I was watching the ground ahead of me. I was looking for a shadow and scared that I would see one. The blazing sun was directly overhead and so shadows were short, but dear God this leg was long. And it was not going well. Not well at all. My buddy Paul leaned, from the waist, out of the passenger window of the Isuzu Trooper and poured water, from a gallon jug, over my head. “We’re driving ahead to drop Barry at the exchange point. That guy is right behind you and coming fast. Pull your shit together!” And with a crunch of wheels on gravel the Trooper pulled ahead. I could see, for a moment, into the back of the truck. Stu lay prone, in a sweaty pile, recovering from his leg. Barry sat, paralyzed, knowing that I was pissing away any chance he might have had to hold off Paul Aufdemburg on the upcoming leg. My other pal, Willy, was driving the follow-up car. He was a bit calmer. “Just hold steady Mark. You can lose some ground- just no catastrophes please”. But a full-on catastrophe was underway. I had managed to lose an eighty second lead in 2.5 miles. I had 5.5 miles left to run, and this race allowed no time-outs or substitutions. I was losing it and I was losing it for all of us.
We were the “Low Budget Athletic Club”. We were a group of largely untalented, hard training guys. All of us were post-college. None of us had any place to go athletically, so we roamed the central Ohio road race circuit, garnering top-five or top-ten finishes. Sometimes we would find an open cross country race. We had hand-lettered cotton jerseys, plain white with the words “Low Budget” arching over the letters “A.C.” We wanted the jerseys to look exactly like those of our heroes in the “Summit A.C.” We trained furiously, got injured often, cheered for each other when not racing and tried to kill each other when we were. More than anything else we loved to be together.
On this occasion we found ourselves to be the only non-Michigan based team in an inaugural event. The year was 1990. Nine other members of the Low Budget A.C. “Fighting Amish” and I were running in a relay race across Michigan. The race covered 330 miles in 3 days and ended at the Mackinaw Bridge. It sounded like a lot of fun when we signed up. It seemed like it wouldn’t be very competitive…more like a chance to drink some beer, camp, and get some miles in. The reality was that we found ourselves perfectly matched, almost eerily so, against a team from Michigan, who seemed to be our mirror image in terms of ability. The first day our team managed a 53 second lead over the course of 110 miles. The average pace was under six minutes per mile and the temperature was in the nineties. Being young guys, we figured that we needed to defend the honor of our home state. And we were defending it by the slimmest of margins. Every leg yielded a gain or loss of a few seconds, but I was poised to lose several minutes. My exhalations started to sound less like breaths and more like small sobs. Panic was setting in all around.
After running through soybean fields all morning, the upcoming town promised respite. There could be shade. There might be a kind soul with a garden hose. Someone might notice and acknowledge the struggle. Instead of relief I got Christmas music. I suddenly heard Dean Martin singing a Christmas song…that horrible one where some poor gal wants to leave his apartment and he’s refusing to take her home due to the weather. I thought that it was all in my head. When I saw the Christmas trees and garlands strung across the street I was certain I was hallucinating. I also heard the van full of Michigan runners approaching with their hoots, hollers, and cheers for their runner. At least they were drowning out Dean “Baby its cold outside” Martin whose smarm was, as it turned out, being pumped from public address speakers.
We were about 70 miles into day two when we entered Frankenmuth. I had never been there before and so I didn’t know what to expect. Frankenmuth makes itself famous, and presumably makes a few bucks, by maintaining a Christmas-year-‘round environment. I was caught and passed on the main street, right in front of a concrete snowman in the town square with a cement icicle hanging from his ceramic carrot nose. Down the street I could see a much sunburned man mowing his lawn.
“Don’t race him just run with him” called Willy from his front row seat. Willy was about two years older than the rest of us but infinitely wiser. I settled in, stared at the other runner’s back, and tried to use as little effort as possible to stay with him. For a moment I wondered why runners, given a two-lane road, will still choose to stay inches apart. But mainly I just stared. “This isn’t a race man, huff huff, its a tempo run” I said to my own mind. “Be cool and hang, puff puff, let HIM worry for a bit”. And from that moment on everything changed. We left town and it was two runners and the curve of the earth, visible in all directions through the waves of heat. A buzzard hovered overhead, and two cars hovered nearby, but these things didn’t exist in our universe. The other boy decided to force me back into the lead and I simply took it. Soon he was gone. People were yelling but I didn’t pay attention to them. Heat was my friend, sun was my friend, and pain was my close personal buddy. Soon I could hear only my own team mates and the predicted catastrophe came true. But it occurred several hundred yards behind me, then minutes behind me.
And that’s all I remember about that.
It was easily the best race I ever ran in my life. Nothing else that I have ever done has come close. Not even remotely. And I have absolutely nothing to show for it.
On the other hand, I DO have a trophy as tall as my waist, that I won by finishing 4th place in my age group in a race in Zanesville, Ohio. I chickened out early in that race and jogged in…but sponsorship, and trophies, were plentiful. And so I got a beauty.
