Friday, December 9, 2011

New Book: Going Down Slow

My new book Going Down Slow is now available for purchase on Click Here

They don't yet have up the Editorial Reviews or the "Inside the Book" feature. Therefore, so that readers who are interested can browse the book a bit more, I'm including the Editorial Reviews and Contents below.


“A legendary runner and master storyteller has triumphed again…But the real victory belongs to the person who reads Going Down Slow…by Dallas Smith, one of the most remarkable athletes on the planet…Whether you’re an accomplished distance runner, [or] an around-the-block jogger…you won’t be able to put this book down. It’s that good…Much of his writing is pure poetry…” Corky Simpson, Green Valley News, AZ

“If Hemingway had been a runner his name would have been Dallas Smith. In his second book, Dallas shows that he is not a runner pretending to write but rather a gangsta of prose wrapping words smoothly around sweaty sneakers and singlets that make you feel as if you were there with him on his running escapades and tales of human compassion.” Joshua Holmes, CEO of Phoenix Publishing, founder of

“His M.O. combines the relentlessness of a Terminator with the gregariousness of a yearling Labrador retriever. The people he meets confess, vent, advocate, and otherwise reveal their most cherished convictions and thereby obtain a voice to the world…what Smith learns and imparts to the reader is often surprising.” Stan Lawrence, songwriter, mandolin and vocals, Music City Flyboys

“Competitive running probably satisfies many goals for Dallas Smith, but chief among them must be the opportunity to observe humanity in all of its colors and then tell stories about what he saw. It’s the small observations amid lofty thoughts that reveal the soul of this author. Beset with physical and emotional misery after a disappointing marathon in Stockholm, he finds the smile of a stranger brings joy and tenderness to the moment, an experience he links seamlessly to the writing of Saint-Exupery.” Michael Redding, Ph.D., Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, Tennessee Tech University

“Dallas Smith uses his keen observation ability and his endurance running skill to tell wonderful stories…” Diana Bibeau, president of Nashville Striders

“Pour yourself a big glass of wine, throw a few logs on the fireplace, and snuggle up in a comfortable chair. You are about to be entertained by the tales of a master storyteller… This latest compilation…is honest, poignant, and heartwrenching…” Amy Dodson, ultrarunner, two-time ITU World Paratriathlon Champion

“Dallas Smith is a masterful writer and storyteller, illuminating that whole range of passion that now thrills and now torments the human heart…” Charles Denning, former executive editor of Herald-Citizen, TN


Prologue—Daddy’s Blue Shoes

I. Turnaround

1. Turnaround
2. Punky Reggae Party
3. The Race No One Saw
4. On the Street Where You Live
5. Miracle on Fall Creek
6. The Best Marathon in the World
7. Twelve Gather for Supper

II. Spirits

8. Momma, Her Supper Table, Christmas
9. Tip Your Hat to These Two Women
10. Katie’s Angel
11. Prairie Chicken Capitol Redux
12. A Lonely Mesa, a Rude Visitor
13. What if a Neutrino Whacked Your Noggin?
14. Weather Report: Seville, Spain
15. The Editor Who Wanted Me to Write Stories
16. The Moment of Inertia
17. Iron Bill, Meet Queen Maeve
18. In My Father’s Garden

III. Pathos

19. I Could See the Midnight Sun
20. Porch Is Gone
21. The Way Angela Runs
22. Ironma’am
23. The Hunter’s Moon
24. Adventures in Paradise
25. Country Music Contrarian
26. Come Home, Hokie
27. I’ll Take Manhattan
28. One Day in Funkytown
29. Summer Heat Reveals Artifact of Marathon Man
30. The Mystery of Water

IV. Pilgrimage

31. She Threw Open Her Golden Gate
32. The Old Slugger Remembered the Long Balls
33. Nobody Wants to Crawl
34. Dispatches from El Camino
35. The Titan
36. Komen – Four Who Ran
37. Wretched Undead Hound the Haunted Half
38. A Special Guest at a Special Race
39. Fourteen Elite Fools
40. After the Flood


Appendix—My Winning Year


About the Author

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bad Enough To Be Good

It was bad enough to be good. I’m talking about my performance in the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, November 5. It is best to write about your bad runs and avoid the good ones. Then you won’t be accused of indulgence or self aggrandizement. So my performance was bad enough to be good enough to write about. Here goes then, a story full of excuses.

Which started the second night before the marathon, one of the days where you try to load up on carbohydrates. So my stepson, Derek, who lives in Indianapolis and who ran the half marathon, and I went to an Italian restaurant for spaghetti. Spaghetti with meat sauce. That means ground beef. It was a fateful choice.

You may assume ground beef contains cowshit. Cowshit in turn contains E. Coli, a powerful bacterium which will give you a bellyache and diarrhea. Unless, of course, it is thoroughly cooked.

We were not familiar with that particular restaurant, which shall go unnamed. An order of spaghetti there meant a whole bowl of the stuff, enough for three, and that’s what we both ordered. From each bowl, we ate enough for one, and took the rest back to Derek’s apartment for lunch the next day. We never ate that leftover spaghetti, because of what happened next. Derek and I soon began taking urgent turns going to the bathroom. We purged our systems. The helpful effect of all the carbos we should have gotten were thereby lost. Or so I reckon.

Next time I’ll have plain marinara sauce, maybe with mushrooms, but no ground beef.

Second issue. The weather forecast said the temperature at race time would be 33 degrees F. That turned out to be accurate. How to dress became the question. With my skinny frame I radiate heat readily, and get cold easily. Nonetheless I decided to go barelegged, with a long sleeved tee, a runner’s hat, and fleece gloves. I used a heavy throw-a-way flannel shirt to keep me warm while I waited in the corral for the start.

When the race started, I was still wearing that shirt. At sixteen miles I was still wearing it, still needing it. Forecast was for a sunny day. But the sunshine didn’t add much warmth for a good long while. Race started at 8 a.m., and sunrise came at 8:30 (Eastern Time Zone the day before time changed to Standard). The shade of the tall buildings early on and of shaded residential neighborhoods later kept the sun from hitting us. Even wearing the fleece gloves, my fingers nearly froze.

From the beginning my race was not good. By mile six or seven I was already working hard to maintain my planned pace, 7:40 per mile, a pace predicted by a half marathon I’d run just two weeks earlier on a hilly course—whereas the Indy course was flat. The first half of a marathon should be easy. If it’s hard, you know trouble is coming.

It did come. My mile times stretched out. I watched with detached and knowing interest.

Underneath the flannel shirt I had on my most colorful race uniform, a yellow Boston tee with bright blue trim and shorts of matching blue. Yellow shoes and yellow socks made me a bright runner. Nobody could’ve known that—photographers included—because of the flannel shirt, which covered my race bib and made me look like a homeless person. So I resolved to shed the flannel. It ain’t going to get any worse without it, I thought.

I ran up to a woman volunteer at the mile 17 water stop.

“I’m going to do a striptease right here if you’ll help me with the buttons.”

She laughed, and started in. “I can do that.”

“My fingers are too cold.”


“I’m donating a shirt to you. It’s like new.” I left her holding the shirt.

Looking professional is important, but it didn’t help my race. Mile times were by then hitting 8:30. Nine was coming, I was losing interest in the race. A jogging pace of 9:30 finally settled in. I didn’t care. Race had gone bust. I was just jogging it in.

After I turned the corned and headed down the stretch, the announcer was saying: “And how about Dallas Smith, 71 years old from Cookeville Tennessee!”

My net time turned out to be 3:44:49, twenty-three minutes longer than the 3:21 predicted by my recent half marathon, and twenty-one minutes longer than my Boston Marathon time of 3:23 seven months earlier.

