Monday, November 1, 2010

Us and Them

To be very clear: I am receiving e-mails from early readers who are offering sympathy re: Mac's death. This is very sweet but Mac is a bit of a composite character. There is some artistic (I'm using the word loosely) license taken. Mac is absolutely based on a real guy. But that guy is still alive and running well and as cranky as ever....and he does love Shaun Pope. Who doesn't? Peace. --Mark
Oh, and while I'm at it...the Frank Shorter stuff in this article came from plenty of other authors, mostly Kenny Moore. I remember watching the race, but not in that kind of detail : )

Mac Tar died at 11:32 a.m. on Tuesday, September 26.

Well, his “clock time” was 11:32, but his “chip time” was 11:26. Mac had been a runner forever and ever and ever. He was kind of old but runners live to ripe old age unless they fall over cliffs or are killed by angry spouses. And so the funeral was crowded. In fact it was so crowded they had to use a wave start to accommodate all of those who wished to pay their respects. I arrived late and so I was placed in one of the later waves but, despite this, I was there when the honor guard came through and placed the thin silver mylar blanket across his coffin; an honor reserved exclusively for veterans…of many races. When the blanket was in place the most senior officer gave Mac’s widow a 3-inch piece of rounded metal that stated that Mac had completed a course that began on August 18, 1946 and concluded on September 26, 2010. It was his final finisher’s medal. Some of the mourners told stories of Mac’s many adventures. Some even risked telling a joke or two. Some of them simply stretched their gastoc/soleus muscle groups and sobbed. They each, in turn, passed the refreshment table, quickly downed a cup of punch, and threw the cup on the floor. They were who they were and so they did things in this way.

Mac Tar was a roadie.

Mac was always a roadie I suppose. But back then, back in my childhood when I met Mac, back when I had never met anyone like him before, back before Frank, and Bill, and Fred Lebow, and back before the Galloway-zation of his beloved sport, there really wasn’t any such term. Actually all runners were roadies…well almost. There were the track guys, but they mostly kept to themselves, wouldn’t condescend to speak to a road racer, and ran for medals, awards, and records. They ran for schools and when they graduated they were usually done. The track guys became cross country guys in the off-season…but they were trackies nonetheless. Other than this small sect nearly everyone ran road races.

Being a roadrunner wasn’t what made Mac stand out. The thing that made Mac stand out, the thing that made him unusual, the thing that made him fascinating and, well, odd, was the fact that he was a marathoner.

I remember as a kid my Dad would, twice a year, load me into our family car and we would drive to Medina to hoard up on meat at a packing plant there. Back then there wasn’t really anything in Medina and so we would drive into the country; Dad throwing Pall Mall butts out the window every now and again. It was a 25 mile round trip and Dad would always tell me that Mac could run to the meat packing plant and back if he wanted to. It was almost too much for my 8 year old mind to grasp. Mac lived just down the street from us and I would sit on his lawn mower in his garage and visit with him occasionally. He wore a very tiny bicycling hat and he had a lengthy beard. He also wore John-Lennon-Granny-Glasses. Unlike every other adult I knew, he was extremely thin. He would do bizarre stretching exercises involving very rapid movements and he would talk about how, out on the road, in that space between the physically possible and the physically impossible, during the miles that the body traveled mysteriously without fuel, he would have (and I’m using his exact language) a “mind blowing, freak-out journey” where he would connect with the universe through his acts of unexplainable endurance. My Dad liked him well enough and used to say “He’s OK … I wouldn’t loan him any money or introduce him to my sister…but he’s harmless enough.” My Mom, on the other hand, was scared shitless of the guy.

Mac had a handful of friends who ran marathons as well. They didn’t live near each other but they would meet at Eddie’s boat dock in Lakewood on Saturday mornings and race each other for 10 miles, after which they would do a ten-mile warm-down run. Mac once finished in third place at the Heartwatcher’s marathon in Bowling Green in a time of 2:38. Heartwatcher’s was considered to be one of the most competitive marathons in the Midwest, but it was nothing compared to Boston. Every spring Mac and his buddies would travel to the Boston Marathon where HUNDREDS of runners would practice his craft. I imagined it exactly as Mac described it; a gathering of practitioners of the art of super-endurance. Mac was known for having these abilities and for living on the line between the physical and the spiritual, and he wore the reputation well.

He was our town’s hippie-monastic-marathoner.

