallen man seemed dazed for a bit, casting around for what to do.

The decision came. He started crawling toward his goal, smartly closing the distance. All the while, other runners streamed by, ignoring the man, “dashing to the finish line,” the announcer said. The crawler ignored everyone.

Soon two male runners stooped down, lifted him by the arms and escorted him across the line. Their kindness was presented as a good deed and the two runners were hailed as heroes. The men acted from the best human impulses of compassion and pity. The incident was both “heart wrenching and heart warming,” one TV anchor said.

A marathoner sees the men’s action differently: it was wrong.

The runner had not sought help and did not need it. When the two men jerked him up, they snatched away the challenge he had set himself—just when victory was near. Equally wearisome, they disqualified him. With their aid, the stricken runner managed a better finish position than those behind him who ran with no help. That is unfair; it violates a fundamental rule. Namely, no runner is allowed to have help from anyone other than race officials.

Runners disabled by various ailments—exhaustion, digestive upset, leg cramps, etc., even death—are hardly rare in a marathon. In fact, one runner died and scores landed in the hospital at this very marathon in 2007, due in part to unseasonably warm temperatures. At the big urban marathons, I’ve read that directors expect a death every two years.

In the present case, medics, trained and equipped, stood nearby ready to help the exhausted runner as soon as he needed it.

In the San Francisco marathon just two months earlier, I recall seeing a man on the pavement a half mile from the finish. Medics had covered him with a blanket and were giving treatment. So, stricken runners are not unusual.

In the Ironman contests, crawling is so historically honored as to be singled out in the rules. On page 25 of the Ironman Florida booklet, for the marathon portion, I find this sentence: “1) NO FORM OF LOCOMOTION OTHER THAN RUNNING, WALKING OR CRAWLING IS ALLOWED” (capitalized in the booklet).

Julie Moss set the standard. It was 1982 and Ironman Hawaii was being broadcast on network television for the first time, by ABC Wide World of Sports. As front-runner Moss approached the finish line, her strength bled out. Running, even standing, became impossible despite repeated attempts.

Attempts grew feebler. Her limbs folder like linked bars. She fell in a heap. She entered a new realm. Crawling was the only choice left. She crawled.

She crawled, the crowd pressed in, it was pandemonium. TV viewers and spectators alike had never seen anything like it—an athlete determined enough to crawl, a woman athlete at that. In the confusion, the woman who had chased Moss all day now passed her without knowing it. She took the win but few remember her name.

What they remember is the searing courage of Julie Moss. No one dragged her across the finish line. Had that happened, the world would have been denied maybe the bravest performance ever seen in sports.

One person inspired by her performance was swimmer Mark Allen, classmate of Julie Moss at San Diego State. Allen, too, took up Ironman triathlon, eventually going on to win six Ironman world championships. Outside magazine called him the most (physically) fit man in America.

Julie Moss and Mark Allen married and had a son named Mats. His genetic potential for extraordinary endurance must be a good bet.

So, yes, sometimes racers crawl. You don’t want to do that, to have to do that. At the least, it signifies you mismanaged your race, as apparently the man in Chicago did.

What of that Chicago runner who was crawling to the finish when he received help? What about his results? Was he disqualified?

Truth is, I don’t know. I expect the director reviewed his case and relaxed the rule about receiving aid, letting his time stand. This resolution is a just one, especially if no age-group awards were involved. The director would recognize a decisive circumstance: The runner had not asked for help and was physically unable to resist it—kidnapped as he was.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Marathon and a City with a Homeless Problem

From the Herald-Citizen, September 19, 2004.
San Diego, June 3, 2003
My eleventh floor balcony door looks west over San Diego Bay, toward the sunset. The view is lovely. But I look down on a scene in the foreground more arresting, one fecund with the drama of elemental life. I watch a daily struggle.

The scene beneath me includes an improvised parking lot, one made from the concrete floor slab of a demolished building. On the east side, the side near me, the wall has been razed to the ground so that cars can drive in. Along the north and west sides, remnants of the demolished walls stand waist-high like jagged parapets. A derelict building with a sound wall but a collapsed roof sprawls along the south side. These are the borders of the temple. Life, primal and raw, plays out on this shabby slab.

Cars fill the lot during working hours, but leave at quitting time. Homeless people take the lot then. They make their homes against the wall, spreading blankets beside it, setting their belongings around them. Being tallest, the south wall is popular, but the west wall is a favorite too. No one wants to be in the middle of the slab, vulerable on all sides. No one makes his bed on the north wall, running along Ash Street; that wall is the toilet. When I walked by it once the soured stench of human waste filled my sinsuses, and altered a hamburger’s taste thirty minutes later. Thereafter, I detoured north a block to avoid the latrene’s smell. Each morning the homeless fade into the city and the cars come back to the slab. Another workday begins.