Oh, the time was good enough to win first place in my decrepit age division. It was even good enough to beat the Tennessee State record for my age. But it was not good, not what I’d call good.

So be it. The marathon is an enigma, and I’ll never figure it out. Hit or miss, every time, it seems. Sometimes things go like I expect, other times not. It’s unpredictable, and I accept that. I think that’s why I like the distance.

Maybe the tainted food hurt my race, maybe it didn’t. Maybe I should have worn tights to keep my running muscles warm, but how can I know if that’s true.

On the other hand, I liked the city.

It occurs to me that you’ve probably never heard anyone say: “Hey, let’s take our vacation and spend a week in Indianapolis.” You can imagine that for New Orleans, or Miami, or even Nashville, say. The day before the marathon, I tweeted: “ The Colts and the 500 comes to mind, but what else is Indianapolis noted for?” Well, it turns out, a lot. The city has more soul than I’d realized.

Monuments are scatted throughout the city, hence the “Monumental” handle. The Indiana War Memorial is nothing short of majestic, especially the inside space where a sacred atmosphere prevails. Downtown, a grand mall of monuments and parks extends from the Courthouse north to the public library, a distance of maybe half a mile. Included are University Park; The Indiana War Memorial; the Bicentennial Mall, with its tall obelisk and fifty state flags; and finally Veterans Mall.

Central Canal runs through the city, decorated by plazas and pedestrian bridges and wide walks, a pleasant location for a casual stroll or a jog.

Crown Hill cemetery, the fourth largest civilian cemetery in the country, is where the poet James Whitcomb Riley is buried. His tomb occupies the top of the highest hill in the City and overlooks the city’s skyline. One could spend a day in that sprawling cemetery viewing the architecture of the mausoleums and grounds.

A Civil War Monument anchors the center of town, a tower 284 feet tall, just fifteen feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty; it overlooks the State Capitol to the west. State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is the precise name, but the lower level contains a Civil War exhibit. The tower sits on a cobblestone traffic circle 342 feet in diameter. Buildings facing the circle have curved fronts. The collection of monuments gives the city a European feel.

Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Indianapolis Colts football team plays, is just south of the Civil War monument. As Derek and I drove Pennsylvania Avenue toward downtown on Sunday after the race, Colts fans were swarming toward the stadium. “Winless or not, the Colts still have fans. We’re driving through them now,” I tweeted.

The marathon course winds its way past the various monuments. That makes for a scenic course. My performance was bad. But the Monumental Marathon is a good race, not bad like my run. I recommend it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Last Fish

The big salmon swims wearily back and forth in a pool no bigger than a pickup truck bed, curving a body long as my arm to make the turnarounds. He is all alone, and it is the end of the line. He has come back home, to the place where he started, finishing a journey that started here in this creek, a journey that first delivered him to a lake and eventually to a restless home in the Pacific; and now, years later, it has finally returned him to this little pocket of water, a place beyond which he cannot go. He swirls, probing the walls of his bleak prison, his last home.

My son Rory and I stand looking down enthralled. We’ve been searching for this salmon a while now. Driving up this valley north of Seward, Alaska on an August afternoon, we stopped to watch the spawning run in this stream, aptly named Salmon Creek. The road departed a short ways from the creek. We bushwhacked our way through blowdowns and stands of devil’s club to the creek and then worked our way up the stream—unconventional taper for the marathon I’d come so far north to run. We stomped around rather casually at first—until I realized we were in the presence of a bear food bonanza. We have become a bit more watchful now. As the stream grew smaller, Rory, who likes to get to the bottom of things, suggested that we continue upstream until we found the last fish, the very uppermost salmon.

And we have found him.

We are quite sure of that, although we are strangers to this country. Beyond this little pocket of water the creek, little more than a branch you can jump across anyway, climbs a series of step rocks coated by a mere film of water. The big sockeye can’t climb those steps, not at the present flow rate.

Twice below here we thought we’d found the last pool of fish. Each pool, already shallow, was headed by a gravelly shoal covered by a flowing skim of water so shallow a cat could wade it. But we watched in amazement as some of the determined fish, obeying an instinct hard to fathom, pushed on. Even with their bodies forced half out of the water, they managed to slide themselves across the gravel, plowing forward in furious, splashing bursts of effort. A few made it to the pool below this last one.

Only this fish has made it to here. His last hurdle was a barely submerged gravel bar topped by a dam of brush washed in and packed tight, barring the way. Somehow he made it; he is the strongest, the most able salmon of the lot. By reaching this most distant point he has proved himself the one most fit for survival, I reckon. Stranded alone now, he may be defeated by that very strength. Unless a mate eventually reaches this pool he will leave no offspring; the genes of the strongest fish will perish. The principle of survival of the fittest applies only to the population as a whole, not to an individual. It is as if he has won the race—and then been disqualified after the fact by virtue of his own superiority. There is room for hope. Maybe a worthy mate for the big fish will yet arrive. If so, then their offspring will be strong swimmers.

Road racing is primordial, I think, a lot like the sockeye run on Salmon Creek. At its most primitive level, it is about genes. That is to say, mating or mate selection. I suppose you could even say sex—a chance for every racer to display his genes, or her genes, a device for establishing an order, a grade, a ranking. You can scan down the list. The list doesn’t lie: the fast ones are on top, the slow ones are on the bottom and the ones in the middle are in the middle. The ranking is one of speed, of course. But in the hard-eyed view of selfish genes, it may also be seen as a ranking of mate suitability, still relevant today.

At the dawn of humankind, a race was an unnecessary and artificial device. The man who could run fast was the one who could get food, who could survive to mate and pass on his genes, who could offer a female the best chance of surviving and passing on her genes. He was the one who got the woman, for the simple reason that he was the one alive, and had a chance of staying that way. Finding a mate who can run down an antelope is no longer necessary to a woman’s survival. But her ancient genes don’t know that.

Other qualities have become more important to success in today’s world than running speed—intelligence, for example. You could argue that the sport’s importance has so diminished as to be scarcely relevant in this modern day. Nonetheless, we still hold races. And why? Because we want to. But why do we want to? Well, that was explained earlier—it connects us to our primeval origin.

Of course women race, too. Because their genes count, too. The sockeye run on Salmon Creek, after all, didn’t just include males. The females were there enduring the same hazards as the males, going as far as they could go. So women slug it out on the race courses, too. I’m glad they do. In the ultramarathons sometimes they beat the best men, their endurance being relatively better for the longer distances.

Now I find myself too old to chase money, glory, or women—the usual rewards of athletic excellence. Maybe even young I failed to measure up to those big three, although, at the very least I could have been a scholarship runner, getting some money—if not many women or much glory. Now, the big three fail to be a big factor.

Except for, well, maybe glory. During those days of 1999, when I made my first trip to Alaska, I held the idea that it would be glorious to run the Boston Marathon, to qualify for it, a race of so many legends. Glory on a geezer, like lipstick on a pig, fails its purpose. It only looks ridiculous. But no matter, I would be proud of that, I thought.

My chance for pride came without warning. Running through the drizzle of an August Sunday morning in an Anchorage marathon, I unexpectedly qualified for the Boston Marathon, leaving a cushion of 44 seconds. The race was called Humpy’s after a local alehouse whose name, in turn, honored the humpback salmon.

My life entered a new phase that day. A multi-year race odyssey exploded—one which eventually took in not one but four trips to Boston; one which finally spanned a spectrum of race distances from 800 meters up to 100-mile ultramarathons and 140.6-mile Ironman triathlons; one which included races staged in strange and wonderful places where I otherwise never would have gone; one which led to the writing of a personal column in the newspaper and in Running Journal; One which lead to this blog; one which has now led to the writing of two literary books (second one is in press) about running adventure.

