Tuesday, November 03, 2009

An Hour in Auburn: WS100 2009

The highest award of Western States becomes a self-assurance that celebrates this event before it begins. In spite of the distinction of that silver buckle, and perhaps because of it, Western States proves that honor lies not so much in reaching the finish as in daring to arrive at the start.
—Los Angeles Times, Opinion Editorial, 27 June 1985.
Read at the annual flag raising, Emigrant Monument, Western States Endurance Run.
Twin searchlights carved slices out of the black sky. I stood in the unnaturally green grass of the infield at LeFebvre stadium in Auburn, California. My two-year-old daughter clung to me, drifting between sleepiness, crankiness, and interest in everything going on around her. Random bodies lay bundled in sleeping bags nearby. Hits from the '80s blared from the PA system, and occasionally a disembodied voice broke in over the music to announce a name, a hometown—a Western States finisher.
About 300 yards from that finish line, in a dark corner of the stadium, there stood a chain-link gate. It sat wide open. Occasionally one or two people would emerge from the shadows, move through the gate, and begin their journey around the red track. Some walked. Some shuffled. Some limped. Others were able to muster a good stride. They'd round the final turn of the dimly lit track, drawn in by cheers and an ever-narrowing chute—only to be lost in a sea of light and bodies at the finish line.
It was some time between 4 and 5 a.m. The final hour for the sub-24-hour buckle. I strained my tired eyes to focus on that chain-link gate. The voices of the friends who had traveled to this place with us drifted in and out of my consciousness. One of those friends, Gabe Bevan, lay exhausted and satisfied on the infield grass. His wife Tiffanie had moved through the tears of joy and now worked to gently remove socks from Gabe's cracked and battered feet. I took a picture. Shifted Adrian's weight on my hip. Moved my gaze back to the chain-link gate. Then to my watch. Minutes peeled off the clock.
At 4:40 a.m., 20 minutes from the sub-24-hour cutoff, a mirage: Two runners jogged through the gate. One was slim, a little bounce in the way he moved. He peeled off his headlamp and tossed it at his pacer's feet. "Is that him?" I heard myself ask out loud... Then I became convinced. "It's him!" I squeezed my daughter, smiled at my companions, and made an all-out sprint toward the finish line. I hurried up the outside of the chute and watched the runner make his way down the backstretch of the track, tears coming to my eyes. "Adrian, it's your daddy! He's finished the race!" I snapped a few pictures. Then questioned myself. It wasn't his stride. It wasn't right. But it had to be him! "Go baby!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. He came around the turn. Then I felt a chill go down my back and up into my hairline and my vision narrowed. No. Not him. The announcer: "And here comes Jim Scott from Chico, California..." I pressed my back against the brick wall at the edge of the track. My throat tightened and I told myself not to cry. "Oh, Adrian..." I sighed. "Baby, that wasn't him." Her head rolled off my shoulder then snapped back and resettled under my chin. No two-year-old should be up chasing runners all night. Her eyes fluttered open then closed again. I slunk back to our group's spot on the infield and resumed my vigil, completely deflated.
Soon, I heard something I had not prepared for. Birdsong. The voices of robins and other unfamiliar Californian birds began to float in over the music being played on the stadium's sound system. I looked up and saw the sky turn from black to blue-black. Dawn was coming, and my runner was nowhere in sight.
Eight minutes before 5 a.m. Twenty-three hours and fifty-two minutes of running. Angel Clark was waving at me from her post near that chain-link gate. I think Tiffanie and Stacey said something that reassured me that this time, maybe, it was real. And then he was on the track. Still wearing his headlamp. Still running. I ran toward the backstretch, snapped a picture. It really was him. I ran back toward our spot on the infield and tried to hand off Adrian, still sound asleep, to Tiffanie. She immediately stirred and cried out. I grabbed her back and took off for the finish line. This time I moved into that sea of light and bodies and positioned myself just behind the chip-timing mat. I bent to my knee, stood a semi-conscious Adrian beside me, and took another picture. Then I screamed for him, "Go!" The videographer at the finish glanced down at me, smiled, and took a step back. I yelled again at the top of my lungs. I rose quickly to my feet and he piled into me—all sweat and stink and mud: the man I love. A Western States finisher.
(Thank you for taking me on that ride.)

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