Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The One True Thing About Running: Falmouth Road Race

Running is the revolution that came to our doorstep. In the sixties my parents lived in San Francisco two miles away from the epicenter of counter culture, but the spirit of the era didn't reach them the same way that fog sometimes gets caught in the valleys of the city and can't drift over its peaks. But if the bra-less world of tie-dyed shirts never cluttered our family's closets, the one of waffle sneakers and synthetic shorts did. We witnessed the birth of jogging.

For generations my family has had a summer home in Woods Hole, a small town on the underbelly of Cape Cod known for marine biology and the place to catch the ferry to Martha's Vineyard. Falmouth, a town large enough to have a movie theater, lies seven miles away, and in 1973 a few people decided to make a run race between their favorite bars. I have no idea why this race caught on to such an extent other than it was in existence before the boom - the same way a couple of grad students who published their favorite links would wind up forming Yahoo. It was the right place in the right decade, and the opening wave on its starting line has contained the best runners this country has produced. In the seventies Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter, the last US gold medal winner in the marathon, were at the front. In the eighties Joan Benoit and Alberto Salazar ran the thing.

But as we would watch the elite field pass our driveway what I remembered more was the mass of people behind them. My family's place in on Church Street, the first right turn in race just before the bend that opens out to the long beach to the light house. It is a quiet road where kids walk holding their babysitters hands along the grassy sidewalks, and the loudest sound of the day is the ice-cream truck rolling through with little pictures of popsicles and sno-cones painted on its tan sides. But for one morning a year the place would rumble, not so much like a thunderstorm because those moans are only for half a minute, but more like the prolonged opening set of an Aerosmith show. Wave after wave of pounding would come, with the runners not quite at the first mile mark still having that determined glow of "I am here to race." Large runners, small runners, a wheel chair division, spandex clad women, men in oversized hats, track uniform kids, and more Red Sox's jerseys than actually sit in the dugout at Fenway - they all went by. At the end were the walkers waving to crowds like athletic Popes asking for encouragement from the dwindling spectators.

We would watch them all go by until the final motorcade rolled through and then head down the long driveway to the main house. I like to think that it would be at least an hour after we had watched this sweaty parade, one long hour while my parents, aunts, and uncles would argue over what to make to lunch after feeling just a little bit healthier for seeing this event, a mere hour while rocking on the wicker chairs at the end of the porch, before any of them smoked a cigarette.

Everyone has his or her own hobby, and a pack-a-day cigarette habit requires a certain commitment to nicotine. It seems like a distant world now - a place where not only could you eat brie during a pregnancy but could also wash it down with red wine. The drink of choice during cocktail hour, and it was called that, was gin and tonic. One of the favorite stories of my cousins was the time my brother tried to match drink for drink with my unsuspecting grandmother. She buried him in half an hour.

It wasn't that we didn't exercise - there was always sailing and tennis with our growing appreciation of Bjorn Borg. It was just that our sports were more conversational. A good joke could always cover a weak backhand, and the only way to handle a double fault was to laugh. Perhaps it was one of these little jests that caused my mom to decide to enter the road race in 1980. Our neighbor from across the street had an extra bib number, and so wearing her tennis shoes she decided that she would do it.

Everyone thought she was crazy.

* * *

"Running is your life," is what Joe Ueberoth told me in high school. It wasn't really meant as a compliment but more of a dig about pursuing something a little offbeat, the great crime of high school. But what I learned then and what I still believe is true is that it is far better to go through life being interesting than being cool.

Running was my life. In junior high I joined the track team and won my first varsity letter for gutting out the 800 meters. The summer before my senior year I completed my first Falmouth road race. My peak was coming in third at the county meet that year in the two-mile though still way too slow to do anything at the college level. I would run with a deep passion - the kind of nut would speed up going up hills just because I knew it would damage me less than the other runners, and give the raging testosterone through our bodies, there was no way they weren't going to follow.

I needed that passion because the one true thing about running is that it is really hard. It is repeats and pyramids, hills and track work. It is long days when you have gone out further than should and have to stumble home, and the early mornings when you start before you really wanted to wake but return smiling from having beat the sunrise.

