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I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.  –Woody Allen

To the Cathedral

On Sunday, October 6th, I woke up feeling a lot like I had the morning of Ironman Wisconsin just four weeks before. I was about to run my 26th Twin Cities Marathon and I didn’t feel too much reason for optimism. My hip and hamstring had continued to hurt after running Wisconsin and I had not laid down the training base to facilitate a good marathon. Put otherwise, regardless of my attitude, I had not done the  necessary work to race fast. As a result, my attitude crept down to meet my physical preparation. I felt somewhat excited but more apprehensive and resigned to my prospects.

It was cold – about 40 degrees – and the sun was not yet up when I walked our 13-year old dog, Gizmo. In the damp darkness, Gizmo and I strolled up the street as we had so many times before. He was unaccustomed to such an early walk and proceeded slowly. My hands stiffened in the cold.

Margy and I didn’t say much on the way downtown to the start area. We had made that drive for so many years. She dropped me off at a body shop where we had stopped so many times before on Twin Cities Marathon race mornings. I remembered occasions when we had been there with my parents and with Katie. Now it was just us.

“See you at Lake Calhoun,” Margy said as she took off. The sun had risen enough to see pretty well but it was still chilly. Runners, their friends and family walked by. Many of the runners lifted their knees high, running in place. Spectators wore heavy clothes and carried steaming cups of coffee.

I headed toward the Metrodome and the 10,000 or so runners waiting there to start. People crowded the hallways to stay warm and to take advantage of one last indoor bathroom break. Runners wore stocking hats, shorts, long-sleeved dry fit shirts and cheap gloves that they might toss along the course as the day warmed. Some old school guys like me wore trash bags that we could rip off and throw away just before the race began. If succeeding generations of runners cease to use trash bags, ours will be a poorer world for it. Trash bags are great apparel for cold race mornings.

I happened to stand alongside two guys who looked to be about my age. I had been concerned because my race packet did not contain a back tag – a tag used to identify me as a member of the 50-54 age group. Back tags help runners know who they are passing – and who they have been passed by – to the extent that they want to compete with those in their own age group.

I asked where one of the guys had gotten his back tag. He was in my age group. He shrugged. “It was in my race packet.”

The other guy was defiant. “I’m just not wearing a back tag, period,” he said. Then he said “Back tag!” as if it ought to be constitutionally prohibited.

It was still a little early in the morning for righteous indignation so far as I was concerned.

As it turned out, both guys had graduated from Bowdoin College in 1985. Youngsters. We talked about Katie, who was half way across the country and just about to compete in a regatta for the Bowdoin rowing team.

The announcer began the final race instructions. The runners pressed toward the starting line. The crowd grew dense and it felt warmer. I removed my trash bag and draped it over the police barricade along the sidewalk. Conversations ceased. I remembered that in just two days I would be in the next age group up. My hip and hamstring felt stiff.

After my friend Jim D’Aurora sang the National Anthem, we were off. Though I felt cautious and did not want to push, I was surprised. My legs moved easily. I was running pretty well. We turned left on Hennepin and the rising sun cut bright slivers between the buildings, illuminating small segments of the long human ribbon bobbing into the distance. Those dashes of bright orange interspersed longer darker blue segments that pulsed rhythmically in odd synchronization with the steamy breaths rising, then disappearing. A few people talked but it was mostly quiet and contemplative. In the distance ahead, I could hear the Minneapolis Cathedral bells ring.

The road turned slightly west as we crested a hill and the Cathedral came into full view. As the road had risen and turned, we were cast into direct sunlight. The early warm glow shone bright on the gray face of the Cathedral, its bells all ringing loudly. I looked around and everyone was moving smoothly. Me, too. The western sky was a clear, light blue. Suddenly, the pall of doubt cast over Ironman Wisconsin and the Twin Cities Marathon lifted. I once again realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Somehow, I felt that I was made for this. I felt fast. I cut down hard on the corner, running a tight tangent heading south toward the Walker Art Center hill.

