It was the first year for a local half marathon race. The race was created in order to help raise money and awareness for a local organization that worked to help people with disabilities.
My good friend Kevin was asked to help with the race. He knew a lot about putting on road races and he knew people. Well, he knew me anyway. He got me involved. I was there to help out.
It was the morning of the race and the race director had just shot herself testing the starter’s cannon. It was pretty serious. But she was to be OK.
The race was to start soon.
When Kevin and I learned what had happened…namely, that the race director was on her way to the hospital…we realized we were going to have to do everything ourselves. That meant starting the race…coordinating the volunteers…if there were any…making sure the race was scored…handing out awards…and so on. We had to do this despite virtually no preparation.
I can’t remember why this responsibility fell on us. But with Kevin, I didn’t ask those sort of silly questions.
The day before…while I was out putting out directional signs on the road…I learned two things:
- A half marathon is a long way.
- If you are going to use spray paint on the road, you need to get the kind of paint that actually sprays when you hold it upside down.
While I was out spending my Saturday trying to put paint markers on the road with spray paint that wouldn’t spray, I realized what an undertaking this race was. It covered a lot of territory. There was a lot of course to marshal. There were a lot of places to go wrong. It required a lot of volunteers and a lot of signage. My lousy little road markings weren’t going to cut it.
I had a bad feeling.
My anxiety over what was to come was building even before the race director shot herself with a cannon.
As Kevin and I scrambled to figure out how to make the race happen, we noticed a conspicuous lack of course volunteers. Maybe that’s because there weren’t any. Luckily, we were able to enlist the help of a couple of good friends who happened to be hanging around. We were going to have to manage with just the four of us.
As the start of the race approached, we noticed a small police detail gathering. Fantastic! I breathed a big sigh of relief. Apparently, a policeman on a motorcycle would serve as a lead vehicle and escort the lead runners over the circuitous course. At least that would take care of the leaders. All we had to do was make sure the rest of the field followed along.
Not only that…apparently there would be some police help at some of the more dangerous intersections. Things were looking up.
As the runners gathered for the start, I noticed something interesting. There was a wheel chair competitor. Apparently, the race director felt that if you are going to have a race to benefit folks with disabilities, you should allow people with disabilities to participate in the race. Makes sense. But it did make me a little nervous.
I had been involved in two local races prior to this where there were wheel chair competitors. In one of them, the wheel chair competitor was so fast that he and the lead vehicle got out of sight in a matter of minutes. It happened so quickly that the rest of the field went off course less than a half mile into the race. We ended up at a highway. It was a dead end. Must of looked like in the movie “Animal House” when the band ended up down the alley.
In the other race with a wheel chair competitor, the wheel chair entrant got bumped and tipped over in the first 100 yards. Luckily, two good samaritans picked him up, got him into his chair and he went safely on his way.
Kevin got ready to start the race. I got in my car ready to go out on the course and make sure everything went OK. Our other two “volunteers” went to strategic locations. The lead police vehicle was ready. All was set.
The race started and the fellow in the wheel chair took off like a rocket. It looked like he was shot out of a…well…a cannon.
Wow…that guy in the wheel chair is really moving…I thought. It looked like he had a pretty good lead and the race had barely started. I quickly hopped in my car and headed out. I wondered what would happen if he got a big lead…like that other guy had…when everyone went off course.
It was a beautiful April day. Sunny and warm. The nice weather had brought some pretty heavy traffic. People were out and about.
I positioned myself at a fork in the road about a 1 ¾ miles into the race…about the first place I thought there could be a problem. As I sat there, all I could see was a line of cars. No sign of any lead motorcycle.
I looked closer.
What is that? No. Oh no. There was the wheel chair racer in and among a bunch of moving cars. No motorcycle in sight. You could barely see him because the cars obscured the view. He had cars in front and cars behind. He was racing down the middle of the road amidst the heavy Cape Cod traffic.
My heart stopped.
My imagination ran wild. I saw images of all kinds of disasters. The race director had already gone to the hospital. Maybe this race was cursed. Panic was setting in.
Apparently, the policeman on the motorcycle elected to stay with the runners. I’m sure he didn’t know what to do. The wheel chair was so far ahead that he would have been leaving the entire field of runners to fend for themselves in order to accompany him. I never got the story. It doesn’t matter.
I tried to think fast. Out of desperation I pulled my car right out in front of the wheel chair. I figured I would serve as his lead vehicle. I turned on my flashing lights and hoped for the best.
I gave a wave to the very fit fellow in the wheel chair…who was obviously some sort of national class wheel chair competitor who innocently wandered into this debacle. I wanted to let him know I would lead him and try to keep him safe. Judging from the look on his face, he was skeptical.
As we made our way through historic Centerville, it occurred to me that we had been going up a gradual incline which we were soon to crest. A long downhill was to come. Further, we would be heading straight through a busy intersection. I desperately hoped there was a policeman there.
As we began our descent down toward Craigville Beach I noticed a steady stream of cars flying back and forth across the approaching intersection. Meanwhile the wheel chair was picking up steam…a lot of steam.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed was a policeman sitting in his car in a parking lot on the side of the road. Uh oh. Not good.
Apparently, he was ready to work the intersection but no one had tipped him off that the runners were coming. Maybe he was waiting for the motorcycle.
I’m not sure what possessed me to do what I did next. But for a few moments I became like my father. He’s good in emergencies.
Knowing that the wheel chair could not just fly through the intersection with cards speeding back and forth, I looked for a gap in the cross traffic and gunned it. I got to the middle of the intersection just in time to stop the car, leap out, put out my hands and stop traffic. I could actually feel the wind of the wheel chair as it rocketed me moments after I had managed to stop the cars.
For a moment, I felt like a super hero…instead of just some idiot who broke a bunch of traffic laws.
Unfortunately, he was going so fast that by the time I got back in my car he’s was ¼ mile down the road and rapidly nearing the bridge over the Centerville River. In keeping with the theme of the day, the bridge was closed on one side and could only accommodate one lane of traffic. In fact, there was a light telling you when you could go and when you had to stop. Everything was down to one lane for at least 100 yards or so.
If he didn’t time it just right, he could end up heading into oncoming traffic with literally nowhere to go. There was a sidewalk. But the sidewalk was so high that there was no way to get the wheel chair onto it.
Just before the wheel chair was about to enter the one-lane gauntlet…the point of no return…his light turned red…which meant he was supposed to stop…not go. But he went. And I followed. In doing so I passed about 10 cars who had come to a stop at the red light. But I followed nonetheless...lights flashing...horn beeping. I prayed to every unseen force that might have been on duty that day. I prayed that the light for the oncoming cars not turn green before we made it across.
By some miracle, we made it…barely.
After that, the high drama slowly subsided. I met Kevin shortly after crossing the bridge. He took over and shepherded the wheel chair safely for the remainder of the 13.1 miles…finishing the course in about 65 minutes.
Meanwhile, I helped guide the runners around the course with the help of the other two course volunteers. Most everyone stayed on track and no one got hurt. The winning time for the runners was around 84 minutes…19 minutes after the wheel chair.
After everyone had finished, we had still had to figure out the awards. Kevin did the talking. I did the figuring. We did a lot of improvising.
When it was all over, Kevin turned to me and said: “Well that wasn’t so bad.”
I replied: “Well…at least it will make a good story.”