It is a test of wills and we, Americans, having been losing at the elite level. There hasn't been a great US male distance runner in decades. The world had caught up with our training and they are, well for lack of a better word, hungrier. In a sense running is the same as poetry - a half century ago everyone knew the names of great living poets like cummings or Frost, but even now as no one knows who won the Pulitzer prize last year for poetry, our work is now published with refrigerator magnets and private emails. We are country of hacks, and I certainly have been guilty of stumbling through both.

* * *
I thought of doing the road race for over a year. I sent out a challenge to my cousins offering anyone a free ice cream at Dairy Queen if they came in first. I believe the best races are local and going back to salt breeze smells of my childhood was something I didn't want to miss.

The place had changed though. Fragrances were no longer purchased at candle shops, but at day spas. The drug store had become an espresso shop suggesting our general shift of self-medication. A mall on the outside of town was draining the merchants on Main Street like turpentine splashed across a Normal Rockwell painting.

The race had changed too. Not the mileage because that has to be a constant, but now registration was conducted three months earlier in an online lottery. You wear not only a bib with your number, but also a chip on shoe that activates on the start and finish lines. Rather than the great free for all there are series of waves ranging from the 4% body fat runners in the front to the entire workforce of Cheryl's pizzeria clad in day-glo green at the back. I was assigned to the pizza shirt wave and started next to two people - one wearing "I am running with Bob" and the other "I am Bob".

Not that I haven't had this before in a race - I am running further in a couple of weeks after a swim and a bike ride - but I think I wanted a little more of the simplicity of my memories. Because while I have gone longer distances, this race was the furthest I had gone back in time. Twenty-five years ago my mom ran this race when she was thirty-seven; an age that everyone thought was far too old to be out running; an age where she was burdened with three boys ages twelve, ten, and eight; and the age that I turn next week.

Our thirty-seventh years have little in common. I have not just finished adding a tennis court and swimming pool to my second home in Marin. My mom wasn't taking a spin class that measures her V02 max threshold and optimizes her training ranges. There are no children in my world. The return to my family summer home was eerily quiet the first day back; there was no background noise of kids screaming, and the energy of place felt subdued. No need for cocktails if there is nothing to take the edge off.

But when I think of the great feats that my mother has done the Falmouth Road Race is at the top of the list just ahead of swimming a mile across Tomales Bay for the first time at age fifty nine and trying to learn algebra so she could teach my youngest brother.

It is strange to realize now that my mother and I would not have been in the same social circles. You never expect the exact same life as your parents, but I think everyone believes that the journey would be at least somewhat familiar, however false a notion that is.

I wanted to do the race because I think it might have been the one time that our paths might have crossed. That somewhere on the other side of the two guys with the Bob t-shirts was a mother of three whose sons are terribly proud that she is doing this race. There is the old official race photo of my mom cruising to her 12-minute miles in puma shoes, and I have this great hope that somehow I could Photoshop us together. Mother and son framed as equals winding down the road side by side.

But a difference between then and now is that I don't believe that thirty-seven is too old for new journeys. The coach of a charity team that I ran with is ten years older than me and she still crushes me on a course. I have been buried by sixty-five year old men. There was a seventy five year old woman just behind the two Bob's who was doing the race for the twentieth time.

Yet I do believe is that we are all on the clock. There are only so many summer days to seize. My mom now walks with a limp and for longer distances with a cane. The neighbor from across the street, who did it for the first time with my mom twenty-five years ago, retired this year. "Sometimes," he told me, "it catches up with you."

The race, itself, was more brutal than I expected. I made sure that I was on the ride side of the road for going in front my family's place and they invigorated me as I went by. The hill up the lighthouse seemed small compared to the Bay Area's peaks, but by the time I had gone through the wooded area just before eel pond I felt pretty drained.

The unofficial weather report was "wicked muggy," and nasty heat is my nemesis for endurance events. I like to say that I have always beaten it, but there have been days, bitter days, when the heat has won. I no longer can run with the unchecked passion of my teens, but now must cruise at a gentler pace designed for a longer haul.

And maybe that is what turning thirty-seven is about. That passions have been checked with responsibilities. That perhaps the air is a little thicker to run through. That we are slower than we have been, but are so much more familiar with the route. That running, the mad scramble between our opportunities and disappointments, is our life.