One which led to the story you are now reading. Altogether, several years of stories. Each story is true. I recall Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg saying that he only tries to write what is there. That has been my policy, as well, write what is there, stick to the truth.

But I don’t write all the truth. Usually there is more of it there than I can write, or need to write. Most material, I throw away. Even if it is intensely important to me, if I judge it dull to read, it has to go. It’s my call, and sometimes my judgment itself has been dulled by the fire I’ve run through. I recall Hemingway saying something like you have to know ten times as much as you write. He knew.

I stand looking backwards, a practice, as a runner, I’ve always avoided. I won’t deny I’m proud of the stories I’ve written. I believe a few might stand up in a literary magazine—which is a bit immodest of me.

Stories continue to unfold. Some I’ll write. But other projects are calling. I’m still heading upstream—we all are—having not yet reached that perfect last place. Fall, the best season, will come around again. It always does. But I wish you an October sky every month and a shady lane in the country where fallen leaves skitter along the pavement when you breeze by and a creek burbles beside the road with water’s old promise of fish and bread, of food and life, of hope, abiding hope. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ultrarunner Albino Jimenez Continues Across Spain

Spanish ultrarunner Albino Jimenez continues his run across Spain on el Camino de Santiago, the Trail of Saint James. His route started at his home in Burgos, Spain and goes west. He has some 329 miles total to run to reach Santiago de Compostela, the location of the tomb of Saint James, 54 more miles if he continues on to Fisterra, the actual end of land. His daily stages range from 30 to 40 miles, and it should take him around 10 days to complete the run.

As of this writing, he has completed three stages, distances of 44, 38 and 35 miles, and is currently spending the night at Leon. He runs alone and without support. Heat seems to be the main challenge. He reports highs ranging in the upper eighties, 88 on the 3rd stage.

As his run unfolds, I’ll tweet his progress from my twitter account at @smithbend, and post his progress on my Facebook page. Albino is posting his progress on his Facebook page as well.

Part city streets, part dirt path, El Camino stretches across northern Spain, from Spain’s border with France in the east to Santiago in the west, and 54 miles beyond, to the ocean at Fisterra. That town marks not only the end of land, as the name says, but was, in the old days, the very end of the World itself. Pilgrims have followed the ancient path for over a thousand years in order to visit the tomb of Saint James at Santiago.

With this effort, Albino continues the run he and I attempted two years ago, in the summer of 2009. We started at St. Jean, France then and crossed the Pyrenees Mountains on the first day. A triple-digit heat wave settled on Northern Spain then nearly ruining our health and forcing us to abandon the run at Burgos, Albino’s hometown. The narrative of that run can be read on my blog at:

Following this run, Albino will travel to the USA, arriving in Nashville on August 6th. He expects to run the Blister in the Sun Marathon at Cookeville, Tennessee on Sunday, August 7th, imparting an international flavor to the second running of that race.


Starting here, I'll edit the blog each day to reflect the recent stage.

6/29/11. stage 5, Astorga to Ponferrada, 33 miles. This brings the total miles since Albino left Burgos to 179. I'll let Albino tell you about the stage in his own words sent from his mobile device:

"Hi Dallas, i have finished stage 5 that goes from Astorga to Ponferrada (33 miles and 7.55 hours to do it). Way much cooler and heat has been replaced with hills going from 900 m above sea level (2950 ft) to 1500 m (4920 ft) and coming down to 600 m (1968 ft). No more wheatfield either but pinetrees and wild vegetation instead.

well, i guess it is time to rest to be ready for tomorrow. I am so close to Santiago that i feel that i have no right now to fail. However, you know how hard this is.

Thanks for your support!!!"

6/30/11. stage 6, from Ponferrada to O Cebreiro, 34 miles. This brings his total number of miles to about 213. Today he climbed around 3,100 ft. Here are his comments on today's stage:

"Stage 6 led me to Galicia. I am in O Cebreiro, with a hard climb from 1500 ft to almost 4600 ft. Distance was 34 miles and 9.40 hours. Tired but just roughly 90 miles to go to Santiago.

Dallas, i am awfully tired, buddy!


7/1/11. Stage 7, from O Cebreiro to Portomarin, 39 miles. He has now run a total of 252 miles. He has two more days of running to reach his target, Santiago. Today's challenges included hills, heat and shin pain. He says he is ready for a sports massage. Albino's report:

"stage 7, i reached Portomarin after 11 hours and 7 min for a distance of 39 miles. Hills, heat, shin pain that made me walk for intervals. Today i staying at 90K (almost 53 miles) from target."

7/2/11. Stage 8, from Portomarin to Arzua, 33 miles, 285 miles since leaving Burgos eight days ago. Albino is just 22 miles from Santiago now. He should see Saint James Tomorrow - his tomb anyway. It's increbibly hard to run 35 miles day after day. His e-mail gives the sense of that:

"stage 8. I made into a mile over Arzua leaving roughly 22 miles for tomorrow. Total distance for today 33 miles and 10 hours and a half. Pace is painfully slow. I learnt how to say 'you are crazy' other than spanish and english, in french, portuguese, italian, german, japanese and galizian plus other languages that i could not tell which one they were.

Dallas, i am done! 22 miles seems to me like a 100!!"

But I believe and hope he has 22 more miles in him. ¡Buena suerte, amigo!

7/3/11. Stage 9, Albino has finished! He is in Santiago!

Today's stage covered 23 miles, bringing his total mileage to approximately 309, since he left Burgos nine days ago.

It is a very great achievement, where he faced heat, hills and shin pain. Merely saying congratulations seems insufficient. He held the dream of making that run for a long time, and I can only imagine his joy at finishing it.

His e-mail reached me at 6:35 a.m., which was 1:35 p.m. Santiago time. His joy comes through:

"stage 9...SANTIAGO!!! Buddy, we made it. It was a cloudy and cool day, perfect for a run. I did the 23 plus miles in 5 hours and 54 minutes. It is not a good timing but i can tell i felt like heading to the barns like they say. Well, we did it Dallas!!! Thanks for all your support!!!

Muchas gracias amigo mio. Buen camino!!!"

The last phrase is one you hear a lot if you go on that trail. It is appropriate, indeed.

¡Buen Camino, Amigo!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Race Bandits Run Again

Photos 2 and 3:


From the Herald-Citizen, March 23, 2008.


We sit on Madrid’s Plaza Mayor drinking beer and eating blood sausage, Albino and I. My overnight flight into Madrid arrived this Saturday morning. Albino drove down to meet me from his home in Burgos, a city in the mountains 150 miles north of here. After walking around Madrid a bit, we’ve landed here. It is a little chilly but pleasantly sunny this February afternoon. We sit at a table outside, the busy plaza spread before us.

Sharing our table are Belen and Yeya, two young women Albino called a few minutes ago. They are his age, which is half my age. I’m too sleepy to care about that, having missed a night’s sleep on the plane. We order another round of beer, another plate of tapas. Belen puffs Marlboros, Ducados for Yeya. The marathoners abstain.

You could argue that Albino and I ought to not be here. We are scheduled to run the Barcelona Marathon. We should be resting, saving our energy for the big show. But then that’s not until next weekend. Meanwhile, we have business here.

Tomorrow is the third annual Media Maratón de Latina de Madrid, a half marathon, a race 13.1 miles long. And we plan to run that, too, whether I wake up or not.

After two rounds of beer and tapas we quit Plaza Mayor and wander narrow cobblestone streets, ending up at Sanlúcar, a bar that plays flamenco music Albino discovered a few weeks ago. We order another round of tapas and beer. I opt for Coke, playing it safe.

