Sunday, April 27, 2014

The End of Something

            It is eighty miles from my home to Nashville. Give or take a few miles. It depends on where in town you are going. Yesterday I was going to LP Field, the place where most Country Music runners park.
            I got up at 3:30 a.m. drove I-40 blurry-eyed. Once parked, I headed across the Shelbly Street Pedestrian Bridge, joining a stream of runners. A slate gray morning light that earlier had hit the downtown towers now turned red. I hoped to meet a Twitter pal I've never seen. For a meeting, I'd suggested six o'clock at the foot of the bridge on Third Avenue. That wasn't a good place for her and she'd sent me a message she'd be in Corral 29 and would look for me. Good thing because the trouble I'd had getting off the Interstate and parking had eaten up forty minutes. I was too late for a six o'clock meeting anyway.
            I was assigned Corral 6. Always before I'd started from Corral 1 so as to lower the gun time used in state records. This year it didn't matter. Even though I wore a marathon bib number I intended to run the half marathon. And I intended to run it slow. State record was a non factor.          
            Intended to run slow because I can't run fast. I have Graves' Disease and have had it since last Fall. It has many astonishing effects. It can cause heart disease. So they put a stent in my ticker four weeks ago. Graves' also eats your thigh muscles, among other valuable muscles. Can't run fast without thigh muscles.
            Intended to run the half because on Monday I'd run the Boston Marathon, and by some miracle actually finished it, although I'd not run much prior in a couple of months. So wasn't going to run 26.2 again so soon.
            Since I planned to go slow anyway, I headed to Corral 29 to look for the woman I call CT, not knowing her name. I stood in that desultory corral surrounded mostly by women and a smattering of old men, back of the pack folks for whom a half marathon is a great big deal. But I couldn't see CT. Maybe she'd show later. I drifted down to Corral 28 and looked around there, too, since I wasn't sure where one corral ended and the other began.
            I could start from back here if I wanted to. It'd be different from Corral 1. It didn't matter. Time drifted on as it always does. CT didn't show and eventually we heard the race start. Nothing at all happened where we were, up on the hill at Eighth Avenue, three blocks from the starting line at Fifth.
            Those starting runners headed east down Broad, turned south on First, and west on Demonbreun. They finally hit Broad and ran right past where we stood. I saw last year's marathon winner Scott Wietecha in front, Brian Shelton on his shoulder. Brian, from my town is running well these days. I thought he might win the half.
            CT didn't show, and I figured at this point she wouldn't. But I couldn't stop looking for her. Later I saw where she'd sent me a direct message on Twitter that she'd been bumped to Corral 15. I'd failed to see that message and didn't now have my phone.
            Nothing much happened, except occasionally we'd drift a few steps down the hill toward the starting line, still nearly three blocks away. Twice they moved the corral ropes toward Fifth, and we'd advance thirty yards or so before standing around again.
            Running a half marathon slowly is just a typical morning run for me, no great challenge. Just a matter of putting in time. We stood around. Eventually we'd get our chance. No hurry.
            I had a streak going. I was one of the thirty-eight "Fifteen Year Runners." We'd run all previous editions of the race. As a reward, they'd given us comp entry and a special vanity bib to wear, one colored black, a different color from the 30,000 other bibs. That was sure to bring shout-outs from fans. At the moment, mine was hidden under a throw-away tee.
            This race holds the story of my running. Our histories entwine. I ran the very first one just one year after my first marathon, just two years after my first race of any length. My running grew up with this race. In that first one, which came just twelve days after Boston, I ran ten minutes faster than I'd ever run.
            For each of the first six races, 2000 through 2005, I ran personal records on this hilly course, even though I was running lots of other races on flatter courses that you'd figured I would run faster than here. This was a lucky race for me. I set eight age-group records here. And I won my age division an unlikely twelve consecutive times, beating the great Ken Brewer once by just forty-five seconds.
            As I stood waiting in Corral 29 with my vanity bib hidden, I knew no marathon record was in play. In fact I'd be running not the marathon but the half marathon. Not even running it. Only jogging.
            We stood and waited. We moved forward again a few yards. Then I walked away.
            I stepped out of the corral and walked down the hill toward the starting line, skipping up on the sidewalk to dodge spectators. Around Corral 15, I cut through the shuffling stream and emerged on the other side of Broad, just above Bridgestone Arena.
            I walked beside Bridgestone to Demonbreun and paused, watching runners stream up the hill. I headed on down to Fourth and turned up toward Broad to Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where I cut over to the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge.
            Fans leaning over the rail above First Avenue were watching the south-streaming marathoners below. Fans and runners alike whooped and called out. I stood and watched a few minutes. The stream would diminish to a trickle before another wave emerged. We couldn't see them coming down Broad until they turned the corner at a red brick building onto First. Suddenly a colorful mass flowed, surging around the corner.
            I walked on across the bridge toward the LP parking lot, meeting hollow-eyed runners wearing bibs, who'd arrived too late to run, probably beginners who didn't know one had to arrive early for such a race. They all had numbers in the 20-or-30 thousand range. My number, still hidden under the tee, read 435.
            At the car I changed clothes, putting on the blue Boston finisher's tee I earned on Monday. I could go down to the finish line area, stand around watching runners come in. I'll have friends there. The shirt would be a conversation starter. But I realized that, by now, the winner of the half would have already finished. Brian Shelton, I would learn, finished in fourth place. Scott Wietecha would go on to win the marathon.
            I decided against the finish line. I wanted to be through with this place. I grabbed my phone and saw where CT had sent me the change-of-plans message I'd never seen.
            Throw it all away. The comp entry, the vanity bib, the annual tradition, the streak, the history - everything. Throw it away. I put up a tweet: 
            "Did not start, am not sorry, do not care. Am I being clear? #DNS #CMM" 
            Then I cranked up and drove away. But I don't know. It could be a lie, my tweet. I don't know.

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