Then one day in September of 1972 Mac’s world changed a bit. Mom was out of town and so Mac was over at our house drinking cans of POC with Dad and watching the Olympic Marathon on TV. The field of Olympic marathoners, Mac explained, was loaded. The defending champion, a mysterious runner from Ethiopia, was back, and there was a guy from Australia who held the world record for the marathon and bragged of running so hard that he “pissed blood” after workouts. One guy from Great Britain had once won the BOSTON MARATHON (!) and came to the line dressed, head-to-toe, in a special metallic-looking outfit designed to deflect heat. There was also an American runner, Frank Shorter, who was running so well that the TV network decided to televise the entire race live. Mac explained that Shorter was terrific but he was really a track guy and shouldn’t be expected to compete with the marathon superstars running through the warm streets of Munich. To add to the drama, the network brought in Eric Segal, one of Frank’s classics professors from Yale, to describe the poetry of the marathon to the American viewers. Segal was a marathoner himself and explained the concept of “The Wall”. He told the story of the ancient battle on the plains of Marathon and explained, in a more poetic way than Mac could, that the marathon was a race of attrition. Runners would place the dial exactly on the line between cruising and overheating, and the last one to run out of fuel was the winner.

Segal was most famously known as the author of ”Love story”, a book-turned-movie-turned-box-office-runaway-hit. The most famous line from the movie was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

At the 15 kilometer mark in Munich Shorter demonstrated that he must have been paying attention in Segal’s class as he unapologetically threw down a 67 second quarter mile, followed immediately by a 68, then another 67, then another 68. At which point he was 150 yards clear of the field. Mac was shaking his head at the tragedy. “You can’t do that man!” cried Mac. “He is blowing his glycogen out. He’s gonna run out of fuel and the big boys are gonna eat him up when he crashes into the wall at 20 miles”.

Surges like this, Segal explained, were common in the late stages of a marathon, but what Frank was doing was risky, may be too risky. This was the stuff you would see in track races. Frank was a track man and this was a mistake. Shorter seemed unconcerned as he ran the same pace as his chasers (steady five minute miles) and held his lead.

Three miles later he repeated his surge and doubled his lead.

And three miles after that he did it again and put the race completely out of reach.

Segal spoke poetically of the mysticism of the marathon but his words were in stark contrast to the ass-kicking that America was watching on the screen. Sure, Shorter was delightful to watch. His stride was perfectly balanced and smooth as silk …but then again so was one of Mohammed Ali’s knockout punches. Frank didn’t look monastic at all; he looked athletic. And with the race a foregone conclusion, and many miles to cover, the USA and the world were allowed to witness the flow of power that represented what marathon running could be. It looked natural. It looked attainable. It looked…beautiful. It looked like what humans, normal people, were meant to do.

Later that night my Dad put on his loosest pair of pants, and a green softball windbreaker, and went for a jog. So did millions of other Americans. Soon there were marathons and marathoners everywhere. A few years after Shorter’s win we had several marathon runners on my block alone. Heck, my old man could now run to the meat packing plant and back if he felt like it.

And at the same time America’s track guys, the only people watching the Munich race that comprehended why Shorter was surging, began to put in long Saturday morning runs themselves.

The marathon went haywire. It seemed like everyone in the world had an aunt or an uncle or a sibling who could run a marathon…and not all of them were slow. The track guys came in and turned the race into a stiff 20 miler followed by a 10,000 meter race.

Mac ran hundreds of marathons after that and he had many adventures. But he never really seemed the same. Something was now different and you could see it in Mac’s eyes. He was still a leader in his community but his community was now huge. He never turned bitter and he never stopped running, or being loved. But I believe that for the rest of his life he felt an emptiness that he couldn’t ever completely identify.

The last time I saw Mac we had a good chance to visit. And we had a lot to talk about. I had completed the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic (YUT-C) 50 Kilometer run the day before and then drove to Cleveland to volunteer at the North Coast 24 Hour Run, which was serving as this year’s USATF National Championship. After having run the Youngstown race, failing to shower, and staying up all night I wasn’t looking or feeling well. Mac joked with the hospice nurse that I should “pull up a bed and get hooked up to the laughing gas”.

