Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the Eve of the Reggae Marathon, No Bananas

For these hot summer days, a hot story from Jamaica. From the Running Journal, May 2010.


The man latched onto me like a hungry tick.

I was at the pre-race pasta supper for the Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica one December a few years ago. A long line of open tents covering tables of food had been set up in a sports park. Serving would start soon. At a separate tent I’d just registered and picked up a plastic goodie bag containing my race bib, timing chip, tee shirt and other complimentary items.

The one item of food I was looking for on this tropical island and could not find was the same one every other runner wanted but could not find: a banana. At the registration tent I learned the problem. A handwritten sign stated, “Yes we have no bananas, courtesy of Hurricane Ivan.” Ivan had barged into town a few weeks earlier. He stayed for a couple of days and blew the bananas slam off the trees.

Runners milled around, waiting for the food lines to open. I wanted to talk with some of them, but a man from New York had taken over my party. He was friendly enough—too friendly enough. I thought he was going to talk my leg off. His life history was mine for the taking—or listening. Philip, as I will call him, was red-bearded, maybe fifty years old, and he was wearing a bicycling hat like riders in Europe use.

He’d gotten lucky and won the lottery at his running club back home. The prize was a trip to Jamaica for the Reggae Marathon. He was observing the race, not actually planning to run it. The club paid his way just to promote the race. He’d already decided to come back and run the race next year.

Philip’s wife had come too. But that was not lucky. Their plane had been scheduled to leave New York at seven in the morning. Everything unraveled; it was a long story. There were mechanical problems, plane substitutions, re-scheduling and so on. They flew errant flights around the eastern United States for a while before actually heading toward Jamaica. Instead of arriving in Negril later that afternoon as planned, they didn’t arrive until three in the morning the next day.

His wife was mad as a wet hen.

“She had to go five hours without a cigarette,” he shouted. “Even after we got on the ground, she couldn’t smoke until we cleared immigration.” She was still back at the hotel, he told me, on a section of the beach where clothes are optional. She could smoke there. That was a good place for her.

“Next year I’m bringing my girlfriend instead of my wife,” he announced. That’ll work out a lot better, he thought. She likes to swim and bike and run. Yeah, that’ll be better. Oh, he still lives with his wife, you know—that’s not a big problem—but it’s just that his girlfriend likes to do what he does.

Of course, he hadn’t been looking for a girlfriend—she just came along. “We went running together a few times,” he explained. She was just a running partner. But one thing led to another. They got to be friends. Soon they went bicycling together. And so on. It was all very natural. She likes the same stuff he does. He’d made up his mind about the matter—next year he was bringing his girlfriend. Even his wife might like that better.

He was friendly, but I needed to scrub him off before he started talking about real estate and brothers-in-laws. I couldn’t even catch a chance to look through my goodie bag. A woman from California saved me. She sat down behind me and started talking about San Diego’s Rock and Roll Marathon, of which the back of my T-shirt reminded her. She was as big a talker as Philip, and for a minute I thought I’d made a mistake taking her on. I was caught in crossfire, yammering coming from two directions instead of one.

Then I had an inspiration. I gently deflected her comments to Philip, nurturing a tentative dialog between them. It blossomed into a full-blown storm, an even match. I took the opportunity to duck out. I wanted to find Burt Carlson.

I found Burt sitting on the curb at the head of the line of food tents, waiting for the food bars to open. He’s a story. When he finishes this Reggae Marathon it will bring his total to 268 marathons. He’s 79 years old (this was in 2004) and he’s here to run in this humidity and heat. A doctor wouldn’t recommend it.

But I wasn’t surprised; I’d seen his picture in the online race literature, where he’d run the race the previous year. I figured he’d show up. Still, how old do you get before you learn you won’t be back? Older than 79, if you’re Burt.

It was Burt who blew my cover on the bus ride from Montego Bay. A bunch of beer-drinking senior citizens had been throwing a loud party on the bus. A situation I don’t recall confronting before that day—rowdy senior citizens! I’d hoped to keep my mind quiet by avoiding marathon questions from people who I figured didn’t know a marathon from a motorcycle.

The driver had made a restroom stop for his revelers—smart driver. As passengers climbed back on, someone tapped me on the shoulder and I looked up.

“Have you run this one before?” Burt Carlson said. I hadn’t seen him on the bus—he’d been seated behind me somewhere. He looked surprised when I called his name.

Actually, I’d run a race with him, the 41-mile Strolling Jim ultra marathon in Wartrace Tennessee, on an unseasonably warm day in May four years earlier. A man from St. Louis had introduced us. The man from St. Louis quit the race, got in his truck and split for home. Burt kept going, even past the hilly section they refer to in the plural as “the walls.” He kept going—on through that day’s heat—until he got to the finish line where the race’s namesake, Strolling Jim, the first world champion walking horse, is buried. The race director was drinking beer and grilling barbecue chicken, a victorious woman runner was throwing up while her mate tenderly held her hand, and I was sitting very still in a folding chair concentrating hard on staying conscious.

Images of a race, I remember Burt.

The food line opened, and Burt and I started through. I believe it was the most elaborately abundant collection of food I’ve ever seen. It was not a fiesta; it was several; each tent was a fiesta unto itself. Here were local delicacies—curry goat, jerk chicken, whitefish—and a variety of cooked vegetables. Food of every description was kept warm over open flames, attended by chefs in white hats. One tent featured a table piled high with baked bread shaped like animals—squid, fish, snake, alligator….

From the total available, only a tiny sample was possible. I had primavera, seafood pasta, boiled dumplings, sliced tomatoes and fried eggplant. Sadly, that was all I could allow myself the night before a marathon.

Burt and I sat in folding chairs eating. A man with a gray goatee walked up and asked me if I was Burt Carlson—I’m pretty old, too. “No, but he’s right there,” I said pointing. He handed Burt a laminated copy of a page from the local paper, and walked away. Burt sat looking at it bemused—he hadn’t seen it until that moment. It was a story dated November—after Burt had registered for this year’s race. Twin headlines told the news—“Burt’s Coming Back”—and announced a profundity I wish I’d written: “The Human Body Was Made to Run.”

Next morning, the stroke of 5:15 would prove it.

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