I also once won a shrub at a race where I finished mid-pack. I put it in my back yard and forgot to plant it, or water it, and it died. Alas. I won a pair of shoes for running 4 minutes slower than my P.R. in a 10K. I ran my fastest-ever road marathon in 1986 and my prize was a congratulatory form-letter from Dick Celeste mounted in a frame (I’m not making that up). I finished 10th place in a race once and learned at the finish line that I was the sixth master’s runner to finish…so no hardware that day. Once I finished behind 7 guys in the 50-59 division but still managed to win the 40-45 age division. That time I won a plastic foot bath. It was cool because it created bubbles. But it broke and I no longer have it. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere but I can’t think about it now. Its just too sad.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to awards. Its hard to know what they really mean, isn’t it? Ancient man didn’t run for awards. Maybe we shouldn’t be running for them as well. Ancient man would run to bring messages or track game. He was probably considered to be valuable to the community and thus was likely to be revered. As a proven provider he would possibly attract a wonderful mate. But no awards, no trophies.
Actually, on second thought, we are getting screwed!
After all, if winning a race would bring me riches, respect, and my choice of the ladies I would train like the wind! Instead we get trinkets. And not cool trinkets like socks with toes, or body glide. But large trophies for modest performances and congratulatory letters from the man who reduced my college financial aid package for good ones. If they are so unreliable in their value and prestige can ‘things’ be considered to be awards at all?
I won a trophy in college for placing high in the “Open” race at the Malone Invitational in 1984. The reason that I was in the open race was because I was not a top-seven runner for O.U. and, thus, did not qualify for the varsity race. My third place time in the open race would have netted me 63rd place in the varsity race. Strangely, my team mate Dave won the varsity race and received no award of any kind. I tried to sneak the trophy onto the bus in my gym bag but my team mates found it and razzed me mercilessly all the way back to Athens. They each took turns presenting the award to me by making increasingly more audacious and outrageous presentation speeches. It was wonderful. And hilarious. It also summed up our attitudes about awards.
No one cared about them at all.
And when you think about it that’s a beautiful thing.
We didn’t run for awards. That’s what we said and I believe that’s what we wanted to mean. Our cross country team at Ohio U. was ranked 18th nationally for a while but we knew that the football team, with a 1-9 record, would still get all of the attention and money. It had been that way for all of us…and for all of our lives. The truths of the inequalities and unfair nature of fame had been pounded into our psyches so many times that the concept had lost all of its integrity. I have spoken about this with so many runners, at so many events, covering so many distances, over so many years and spanning generations, that I have come to believe that the enmity we have for awards is nearly universal. And sincere. And yet incomplete.
We must desire awards for SOME reason or races would not have them. I have to admit that I love getting a trinket at the end of a race. I do now and I secretly did then. It’s a guilty pleasure. I know that at my level any award that I receive is as much a matter of who DIDN’T show up as it is a matter of who I finished ahead of. But really you can say the same thing about awards at any level.
Maybe what we are really seeking is peer review. Maybe we want an honest assessment; an outcome measure of our hard work. I recall that occasionally, on LBAC training runs, we would spontaneously break into song…and it was always the same song: ‘The Cover of the Rolling Stone’ by Dr. Hook. Geeber would sing harmony while Kevin and I would perform backup duties. We thought it was a goofy song and I don’t recall it having any particular meaning for us at the time. But all of these years later I wonder if we chose it accidentally. Sing along please:
We’ve got lots of little teenage, blue eyed groupies,
who’ll do anything we say.
We got a genuine Indian guru,
who’s teaching us a better way.
We’ve got all the friends that money can buy,
so we never have to be alone.
And we keep getting richer, but we can’t get our picture, on the cover of the Rolling Stone.
The song was ultimately about a band that had everything but the thing it most desired, the respect of its community. Did we choose that song accidentally? Twenty-some years later I believe that there was absolutely not a chance that our collective consciousness didn’t choose it for us. We were a bunch of young guys blowing every last cent we had on running shoes and entry fees. Pounding away on concrete sidewalks, and for what? I have come to believe that we did it for the same reason ancient man did it; for respect. And ancient man did it for the same reason a bus load cross country runners gave up the bars on Friday nights; for standing within their community. Were the tales told around a campfire thousands of years ago any grander than the tales told around a tailgate of an Isuzu Trooper parked near the entrance gait to the Mackinaw Bridge? Were the rites of manhood bestowed upon a young hunter really worlds apart from the taunts, which told a beaten down college sophomore that “You don’t need a trophy. Screw the trophy. You showed a spark of life today…and we noticed…and the reason we noticed is because you are one of us”?
I recently had reason to clean out my basement. In a dusty corner I found a piece of poster board, encased in a picture frame protected by cracked glass. The award was evidence that I was part of a team that ran across the enemy's state in 1990. The poster states that the Low Budget Athletic Club finished in second place, by a total of 65 seconds, over a distance of 330 miles. I will never throw this award away. It is a modern-day eagle's feather. It has meaning because it is evidence of a time when I counted coup with my tribe...maybe other awards are as well.
The evening after the third day of the Michigan relay race the two tribes sat around a public park, sneaking beer from brown paper bags. Suddenly it was just one tribe, a cluster of individuals who could understand the thrill of the hunt. Winners and losers didn’t matter any more.
These are nice memories. But they do not make me sad and they do not make me nostalgic. We are blessed with the best reward of all. If thousands of years didn’t erode the sense of community that runners can share then surely 20 years can not possibly make a dent at all. The community and sense of peer approval that echoes across years and generations, when we test ourselves on the field of battle, will never end. It’s the reason why the winner of the Mohican 100 mile run can jog along with a runner who finished in last place, they can compare their buckles, and they can share stories, and they share a bond. I believe this connection exists in no other sport.