Monday, April 6, 2009
It was as if the gods were doing a little spring cleaning and were ridding the skies of any leftover weather. They threw out freezing rain, pelting ice, wet snow, and winds that actually had an undertow. It was a typical spring day, if you live in the Yukon.
We began at Boulevard Brewery, downtown Kansas City, where the first of our two ringers took an early lead. Jason Parr, our first ringer, showed up dressed in his singlet, his tights, and his racing flats. When Jason took our "Pass the Bunny" baton, his ensemble was complete. There's nothing quite so sublime as an elite athlete proudly shoving a Hershey's Kisses plastic tube with a bunny on the top down his shorts. Is that our baton, Jason, or are you just happy to be in the race? Not one to stand around with the rest of his cohorts who were making fun of the other teams, Jason and his hyperkinetic pragmatism quickly peeled off after our group picture. I've heard about these types of runners, the kind who actually warm up to run, but I thought it was a myth. At precisely 9:30 AM, with a light sweat covering him, Jason and his flight of runners started, thereby setting us off on our odyssey from Kansas City to Lawrence.
The skies were angry, my friend, when the race began. Jason and another runner took an early, decisive lead. Knowing our team's dominance was in good hands, the rest of us broke out the bagels and cream cheese, and made our way to the first of many "Where the hell are we?" handoff points. Gretchen Farmer's sister, Heidi, our second ringer, kept track of Jason's expected split. With just over eight miles to run, we believed Jason would be striding in right around 10:25, which he did. His skin was wind whipped, a long cord of spit trailed from his chin. He handed the bunny baton to Gretchen and began telling us his story of levees and spiraling ramps, stairways and missed cut-offs. In short, Jason and his other first-leggers ran a combination cross-country and free-running course, and even though he and one other freak of nature ran an extra mile due to a less than clearly marked course, they STILL managed to beat the rest of their flight. And then he ran some more. Again, you hear about these urban myths of runners cooling down with an extra mile or two, but you never think you'll see one...
Gretchen Farmer, who had accepted the prized baton, began her leg, and spent the next four miles being pelted by shards of frozen rain. One had to wonder what terrible sins she must have committed in a previous life. Not for nothin', those of us trailing in the van remarked on how lousy the weather outside the van was. We did roll the window down once to yell our support, and then we went back to our coffee. While Gretchen was covering her miles, the rest of us realized how many movies and TV shows we all have in common. On a personal note, I tip my hat to you, Mr. Farmer, for singing a wonderful rendition of Adam Sandler's "Lunch Lady," and for finishing the sentence, "What does one do with broccoli?" Truly, it's remarkable that any of us made it through college, let alone Master's programs. There was also discussion of using our downtime to sample some of the regional cuisine, which led to freely offered insights into a few of our teammates' gastrointestinal predilections. Good to know, Chris Farmer...
When the rain/wind ratio hit that really awe-inspiring mix, the mix that turns umbrellas inside out and soaks through the most minute seams of raingear, Chris and Heidi ran out to meet their wife and sister. That left three of us in the van to discuss proper potty procedures should you not be anywhere near a potty. One word--socks. But there was a handoff afoot, and so it was up to Chris Jacquin, gentleman runner, to carry on the mantle.
Let me take this moment to describe our friend, the genteman runner. Chris showed up at the race dressed all in black, except for a jaunty splash of mint-green. When I asked if he had brought clothes to change into, he eyed me incredulously and said, "I'll be changing in the car." I haven't known Chris that long, and, frankly, I didn't care to get to know him on that level. Maybe after he's tenured. When the time came for Chris to strip down, off came the black Van skate shoes, off with the black winter coat, off with the black fleece pants, off came the black V-neck sweater over the mint-green polo, and under it all were black tights, black shorts, and a black dry-weave long-sleeve. The mint-green polo remained. Kind of a running death wish with a hint of hope. After alerting the gentleman runner that Gretchen was nearing the exchange, Chris leapt from the van. We busted out laughing and broke it to him that it was a false alarm. Chris muttered something that I'm sure was inappropriate, and skulked back to the van. A minute later when Gretchen "Save the Bunny" Farmer appeared on the horizon, Chris did finally saunter out to the handoff point, shivering, his arms wrapped around his pretty little polo. He took the baton with a bow, whispered something, and took off like a freakin' Easter-egg-green antelope. We bundled back into the nice, warm van, and drove by Edgar Allen Jacquin, who saluted us with a side kick, and blazed a trail for our next exchange. It was at this point that Gretchen told us about her heroic effort to keep our bunny baton whole, verily circling back to save the bunny after it had been severed from the tube. We were all impressed by her humanitarian efforts and wondered if Chris would have the same sense of continuity.
