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.


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)

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

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, 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 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.


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.