Friday, October 13, 2017

Memories of Rabé

El Camino wanders through agricultural land west of Rabé de las Calzadas 
Luz would come in and clean the house of my friend Albino Jimenez. Albino was busy being an executive for a global manufacturer of car components. More than a typical cleaning lady from somewhere nearby, Luz had come to Burgos, Spain from South America, Columbia, I think. She made her way through the world by her keen wit and hard work. You could see her character in the patient and thorough way she cleaned the house. Her name means “light.” It was the fall of 2012.
Luz was a friend of Albino. I suspect he gave her the cleaning job to help her out. It helped him too. He had a spacious two-story house that required considerable maintenance. With her weekly help, he kept it spotless.
While Albino was at work, I was a hanger-on at his house. In the mornings, I'd go for a run on el Camino de Santiago, which goes past his house. After lunch I'd read or take a hike up on the mountain behind Albino's house or go out for a bike ride. It was a king's life.
You could see eagles soaring in the thermals over the mountain. A well-built trail wound and snaked its way up the mountain. You could run it but stretches were steep as stadium steps. Once on top I could look down on the small town of Rabé de las Calzadas and make pictures of golden trees in autumn foliage in the vista beyond the town.
Sometimes I'd borrow Isabel's bike from the garage. She had invited me to use it. Albino's novia then, his esposa now, Isabell worked and stayed in another town during week days. I rode to a nearby creek called Rio Úrbel, where I could sit in the shade and watch trout holding like vanes against the current in the clear water. I thought about rigging up a fishing pole and illegally catching some for supper, like Hemingway, but I was not so bold.
Instead, for supper Albino and I would drive into Burgos and have lamb and wine. There were lots of bars there. One played Americana music. I remember Johnny Cash and Screamin Jay Hawkins, and an antique metal sign on the wall that advertised Harley-Davidson. In agreement with the US and Tennessee vibe, I drank Jack Daniels on the rocks. No one but Albino and I were in the bar that night. We paid for our drinks and left. At the door I paused to hear a little more of “I Put a Spell on You.” I looked back and gave the barkeeper a thumbs-up. He made a wide smile and waved. That bar was near the great Cathedral of Burgos.
One night Albino and I walked over to Rabé for a beer. The barkeeper gave each of us a tiny medallion to tie onto our packs. He thought we were pilgrims on el Camino. In a way, we were. The medallion had a saint embossed on it and a string already attached. There is an albergue in that little town that has been giving pilgrims food and shelter for 800 years. I still have the medallion and I keep it attached to my ultrarunning pack.
One day I returned from my morning run and found Luz cleaning the house. I made lunch for both of us. It was pure improvisation, and food you'd expect a guy to make. We had cold cuts and chips with a side of canned tomatoes. For dessert we had a banana soaked in syrup and drank hot tea. It wasn't bad, and she seemed to enjoy it. I asked her if I could make a picture. It's the one you see here.
Looking back across the years, it's just a memory I have. It seizes me occasionally. And it means nothing to anyone but me. I'll likely never see Luz again, or run el Camino, or see eagles soaring over the mountain.
Albino and Isabel would welcome me joyfully, I know, and they have invited me several times. I treasure their friendship. But I'm older now. Dimming eyesight and fading hearing make arduous travel harder. I consider long trips more carefully now than I once did.
So, on balance, all my recalling means nothing and benefits no one. No one but me, I should say. It's true and it lingers. It's just a memory I have.

