Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Prologue: Daddy's Blue Shoes

            You won’t catch me rhapsodizing about running. You may not even ever hear me say I like it. I’m not sure I do. It’s severe and it trades in misery. It’s the price I pay for living. It’s just what I do. I reckon I’ll keep it up until they scatter my ashes. My super-heated molecules will mix with the air, become part of it and circle the globe. You might run down the road and breathe a bit of me. It may give you strength.
            Runners say the difference in a jogger and a runner is an entry form; a runner competes in races. By that definition, I became a runner in April of 1998 at the age of fifty-seven, after being a jogger for eighteen years, where I routinely logged six miles a day. I didn’t know why I did that. I had the vague idea it was good for me somehow. After writing two books about running, I still don’t know why I do it.

            The first race I ran I wore my deceased father’s shoes. I signed up secretly. The night before the race, a local 10K starting at Tennessee Tech, I told wife Jo Ann,
            “I’m getting’ up early in the morning and going to the campus to go running.”
            “Why?” She knew I hated getting up early.
            “Cause I want to.”
            The shoes I wore I’d originally bought for my dad. He wore the same size I did. I’d bought myself a pair and got an extra pair for him. He wasn’t a runner. He was an old man dying from lung disease. He’d spent a lifetime operating bulldozers in dust, welding dangerous metals, and smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes. I used to smoke them too.
            He wasn’t able to do much except drive his pickup truck and sit around the house. The slightest exertion made him purse his lips and breathe hard. He took oxygen from a tank. So he didn’t need the shoes for running. Soft and pliable as they were, I thought they’d be comfortable for him to loaf in. The shoes were eye-catching because they were navy blue, trimmed in white, unusual in those days; most running shoes were white then.
            A thug soon stole my blue shoes. It was during one of the family’s desperate attempts to get treatment for Daddy at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital, seventy miles from his home, eighty from mine. Family members took turns staying in the hospital to help out and keep Momma company. I slept on the waiting room floor in my sleeping bag one night. We knew crooks roamed the halls. Some other visitors and I arranged the furniture into a fortress. I was exhausted from teaching at the university and spending nights at the hospital. I set my shoes under a coffee table at my head and went to sleep. Next morning the blue shoes were gone.
            A few weeks after Daddy died, Momma gave his blue shoes to me. “I want you to have these back,” she said. They were like new. But I had evil memories of those shoes. I put them out of sight on a closet shelf. They stayed there for nearly two years, until I signed up for the Golden Eagle 10K. I pulled them down and laced them on, already old by then, but hardly used.
            I raced without anyone in the family knowing I was going to. They accompanied me anyway. I wore something given me by each: Watch from Jo Ann; windbreaker from her parents; handkerchief from my youngest son; running socks from my daughter; hat from my oldest son; shirt from Jo Ann’s oldest son; and shorts from her youngest son. And the blue shoes from Momma and Daddy.
            Raced secretly, timid and afraid of failure, I guess. I needn’t have been. Because I earned two trophies–first in my age group, and first master runner. That floored me. I had not figured on such a favorable outcome.
            I had not figured on the next thing either: The man who presented the trophies, who twice shook my hand and handed me a tall mug, that man was my favorite student, a senior of civil engineering. He remains one of the most gifted students I ever advised or taught. As the cadet commander of the Army ROTC battalion, which organized the race, the job of race director fell to him.
            All this happened. As cadet Philip Messer handed his professor one of the trophy mugs, the university photographer snapped a picture of us. Turning the tables, Jo Ann secretly purchased a print, framed it and gave it to me for a Christmas present. It’s hanging on the wall yet. I just went and looked at it, student and professor smiling. Daddy’s blue shoes stand out.
            After the awards I got in my truck and headed home. When I pulled out on the main drag, I screamed so hard I hurt my throat.

            Other races followed. In less than a year I moved to marathons, a couple years later to Ironman, and a year after that to 100-mile ultramarathons. For seven years I actually got faster, rising age notwithstanding. At age 65 I ran a certified 5K in 19:06, a 15K in 60:39. Then my speed leveled off. A gradual decline began.
            Now I’m trying to stop the clock. At my age, if I run a race this year I hope the clock won’t show any more time than it did last year. If I run really well, I might even push the time back a bit. But, even if it’s just the same, it’s like improving–by, say, a minute on a half marathon, over two minutes on the full marathon.
            You can learn that from studying the age-grading tables. Those numbers were gathered from decades of recording how aging runners decline. They bring a tale of woe: Your time is going to go up; your speed is going to go down. The columns of figures express biology. And it is destiny.
            That’s not a whine. I accept it. You’re going to go down. I’m going to go down. But I don’t claim there won’t be a fight. Let’s drag it out. I’m going down all right, but I’m going down slow – chasing every screaming second. That’s the best hope now, going down slow.