“You’re nuts,” was the comment I got from my fellow deputies, family, and pretty much everyone else who found out what I wanted to do.
It was spring, I was fresh out of the Army, and working for my local Sheriff’s Office. The Gulf War had been just a few years before, and now I felt I needed to do something.
When we received a notification that the Special Olympics Torch was coming through the San Luis Valley I decided this was something well worth doing. The Special Olympics Committee was looking for people to carry it, and what surprised me was the reaction. Almost no one was turning out to do it, despite the great publicity ahead of its coming.
I just shook my head and said, “You guys don’t get it!”
Personally, I think it’s because they were afraid to step out of their patrol cars and look stupid running down a road, carrying a torch. Or maybe they had just gotten lazy, and looked at their job in Law Enforcement as just that, a four letter word called ‘work’. Of course there was always the chance that each one of them had gotten so out of shape that running even half a mile would put them in intensive care.
Besides, the last totally crazy thing I’d done was a little something called the Nijmegan International Four Day March in Nijmegan, Holland. There’s tens of thousands of civilians that do the march, and soldiers from all over the world came to do it. The year I did it (1990), I was told there were over a quarter of a million people who participated. The average distance the military walks is about 32 miles a day.
Besides, I hadn’t pushed myself that hard in a long time, and carrying the torch was a good reason to try.
But it wasn’t the only reason. Many of my colleagues didn’t have the same motivations as I did. I always liked to joke that I became a Police Officer because I couldn’t get a job in Astrophysics. Looking back, I got into it because I looked at the world and thought that I just might be able to make it a better place to live.
And if it meant running down a road to help make that happen, then so be it.
Since there were few runners in the San Luis Valley willing to carry the torch, it meant that each one of us that did had to go just a little further than might be expected. I asked for and got the leg from South Fork to Del Norte, Colorado, a distance of about fourteen miles. It was a little further than that. My run would start in South Fork in front of City Hall and would end at the County Court House. There I’d pass the torch to a high school student who was also a marathoner. She’d carry it to Monte Vista from Del Norte, and pass it to someone else. Mile by mile, hand by hand, it would pass across the Valley.
The torch came into South Fork over Wolf Creek pass, and it had been carried by high school students in three mile relays. The elevation and topographical changes on the pass made it grueling on them, but fortunately, there were plenty of volunteers there.
I’d been at the city hall since 7:30 AM. That was the earliest I could expect to see the torch.
I’d spent the days before carb loading. This is a time honored technique of getting as much fuel for the body as possible before a long race or run like I was facing. Plenty of pasta, potatoes, and the like. I drank a lot of water. I needed to make sure I was well hydrated. Experience had taught me that by Mile Marker 6 of the run, I’d be needing water.
Fortunately, my wife and kids would follow me in the van, and keep handing it to me when I needed it.
I was dressed in my gray Army PTs, a red highway vest from the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office, and my old battered running shoes. I’d spent the last hour drinking water, and keeping stretched out. Along about 8 AM, I saw the flashing lights of a State Police cruiser come around the curve and into town. It was moving slowly because a small figure ran in front of it. Steadily the figure got closer, resolving itself into an exhausted high school student who was still reaching deep, and finding the stamina to sprint towards me. I walked towards the end of the town hall.
The idea was as he closed, I’d start to run, and about midway, he’d pass the torch to me. He got closer, was yards away, and I began running slowly, letting him catch up to me. As he drew closer, I picked up the pace, reached out, and he passed me the torch.
“Good luck,” he yelled, slowing and falling behind.
Ahead of me were fourteen plus miles of long highway. Behind me was the State Trooper providing an escort, and behind him, my wife and kids with a bag full of water.
The first mile wasn’t that bad. I was running past businesses and curious people who were wondering who this nut was carrying a torch and why. Occasionally someone would fall in for a few steps, and ask. I’d explain tis was the torch for the Special Olympics, and they’d go “Oh” and fall quickly behind.