Luz at lunch. Her name means "light"

My favorite picture of Albino, standing in his kitchen after a day at work

Flowers decorate a window in the 800-year-old abergue at Rabé

Overlooking the town of Rabé, trees in autumn gold framing its southern side

I have attached the medallion from the bar on el Camino in Rabé to the pack I use in running the so-called Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a continuous multi-state race 314 miles long

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Two Faces of Parsons

Sunrise and fog and a pond beside the road greet the Vol State runner

            No town I run through presents two faces as starkly distinct as Parsons, Tennessee.
            Three times now I’ve approached the western edge of the town on a Saturday afternoon, afoot, tired and hungry. It’s where I always end up on the third night of the Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a multi-day journey stretching 314 miles from Missouri to Georgia. I settle into the Parsons Inn, a shabby fifties-era motel, sleep a few hours and then run on through town in the dark hours of early Sunday morning. I like that run. There is a tranquil quality to my secret passage. The stores and streets are asleep; an eerie silence grips all I see around me. The aggregate of street lamps, storefronts and neon signs bring a grainy, warm light falling to the pavement.
            So I look forward to that dark run. It has left me with sweet memories. Darkness is like a new snowfall. It smooths and softens terrain to its canonical essence, one punctuated by points of light randomly scattered across the countryside. That’s how it is when I reach the far side of town. When the moon is bright enough, I may see a bed of fog blanketing a vale.
            But in darkness, it is sound that defines night and gives it meaning. A chorus of tree frogs, a grunting bullfrog, a distant hoot owl calling, a whippoorwill crying his name-sake song, all these sounds play their passage against the steady keening of a million katydids. These familiar sounds—now largely lost to most people—bring a nostalgic glow, a memory of growing up in the country in an era when their nightly presence was prevalent.
            While I remember my previous runs through Parsons and I look forward to another one, sadly it must be noted, there is another side to Parsons. Near here was the scene of the abduction and murder of young nursing student Holly Bobo by four men in 2011, one of the most horrific crimes in recent Tennessee memory. On my first run here, in 2013, her remains had not been located. Hope remained she might be alive somewhere. Before my second run, in 2015, two hunters had found her skull. Three men now stand indicted for murder. A fourth committed suicide. At the present time, in 2017, the trial yet pends. The memory of loss and pain and heartbreak suffered by the young woman’s family and friends will last forever.
            On this Sunday morning I stumble out of the hotel and pick my way across its pock-marked parking lot. I enter U.S. 412, which is also Main Street. In daylight it is choked with traffic. Cars and trucks are absent this hour.
Although, I can generally see where I’m going, I have only one eye and my night vision is poor. I use a flashlight to avoid twisting an ankle on road debris or a pot hole. Yesterday a hard summer rain came, leaving the ground and air full of moisture. As a result, the night is shrouded in fog. It wraps everything. Light reflects dimly on the street. Visual range is low, the night is close and surreal. The fog wraps me in a ghostly chill.
I walk down Main Street, beginning my fourth day on the road. It will take me eight days to finish this run. I don’t try to go faster than that. I have some 200 miles yet to go. I generally don’t get a lot of rest or sleep during the run. My tired legs need a chance to warm up a bit before I start running. So I walk for now.
I follow my flashlight past the dark stores. Fuzzy halos glow in the fog around street lights. I carry no weapon. Yet I have not been afraid on my runs across Tennessee. This morning I stay wary and alert and occasionally look behind me. Just careful. I recall a pit bull making his nightly round on my last run down this street. He showed no interest in me.
A tall object appears ahead. I peer hard. It could be a person or something else. As I approach closer the object gradually emerges from the fog. It turns out to be just another road sign, not a lurking person. The fog is at once intimate and deceptive, bringing uncertainty, uneasiness. Uneasy or not, the demands of Vol State mean running on all kinds of roads, day and night, fog or not. I drift on, watchful and alert.
A man’s voice shatters the night:
I look toward the call, to the right. Nothing. Only a dark drive-in, a Sonic.
“Who’s there?” I call.
“It’s John.”
Ah, John Price. I recognize the voice now. He has run this race ten times, and likely knows more about it than anybody. He shifts his position slightly and sits upright. Now I see. I can make out his bright rust-colored tee at the edge of the parking lot. Last night, when he reached Parsons Inn, the lone hotel here, no rooms were available, he explains. He spent the night sleeping on the pavement of the drive-in parking lot. We are runners. No one carries a sleeping bag. Pavement, a concrete slab, that’s all we need. Such is our exhaustion. I wish him good luck, and drift on.
It occurs to me, I didn’t ask him if he needed anything. We unaided runners are allowed help from random strangers and from other unaided runners. I have a Payday candy bar he might’ve used for breakfast. But I didn’t ask. I was rude. Because he is so eminently competent at this race, it didn’t occur to me that he might need anything. Too late now.
