Running is a big deal these days. There’s running gear, running clubs, and races for every holiday. Everyone I know seems to be doing a marathon.
When I was a kid, I only ran when Big Brother chased me. I’m pretty sure that’s the only time he ran, either. But this all changed when he went to college.
Wait. Get the image of fraternities, beer, and scantily clad students out of your head. Big Brother went to the United States Naval Academy, which has more in common with a prison than a typical American University.
At the Naval Academy, the students (or “Midshipmen”) live in grey buildings, have almost no free time, and even march in formation to football games. Upperclass Midshipman treat the “Plebes” (freshmen) like total crap for a summer and mostly crap for the rest of their first school year. While physical hazing is technically prohibited in these enlightened times, there are plenty of other ways to torment Plebes. For example, the Naval Academy really, really prefers that its Midshipmen have hard tech majors, such as Engineering. (Very important when their officers are serving on enormous floating pieces of engineering in the middle of the ocean, I suppose.)
So if a Plebe who was very, very good in math obstinately decided he would rather be a history major, well, a senior Midshipman wouldn’t do anything so crass as pour buckets of freezing water on the Plebe until he changed his major to Electrical Engineering. Instead, a Midshipman who was the star of the Naval Academy’s cross-country team might say, “Well, Mr. Plebe, how about you and I go run the seawall while we talk about your major?”
Poor Mr. Plebe would have no choice but to stagger after the track star until he puked. Then he’d run some more. And perhaps this would go on until poor Mr. Plebe either changed his major or got so fit that the cross country team had to concede defeat.
Big Brother graduated from the Naval Academy with honors, a history major, and the ability to run very long distances without throwing up. He lost some of his endurance while serving on submarines, but then he met the love of his life. Big Brother’s Wife was a serious runner. I didn’t know how serious until our first Thanksgiving with her.
I always flew back to Washington, D.C. for Thanksgiving. My Ex-Stepfather, Big Brother, Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister, Baby Brother, and Gorgeous Baby Singing Sister were all in the D.C. area. Thanksgiving meant sleeping in, snacking on appetizers while playing cutthroat card games, eating Ex-Stepfather’s Third Wife’s excellent turkey, celebrating if the homemade cranberry jelly molded properly, and washing about a thousand dishes after the feast. (If you didn’t contribute to the feast, you were on dish duty.)
Months before Thanksgiving, the email thread about holiday food began. Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister offered up a baked brie appetizer. She was approved. Big Brother & Wife volunteered for mashed potatoes and stuffed mushrooms. Approved. Baby Brother offered oranges in a bid to escape dish duty. Not only were his oranges refused, he was christened “Dish Boy.”
Big Brother’s Wife then asked if anyone would join her for Bethesda, Maryland’s annual “Turkey Chase,” a race held early on Thanksgiving morning. That email thread died so fast that I felt bad for her and wrote, “What is this Turkey Chase thing? Aren’t they called ‘Turkey Trots?’”
Big Brother’s wife explained that, no, decades ago, the Bethesda Rotary Club dressed a runner up in a turkey costume to raise money for charity.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the Bethesda Turkey appeared around the area to generate interest. On race day, the turkey would take off across the start line first. The rest of the runners had 10 kilometers to try catch the Bethesda Turkey. No one ever did. (I suspect some Olympic hopefuls wore that outfit.)
“Sounds like so much fun,” I told her. “It’s just too bad I’m not up for 6 miles. I wish it were shorter.”
Next thing I knew, I was signed up for the little known 2-mile run that started after the 10K.
Which is why I was up unconscionably early on Thanksgiving that year and drove out to Bethesda after flying 3,000 miles from LA the previous day. I barely found Big Brother & Wife before the 10K started. They were soon gone. I was surrounded by parents, kids, strollers, and golden retrievers. A half-hour later, most of the kids in strollers were screaming with impatience. A costumed turkey appeared on the platform at the start line. The turkey took us through calisthenics. The stroller-bound babies, unappeased, screamed louder.
The 2-mile race began. Slowly. Because everyone was walking. I was not a fast runner, but I felt like I was fighting my way through a December Saturday at Costco. With dogs. Except for the screaming babies and a few canines who were more Cujo than retriever, most people were in a good mood, at least. And it was nice to be outside in the crisp autumn air, my sneakers crunching leaves.
My sneakers sliding in dog poop was less pleasant.
After the race, I found Big Brother & Wife partying in a parking lot. They celebrated with several friends and several empty pitchers of Bloody Marys. All were flushed from their runner’s high (or the Bloody Marys). They compared their times. They moaned about a certain hill. They laughed about the guys who would periodically drop out of the race to break dance, then jump back in the pack and sprint ahead.
I had nothing to contribute except stench. More than one runner wrinkled their nose and asked about the smell. I collected their used napkins, cleaned the dog poop off my shoes (mostly), and slunk back to my car.
Next year, I vowed, would be different. I would not run with the dogs and the strollers.
Next year I would chase the Bethesda Turkey for 10 kilometers.*