The baton was an empty tube when the gentleman runner strode into the truck stop/Mexican restaurant. One can only imagine the feeling of abandonment our little bunny experienced when Jacquin casually and callously ripped its plastic corpus off the baton and flung it to the ground. In our hearts we know Chris used those Hershey kisses to litter the ground with ankle-breaking obstacles for unprepared runners. You're a cruel man, Chris, yet a gentleman, nonetheless.
I'd like to pause here to report a fact I learned about Heidi, Gretchen's sister--she's a vegeterian who doesn't like the smell of beef jerky. In fact, the only thing worse than the smell of beef jerky is the image of Jacquin saying something about stuffing beef jerky down his shorts. It's still bewildering to those of us in the van why Chris conceived of this idea, but it did take our minds off the weather.
Next up, Vic "The Lynchpin" Abundis, who took to the roads in spectacular fashion. True, we were concerned his willowy calves and pre-pubescent girl thighs wouldn't support the added weight once his 100% cotton sweatshirt became soaked with melted snow. And yes, we did consider that Vic wouldn't actually know if the exchange point was at the bottom or the top of the hill, so why not just drive on up there and wait. And yes, we all kind of didn't expect Vic to show up as quickly as he did, so when, during the middle of a conversation about 'The Office," Vic's bewildered face appeared outside the van's steamed-over window, we all kind of cracked up. The gentelman runner, having stripped off his wet, mint-green polo, threw on his dry, cherry-red polo, and jumped out of the van to begin his second leg. Better him than, well, anyone.
Because this is a family-read blog, I cannot report verbatim the string of expletives Vic used to describe his leg. The basic sentence was "Man, it was cold and windy out there," but the result was more like three times the length. Sincerely, it was a masterful use of vulgarity, both in differentiated vocabulary, brilliance in conjugation, uncompromising religious offensiveness and sheer volume.
Once polo boy had started, we drove ahead. Or should I say up. I believe in the powers of the glaciers and the hills left behind when the glaciers receded. But dear goodness, where the hell did this hill come from in the middle of the damn prairie? I might have complained more vociferously, but I was too busy thanking Gretchen for having not signed me up for that leg.
The exchange point between Chris' leg and mine was at a farm in the middle of nowhere that was surrounded by nothing. The porta-potties did have paper, though, which was nice. I had a singular prayer while waiting for the handoff--"Please, God, let my team pass by in the van quickly, and keep them from checking on my progress..." Even though I had warned them all that I would be the weak-link of the team, I didn't want to prove it in living, inglorious color. I'd like to think they were sharing in my excitement when I spotted the van stopped on the side of the road three miles into my leg. I'm pretty sure they were making sure I hadn't collapsed somewhere along the route, begging someone, anyone to just roll me into the drainage ditch.
Parr had the Special Forces obstacle course; Gretchen had freezing rain; Vic had globs of snow; Jacquin had his polo shirts. What was my handicap? The wind. I'm talking wind that undercut my footing when it was coming square out of the north, which was half the time, and wind that stood me up like a statue in mid-stride when it roared out of the west. Remember the hills? Gone. Open prairies. One mile in, and my right nostril was freeze dried like a rose dipped in dry ice. There came a moment when I knew it was faster to walk than run. I swear the wind pushed me back every time I tried to stride. Four miles in was the adventure I had prepared for by watching "Band of Brothers" over and over. There were prisoners in Hagenau on the other side of that frozen river, and I, like Easy Company, was on a mission to get to them. Slightly less dramatic than gathering intel in the middle of a war, my river crossing was no less...wet. No, I didn't have German guns focused on me, nor was I covering the distance during the night, and, yes, the "special rescue" fire fighters out of Lawrence held my hand as I squished down the hill. They also required we each wear a wet, muddy lifejacket before we entered the wet, muddy dingy, but like Easy Company, I...I... Okay, there's absolutely no comparison except for the water, but what does it tell you about the weather conditions when I had to fantasize about a wartime suicide-rescue mission to take my mind off the wind?
