Child, We Thought We Knew You
The email alert appeared in the lower right-hand side of my desktop monitor. It read, “Shannon Hall,” our oldest son, as the author. Shannon rarely responds to an email I have sent. Forget about him initiating one in my direction.
Now that he is off to college and a redshirt freshman on Mizzou’s cross country team, we pretty much hear from him about as often as we do the friendly coaches who were recruiting him last year – never.
Receiving an unsolicited email from Shannon was probably not good. I was right. It was great. Allow me to explain.
“My phone will be getting your interval updates from the Chicago Marathon,” it began.
I had sent him a link to have him register to be sent automated texts during my race that Sunday morning. We often think of our kids as being very me-first individuals – which is not all that different from my tunnel vision in the 70s. I was impressed that he wanted me to know he would be watching. But it was the rest of his message that warmed my soul.
“Here’s a photo of the older guys on the team doing the ‘Roho’ workout this afternoon since they’re not racing tomorrow [with us redshirts]. ‘Roho’ is Swahili for ‘heart.’ It’s supposed to be the hardest workout of the season. I’ll be keeping track of you, good luck, run fast.”
None of that email would jump out at anyone who happened to come across its contents – unless you were his parents. I forwarded Shannon’s email to my wife and she responded back with the following short sentence.
“Wow! What’s got into him?”
Shannon is and always has been a different kind of athlete. In short, he has not always been much of a team guy. His freshman year in high school he spent his non-racing time at cross country meets sitting in the team tent reading Harry Potter books while his teammates were out on the course cheering the girl’s JV team or the varsity boys. Once his race was finished, he would beg to ride home with us rather than wait for the other races to conclude and take the team bus back to school.
His freshman year in track, he would refuse to wear his track uniform to meets. He would instead show up dressed in whatever he wore to school that day – usually a pair of plaid shorts and a t-shirt, with his uniform on underneath. He warmed up in his school clothes and waited to strip them off until just before his race. His casual attitude toward the sport drove his coaches mad and it labeled him a slacker. A title that unfortunately, Shannon somewhat embraced.
While the coaches saw him as a slacker, I saw his act as a kind of protest against athletics. Shannon had a great group of friends who were excellent students but a bit short on athletic prowess. I think he saw any enthusiasm he displayed about his cross country or track teams as a slight toward his Xbox buddies.
As a sophomore, an injury to a senior opened the door for him to run as a member of the varsity cross country team at Sectionals. A great honor for any kid on the JV team, but one his times had earned. The varsity that year had a real shot at the state title. On a ride home from practice that week, Shannon informed me he did not want to run in the varsity race.
“I don’t know those guys,” he said. “I want to run in the JV race with my friends.”
His attitude toward running and being part of a team slowly improved his junior year and he really changed a great deal as a senior. But team workouts and the rah-rah stuff was just not who he was.
This is why his email to me talking about his teammates “Roho” workout and “heart” seemed so foreign to his parents – and encouraging. Our oldest boy is growing up. Those words means much to any parent.
I borrowed his cross country team’s word “Roho” for my mantra as I jogged through the friendly and proud neighborhoods of Chicago. More than once I leaned on it to pick up my pace or chase down a runner in the distance.
My shiny new iPhone 5 woke me at 4:30 AM Sunday morning in my Lincoln Park hotel. I had checked into the Days Inn the night before, after a $63 six-mile cab drive from Grant Park – through some of the worst traffic I have experienced.
I had quizzed the desk clerk at the hotel on what was the best way to get down to the marathon’s start Sunday morning at 5:00 AM. He gave me two options; to take the train and also the city bus.
“Where can I get a ticket?” I asked.
“To run in the marathon?” he asked with a strained and quizzical look.
This was the start of a communication problem that seemed to plague my time in Chicago. It also didn’t help my mood that my bathroom entrance had a raised curb – which I ignored the first time I exited. I promptly twisted my ankle and jammed my left wrist as I crashed into the wall. Great. Three years of base training and a summer from hell behind me, and all I got was this lousy swollen ankle in Chicago.
“Roho, baby,” I told myself. I jammed my tender ankle into my old Nike Pegasus shoes and headed out for a pre-race dinner on the streets of Lincoln Park.
Big cities have a vibe that the word palpable was invented to describe. The early evening hour in this upscale northern Chicago neighborhood greeted me with crisp fall coolness. I tugged my fleece jacket closed. My path along Clark Street was lit by friendly street lamps. The sidewalks buzzed with the energy of a quickly moving Saturday night crowd. It felt like Christmas.
I had no particular destination in mind but I was jazzed to just walk down the street and be a part of the excitement. I ducked into Crossroads, the first sports bar that looked old-man friendly. My waitress, Maggie, greeted me with a smile and a curve to her swerve.
The city was manic with the college game at Soldier Field that night. Miami and Notre Dame fans were clogging every street and pub within 10 miles of downtown. Chicago follows two college sports leagues – the Big 10 and Notre Dame. The dozen flat screens at Crossroads reflected that passion. I ordered the meatloaf that was guaranteed as “better than mom’s.” I added sides of mashed potatoes, mac and cheese and a bottomless Diet Coke. I walked the half mile back to my hotel with a full belly and the comforting glow of knowing Nebraska led Ohio State on the road 17-7 in the second quarter.
When I finally flipped my hotel television off later that evening, the Buckeyes led the Big Red 56-38. I awoke at 4:30 AM to discover THE Ohio State had tacked on one more score to push their total to an even more embarrassing 63-38. Oh, the pain of being a sports fan. It was not a good start to my marathon morn.