Scattered just east of this scene, new office towers sprout tall—high finance and big money abundantly evident. The money pours into rampant construction while the city ignores a greater, but less-agreeable, problem—the very people on the street.

I had come to San Diego to run the Rock and Roll Marathon—a grandiose urban race famous for media attention, glamour, glitz and noise. Runners encounter loud bands playing in each mile along the course. Because it spawned other similar races, including the Country Music Marathon, all managed by the same San Diego company, it’s sometimes called the mother of musical marathons.

By most measures, my race went well, but the street life was more interesting than the race. I stayed a couple of extra days.

San Diego seems an apt place for the first musical marathon; a center for endurance sports, the world’s first triathlon was held here. Ironman legends, Mark Allen and Scott Tinely, live here, among others. San Diego: city of Sea World and sunshine; beaches, surf, golden girls and golden boys running in the sand. The men who live on the slab at Ash Street know nothing of this.

The homeless have a home in San Diego. The weather is a help. It rains only 15 inches per year, and temperatures are pleasant. It’s a good place to be homeless.

Their presence sears the cityscape. Iron gates and chain link fences guard entrances to alleys, to any alcove that offers shelter. Chain link fences, sometimes topped by razor wire, run around parking lots. That leaves parks, public squares, unfenced parking lots, and the street itself, for the homeless. Otherwise, the city is barred and fenced. Closed. Don’t even think about it—even the restrooms in fast food restaurants are locked; you need a quarter.

Most of the homeless are men, of course. But not all. One day on Broadway, close to the fast food places, a college-aged woman wearing a backpack approached me. Her face was drawn with pain—a stray dog expecting to be kicked. She hated asking me: “Sir, can you spare some money for food?”

During the week I had spent some time riding the buses and trolleys. The city’s public transportation system is a valuable asset that works well. A special wide area is provided at the front of the buses for senior citizens and those with disabilities. Being a senior citizen I was not only qualified but sometimes even compelled to sit there, especially if the bus was crowded. I loved the secret irony of a marathoner riding there.

One day a homeless man rode standing over me, bracing his cart of stuff in the wheel chair space. He wore a heavy coat despite a warm temperature; a coarse mane of dirty hair swept back above his collar. We rode along. He decided to give the citizens on the bus a lecture. I was closest and could hear him best. I glanced up occasionally; the rest ignored him.

He rambled a bit, and I had trouble following—something about medical care. His concluding words were delivered with conviction and passion: “...and that’s why we need Medicare!”

A strong conclusion. Except that it didn’t turn out to be the conlusion after all. Just as the bus braked for his stop, he decided to announce one more thing: “I wouldn’t recommend my dentist to anyone!”

I looked into his face. A chicken has more teeth.

San Diego’s destiny is shaped by an infinite supply of poverty just fifteen miles south, at Tijuana, across the Mexican border. Earlier I had ridden the trolley to its southern terminal and walked over the border to the town, as tourists do. One-and-a-quarter million souls live there in apparent chaos and deprivation. The city spreads across the scrubland like dried scum. Maybe that’s too harsh. Some progress is evident—street construction was underway. But a good deal of the town seems a collection of shoddy open-air stores unevenly cobbled together and thrown down. Merchants chase after you flashing cheap jewerly.

Visitors encounter panhandlers. A young woman with wild frightened eyes approached me, four small kids trailing behind her.

“Sir, can you spare some money in our need?” she begged.

I kept walking like a Philistine. But I remember her eyes.

After I’d crossed the border back stateside, I sat at the Tijuana Stop waiting for the train to San Diego. I struck up a conversation with an old white-haired man from San Diego. Retired now, he had worked at a clerical job in Tijuana, and he occasionally goes back for visits. I said it appeared San Diego has a problem with the homeless. He agreed; it was a subject of keen interest to him. I offered the opinion that many were mentally handicapped.

“They are!” he exclaimed. “It started with Reagan. “Anybody capable of living on their own had to be released from the hospital.” He went on complaining about how many patients had been turned out to fend for themselves.

Apparently he was referring to a policy implemented when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, a controversial one I vaguely recall from the news. That was a long time ago, several administrations ago. The policy seems callous and wrong; you’d think it would’ve been amended by now.

The homeless problem is not unique to San Diego, of course. It’s here close to home too—in Nashville and even Cookeville, my home town. On my daily runs through Dogwood Park last summer I frequently talked to a man who took shelter in the gazebo.

San Diego’s problem is acute. The city willfully turns a blind eye to it. At quitting time, downtown workers drive away in cars with air-conditioning, stereos and tinted glass. They don’t see the homeless. The downtown dwellers live in high rise apartments behind iron gates. The city compensates with fences and gates for a public policy lacking in compassion and pity. For that, the city suffers. But the ones who suffer the most are those without a car to drive or a gate to bar—like the men on the slab at Ash Street.