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.

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