But eventually, I left the town. Ahead was asphalt, a few isolated houses and broad fields. Within a few minutes, the last of the pine trees slipped away and I ran out into the plains of the valley proper.
This wasn’t my first long distance run. I’d always liked running long distances. You reach a point in the run where you feel like you can fly. And you learn tricks to keep the mind from listening to the body. I wrote long books in my head, or reread books that I’d committed to memory. So I knew things my fellow officers and my family didn’t, and that’s how not to quit when it gets tough.
I was about to learn that it wasn’t going to be enough. It had been a while since I’d run this kind of distance.
I was running along, rereading 2001: A space Odyssey in my head. As I teenager, I’d devoured the book, eventually wore it out and purchased no less than three different copies to replace the one before. I still have the final book I’d purchased on my shelf. It’s kept together with Scotch Tape, and I wouldn’t dream of replacing it.
The blacktop slipped by under my feet as my mind journeyed across the solar system.
A slight movement in the grass made me move away from the shoulder, and more towards the highway. It was a dangerous move. Huge semi-trucks had roared past us at fifty miles an hour, their blunt bodies shoving the air aside with explosive hurricane force. At the wrong moment and not ready, they could shove a runner off the road or suck them out onto the highway. But I knew the Valley was rattlesnake territory, and I wanted nothing to do with them. I looked at the area as I passed. It was snake, but not a rattler. Simply a big bull snake getting out of my way.
One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. Over and over again, the miles were nibbled away with two and half foot strides. Like the hero in Clarke’s book, I looked up at the sun. Unlike the sun he described as cold and shrunken, my sun was starting to get hot. Sweat was already pouring from my body and my shirt clung to my skin. The vest, which was supposed to allow cooling air though, instead formed one more layer of insulation.
I was starting to get a little warm. Julie, seeing this, came up in the van, and one of the kids handed me out a bottle of water out the open passenger window. The cap was already off.
“Thanks, ” I said, the rhythm of my stride causing the water to splash a little out of the bottle, leaving a small trail of droplets along the road.
“How you doing, Baby?” Julie called.
I took a swig of water and swallowed it slowly. No sense in drinking it all at once and getting a cramp. The water was warm, just as I’d told her to have for me.
“Hang tough, Dad,” the kids yelled.
She fell back behind the patrol car, leaving me to keep running. When I finished the bottle, I dropped it, and she stopped and one of the kids picked it up.
By Mile Marker Eight, I was beginning to wonder why I was doing this. After all, I really didn’t have to run the whole way. It had been spelled out to me that if I tired, I could ride in the patrol car to the relay point. My legs were getting tired, and while I still ran a couple of miles a day, I really hadn’t trained for this kind of effort in some time. Years before, I’d learned that running a marathon was as much mind over matter as conditioning. And my mind was telling me that I needed to get in the car and ride in.
Then ahead of me I saw a solitary figure walking back and forth. It was another runner waiting for me. As I ran past him, he fell in with me.
“How you doing?” he asked, jogging beside me.
He nodded. “Thought you might. Mind if I run with you a ways?”
“I’d appreciate the company.”
We ran and chatted, and the miles slipped away.
An hour later, we came into Del Norte and I was getting ready to turn down towards the courthouse.
“You ready to sprint?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”
We turned the corner and we kicked it into high gear, eating up the last two blocks. Ahead of me, a young girl in running clothes began running, I caught up to her, and handed her the torch.
“Good luck!” I yelled.
“Thanks!” She disappeared down the tree lined streets.
And that quickly, a run that had lasted the better part of the morning had finished.
I bent down on my knees next to the man who had ran with me, and when I’d finally caught my breath, put out my hand.
“Thanks, man. Couldn’t have made it without you.”
He took my hand. “Happy to help. My niece will be competing this year. You’re carrying the fire for her!”
That made it worth it.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Like my blog and stories, check out my novels available on Amazon. I have two out right now, The Cross and the Badge, and Against Flesh and Blood. A third novel, the Judas Tree will be coming out soon. Click on the novel names, or the pictures of the covers above to be taken straight to them.
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