I reach the beginning of countryside now and once again hear the katydids, the frogs, as I’d hoped.  But there is a pox on the night. No owl calls, no whippoorwill cries. As before, forms loom ahead, grow close as I trudge, emerge from fog, and then turn into familiar objects, trash cans, sign posts, and so on. It’s a tired joke they play on me.
To the right, slightly higher than the two-lane road, is a nondescript field of mixed fescue and weeds, all wet with dew. A form looms in it, too. Another ghostly illusion, I pay it no mind – a snag or gate post. I walk on until I draw even with the still form. Then I realize the object is shaped like a woman.
It is a woman! I can see clearer. She wears blond, shoulder-length hair, black tee shirt, and jeans. She stands perfectly still, alone in the wet fescue. She speaks:
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“Uh, no, sure don’t.”
“I need a cigarette.”
The machine is broke. I can’t get any cigarettes.”
“I was gonna walk to the store and get some. But I’m barefoot and this field is full of rocks!”
She picks up an apple-sized rock in disgust and pitches underhand. The rock bounces and clatters to a stop on the pavement in front of me, an angular chunk, chert maybe.
“Yeah, if you’re gonna walk, you need to be on the road where it’s smooth,” I observe helpfully. “Did you say your car is broke?”
“No, my car is fine. I’ve been drinking and I don’t want to drive.”
I remember, there’s a beer joint just ahead.
“I need a cigarette.”
I’m a runner carrying little more than water. I don’t have cigarettes. I don’t know how to help her. But help is nearby.
He enters from the left edge, a young man of medium height and wavy dark hair, wearing a dark tee and jeans. He walks toward her, never once looking at me, gazing straight at her, stepping carefully and slightly high in the wet weeds, walking gingerly but determined, never looking to the side, his gaze locked hard on her. A bird dog going on point. She knows what he wants, but it’s not what she wants. She wants a cigarette.
“I need a cigarette.”
He stops and asks her something quietly. She demurs.
“I need a cigarette!”
He says it again.
“I told you, I need a cigarette!”
He grows more insistent. The disagreement continues. He curves forward and puts his hands on her arms. She twists away and yells,
“I need a fucking cigarette!”
            Her squall cuts through the fog like a blunt plow.
            It’s a domestic scene, I decide. Time to leave it. Time to move on. The clock is running. The clock is always running. It never stops. I need to be running, too. I drift on and leave the couple quarrelling in the wet field.
The fog is growing lighter now. After a brief distance, I look back over my shoulder. I’m surprised to see another runner. It is New Jersey runner Shamus Babcock, a smart, engaging man. He wears a black beard that tapers and curves to a point below his chin. It makes him look like Satan. He comes through the fog like a mirage. It could be the Devil rising on the roiling smoke of hellfire. But it is fog, not smoke. And Shamus is a friendly man. I turn and wait. The woman with the nicotine jones is still on my mind.
“Did you witness that scene?” I ask.
“Yeah. If you’re gonna spend the night drinking you oughta have plenty of cigarettes on hand.”
Shamus sums it up neatly in a single knowing sentence. The woman made a mistake. She should’ve had two packs in her purse. Now she’ll likely have to make a Sunday morning deal, that or face more withdrawal.
We walk along together, Shamus and I. Soon Shamus peels off to the side for a pit stop. I continue on, alone again. Six miles from Parsons U.S. 412 crosses the Tennessee River over a high plate-girder deck bridge. I look forward to it. On my last run here, I watched the sunrise from the bridge’s west abutment, the sun reflecting in the river below. Approaching, I realize I’ll see no sunrise this time. The fog hangs on stubbornly. As I cross the bridge even the river below is hidden by mist. At least the fog makes for cool air.
            Parsons started my day. Many things will happen before Hohenwald ends it:
A little lost dog, black as night, will follow me for two hours leaving his home, likely somewhere in Parsons, miles behind, until Natalia Harrison, a runner from Fort Worth, Texas, passes me. Then he will choose her. Later I’ll hear from some runners that he found a new home, with a family living near the road who adopted him on the spot.
A man named Terence Teague in cowboy boots and a Predators hat will give me cold water and a peel-top cup of peaches that I save for breakfast the next morning. And he’ll tell me he drove from his home in Lexington, three towns away, to help runners, so moved was he by a Vol State story he’d heard. He will also tell me that Holly Bobo was like family.
And running friend Ladona Lawson from Franklin, Tennessee, whom I’ve not seen much in recent years, will drive to Hohenwald to catch me on the course there, visit roadside in the hot sun, and then drive into town to wait for me at Rio Colorado, a Mexican restaurant, where I can have a rare sit-down meal and a friend to talk with.
Before this year’s run started, I mentioned to Race Director Lazarus Lake that I wanted to make a run empty of drama, one so boring it wouldn’t be worth writing. “That’s not possible,” he’d replied. “Something always happens.” He was right, of course. Something always happens.
The town of Parsons started this day. A story happened. Written or not, it haunts. There are dozens of such towns scattered along our 314-mile path. We pass through them like shadows. Each town is packed with aching stories of the human heart. Some of them find me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