The hill up the riverbank was muddy, precarious. I clutched the guide rope in my hands and considered Edmund HIllary, and like Hillary, I struggled up the slope, knowing my destiny was at the apex. Yea, the destiny of all mankind...
Once out of the river, I set back to my slog, knowing there was a certain plausible deniability associated with the exact time the river crossing might have taken. One mile later, I could hear the joyful sound of an exchange point. Either that, or my eardrum had burst from the cold and was now ringing. Possibly both were correct. And then there was Gretchen, hopping like a bunny, waving her arms in the international semifore for "Don't die yet! Here's the point where you can throw up!" In a tradition I began years ago, I performed my obligatory cartwheels, and slapped Gretchen's hand. It didn't occur to me until later that Gretchen had on clean white gloves, and I had just done two cartwheels on a sodden, muddy street. Such are the wages of war. Gretchen, a mighty general, and her husband continued on.
There's humility, and then there's outright lying. I speak, of course, about our second ringer, Heidi. When Heidi and I met earlier that morning, I took some comfort in the fact that she had had a child three months ago and that a stroller was stored in the back of her van. "I'm in terrible shape," she said, and I believed her. When she slid on the "Boston Marathon" hat, I searched for the word "volunteer," but to no avail. "Oh, that was a long time ago. I haven't run for six months." I still chose to believe the lie. But when Heidi stripped off her warm-up jacket and displayed her Kansas City Running Club shirt, and when I watched her face change from happy new mom to "I'm totally gonna kick some ass" runner, I knew the jig was up. When Heidi turned to us and said, "I won the Kansas City marathon in 2007. You know how it is with running--money in the bank," I began to crawl into a mental fetal position. But it's all for the good of the team, right? Right? I'm such a loser...
The wind parted for Heidi; the rain and snow dared not impede her progress. She took off in a flash, a streak of pink and black, and Gretchen started her stopwatch. "I figure she'll be in Lawrence by 3:20. We better get going." We belted in and followed the caravan of cars across the tracks, around the levee and through the rental section into downtown Lawrence.
For those of you who aren't familiar with this neck of the woods, Lawrence is the home of the University of Kansas. Because I had survived my leg, I decided to tempt fate yet again by wearing my Michigan State sweatshirt to the finish line. I was ready to rumble. Plus, I had "the Lynchpin" and "Polo Boy" covering my back. How can this possibly go wrong?
Lest one should think this race was anywhere near a sanctioned, ChampionChip race, let me describe some of the teams who came through the chutes, half of whom carrying beer--there was the super hero team, the funny wigs team, the "Derek Zoolander" team for "people who don't run good and want to learn to drink good" team. There was the tye-dyed shirt team, the "Joggers for Lagers" team, and the bunny in the backpack team. But by far, the most spirited team, the team with the best heads on them, the team that were ugly mugs and hopped over the rest was the Boulevard Brewery team of running beer bottles. They really did cap off a great day.
From half a mile away, Gretchen spotted her sister, a cloud of dust trailing her like a Justice League cape. One, two, three racers were elbowed off the levee and into the Kaw, and yet Heidi never broke stride. Another woman was simply trampled over. One man tried to out sprint her, and Heidi removed the barrette from her hair and shanked him. She plowed over the finishing line, politely showed her number, and growled. The masses quaked in her presence. Weak links wearing enemy colors in the middle of the prairie fear no one. I simply cowered. All in all, we finished the race in just under 6 hours. We would have done better had that dork Parr been more careful. Gees, who asked him to join the team?
Even though the bunny baton didn't make it to Lawrence, and even though the weather conspired against us, we had a great time. We laughed and laughed, and laughed some more. We ran hard and ate big. It was the best of what this sport has to offer--camaraderie, healthy activity, and fresh air, albeit wet, freezing, punishing air.
The beer at the end wasn't bad, either.
Until the Trolley Run,