Tuesday, April 27, 2010

We Run to Remember.

I was a freshman in high school when the OKC Federal Building was bombed by a crazy guy with a truck full of fertilizer, at 9:01 A.M. on Wednesday, April 19, 1995. I was hundreds of miles away, in a classroom in Texas learning about, I don't know, probably geography with Mrs. Pfalz. By the time we moved on to English that morning, 168 lives had been snuffed out.


I got up at 4:20 a.m. on Sunday, April 25, 2010--early even for a raceday. My sister was still zonked out in the other bed. (Hampton Inn doesn't skimp on mattress quality, FYI.) She had agreed to take this road trip with me, a "gift" for her 21st birthday. She didn't know at the time that we'd be getting up this early.
We showered and dressed. I had intended to get some breakfast at 7-11 before heading toward downtown, but we didn't leave until after 5:30, so I didn't think we had time. After a few wrong turns, we got onto I-40 and joined the unusual (for the time of day) but unsurprising line of pre-dawn traffic exiting on Walker and heading north, into downtown Oklahoma City.

We parked in the parking garage and headed north on foot, covering the distance of about 10 blocks. There were searchlights swirling overhead, pointing toward the sky. We made our way toward them. Before getting to the memorial, we walked past the statue of the weeping Christ in front of St. Joseph's. My eyes got a little misty.

We crossed the street, walking along the side of the Memorial Museum. There was a chain-link fence erected, and there were countless notes, flowers, stuffed animals, and other personal trinkets tied to it. My eyes got a little more bleary.

My sister went on to find a place along the course, by the finish line. I waited with the other 5K runners on a side street. There was a fence ahead of us, separating us from the marathon, half-marathon, and marathon-relay folks, who would get a slightly earlier start than we would. Music blared from loudspeakers, followed by the announcer's calling of the final countdown (as in the act of counting down, not the awesome 80's track). Then the horn sounded, and the runners were off. And off. And off. And off. Ten minutes later, the last of the runners were still crossing the starting line. Meanwhile, the mob of people I found myself in the midst of were doing everything they could to brace against the 50-degree morning and its 25-mph winds. The loudspeakers were playing "Vertigo" by U2, followed by "I Gotta Feeling" by BEP. At the point of the song where the band starts jumping up and down in the video, no fewer than a dozen people around me started doing just that.

Finally, the fence was moved, the 5K walk-runners were allowed to approach the starting line, and then the horn sounded. I crossed the starting line at 6:50 a.m. Many weren't even out of the side street before we were on our way down the course. This was the largest crowd I've ever shared a course with (a total of 21,000, I heard later). I was pressed on every side. I had a nice even pace, and was still getting passed on both sides. It was thrilling. The sun was rising, and the sky was lightening to a soft blue.

Along the route, hanging from the side of every second or third streetlight, was a green triangular banner, point downward. The banners read, "Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon 10th Anniversary," followed by a name. 168 banners posted around downtown. I tried not to look at the names at first, but after a while, I made myself read each of them as I passed. I thought about their families and friends. I wiped my eyes periodically.

We walked down to the basketball arena and turned toward Bricktown. Underneath the overpass and into Bricktown, turning north at the ballpark. Then up the street that rose about fifty feet or more in elevation. Another turn east, away from the city, and another northward turn. I kept waiting for a mile marker to come up, and didn't see any. I started feeling a growing dread. My ankle was starting to wake up and complain, my back was a little tight, and I didn't know if I'd even made it to Mile #1 yet.

It was a great crowd. A nice mix of kids and adults of all ages and sizes. Everyone seemed to be having a great time. I only noticed a few people who looked like they were really struggling.
Another thing I noticed: the "in memory of" bibs. People wore an additional sign, the same size and shape as the race-bib, white with nothing but the words, "I run in memory of" and then the person's name. Some of them were personalized. "My nephew." "My cousin."

Finally, I saw a timer, and a sign. Mile 2! I then spent a few minutes trying to decide if the sign was signifying the end or the beginning of Mile 2. I reasoned that it wouldn't make sense to be the beginning of Mile 2, because there was no sign at the start declaring it to be "Mile 1." On the other hand, I may not have noticed it--logically, I didn't notice the "Mile 1" sign anyway.

[Nevermind the fact that I've participated in five races, three of them 5K's, and no one has ever posted a "Mile X" sign at the beginning of the mile, rather than the end. But logic starts to warp when you're walking 3 miles on an empty stomach at 6:50 in the morning.]

Finally, we made the final turn. I heard the crowd cheering. I saw that another course joined ours on the last stretch, divided by cones and ropes and flags. The "real" race shared our finish line--rather, we shared theirs. So I crossed the finish just a few seconds behind the third place half-marathoner, thank you very much.

One hour, ten minutes--a leisurely time, to be sure. I was just enjoying the walk, stopping periodically to take pictures with my phone (useless pictures, lousy camera-phone).
And the neat thing is, unlike so many other 5K events, OKCMM gives medals to every finisher, in every event. And they're pretty, too. (I got the blue one.)

(Above picture swiped from the OKC Marathon's FB page. Sorry, y'all, I couldn't find a better picture. Thanks for not suing me!)
The great thing about this race was that it wasn't about racing or times (though I know the finishers really did amazing). The overwhelming atmosphere was that this race is about the community celebrating life, remembering the fallen, and turning the tragedy into a motivation to be better people. That's what made this so much fun. And I'll definitely be back--no matter how early I have to wake up.