My father is hugely into running, and has been since he was a teenager. He’s run all of the “big” marathons, numerous trail runs, 10k’s, 20k’s, you name it. There was a race this weekend that has been, for over 30 years, his “pinnacle” event each year. A 15 mile course through town, up into the hills, and finishing in grand style inside a stadium–usually to scores of well wishers and family.
Some years back, in an attempt to bring more interest to this signature 15-mile run, the organizers added a 5k fun walk, and a 5k run. (Dad can do a 5K run in his sleep, and generally won’t bother with such a short distance.) I think it’s been dad’s secret wish (though he would never push any of us to do anything that didn’t make us happy) that one of his boy’s would follow in his running footsteps. But, other than a few one mile fun runs when we were very young, none of us has.
This year, since I was going to be in town for a family reunion anyway, and because I’ve been trying to get into better shape, I decided to sign up for the 5K portion of the race. At the last minute, a good friend of mine back home decided to join me, and my stepmother and a coworker signed up for the 5K walk.
The night before the race, as part of the host of events that came with it, my friend and I joined Dad and my aunt at a pre-game dinner. Dad told us about his best times, best placements, and other stories from his past years doing this race–including one a few years back where he pushed himself extra hard once he got inside the stadium in order to cross the finish line under 2 hours. It was a bad idea on his part, as he got seized with Charlie horses in both legs at once and went down on the track, to the horror of the family members who had gathered to cheer him on. Of course, he didn’t wound anything but his pride, but I thought to myself “I’m glad I wasn’t there that year, it would have been really scary to see that.”
So the morning of the race came–those doing the 15 mile portion started first, with the 5K runners going ten minutes or so later, and the walkers a bit behind us. My friend and I had decided to stick together, walk if we needed to, and realizing that we were out of shape concluded that we would be breaking no land speed records that morning. Still, to be passed along the route by 6 year olds, 80 year olds, people wearing ankle and knee braces, and people pushing strollers was a bit disheartening. We crossed the finish line a somewhat disappointing 36 minutes later, and joined my aunt, uncle and cousin in the stands to wait for dad to cross.
Twenty minutes or so later, as we sort of half heartedly clapped for the last of the 5K runners and the start of the walkers, a man collapsed on the finish line. I first thought of dad’s charlie horses, but when the man didn’t move, we realized something much worse was wrong. The race is very well staffed with volunteers, and almost as soon as we noticed he fell, EMTs were at his side. When they rolled him over onto his back, his face was purple, his body was rigid, and he was clutching his chest.
My immediate thought was his family–were any of them in the stands watching this? Had he left a wife at home earlier that morning, who now waited to hear how he had done in the race? Was there a grandchild somewhere looking forward to getting a trophy or t-shirt that her grandfather had won for her? The man was gurnied off the field and put into a waiting ambulance. The ambulance seemed to take quite a while to leave, which I thought must be a good sign.
When dad crossed the finish line (3 minutes under his goal time, I might add) one of the medical volunteers approached him to let him know what had happened and to report that it “didn’t look good”. Later that evening, we learned the man had died that morning. Though I didn’t know him it was hard to wrap my head around–a guy out getting some exercise, doing something he enjoyed, and then, suddenly, his life was over.