MIND ON THE RUN — “High Five at the Marathon”
(Musical accompaniment: “Your Wildest Dreams” by the Moody Blues.)
The interchange of high fives during the course of the 26.2 miles of a marathon is the symbol of the bond between runner and spectator. The runner receives a spark of power enabling him or her to pick up the pace in the physically and mentally wearisome final miles, while the spectator receives an infusion of inspiration and vicarious triumph over the couch.
As a repeat spectator at this year’s Kids of Steel 1.2 mile marathon, I needed something to happen that would be memorable. My debut as a reporter at this event two years earlier had resulted in an article that was already fading from my dim-witted memory.
I was astonished by the increase over the previous years in the number of “waves” of runners of all ages departing from the starting shuttle alongside PNC Park every 10 minutes. One wave was impressive by virtue of its uniform lime-green running shirts — the “green tsunami” I thought. This wave was led in pre-race warm-ups by two elite marathoners — legends in the lore of racing in the ‘Burgh.
Other waves were encouraged at the starting line by even more notorious local racing celebrities — the “Pierogies” and Steely McBeam. The role of Master of Ceremonies was taken on by Jalapeño Hannah, who I heard was seen to exhort the less competitive runners by hitting them in the back of the head with her purse. Two young boys with dramatically spiked “Birdman” hair styles caught my eye — my camera was too slow to get a photo, but I already had the caption: “Unique aerodynamic grooming adopted by boys of steel!” Maybe I would be lucky enough to find them for a photo at the finish line.
The number of signs with pithy remarks was also impressive. Some brandished the replica of a starter button with the inscription: “Press here for extra power!” The percentage of female runners was likewise impressive, as was the number of families racing as units. As was the number of the “littlest angels” who could barely walk, but who crossed the finish line, undaunted.
As the race was concluding, I argued to myself that I had no flashy story line other than the boys with the spiked hair and hoped that I might luckily run into them as I back-tracked the race course en route to my car. I started offering high fives to the last lonely runners as I walked back. “These slower runners need the encouragement as I always do,” I reasoned. As the line of stragglers considerably thinned out, I noticed a rather overweight lad of perhaps 12 or 13 lumbering along; he was looking at his feet, as tired runners do. I offered my hand on his right. He looked up, crossed his left arm over his tired body, and high-fived with his left hand. As he passed I realized that his right arm was paralyzed from the shoulder down — a likely birth injury. Dumbfounded by his gesture of courage, it took me several minutes to decide that I must catch-up with, and congratulate, him. However, I could not overcome him until beyond the finish line. I plaintively uttered “congratulations;” he merely looked over his shoulder and, barely acknowledging me, muttered “thanks.” Then he disappeared into the crowd — likely never to be encountered by me again.
I wished I could have had the courage and self-possession to talk to him — to say to him face-to-face, “Son, I truly admire your determination!” To convince him that in the vast scope of things, a nameless, disabled lad running alone and bringing up the rear of a race inspires the world in a far greater way than any elite champion garnished with medals, trophies, and monetary prizes. I can only hope that he may become aware of his admirer’s confession on these pages.
Needless to say, I never found the boys with the spiked hair. But I had a story line I could have not imagined in my wildest dreams. And a memory I could relate to my grandchildren: The amazing lad with the lame arm but the heart of steel.
“I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember”
(From the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen — the incident being a young boy the author’s age sticking out his tongue and calling him “nigger.”)
Some believe that slow runners should not be allowed to “adulterate” the marathon — not be allowed to share the same course with the elite or the reasonably competitive. To not drink the same gatorade nor use the same port-o-johns. Those should be eliminated who cannot run as fast as the elite can walk. To these believers, I quote Rudyard Kipling from his poem “If”:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And- what is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!
But, rather, I wish they would read it for themselves.