Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sag You

T was the first one we scooped up. We’d been following this late-40s runner for awhile.

Sag Wagon 2 was on task. It pulled out from the curb at MP 15, where it had sat idling for three and a half hours generating plenty of complaints from the neighbors (the driver kept the motor running to keep the heater going–it was cold!), and went off to find the tail of the SunTrust National Marathon.

Sag Wagon 1 was lost and never came by. Sag Wagon 2 was supposed to drive onto the course and start sweeping up slow and lame runners once it reached us. All the halting runners had already limped by us several minutes ago, followed by a procession of street sweepers, and nothing was coming down East Capitol Street now except for cars, which had been let back onto the road network by the beleaguered police who had been blocking off every street corner so far. If you want to hear a terrific argument, stand next to a policeman as he tells a local resident that the citizen can’t drive his car away from in front of his house for the next three hours because of some race.

We drove down to the Capitol where a Capitol Policeman stood next to his unit, eying us suspiciously. No buses are allowed to go by the Capitol. I got out to ask him where the race had gone, but he swept by me and hopped aboard the bus to look around. All he saw was the radioman and the driver. When he alighted again, satisfied we weren't the advance guard of the Taliban, I told him we needed to catch up to the end of the race, wherever it was. He waved us on.

Meanwhile, the race administrators were telling the radioman we should backtrack to find Sag Wagon 1 and pick up all the runners behind us. There were no runners behind us. And no one knew where Sag Wagon 1 was currently. This was getting to be like a typical military operation, all fouled up.

I told the driver to go on forward. The radioman looked dubious but reported my decision to base. We pawned responsibility for not following orders off onto the police, saying they had said there were no runners behind us. (They had said this. They apparently know everything.)

We turned onto Constitution Avenue and passed by MP 17. No walking wounded there. We turned into the Ninth Street tunnel which runs under the Mall, where we located T hobbling along, the tail of the race.

T was walking along with huge vehicular escort. He was being closely followed by a race vehicle picking up cones, street sweepers and several different jurisdiction police cruisers with their lights going. If I were T, all that commotion 12 feet behind me would have made me nervous. But he was ignoring it, I think in the hope that we would all go away.

I could see two women slowly moving along the tunnel up ahead, and way up ahead, the juggler. This locally famous juggler is actually a decent runner, but he apparently has to juggle so many seconds every minute during a race or else it doesn’t count. He was dropping a lot of balls because he was getting tired.

We followed T all the way through the long tunnel and down an exit ramp which led towards the Interstate highway. No one in the Sag Wagon knew where the race went but a printout of the race map showed a wicked hairpin turn where the course doubled back on itself. The two women were stopped here wondering whether the course went onto the Interstate or back down the other ramp towards the DC waterfront. There wasn't a race marshal here, merely a set of cones set haphazardly in the roadway. I waved the women down towards the water, figuring that no marathon would put runners onto an Interstate full of moving cars. The operative word here was FUBAR.

T limped down the ramp towards the waterfront and MP 18. The Sag driver could barely go slow enough to keep behind him. The radio operator confirmed that T was several minutes behind the rolling cutoff time for that section of the course. National has a qualifying standard of five hours to enter, and a course limit of six hours to finish.

The Frederick Douglass Bridge across the Anacostia over by the new ballpark was still another mile ahead, still closed down waiting the passage of these few runners before it could reopen.

I hopped out of the bus and ran up to T and fell in beside him. I asked him how he was doing. He said fine in a hopeful manner. I asked him his name, and then I lowered the boom. I said he’d run a terrific race, but I had to put him on the bus. He acted as though he didn't know what I was talking about. That bus there, I said, pointing to the shuttle bus twelve feet back, leading the slow moving convoy. He acted as though it was the first time he'd seen any of that back there.

I told T that an 18 mile run was a tremendous accomplishment which lots of people couldn’t do. He'd already had a beautiful run on a wonderful morning. But it was past time for Maine Avenue down by the waterfront to be reopened, and he wouldn't make the bridge before it reopened as well. He could continue by taking off his bib and becoming a pedestrian on the sidewalk, but he wouldn’t get a finishing time. I didn’t recommend this course, I said, because he would lose his support and it would be unsafe. Get on the bus, I urged.

I felt like a State Trooper again back in Colorado, trying to talk a recalcitrant motorist into doing something he didn’t want to do. A good cop operates by persuasion, not force.

My old fast-talking charm was still there. T got on the bus. I felt bad though, as for the next hour T resisted all my attempts to engage him in a conversation and merely politely answered my questions. He displayed neither anger nor resistance. I think he was mortified.

Directly ahead were the two women, moving very slowly. One of them was to prove to be very interesting, a seven-continent marathoner.


Lesser is More said...

Its got to be a difficult job trying to tell someone their day is over. From watching Kona on TV so many years now, it seems like one of the hardest jobs in any part of working a race. Glad your choice words were able to convince T to make the right decision and get on the bus.

Keep the stories coming!

Rainmaker said...

Wow, great write-up thus far. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the SAG stories. Hopefully these folks will come out again and knock it out of the ballpark next time.

Rebecca said...

oh man, i never really thought about what the sag wagon entails. I guess i always just thought it was there for those that didn't want to run anymore. it takes a special person to do what you have done.