Lacking castanets Yeya claps her hands to the flamenco, little quick pats. Two men and a striking blond woman sit at the table next to ours. A toddler, a little girl, dances beside them. Yeya encourages her. The air is dense with smoke and fast music. Yeya strikes up a conversation with the blond woman, the toddler’s mother. Albino tells me that she is an actor on Madrid TV.

More beer comes to our table, more Coke for me. Yeya keeps clapping. The toddler gets tired of dancing and stands looking up at Yeya through dark, baleful and earnest eyes. Yeya gets up and shows her how to dance, swaying her body, feeling the music. She tosses her hair, pulses her lips and cuts hooded eyes at us, clapping to the music.

The party rages until I lose count of the rounds of beer—maybe six, maybe more. My suppertime comes, and I realize I didn’t have lunch, just the tapas. Anyway sleep trumps food. My jet lag shows. Albino leans over and says, “We need to get you back to the hotel so you can rest for supper.” Belen’s car is nearby and she offers to drive us. We amble along, looking for the car.

Yeya sides up to me and asks in English, “How are you, Dallas?”

“Muy Bien.”


It’s a lie; I’m not very well.

After the long drive to Arturo Soria Suites, I feel indebted to Belen. I take her hand.

“Tú eres tan amable,” I say. “Thou are so kind.”

I turn to Yeya to tell her too. She beats me to the draw. “Thou also.”

“Tú tambien,” I repeat.

I hug Yeya and brush both cheeks, the same for Belen, then turn away, likely to never see them again, and follow Albino into the hotel.

I hit the sack at six o’clock, skipping supper. Albino leaves to meet friends. Down on me crashes the paradox of jet lag: an overwhelming fatigue capped by an ironic inability to sleep. I lie wide awake, awake. Albino returns around midnight and I am still awake. We chat. Soon he is quietly asleep. I continue my sleepless night.

Morning comes. At 7:30 a.m. Albino raises up. I am already awake.

“It’s late,” he says.

He’s right, if we plan to make the 10 o’clock race start.

I sit on the bed, knees propping elbows, miserable all over. No real sleep two nights in a row, and no lunch or supper yesterday. I hate the very thought of running and sit wondering if there’s an honorable way out. But it’s hopeless. I know that. My sport admires misery, and rewards suffering.

To win, you have to suffer, and to run as hard as you can takes great suffering. You try to out suffer the next guy. He knows how to suffer too. If you are fast enough, and if you suffer enough, you will earn the first place award, a trophy that honors suffering.

Hoping to skip this race is vain fantasy. You can’t quit in the face of misery. If there was any doubt, Albino squashes it like a scurrying roach. He opens the window and samples the air.

“It’s cold and it’s raining.”

More misery. That cinches it. Suit up. One step at a time.

I pull on running shorts, a long-sleeved tee and grab gloves, and I slip on a warm-up suit for the subway ride. Then I mix some powdered skim milk in a hotel glass and choke down a Snickers Marathon bar. Thus goes breakfast.

The subway trip across town to the Latina District takes twenty stops and one transfer. We ride along. Time drags on. Albino sits opposite me. He glances at his watch.

“We’re not gonna make it.”

That opinion stirs me none at all. There is nothing to be done. The train will reach our stop in time or it won’t. If it does, there’ll be another step. Until then I ignore my watch.

Of course the train arrives in time, with thirty minutes to spare. Disembarking, we follow other runners who had accrued to the train.

We search for Angel, one of Albino’s Madrid friends. He has his car at the race site, and that’s where we plan to lock our warm-up clothes, wallets and keys during the race. We not only find Angel but also Jorge and Eduardo, two more friends. We all lock our stuff in Angel’s car. Streets are wet, light rain falling, and the temperature is forty-five degrees. You hate giving up the warm clothes.

We are bandits. The race reached its 3,000 limit of runners before we applied, and so we couldn’t get an official bib number to compete. We will run it like thieves, shamelessly stealing the volunteers’ work, the gifts of water and food, traffic control, all.

Banditry becomes a blessing. I don’t have to run hard; I use the race for training. Albino and I decide to stay together, and I settle into my marathon pace, which is naturally slower and easier than my half-marathon pace.

It’s fitting that Albino and I run together today, a sort of commemoration. It was this month five years ago when we met. That was in a different half marathon, not here in Madrid but in the little town of Burns, Tennessee. He pulled up beside me. I was running too hard that day to talk, but we chatted briefly. He said he was from Seville, Spain. I wasn’t sure I’d heard that right, but I had. He’d been in the USA then only a month and was living in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

He was thirty-one and I was sixty-two at the time. Despite that age difference we became friends, a rare friendship spanning two generations. I wanted to help him make friends in his new home. After the race that day I introduced him to a couple of pretty women. I needed not worry. Soon he developed a circle of friends around Nashville, a town that became his spiritual home.

Three months later he invited me to his thirty-second birthday at his house in Hopkinsville. The tables had turned. It was now I who met new friends, including the beautiful Luz Maria and singer songwriter Stan Lawrence, who brought his guitar and sang for us that day.

Four years later Albino’s job took him to Michigan. After a year there it moved him again, this time to the mountains of northern Spain, far away from Seville, much further still from Nashville, the two cities he loves.

This day we run side by side in the cold drizzle, through crowded wet streets and along curving roads through green parks. I have no idea where we are. On a hill Albino gets tired. His job has kept him from training well.

“If you need to speed up, go ahead,” he says. I laugh and hug his shoulders.

“Speed up? Speed up? Man, I don’t need to speed up! I’m staying with you.”

A mile from the finish line Angel stands on the curb. He has finished the race already, and jogged back along the course to find us. He runs beside us just long enough to pin his bib number on Albino’s chest. Now Albino can cross the finish line, wearing a number nobody will know is not his. To theft, add fraud and conspiracy. We only laugh.

After the race we converge on Angel’s car, Jorge, Eduardo, Albino and I. Angel holds a bundle out to me. “For you,” he says. It is the red tee shirt all official finishers receive. Somehow he has wrangled one for the bandit. Printed on the front is the logo: "3 a Media Maratón de Latina." I didn’t officially cross the finish line, but I ran the distance. I’ll wear the shirt all right.

A bar is just a few steps away. A bar is always just a few steps away. Today is Angel’s birthday; following custom, he buys a round of beer for everyone. Except that I have coffee. I can’t get warm, even with my dry clothes on. My hands are in shock, a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome. The fingers go numb and turn the pale color of death. Only the application of heat can reverse the condition. Through my gloves no one can see the unsightly pallor. I sit with my fingers wrapped around the warm coffee cup and hold my secret close.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lone Runner on a Long Road

From the Running Journal, April, 2011.

The lonely miles stretch through the long night. It is nearing midnight, and I’ve been running seventeen hours; I have seven more to go if I’m going to turn in a respectable time for a 100-mile distance. Around three dozen of us are strung out along dirt roads on this out-and-back course across the Kansas prairie.

So widely spaced are we, no runner’s light is visible to the front or back. Vehicles and houses are rare. I run alone, as I like to do. No human turns me from what I want to see and hear, or alters the thoughts I think.

The running has affected my sight. I can distinguish shapes but details are quite blurry—the Heartland 100-cum-American Impressionism.

I stop in the road and stand looking at the heavens—all blurry, the moon and stars. I turn out my light to sky gaze better. The moon is a fat crescent and will set long before I finish this race. A few clouds to the south glow translucent around the edges, outlined by the moon’s backlighting. There’s nothing here but the wind, the prairie, and me. This road may not see a car all day long. The view is marred by blinking light beacons on the horizon, visible across impossible distance in this open space. They annoy me, and I’d like to snuff them out.

I turn eastward, gazing skyward. In the corner of my eye, suddenly I see a dark figure lunge at my back. It’s too late! Instinctively I spin around to face the assault, fumbling with the light switch. The light flashes.

