Sunday, November 15, 2009

Give and Take: Holding Up Traffic at the North Coast 24 Hour Run; Part 1

Isn’t it funny where you find yourself sometimes?

At 7:00 p.m. on October 3 of this year I found myself standing by my car, completely naked despite the 50 degree weather, pouring water over my head from a plastic bottle, and scrubbing mud from my shins with my sweatshirt. I was in Cook Forest, Pennsylvania and the truth is that I never really planned to be there. I surely hadn’t planned to put in the 20 mile run that I had just completed. The day started in State College, Pennsylvania where I presented a paper at an ethics conference. The conference was nice. Sometimes I write very good ethics papers but the one I presented that morning was average at best. I didn’t find the subject matter particularly interesting and the room gave me the praise I deserved. Then we went to the basement and ate prime rib at 11:30 a.m. After the prime rib they brought out some sort of pudding, or yogurt or some such thing and I had to use a different fork than we had used on the prime rib for some unspoken reason. I didn’t want to use a fork at all. I wanted to use a spoon but that would have been wrong for the same reason I suppose. Everyone seemed to know about using the different fork, including me. I also knew to wear a necktie and I knew that I should open with an ethics joke, but not one about priests, or rabbi’s, or nuns, or popes. Really though, when you exclude that group the ethics joke universe shrinks a bit. I told one about a bear and a rabbit. It was a poor joke but everyone laughed a little bit and then those with glasses draped on chains took the glasses off and settled in to my talk, where they learned that the joke was kinda gonna be the highlight. Everyone was so darn nice. The ethics world is kind of like the ultra world because there aren’t many of us and so we all kinda know each other. It was nice seeing everyone. I’ll go back to the conference next year if they let me because I’ll want to see my friends again. After I was done with my pudding they handed me a mint. It was given to me to cleanse my palate. It worked I guess but I’ve found that cleansing your palate is a lot like making your bed. It doesn’t last long.

On October 3rd my car drove itself more than I drove it. In fact it took two unplanned turns. The first unplanned turn was the sudden right I took to get to Cook Forest. When I was a kid we passed through Cook Forest and I remember almost nothing about it except that my Dad bought me some Mexican jumping beans. We weren’t really poor but there really wasn’t a lot of money either so I learned not to ask for things. But Dad bought me the jumping beans and the forest was dark and the leaves were green and life was mysterious and it was perfect and I never forgot it.

Standing naked by my car didn’t cause me the least bit of concern or fear of arrest. For one thing I couldn’t be arrested for public indecency since I hadn’t seen the public in well over three hours. For another thing I was a man with not much to lose. This blog is about running and it will remain about running. But I have a non-running life and part of it has been troubling and hurtful and as a result I had no place to go where I was particularly needed. Thus the planned 45 minute run turned into an hour and then two hours, then three. The air was pine filled and the forest trails were endless and soft. Everything was calm and still and perfect. It was self centered. But self-centeredness in less evil when said self is not requested by others and so Cook Forest worked its magic on me again.

The second turn that my car took was, plainly and simply, a brain-stem response. The impulse to turn never made it to my mind. The sign said that I could go I-76 toward Akron and then on toward home, OR that I could stay on I-80 by veering right and go to Cleveland. The car veered right and, after it did, I figured I’d go say hi to Mike.

My buddy Mike Keller was running in the North Coast 24 hour Endurance Run and I knew that it was in progress at that moment. I hadn’t thought about it all day and here it was, 10:30 P.M. and I was headed to the race where I would, I imagined, give Mike an attaboy and go home. The North Coast 24 was serving as the National Championship this year and there was a lot on the line. The first three runners would make the national team that would go to the world championships, provided they also ran a minimum of 135 miles. The idea of three runners covering the distance seemed virtually assured given the entry of U.S. National Record holder Mark Godale, seven-time Western States 100 mile winner Scott Jurek, and a virtual who’s-who of the nations best vying for the title and a spot on the team. By the time I got there, shortly before midnight, Jurek and Godale had decided to leave their best efforts for another day, which just goes to show that even the greatest runners on earth can have an off day. None of the ghosts that drifted by me as I slowly walked a loop of the 0.9 mile course seemed troubled by the absence of these stars.

It was actually a bit macabre walking in the silent darkness as faceless runners whispered past me on their way to the once-per-loop aid station. The gentle breeze off the cool lake seemed to make the loop a lonely place, until the runners hit the bright lights, companionship, buffet of food and drinks, and overall sophistication and well-being of the race headquarters. A moment later, however, they were out on the furthest reaches of the loop, 0.45 miles removed from love and comfort. The race energy seemed to me to be a quasar; when the energy pulsed on it was all-powerful and when the energy pulsed off it was the loneliest object in the Universe. I ran into Mike, walked another lap with him and, purely on a whim, asked Joe Jurczyk if I could help in any way. Joe didn’t get to be the best race promoter in Ohio by turning down help and so, moments later I was introduced to Shannon Fisher, the volunteer coordinator. Shannon is really one of the loveliest people one could ever hope to meet and, I imagine, it must be hard to say no to her. It might have been Shannon or it might have been the “use whatever fork you want” nature of the event, or it might have been my need to be around other lonely people but I simply jumped at the chance to relieve T.J. Hawk at the course’s only road crossing, which marked, almost precisely, the halfway point of the loop.

I will write more soon. There were so many people, so many stories, so much good Karma in this event that even writing up the 1/3 of it that I saw will take another installment. I need to tell you about Connie and Kim
and Philip and a couple of Dans and John and Jill and Anna and Debra and Suzanne, and Ron, and Liz. I’m gong to love telling you about Liz. Also I think you should know about Wyatt and Mike and so many others that visited me, time after time, throughout the night. I’ll get to it soon. I hope you come back and read it.


  1. Will I ever! I can't wait to relive my night through your eyes/words. If only you knew how much I was suffering in the groinal area from chafing, I think you would have knocked me down, stolen my chip and number, and ran the rest of the race for me. I had a great time everywhere except down by the twig and berries.

    And of all the stories, to me the two that stand out are my daughter Autumn volunteering ALL day (and being mad when I made her go to sleep after 12 hours) and Dan B coming out of nowhere to crew for me and just really making me do nothing but run. What a great event that was...and seeing you each time around was a real treat. I was jealous you got to stand there and talk to Mike George, but I had to keep guys would have never let me stand around and chat. I know that.

  2. you really are a gifted writer - loving the parallels especially with the mint...

    ps. I am sure you did a great job at your conference - you are an engaging speaker- they will want you back even if only to set up a utensil challenge for you

  3. Thanks Red!

    Mike, Autumn was adorable! Yes, I definitley include her in part 2! How could I not!

    Karen, I sucked at the conference but no one cared. Any chance to practice utensil use is time off the end of our lives. Let's never forget that : ). MAN it is nice being back in touch with you!!!!!