Mind On The Run
Two Finish Lines”
“Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
We slowly drove- He knew no haste…”
— “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson
In the spirit of the great, but reclusive, American poet Emily Dickinson, a venture into the supernatural:
(Musical Accompaniment: “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger, sung by Judy Collins — From the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes.)
On the morning of October 24th, the “EQT Pittsburgh 10 Miler” running event threw Death a curve ball and he shamefully struck out; I believe he had forgotten that on earth 2+2 does not always equal 4, and that long distance runners are kindred brethren. If I had only known his intentions ahead of time, I would have been more prepared to bargain for a trade.
A damp drizzle permeated the morning air, creating the premonition that occasionally invades the consciousness of this elderly runner as he warms up for the long race that will earn him another finisher’s medal — one to add to the collection that will likely be tossed into the garbage after he crosses the Finish Line for the last time. It seems that some senior citizens remain so embroiled in their obsessive-compulsive hoarding behaviors that they refuse to believe that, “you can’t take it with you.”
No warmup would be complete without the ritualistic evacuation of bowel and bladder. The line-up of foul-smelling Port-A-Johns was several hundred yards from the starting line near Station Square so the queue of anticipatorily anxious runners was twenty to thirty deep. As I stretched to assuage my impatience, a young man in the recognizable attire of an elite runner politely asked if I could hold his place in line.
“Certainly,” I responded with air of secret enjoyment that he too might be late for the race’s start. However, before we could strike up a conversation, he darted off in the opposite direction, and I imagined he was searching for his friends — other elite runners. I was puzzled; being of service to the young man lessened my strange premonition that this race might be my last.
To my chagrin, he never can back to claim his place in line. I imagined that he relieved himself behind some out-of-the way dumpster so as not to miss the start of the race. “No concern of mine,” I laughed as I took two turns in the Port-A-Johns before the long race — I had not been at the starting line for any race when the gun when off (or rather when the horn blew) for years! I prided myself in being the last to cross the starting line, but generally the next-to-last to cross the finish line.
When you start a race ten minutes late you have the private exhilaration of passing up many other competitors — the walkers. This particular morning I was unable to overtake even the oldest senior citizens, walking or pushed in a wheelchair. In fact, by mid-race I had assured myself of a PR (runner-ese for personal record) of slowest pace per mile. I began to pay more attention to high-fiving the spectators and thanking the volunteers. At the water stations, I became aware of my repeated recognition of a pre-occupied, hassled individual merely pouring Gatorade into paper cups. He greeted no one and at no time smiled. By the seventh or eighth mile station he has disappeared. My premonition resurfaced.
Compulsive runners sprint the last 100 yards into the chutes that lead to the finish line (leading to gasping of breath and dizziness) even when they bring up the rear of the race. I always do — and must have looked as if Death was chasing me that day.
But he had already been there — 20 minutes before. Too impatient to wait for me — the intended — he took the life of a young vibrant man of 32 with a loving young family and everything in life to look forward to. Our names started the same: “Kova…” My daughter was in his high school class. I was the pediatrician for his sister’s children. From everything I read about him and learned from his sister, he was a great man. And like the song goes, “only the good die young.” I might add, he was also courageous and efficient, crossing two Finish Lines at almost the exact same moment in time.
I was certainly the expendable one — in the “autumn of the year,” “on the eighteenth fairway” — sometimes even feeling like my life was in “extra innings” or in “sudden death overtime.” I would have been grateful if the Powers-That-Be would have let this young man “hold my place in line” until my turn had come to meet my Maker. We runners are kindred spirits, a fraternity recognizable not by its secret handshakes, but by the high-fives and “good job, man” exhortations we exchange.
Back in college I was assigned to write an article about the Boston Marathon. I posed a rhetorical question (almost contemptuously, with jealousy) to a champion: “Why do you run the marathon?” His answer was simple but profound: “Because it’s there!” borrowing from the answer to, “Why do you climb Mt. Everest?” For the common everyman or everywoman who runs without the reward of money or glory, the reason is often a spiritual one — an existential one — that the individual himself cannot voice. Similar to the age-old Taoist dogma: Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know.
To twist the words of Emily Dickinson, who knew the soul of Death better than anyone:
Because I was too slow for death —
He had to bypass me —
He chose a younger, braver Soul —
But in his haste, Proud Death forgot
Runners of Steel fear him not!
This story is dedicated to the memory of Michael Kovacic, who will have more of a positive impact on our world in his untimely death than most of us will have in our lives entire.