The beam blasts the intruder into the cosmic ether.

Gathering myself, I make a discovery. It’s my shadow, my moon shadow, nothing else. I stand looking stupidly at the figure in the road, its menacing darkness unwelcome in my post fright. I aim my light at it, blasting the wicked thing in two; the bright spot vaporizes its heart. I kill it at will and just as easily resurrect it. Turn the light away; the shadow lives again, none the worst for its recent death. It exists on my whim. I play God.

Baloney! It’s only a shadow. Granting full pardon, I turn my back and trot on. My benevolence is large, my study of the heavens finished. The run remains.

The synthetic world presses in, an unwelcome intrusion. Strobe lights and rotating beacons flash their warning, “tower here.” Some blink in clusters, like a field of towers—somebody cultivating the ugly invaders like photonic corn. I see cities, too, sprawling light clumps on the distant horizon, spreading a glow into the prairie night. It’s a panoramic surplus of light, an orgy of photons. Perspective lost to the dark makes the lights seem close. They are…just…right there. You aren’t lost, they say to the runner. This is a cozy place, a small space, after all. Just pick a light and go to it. There’s an easy way out.

But I’m not buying it. The reality is the prairie; the illusion is the lights. Those lights lie; they are a long way away. I didn’t see those towers during the day. How far away?—twenty, thirty, forty miles? Who knows; take your pick. It’s all the same to one on foot—a long way to anywhere. It’s an illusion, diminishment of the prairie by those lights. They don’t diminish the prairie; they diminish me. And mock my efforts to cross it. The prairie is real, austere; it doesn’t care. Let the lights blink. These prairie hills are made of flint, a hard rock that wears slowly, abides long. The wind blows across them, the coyotes howl, and prairie chickens cluck to their chicks each spring. The prairie is true; the lights are false. I chose the prairie and curse the lights. Damn the lights.

A pack of coyotes starts up on a hill to my left—yelping, barking, howling, yodeling squalls, everyone singing his part. The outcry could be mourning at a funeral, or rather a celebration of the coming Hunter’s Moon. I don’t know; the language is primal, not understood by me. There is the sudden nearby sound of hoofs pounding. A couple of nervous horses running away, maybe spooked by my light, wary this Saturday night. The canine singing continues. Soon a lone coyote answers from the right. The loner and the pack conduct a call-and-answer serenata across the road. Coyotes are pack animals. The lone one can't be too happy about being alone. I leave them to their coyote concerns and run on, passing out of hearing.

But the coyote action is not yet finished. Soon another one starts up near me, just to the right. The sound is pathetic and lonely. No one answers; he is alone. He squalls out agonized cries, formless screams of misery and pain. No one helps him. He cries alone in the night.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Miracle on Fall Creek

Photo by Monte Lowe
Say you eclipse five state records in one race; say they were yours to begin with; say you run a 15K at 5K pace. Then you try to explain it. But you can't explain it. It sounds like a lie, but it is true. So you end up calling it a miracle. What else could anybody call it? You might as well put that word in the title, too.

I reprised this race again on Saturday, just four days ago, but not with the miraclous results of that earlier time. At Saturday's start, Running Journal magazine with this story in it had just appeared. That timing was no accident.

From Running Journal, March, 2011.


March comes around, too, just like October, the two months linked like a bridge in my runner’s mind—one edging into the gloom of winter, the other heralding the bright breakout from it. Today it is March I’m thinking about.

It’s hard to get it right when you tell a story like this. You end up looking like a puffed-up fool if you aren’t careful how you say it. Despite that danger, this story needs telling. It comes from astonishment, wild, exuberant amazement, not puffery.

There are times I’ve been broken by races. I’ve told those stories just the same. Maybe I’ve earned the right to tell one about success. Ironically, it’s easier to write about failure—little chance for conceit there. Runners are generous people; if old devil pride rears his ugly head, forgive me.

I ran a miracle race.

It happened in the Fall Creek Thaw 15K at Fall Creek State Park one Saturday morning in March. That race is the last of the Tennessee State Park Running Tour, a grand prix of then-fifteen races. On that 9.32-mile course I ran a time of 62:29, finishing eighth overall. And I want to tell it to somebody who knows something about running. Or anybody who’ll listen.

That finishing time, alone and of itself, is of little note. Until you learn that Porch Patrol, the tan Shar-Pei that lived with us then had recently celebrated his 64th birthday—in equivalent human years—and mine would follow just three months later. Marching into codgerhood, Porch and I were.

So I was already old, and I ran a pretty good 15K. But that’s not the miracle.

The course was kissed by nature, especially so on that morning. Hard rains overnight had downed the trail along the last 1.3 miles. Flowing runoff and stretches of standing water covered portions, sometimes two or three inches deep. I splashed through like a kid in a puddle. My shoes grew leaden, taking on all the water they could hold.

Nature carved a pretty rough course to begin with. Miles 2-5 snake across steep rollers clinging to the rim of the gorges carved by Piney Creek and Cane Creek. Mile 6 spans a steady one-mile-long climb that adds 40 extra seconds. Then you enter a twisting trail that winds through the woods.

So the course is hard, and I ran a pretty good race. But that’s not the miracle.

I was just putting in time that morning. The race meant nothing. It came at the end of a week of high-mileage marathon training. I knew the race wouldn’t change my grand prix points total, since only the best eight races are counted and I’d already won eight: I’d already clinched the Senior Division and couldn’t be upset. Going in, I was four pounds too heavy. I didn’t need anything, didn’t expect much, didn’t care much.

The miracle fully emerged later when I examined the race details embedded in my split times. At the 3-mile mark came a PR. I was six seconds ahead of my pace in a 5K I’d run just the previous Saturday, where I had set a single-age state record of 19:45. At four miles came another PR, 38 seconds better than my last four-mile race, also a state record. At five miles another PR, an eight-second improvement over a record I’d recently set. That trend continued. At the 10K point—interpolating—I was nearly a minute ahead of my 10K PR.

Finally, when I splashed to the finish line I was six seconds ahead of my last 15K, a state record I’d set on the supremely flat Shelby Bottom Boogie course in Nashville. Since the Fall Creek course was certified, I would eventually get official credit, thus breaking my own 15K record.
All those PRs mentioned refer to official state records for a certain 63-year old male runner: me. Dismissing, now, all the annoying—but necessary—numbers, in their aggregate the miracle emerges:

I outran five state records in one race. And those five records were mine to begin with.

I had set each one within the last seven months, running the best I could at that time. In one pyrotechnic blast I shattered them all.

How could such a run happen? You don’t run a 5K pace in a 15K race. It violates a principle of running that racers know down to their toes—the longer the race, the slower the pace.

If gravity suddenly reverses, the furniture falls against the ceiling, the house rips out its foundation and tumbles into infinite space—a startling violation of our expectations. Of course, a principle of running doesn’t hold the same gravitas as a law of nature.

Still...the run astonishes. I can’t explain it, and I didn’t expect it. Was it the shredded wheat I had for breakfast? The coffee?—maybe I need more next time. I don’t know....

Was the race a breakthrough or just a fluke? What did it portend for the Tom King Half Marathon coming up the very next Saturday? For the races following that? Had I used up all my luck in one explosive blast, I wondered?

There was this I did know about the miracle 15K. It wasn’t hard. I blew around the course, silently singing Liz Johnson’s “Blue Prelude,” without myself being the least bit blue. At the 1-mile mark I saw my split, 6:13, and I thought: I got the juice! Set the throttle, hang on.

It was about that easy. And after it was over, I wasn’t tired. My marathon training demanded a 20-mile total that day. To get that mileage I ran around the course again.

The second time I looked at the scenery.