I told Mac about the 24 hour race but he was in some pain, or maybe just disinterested. I was unsure whether he wanted to talk at all and I was considering whether or not I should simply leave and allow him to rest. Then he asked about Shaun. Mac never actually met Shaun Pope but he did attend the Run for Regis 50 Kilometer Trail run last winter. He came to the race to see me run. Mac always said that I was “reformed” because I left my “Trackie” ways behind for the marathon. He didn’t quite get this trail running business, though, and wanted to witness the weirdness first hand. Mac caught one look at Shaun running far ahead of the rest of the field at Regis, protected from the ice and snow by only shorts and a T-shirt and an ear-to-ear smile, and became an instant fan. “That kid doesn’t see the need for those water bottles you seem to have developed an addiction to” he said, peering accusingly at my fanny pack. “Yeah, Shaun is amazing but if he crashes with no warm clothes or water he will be in trouble” I said. “Guarantees!” grunted Mac. “Everyone wants a guarantee. That kid guaranteed his success while he was training, so he knows he WON’T crash.” Mac saw Shaun as the real deal and he smiled when I told him that I was barely past the finish line, with most of an EIGHT MILE lap still ahead of me at YUT-C when I heard the siren go off and the crowd cheering for Shaun as he won the race. “See?” he said, “I told you that kid was the gen-u-ine article!”

I also told Mac some of the things that were bothering me about the weekend, and about the sport in general. For one thing there were now so many races that the competition was getting spread thin. Worse yet most of my friends were attending different races and we never seemed to see each other anymore. I told him that I was afraid that it was killing our community. Mac told me that he knew just what I meant. “It used to be” he recollected “that in a nothing race like the Rocky River 5 Mile you’d have to break 25:30 to get into the top twenty. What was your time that year when you came home from college and got third?” he asked. ”I ran a 25:45” I admitted “And I see your point. There must have been five other races in Northeastern Ohio that weekend”. Mac nodded “Well its even worse now. These days there must be 10 races each weekend in Cleveland alone, all of them 5K’s it seems, and you can win plenty of them if you can string three sixes together. It seems like having more races would provide more opportunities and lead to faster times, but when the fast guys never race each other they stop needing to be fast. Know what I mean?” I nodded “Yeah, I got 7th at YUT-C but if you threw all of the ultra-folks racing in Ohio that day into one race, like it would have been several years ago, I wouldn’t have likely cracked the top forty. Shawn won the race by close to an hour. Imagine what he would have run if he was pushed!”

I told Mac that during the Youngstown race I took an epic fall. I fall down occasionally when I race, I suppose everyone does, and Mac knew this. But this fall was a bad one. I tore up my elbow, scraped most of the skin from my shin, and for several minutes thought that I might have fractured my kneecap. As I was standing up I noticed that my very good friend Terri Lemke had chosen the exact same moment to take a similarly serious spill just ahead of me on the trail. The runner who was running between Terri and I simply sidestepped her and continued on down the trail. I had never seen this type of behavior in a trail race before and it made me furious. We have a tradition in trail running of looking out for one another. If a runner gets hurt you help. If a runner has no water you share. If it means that your race is slightly slower that’s OK.

We are who we are and so we do things in this way.

But this guy just ran right on past. “Its all of these roadies invading the sport Mac, they just don’t get it! There’s litter all over the trails as well. I volunteered at the Towpath marathon last year and you wouldn’t have believed it, thousands of paper cups everywhere. People just throw them on the course. And they all seem to complain if there aren’t trophies and expensive T-shirts. Heck, its 65 dollars to enter a race anymore because of the swag that the roadies expect. And there are so many of them that if you don’t register for a race several months in advance it sells out.” Then I realized that there are bigger problems in life and added “Sorry to whine.” Mac responded “Hey friend, no sense in breaking an old habit now; Not on my account anyway.” Then he smiled and said “ But I know what you mean. Back the first year your old man ran Cleveland they shut the course down after four hours. Now you got folks walking the thing in 7 hours and stopping to shop for dress shoes along the course. Do you suppose that they would have let our boy Shaun run at Regis if he didn’t have his money in quick enough?” Now it was my turn to smile “I don’t know Mac. Everybody loves Shaun so maybe, but a slower or less charming guy might get shut out in favor of a window shopper with a fast internet connection.” The nurse came back into the room to turn Mac and heard this part of the conversation. Mac winked at her and said “Well then this guy better stay near the mailbox because he hasn’t won a race or a congeniality contest in years.”