As it turned out, I did not have the base to support a very strong marathon. I faded some during the last half of the race but it didn’t seem to matter much. I enjoyed myself. It felt great to feel great. My hip and hamstring bothered me not at all. I was connected again to running. I love to run. Sure, I was not fast by any standard that I would have applied to myself for many, many years. Even so, I was out there running and passing about as many people as were passing me. “Not bad,” I thought.

Florida

Two days later, I celebrated my 55th birthday in Riviera Beach, Florida. Margy and I had gone to clear out her father’s and step mother’s condominium. At 90 and 85, respectively, John and Gert were no longer up for the trip from Cleveland to Florida. Margy and I were there to prepare the condo for sale.

We sorted through decades of possessions, most of which were inexpensive, many patched together with duct tape, my father-in-law’s repair for anything. Much of the accumulation struck me as incomprehensible. I probably would not have bought a lot of the items to begin and I couldn’t imagine why they had kept bushels of stained clothing, old toothpicks and cracked rubber bands. Then I put the shoe on the other foot and wondered what Katie would think if she were suddenly forced to sort through my closet or workshop. I remembered where my old rubber bands were.

We packed a lot of boxes and took several trips to the FedEx store. Jim Lang owned the Singer Island Pack and Ship. Jim was a retired guy who didn’t like retirement. He was tall with receding gray hair and reading glasses propped low on his nose.

“I worked for Daimler for 34 years,” he said. “I tried retirement and didn’t like it. I’m a worker.”

After our first trip to Jim’s, Margy sent me by myself and Jim let me behind the counter to tape and address the boxes of clothing and household supplies. He showed me where to get a few things and we developed a rhythm. Jim ran the computer, I taped and addressed boxes.  We got through a lot of stuff pretty fast. Once my work was done, I stepped out from behind the counter and took a seat facing Jim, who was still working on the computer as he faced out toward the street. On a lower table just to the side of the computer sat a faded photo. It showed what looked like an Asian street scene. The picture was Scotch-taped to a commendation from the then governor of New Jersey. The commendation thanked Jim for his service in the infantry during the Vietnam war. I asked Jim about the picture.

“That was a high end village,” he said. “Concrete buildings.”

“That must have been a rough time,” I said.

“If we couldn’t win their hearts and minds,” he commented with a bitter smile, “we blew them away. That was just the way it was.”

“How long were you there?”

“Just a year, then I got malaria. Once you got malaria, they sent you home,” Jim said peering at me over the wire-rimmed reading glasses. I guess that Jim told me all I needed to know about Vietnam – or at least Jim’s Vietnam.

Jim handed me the receipt and I turned to leave.

“Only in Florida can you have a 55-year old trainee they call “the Kid,”” I offered. Jim smiled.

“I guess so. Thanks for your help,” Jim said.

End of the Season

I really don’t know what I learned at Wildflower, the Minneapolis Marathon, Afton Trail Run, Ironman Wisconsin, or Twin Cities Marathon or in Florida. It’s still a mish mash. I learned that time passes and that things are not the same, that the enthusiasms of life can fade; the old ceases to be new. Old is just old. But I also learned that the comforts of the old are indispensable, even if they are not otherwise useful. Sometimes memories of good times can make the present seem a little drab. Memories of bad times are just bad memories and it doesn’t make things better to remember that some things used to be worse than they are now. Some good memories are perpetually sustaining. I learned that memories really only mean something, though, if they are attached to someone. I learned again how important people close to me remain after so many years.

I learned that notwithstanding the way I might feel to the contrary, every day is a good day. Better do something fun.

I learned that trash bags are still useful marathon race day apparel and that duct tape really does fix a lot.

Using all that I learned last season, I have formed a plan: I am just going to keep showing up as long as I can. Something good will happen.

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80 percent of life is just showing up. –Woody Allen

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