March rolled on, as it always does, as the year always does. I duly ran the Tom King Half Marathon I’d worried about and posted a time of 1:29:21, which was also a state record. And I celebrated the birthday I couldn’t evade. By the end of the year, I’d run 24 races and officially set 12 single-age state records, three times officially breaking my own record.

If my saying that is immodest, forgive me. I felt like it ought to be mentioned.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Old Slugger Remembered the Long Balls


Photos, Courtesy of Charles Reece

Top: (l to r); standing; James (Kaiser) Reece, Gar Agee, Gathel Franklin, Carl Smith, James (Towser) Hewitt; Squatting or sitting; Hugh McCall, Glen Ribinson, Draper (Spoodle) Sircy, Billy Armistead, Dow (Preacher) Smith, Bobby Hugh McCall, Albert Monroe (Uncle Bud) Witcher.

Bottom: Kaiser Reece at bat in Carthage, TN


You see them at funerals, elders of the community you hardly knew. When you were growing up they were older and you knew who they where but you never knew them in person. Your parents did, and through them to you the thread was spun.

My Aunt Lexie McCormick had died. I liked her very much. She’d worked hard her whole life without ever gaining much property. Her wealth was in the love she held for her children. She was a kind and patient woman. Long-suffering seems to run in the family. I think it yet finds expression in my endurance pursuits. I’d mailed her a copy of my first book, as a complete surprise for her. A voracious reader, she read the whole thing very quickly. The book was about endurance racing, an entire world that must have seemed strange to her. But that didn’t matter. Although she could barely hear well enough to have a conversation on the phone, she called me up to tell me how much she liked it and how surprised she was. No one could have given me a better review. A final gift, her wake led me to a story I would never have otherwise found.

I walked into the funeral chapel at Carthage where her family was receiving friends before the funeral. There sat Kaiser Reece in an armchair against the back wall next to the door. The funeral director greeted me, motioned at Kaiser and said, “Do you know this man?”

Kaiser lived in Smith County on Salt Lick Creek up creek from a community called Gladdice. I had grown up on Salt Lick Creek down creek from Gladdice, in the Smith Bend community of Jackson County. We’d been neighbors in that long ago time when I was a kid.

Kaiser stood medium height, stocky and as sturdy as a hickory stump. Although he was pushing 80, you would take him as a formidable man, and as much younger. We shook. His hand was thick and strong. It had swung a bat like a sickle. A life of farm work had added rough calluses.

I sat in an armchair at right angles to his and we talked. Being 14 years younger than he, when I was growing up I’d barely known Kaiser. But there was a question I wanted to ask him.

“I know you were a good baseball player when you were a young man,” I said. “I heard someone say—I don’t know who it was, I think it was when I was real young—that Kaiser Reece hit the longest home run they ever saw at Gladdice.”

“I hit one that went 16 corn rows.” He was talking about he corn rows beyond the outfield.

“Next time I came up I hit one that went 18 corn rows. Both times the bases were loaded.”

“Bases were loaded?”

“Yeah. They walked Carl and loaded the bases.”

He was referring to Carl Smith, a strong hitter who later played professional baseball. They’d been afraid to pitch to him. Kaiser continued.

“Jargo was playing center field. He said, ‘You’ve messed up now. He’s a good hitter.’”

Jargo Flatt was a loud-talking outfielder raised in Gladdice, but he played for the visitors. He knew Kaiser and knew he could hit the ball out. And Kaiser had, going 16 rows into the cornfield behind the outfield.

Next time Kaiser came up, the visitors, still ignoring their center fielder, pitched around Carl Smith again to bring up Kaiser. This time center fielder Jargo Flatt must have looked on with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. He’d tried to tell them. He could only watch as the ball flew over, heading back to the cornfield and going 18 rows deep.

“It was in the playoffs. We were playing Rock City.”

Rock City was a community west of Carthage, near Rome. Kaiser had hit two back-to-back grand slams against them. His dingers crushed the snakebit team.

“After that, they quit and went home,” Kaiser said.

Sitting there in the funeral chapel that day, I failed to ask Kaiser what the score was at that point, or even in what innings he had hit the homers. With two swings of the bat he alone had put up eight runs for Gladdice. Little wonder Rock City went home.

The incident happened during the late forties, I figure. My dad was a baseball player, too, a pitcher. I was born in 1940 and I can barely remember him playing. Daddy was around 11 years older than Kaiser, and so Kaiser’s peak playing years would have come correspondingly later.

In those years, neighboring communities like Difficult, Defeated, Gladdice and so on fielded baseball teams. Baseball playing was important to a young man, a way to prove his worth. Families turned out to watch the games on Sunday afternoons. That was their entertainment.

My question had started Kaiser remembering long balls. “They may have been talking about that one I hit up at Celina. It was long.” At Celina there had not been corn rows to count. Kaiser looked away to the front of the chapel as if still seeing the Celina ball sail away.

“That ball… That ball… Left there,” he said finally.

“They said I struck out 14,” Kaiser continued, revealing his position as pitcher. “I beat Don Cook three to two.”

“Don Cook!”

“He was pitching…”

“I know Don Cook! I still see him around Cookeville. He played basketball at Tennessee Tech. He played baseball, too?”

“He was the pitcher,” Kaiser said.

“His family, you know, came from Gladdice. Pete Cook, you know,” I said.

“Yeah, Pete Cook,” Kaiser said, nodding.

Then he drifted away from Don Cook and the Celina game, still pondering long homers.

“Billy Armistead hit the longest ball I ever saw at Monterey. He was playing for Baxter. You remember Billy Armistead?” he asked.

“Uh…yeah. They lived where Carl Smith used to live,” I answered.

That house in Smith Bend somehow engendered baseball spirit. Two outstanding players had lived there. It stands yet, a quarter-mile east of the Smith Bend Methodist Church and Margie Agee, a high school classmate of mine lives there.

“That’s right,” Kaiser said. “Billy hit the longest ball I ever saw hit there (Monterey). There was a light pole in centerfield. It hit two-thirds of the way up and bounced back in.”

“Yeah, they lived where Carl Smith used to live,” I mused. “Carl Smith was a pretty good baseball player too, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, he played professional ball. He and [unknown] went up at the same time. [unknown] stayed, but Carl came back. They played in that league….”

Here, Kaiser couldn’t remember the name of the league but told me it had included Nashville, Atlanta and Chattanooga.

“I think it was called the Sally league,” I offered. I seemed to remember a league called the Southern-something that had had the nickname “Sally.” Undecided, we dropped the name quest. Kaiser continued.

“Carl was a good player, but he came back. He was such a hothead they couldn’t do anything with him.”

I remember him vaguely, a big, intimidating man, all the more fearsome because he was totally bald. Kaiser reflected on Carl’s hitting strength, the man Rock City had twice walked to get to Kaiser. He told me this about Carl Smith’s brief pro career:

“They said ever time you hit a home run you got a new pair of shoes. I heard that when Carl came back he had 14 pairs of new shoes.”

New shoes for a home run, a modest bonus—these were old times, old ways. Baseball was different then.

Don Cook, the pitcher Kaiser was so proud of defeating at Celina, was elected to the Tennessee Tech Hall of Fame. You can see his picture lined up with all the other honorees overhead in the concourse of Hooper-Eblen Center, hanging there today. He forever holds a basketball, poised to shoot.

In fact, you can see Don Cook himself. Go to a basketball game and check the first row behind the Tech bench. You’ll find him there still enjoying the game he played so well. We know now he also pitched baseball.