We talked for a while longer about running, then about friends, and family. After awhile I noticed the nurse giving me the skunk-eye and figured that was my sign to leave. “Hey, tell your Dad hi”. He said. I promised that I would. Then he said “About the roadies Mark. Forget it man. If they start to bother you spend that energy running. The track guys?… shit. And housewife marathoners attending aerobics classes at the starting lines of marathons used to drive me nuts. But after awhile I figured that as crazy as the world is, they might just as well be out running somewhere instead of sitting in a bar, or a crack house, or a prison. Everybody is a little bit fucked up you know. It just depends which flavor of weird you prefer.” I nodded “Its OK Mac I’m not all that bothered. I figure if I went from a trackie, to a roadie, to a trail guy I can become something else if I need to. I hear there’s a trail around Mt. Ranier that is like 95 miles. They don’t give T-shirts but the entry fee is free if I decide to attend.”

“I should have hit some of your trails Mark. If you go to Ranier you better bring that fanny pack along. But seriously dude, no aerobics at the start. A man does need to draw the line.”

I bought a house last spring that sits on my estate, which measures 1/10th of an acre. Sometimes I like to feel like I’m in the country so I burn sticks in my fire pit and look up at the stars, and think about life. When stars aren’t available I look up into the streetlights, and think about life. A few days after Mac died I was sitting by the fire burning pieces of a box spring mattress that wouldn’t fit up the stairs when I moved in. There were no stars out and some kids shook the streetlight so it wasn’t on. And so I looked into the fire and thought about life. I felt kind of bad about burning the wood pieces of the box spring. That was some lucky wood. I figured it could have survived maybe 50 years if I had left it alone. On the other hand if it had remained a tree it could have been toppled, of it could have lived hundreds of years. Who knew? I wondered if it would be better to be dead with a guaranteed future or alive with a chance of catastrophe at any time. There are some large trees in my neighborhood and I started thinking that the best thing might be to be alive but part of a very well established tree. Most of a larger, older tree would be made of inner wood…lots of rings. The wood on the inside of a tree did its growing years ago and now seems to be safe from the harm that a small fire, or a mild drought, or a kid with a crush and a pocket knife might cause. The wood on the inside would be safe. It would be alive but it would no longer be growing. It occurred to me that the world is full of people like this. And the running world is filled with runners like this as well.

Mac used to say that when it comes to success in running that “Maintaining is easier than attaining”. His point was that it could take years to get your training right, your aerobic level built up, and your racing skills honed. He said that after a runner hit this level they could actually do much less work, and virtually no experimenting, and maintain this level. Mac didn’t believe the old adage that we are either improving or growing worse, but never static. He told me that he knew plenty of folks who were, and are, static. As I looked into the fire I figured that these people would be the inner rings on a tree; alive but not growing.

The older I get and the more years that I run the more I believe that Mac might have been correct. I have noticed that all of my friends who are new runners, or at least runners who are new to trail running, are those who are doing the most extreme work. My newish running friends always seem to be those who are doing the crazy shit like running back-to-back 50K’s, or running with no shoes, or staying out for six hours in a freezing weather…maybe with only a T-shirt and a smile. These new runners, many of them new to the trails or, if you prefer “reformed roadies”, seem to be the hungriest. These individuals, like the outer ring of a tree, are exposed to the harshness and uncertainty of their environment, but they also seem to be the runners, the people, who are improving. I know far too many seasoned and accomplished champions of industry, or champions of the academy, or champions of immigration reform, or champions of the trail who would be inside by a fire talking about the old days and defending their ever encroached-upon turf while the newbies are out producing growth and sending up new branches. Even though Mac preached of the growth that comes from newness I think that he only really recognized its truth near the end. And I think he saw it in Shaun.

I don’t know why people always seem to divide into tribes. Why do we always defend the status quo? If we are actually improving then why would we ever miss the past? Maybe we are lazy and wish to exclude newcomers. Maybe we are hoarders of glory.

Then again maybe we aren’t so very evil. Maybe we miss the old days because we miss the exclusivity of it all. Maybe we just miss our youth.

October is prime marathon season and so it was recently time for the Towpath Marathon again. I was running it this time and I was running along pretty well, all things considered. It was, as expected, chaotic and crazy and you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a cross trainer. Near the end the temperature started to climb and I started to lose it a bit. The clock was ticking and time is a worthy opponent, especially when a course lacks the accustomed adversaries: roots, rocks, mud, and hills.

And so I took a quick swig of punch from the table and threw the cup onto the trail. This was where I found myself and so I did things in this way.