I lay out my marathon outfit the night before to make sure I don’t forget anything – including the Band Aids for my Boston-worn nipples. I dressed quickly and headed down to the street, where I was sure to see dozens of like-minded marathoners queuing up for rides downtown.
Diversey Street at 5:00 AM was as quiet as my hotel room last night during the second half of the Nebraska/OSU game. Stone dead silence with an aura of panic.
With a 7:30 AM start, I knew I had plenty of time to take the bus, catch the train or find a cab. When in doubt in a large strange city, I opt for a cab. It always makes me feel a little like George Costanza. I believe we both have always had a thing for Elaine.
“So, how far is a marathon to run?” quizzed my 30-ish Indian cabbie. “Is it ten miles?”
“26.2,” I replied.
He was more confused than impressed. “26 miles to run?” he continued. “All without stopping? It does not seem like a wise decision on your behalf.”
“You are not getting any arguments from me,” I smiled.
The cab dropped me somewhere near Grant Park, where the Chicago Marathon starts and ends. With so many streets closed for the marathon, driving around Chicago on Marathon Sunday is a task left best to those on bicycles or foot. And even on foot it is difficult to traverse.
I stood on the cold dark street corner with a twelve-dollar Target sweat suit over my racing shorts and singlet. I planned to pitch the gray cotton sweat suit just prior to the race, but for now it was doing its job in keeping me warm against the 36-degree temps and northerly breeze.
Runners with their plastic bags slung over their shoulder were visible but heading in almost every direction possible. I was unsure who to follow. I asked a couple of cops for directions to my red bag drop and the start line.
“Well, that depends on what street you’re supposed to start – ‘cuz there’s a bunch of ‘em,” the shorter of the two officers informed me and a young Hoosier. Neither of us had a clue. The cops hesitantly suggested we head south. We went north.
After walking into dead ends and following bad directions from official-looking people, we came across three girlfriends from various Midwestern states and a couple from New Zealand – all who were as lost as us in trying to locate the correct path to our bag drop.
“I swear,” cursed a girlfriend from Palmyra, Nebraska. “No one in this town knows where anything is!”
The sun was still not up but the pre-dawn light showed thousands of runners milling about and attempting to shield themselves from the slight breeze and frosty temps. A twenty-something lad with a stiffly-spiked nine-inch Mohawk agreed to take my photo in front of Buckingham Fountain.
I love the big marathon races. Some runners prefer the less harried pace of a small-town marathon. These too are a fun time, but the excitement that floods your veins before the start of a race with 45,000 runners is unmatched for an old jogger.
The trim 30-something lass next to me in the start corral was from Toronto. She had just qualified for Boston this summer and was hoping to break 3:30 in Chicago. She was bundled up because of the cold.
“I would think you’d be all acclimated to the cold weather being from Toronto,” I wrongly surmised.
“It was hot and humid there last week,” she corrected.
A sturdy 40-year-old guy from California jogged in place and told Miss Toronto and me he had just completed a 50-mile ultra the weekend before – in 98-degree heat!
“This should be a nice Sunday jog for you,” I said.
About 4,000 runners were in front of us as we stood near the middle of Corral B. Another 18,000 or so were behind. A second wave of 22,000 runners would be starting 30 minutes after our start gun. That is a lot of folks in their underwear milling around Grant Park.
Chicago is a ridiculously well-organized race. As a veteran jogger, I have come to appreciate those cities that know how to put on a race and those who do not. I ran the half marathon in Omaha two weeks before Chicago and I was greeted at the packet pick-up table with these words; “You have not been guaranteed a t-shirt, so you will have to check after the race tomorrow to see if we have any left.”
That’s not the best opening line to a runner who paid $80 three weeks before for the “privilege” of driving three hours and then running 13.2 miles in downtown Omaha.
Chicago ain’t Omaha. While few natives may know where “the big fountain” is, they sure as hell know how to put on a world-class marathon.
Just getting 22,000 runners in Wave One to line up 15 minutes before the race is a remarkable accomplishment. We filled the wide expanse of Columbus Drive from curb to curb.
The PA system that serenaded us with tunes like Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and sent us off at the gun with The Boss’ Born To Run, sounded as good as any outdoor concert’s hardware. It is little things like this that make you feel special. We don’t get to feel special often enough after the age of ten. Every chance after that should be cherished.
Five minutes before the start, runners began doffing their outer garments and readying themselves for the race. A scattering of tops and bottoms began floating toward the fenced outer curbs. At first a few – and then it rained sweats like we had been hit with a freak Footlocker snow shower. I watched the clothing pile up outside the fence and volunteers hurry to grab the short tosses off the six-foot fence.
I tossed a six-dollar sweatshirt but some of the gear looked barely worn. I watch as a petite Louisiana gal agonized over tossing her new Nike top toward the pile. It was apparent she desperately wanted to be able to retrieve it after the race. This is where the small races have it over the big ones every time. I can always find my sweats after a small race. No such luck in Chicago or Boston. The Cajun Princess sniffed and then set her pretty top free with a mighty heave.
The swarm of runners ahead of us started to move forward. The growing crowd cheered to let us know the race was on. About 90 seconds into my jog, my left foot hit the starting line and I was officially off.
I wore a ten-year-old’s sized grin as Springsteen wailed; “Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide.”
What lay ahead? The best day I have ever experienced in short pants.