The mystery man, who played professional ball with Carl Smith? His name slipped by me that day when Kaiser told his story at Aunt Lexie’s wake. I’d planned to ask Kaiser who it was, but I didn’t bump into him again. Now it’s too late. Kaiser died a short while later, at the age of 81, in March, the season of spring training.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Crazy Zigzag Course

(A) Concrete canyon; (B) Flower garden in Riverside Park; (C) Spreading gravel on a dog run.


Sierra Cub members doing grunt work on New York's Riverside Park. For free. That's what it was. But one of them was a runner. He took off to Central Park.


They will scarcely notice if I go running. The 23 others are like strangers. I only met them Sunday night, which was the eve of Memorial Day, and now it is Thursday. Lee and Willard (I’ve changed names), two of my roommates at the hostel, know I’m going. They’ll hardly raise a panic if I don’t return, none of their worry.

“Screw it! He’s a grown man, he knew what he was doing,” they’ll say.

Willard is an educated bubba from Arkansas. He despises Republicans and defies anybody bossing him around. “Let me see your supervisor’s licenses,” he demands.

Lee is a Navy retiree is from Pensacola given to blurting out strangely irrelevant statements in a rapid-fire mumble nobody can understand. “I don’t know what the hell Lee’s talking about half the time,” Willard told me one day. “I think, ‘What was that Lee said! Man, I need to clean out my ears.’”

Brad, my other roomie, is from Utah. His hobby is dirt bike racing. He combines motorcycles with cardiology, his day job. He sports a shiny pate on top and a ponytail in the back.

He never talks. It’s hard to guess what he knows. Damned if I see how he finds his way around anyone’s heart—he barely finds his way down the sidewalk, always holding the group up one way or another: showing up late, forgetting his subway card, wandering off to nobody knows where.

“I’d leave his ass,” Willard says. He would too.

Presenting, then, the cast and setting: four misfits stuffed in a tiny room on New York’s Upper West Side, all, more or less, trying to be agreeable.

For now, the day’s work is done, and I’m going running. So I stuff my credit card, room key and four folded $100 bills in my key pocket and set out. Except for the key, I don’t need those things, but I can’t leave them in the hostel for roving thieves.

From Amsterdam at West 103rd Street I head east, through Frederick Douglass Houses, a high-rise project spanning two blocks. I hit Central Park West and duck into the park itself.

I run past the bench where I’d lunched Sunday, just after arriving in town. I didn’t have a room then, but I’d stowed my bags in one of the hostel’s lockers, two bucks for 24 hours. I’d walked over to the park, stopping at a bodega for a candy bar and a Gala apple, and picked up a hot dog from a street vendor.

I’d sat on the bench wielding my K-Bar folder, slicing wedges off the Gala, the only apple suitable for human consumption in my book. Woman from New Jersey walks up. “Where are the restrooms?” she asks. I swear. I hadn’t been there twenty minutes, and here comes a woman asking directions. Did I look like a bored New Yorker dawdling away his Sunday?

“I just got in town,” I said. “I don’t know where they are. If we were in Tennessee, I could point you to a tree.”

Restrooms? I couldn’t advise her. I’m a stranger here. I didn’t even know what I was going to do next.

Remembering, I run past that bench now and head on across the park, passing baseball fields. A rock outcropping rises up from the grass. Young woman with a laptop sits on top, practicing an expression of languid boredom. Pretty, young and alone, perched on a rock, like a bluebird on a stump.

It’s not a long jog across. The park is only half a mile wide. I hit Fifth Avenue and hesitate, wondering whether to exit the park, or stay on a path. After all, my secret is I know where I’m going: I plan to circle the park’s upper side. I can do that within or without the parapet wall. I decide to stay inside the park, on the paths.

Helen will notice if I’m not back for supper, I bet. “Where’s Dallas?” she’ll ask. Ours fates entwined strangely that first day, last Sunday.

Two dozen Sierra Club members arrived at the International Youth Hostel, planning to bunk there and do some work on Riverside Park. Our leader, Brooklyn native Jerry Balch, had made room assignments, four persons to each room. He hadn’t known me except through correspondence.

He thought I was a woman.

Something I’d said in e-mail. I noticed his reply had been quite friendly. I discovered his error Sunday when I asked him why I was assigned to a room with three women.

“I thought you were a woman,” he said.

Well, I’m not. My white beard helped convince him. But he didn’t know what to do about the room. He dreaded changing everything.

“Just make out tonight…” he told me, and then trailed off, suggesting he’d think about it later.

I lugged my bags up the stairs to room 425, dropped my key in the slot and let myself in. The surprised women in the room saw their new bunkmate and started laughing. They thought it was so very funny. I didn’t know how to take that.

We talked. They told me Helen’s sad story. Before my de jure sex change, Helen had been an extra female, and Jerry had assigned her to bunk with three men in 410. That suggested a swap. I skedaddled around to 410 and knocked on the door. There I found Willard and Helen unpacking their bags.

I made my proposal—that Helen and I swap rooms. A wide smile spread across her face. It was deliverance for her. She had already resigned herself to bunking with three men.

“You could tell Helen was nervous, but she was determined to suck it up and make the best of it,” Willard told me later.

That night at supper we put on name tags so we could learn who everyone was. On her tag, Helen had written: “Helen, ‘friend of Dallas.’”

If I fail to return from this run, Helen will notice.

Skirting along the upper park border at 110th Street now. Given that I started at 103rd Street this won’t be a long run. Three miles will be O.K., and it looks like that’s how it might work out once I return.

A lake on my left, two little kids squatting at the edge squinting at something on the ground. Maybe they caught a fish, or maybe it’s just a tadpole. Kids love messing around water.

There are fish here in the middle of Manhattan. My jog takes me past another small lake. I know bass live in there. I saw one on top a few days ago. Guy was pointing it out to a passerby. A few casts of my ultra light…

And I saw a bucket of bullfrogs at a fish market in Chinatown. There were a dozen or more sitting quietly in three inches of water at the bottom of their jail. They couldn’t remember how to croak. They sat silent, like church was going to start.

I finish my jog in time for a shower, supper and a ride downtown to catch the Emerson String Quartet.

Friday rolls around, and we quit Riverside Park early. Which fact causes me to once again find myself jogging across Central Park, this time intending to circle the lower park, a longer route than yesterday’s was.

I jog across the park like yesterday, hit the east side and head south. That is, I get close to the east side. As before, I decide to stay on the park paths, rather than stepping outside and running down Fifth Avenue. But I don’t find that easy. There are many paths and—the greenhorn stranger I am—I keep making choices that threaten to take me back toward the west.

Finally I work my way past the reservoir, and decide to take the direct route south: get out and run the sidewalk on Fifth.

But now time becomes my problem. Reluctantly, I decide I’m not going to the southern end of the Park. My crazy zigzag course has taken up too much time.

I have obligations. Helen, Willard and I are planning to catch a Mets game. It will be a seven-mile run by the time I circle back. Must keep my promise.

So I cut through the park at East 65th Street, six blocks short of my goal. That cutoff takes me close to the Tavern on the Green, near the NYC Marathon finish line. But I never see the line. I suspect the reason is the same one that’s dogged me on this whole run—jogging the wrong path.

On November 4th I will surely find that line. And I’m going to stomp on it hard, with all the fierce energy my 142 pounds can bring. That’s my pledge. I’m going to stomp that line.

And so…eventually I did. The NYC Marathon came on November 4th that year, 2007. I found that line after running for precisely 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 55 seconds, arriving ahead of anyone else in the M65-69 age group.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Wadded Bundle Drifted Like a Weary Soul

Photo by Albino Jimenez

Esto es para mi amigo Albino. We have triumphed together and we have failed together. The weather colored it all.

From the Running Journal, January 2011.