For Amy Dodson Cummins Falls Marathon Is A Homecoming

Amy Dodson completing the New York City Triathlon

             It will be a homecoming like no other when Amy Dodson returns to Cookeville for the Cummins Falls Marathon. She has been so far.
The Arizona athlete has journeyed not only across Earth’s geography but also through the world of endurance. It was here in Cookeville that she started running.
In 2000 Tammie Wright, a teacher and colleague at Cane Creek Elementary, was organizing a race called the Pilot 5K. Amy recalls their conversation. She’d remarked wistfully,
“I wish I could run that…”
“Why don’t you?” replied Tammie.
Amy’s reluctance was understandable. She’d lost her lower left leg to cancer in 1984 while a junior at the University of Arizona. It took her left lung too. Now some 16 years later, here in Cookeville, following the gentle urging of her friend, Amy took the plunge that would change her life. She ran that 5K. Ran it in a prosthetic meant for walking, but not for running.
She soon owned a prosthetic designed for running. She began a life of active training. The maker of her prosthetic, Freedom-Innovations, became her sponsor.
Amy Dodson was featured on the cover of Runner's World, July 2011

Bright titles and records fell. She increased her runs to marathon distance, 26.2 miles. In 2001 she became the first woman leg-amputee to finish the prestigious Boston Marathon.
She set the marathon World Record for leg amputee in St. George Utah, a time of 3:53:21.
There’s too much to note. She owns a roomful of titles and records in her division of “Physically Challenged.” Even a short summary stretches long:

International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Champion, Queenstown, NZ, 2003
ITU World Champion, Hamburg, GER, 2007
ITU Silver at Worlds, Vancouver, BC, 2008
ITU Silver at Worlds, Gold Coast, AUS, 2009
Four-Time USA Half-Marathon Champion
Two-Time National Triathlon Champion, New York City
First Place, Ironman World Championship, Kona, HI, 2012

Amy teaches fifth grade at Ventana Vista Elementary, Tucson, AZ.
In May she heads to Brazil for her sixth Ironman race. This week she returns to Cookeville, the place she moved to in 1993, the place where it all began. It is her first visit since moving away in 2001.
Amy Dodson holds her prosthetic leg aloff atop the Golden Gate Bridge during a 667-mile relay race from San Francisco to San Diego

On Saturday, February 25, she will run the Cummins Falls Half Marathon. It and the Marathon start at 8:00 a.m. The 5K, and 10K start at 9:00 a.m. Registration and packet pickup are at 2-7 in Townplace Suites and also at the park on Saturday morning up until 30 minutes before the race.