Oh, the weather played a joke! The day after the Seville Marathon the local paper, ABC, featured a photograph of Constantina covered by snow. That town, just one marathon distance northeast of Seville, had not seen snow in 20 years, the paper said. So unusual was the storm, ABC spread it across six pages. Such rare weather coupled with such rare timing, gives you irony to wonder about.

At the XXI Maratón Ciudad de Sevilla that February Sunday, the material falling on Seville was not snow but rain. The temperature was 4 degrees C, and the wind was blowing.

The day before the race the weather had been sunny and pleasant, betraying no clue. We sat outside having coffee on Paseo Colón. Albino, Rafael, María José, their sister, Virginia, Rafael’s wife, Angel, a Madrid marathoner, and myself sat at a table overlooking the river. Townspeople and tourists alike strolled along the river walk. Albino said he could spot a tourist at a glance. I wanted to not look like one. I knew a few words of Spanish. I told María José her dress was pretty.

So the day before the marathon we sat in the sun relaxing on the street named after Columbus, at the place where exploration of the New World had its beginning. Before us stood Torro del Oro, the tower of gold, the building where Spanish ships off-loaded gold stolen from the Americas and the Indies. Some of it they mined, Albino reminded me. Behind me stood Plaza de Toros, where I like to imagine Hemingway hatched “The Undefeated,” a bullfighting story I’ve read and reread.

Time marched away that sunny day. Albino, Angel and I took a walk around the Cathedral of Seville, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, which dates to the 1100s. The Christians recaptured Seville and built the Cathedral on the foundation of a mosque begun by the Muslims. Columbus’ tomb is inside. One of the double doors was open. It was massive, as wide as a man is tall and twice as high, made of bronze, it appeared. I laid the back of my hand on the edge to gauge its thickness: six and a half inches. Stone saints, cast in relief, high on the wall guard the doors.

We strolled through the castle Real Alcázar and among its gardens. A giant tree spread its crown over us, its trunk thicker than a truck; Albino said it was a ficus tree. We had drinks at a sidewalk cafe where I saw the only SUV I can recall seeing in Seville. Then we drifted past the Cathedral back toward the car.

Next day, after some 36 kilometers, the marathon returned me to the Cathedral. My circumstances had changed. The wind and rain focused their attack where defense was weakest, my hands and feet. Their pain shriveled my spirit.

What about pain, marathoner? When it calls, where will you hide? When the race wearies your flesh and time grinds and erosion sets in, what then? Can you hold onto your dream?

Questions come: How much farther, what time, why, and so on. But question words are no help. A good runner stays in the moment. Right here. Right now. And knows there’s nothing else. A good runner accepts the ache with placid resignation, examines it with professional detachment, dwells in the “now” like a Buddhist, avoiding thoughts of the end.

But I am not so brave or wise. Patch after marathon patch, I stitched with nothing but yearning for the end, faith and hope meanwhile slipping away.

I glanced up at the soaring Cathedral. Men worked, and died, on it knowing they would never see it finished. But they had faith it would. Banal lyrics from a Latin rock band ran through my head:

Dáme fe, dáme alas, dáme fuerza
Para sobrevivir en este mundo

Imploring words from Maná asking for faith, for wings, for strength to survive in this world. Thus slopping along the wet pavement I came as close to prayer as I would come—and thereby stitched in yet another tiny patch of the marathon, like a seamstress bent at her work.

Hoping for it or not, the end does, in some manner or the other, eventually come. And so I ran across Puente de la Barqueta, the fourth and final bridge, the only one I can remember—remembering it only because I knew that I must. After the last turn, straight ahead a tunnel gaped open to the stadium where the finish line waited. I decided to shed the plastic bag that had sheltered me the entire way. I reached a frozen claw up to the neck hole and ripped it wide. When I flung the wadded bundle off, the wind drifted it to the side like a weary soul.

Then inside—and it was over.

Someone wrapped a towel around my shoulders. Who? I strode past a tent where I could have gotten help for hypothermia, across the field to the tunnel under the stands on the far side. Someone hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. The towel, already wet, draped over the medal.

At least the tunnel was dry of the rain, but a cold wind was blowing through. I drifted around in a growing crowd looking for a place to get warm, a place I couldn’t find. I went into a locker room, but it was crowded, and it stunk.

At a table in the tunnel people were picking up their warm-up clothes placed there by race management. But I had made no such provision, my clothes were in Rafael’s car, and it was in an enormous parking lot. I wasn’t sure I could find it even if I ventured into the rain searching. And I didn’t have a car key anyway. Only Angel and Rafael had a key, and I hadn’t seen either since the race began. Now I wished I had not thrown away the plastic bag.

Without my clothes, I could only do what I was doing—stand and shiver, drift around and shiver. Or maybe declare an emergency and let medical workers take over repair of my hypothermic self. But language deficiency and fear of humiliation made me hesitate.

I found a wad of clear plastic lying on the floor, the kind used to protect construction supplies. I wrapped the dirty mess around my shoulders and continued as before—standing and shivering.
Suddenly in the crowd I came face to face with Albino. He had run faster and finished quicker than he expected, having recently recovered from an injury. So here he was, cold like I was. I was relieved to see him.

“Let’s go get a massage,” he said.

“I don’t need a massage, I need to get warm.”

“It’s warm up there.”

Ah. We hopped on the elevator and landed in a warm room.

While the massage was pleasant enough, for me, it was mainly a way of stalling in a place where it was warm. And it led to an unhappy discovery—I’d lost my marathon medal. The ribbon still hung around my neck, but the wet towel had dissolved an adhesive joint in the ribbon allowing the medal to drop off.

Back downstairs in the tunnel, we discovered we were still cold, cold to the core.

“I need to go see if they’ll give me another medal,” I told Albino.

The table of medals was at the far end of the tunnel; lots of people were in the way. We stood looking, shivering, deciding. We could take that long walk to where the medals were or we could go the opposite way and catch a van to the car. A warm van.

“Let’s not go; I’m freezing,” Albino said. I was, too.

“I’d kinda like to have a medal,” I said, the idea fading to wistful hope.

“Here,” Albino said. He reached out his medal to me.

“I can’t take your medal, man!”

“Take it. I’ve got others.” He’d run the race before, he said.

Our friendship may seem unlikely. Albino has half the years of my 60-plus. We had met two years earlier, soon after he moved to Kentucky and started running races around Nashville. His job had brought him to the states.

We had made this trip to Spain as partners. He put me up in his Seville apartment gratis. He took me to his parents’ house for dinner, to his brother’s house for lunch, and guided me around town. Now he stood offering his finisher’s medal, too. And wouldn’t take no for an answer. So today in my study hangs a medal that bears special significance.

A man who gives you his marathon medal is a friend.

This story resists ending—there is a postscript, and it starts at the expo two days before the marathon. There they had placed the age-group trophies on display. As I wandered around among the bays, Albino came up to me.

“I made a picture of your trophy,” he said.

He’d set his camera on “close up” and made a picture of the first-place trophy for “Category J”, as my age group was called. For the trophy to be mine, I had to first win it, and I thought that was unlikely. I expected tough competition from the European runners.

“I don’t know, man. I may not win here.”

After the race, we had not gone to the awards ceremony. We were too cold. My finishing time of 3:26 was not too bad for a man who ran the whole race cowering inside a bag of polyethylene. But they don’t give awards for bag wearing. I wasn’t hopeful.

So I didn’t know if I’d even placed in the top three until I got back to my Cookeville home. Then a check of the marathon web page showed that I’d won second place, not first as Albino had predicted. Albino called and said he’d ask his brother, there in Seville, to pick up the trophy for me.When Rafael went to do that, they told him that my second place showing was a mistake. I had indeed won first place! Albino’s prediction at the expo that day was borne out after all. Proving his prediction, I have the picture. Proving my win, I have the trophy