Chris Espenshade: Green Bagel, No Snatch : Memoir : July 2019

Southern Legitimacy Statement: As to Southern Legitimacy, in my day job as an archaeologist, I have dug holes and recovered history from throughout the Southeast. I have investigated the defining site types of the region, including whiskey stills, kilns where alkaline-glazed pottery was made, a 6-foot thick midden of oyster shells, slave communities, the freedman village of Mitchelville, camps and battlefields of the Civil War, and Cherokee petroglyphs.

Green Bagel, No Snatch

Most marathoners, from plodders to world-class athletes, will tell you that it takes a lot of mental and physical preparation to run the race.  It is not the kind of thing you would do on a whim, say perhaps, based on the misconception that you might get laid if you ran one.  Welcome to my world.

The story begins in my junior year at Wake Forest.  Because I had transferred from the University of Virginia, I had to red-shirt from cross-country and track for a year.  It was not as if I was a powerhouse runner, but rules are rules.  So, I trained with the team when it suited me and targeted a few key road races.  I ran my best marathon (2:37) in the autumn of my junior year, taking third at the Greensboro Marathon. 

That same autumn, I met Karen.  She was a UVA student, who I met, naturally, after I transferred to Wake Forest.  I had driven my parents to Dulles airport, to see them off on a 25th anniversary trip to England.  On the way back, I checked with my old roommates and found that they were having a party that very night.  It was a good party, and late in the evening a pretty girl got in my face and yelled “Hugh.”  To which I naturally responded “Who?”  To which she responded “Hugh.”   You get the idea.  When the Springsteen song ended, Karen explained that she thought I was Hugh.  I, of course, did not know any Hugh, but I figured he must have been quite the looker.  Perhaps Hugh Grant.  

Anyhow, the next week I sent her a note explaining who I was and asking her if I could drive up and date her.  We eventually had a couple of dates that fall, and she stopped by Winston-Salem to take in a Wake Forest-UVA basketball game over Christmas break.  We didn’t have the greatest seats, so when the Coliseum lights went down for the National Anthem, we climbed the ladder and walkway to an unused press box out over the floor.  The next summer, 1978, I was working in Shenandoah National Park and spending some weekends in Charlottesville.  Karen was also working that summer in Charlottesville, so we had a few dinners until she graduated and left mid-summer.  

I then heard nothing from her until early March of 1979.  That’s when I got The Letter.  She really wanted to see me and she was really excited about something.  What was I doing on St. Patrick’s Day?  Being strapped for funds, I probably would not be drinking heavily and playing up my 3/8ths Irish ancestry.  And being a soon-to-be-gone senior, the track coach was not going to invite me to go to Florida with the team.  “Why don’t you come to Virginia Beach — where she lived — and see me, and, while you’re in town, run the Shamrock Marathon?”  

As a brief aside, the track coach, however, did value my experience and maturity.  He had even asked me to mentor the freshmen.  I gave them valuable advice like “drink heavily the night after the race, not the night before.”  One episode with my coach stands out.  By this point in my career, I knew better than anybody what I needed in order to improve.  Put briefly, it was lots of speed work.  The coach, however, felt that I should be doing exactly the same as the rest of the cross-country team.  So, one Tuesday morning, instead of my daily, easy morning run, I was running repeat 660s on the track, in my spikes.  Towards the end of the workout, the coach wandered up.  “What in tarnation are you doing on that track?”  Yes, he really talked like that.  Thinking fast, I responded “Well Coach, I am thinking about wearing these spikes in our cross-country meet this week-end and I have been trying them out on the various race surfaces.”  To which, the Coach smiled.  Was he smiling at this transparent lie?  Not at all.  “That’s what I like about you, Espenshade, always thinking ahead and being prepared.”  And, damned if he didn’t mention it during our team’s afternoon warm-up that day.  Naturally, once we were out of Coach’s ear-shot, my team-mates wanted to know what I had really been doing on the track that morning.  

Now, the logical person would have responded to Karen that maybe I would run the 10K, but I am not really ready for a marathon.  A marathon is not actually the best thing to do weeks before the outdoor track season was to begin.  In my senior year in high school, I had similarly prepared for the outdoor season by falling off my motorcycle and breaking my collarbone.  In fact, a marathon was probably among the worst things to do, deadening the fast-twitch and draining the endurance.  Of course, a logical person would not be thinking that running the marathon would clearly impress Karen, and that we might finally consummate our relationship.  There have been a number of times in my running career that I have chosen the wrong distance, typically for the wrong reason, and this, of course, was another.

Having decided to run the race, I began to work on logistics.  Ya Pincus, an old UVA team-mate, had a house at Virginia Beach, and he promised me floor space for the night before.  Tony, my best friend and fellow runner, was at NC State, and he promised to contribute a rental car if I could make it to Raleigh on my motorcycle.  Tony, having some sense, chose to run the 10K.  

My appointment with destiny began with me riding my motorcycle for two hours to Raleigh.  Both of my rims had been bent two years prior, when I hit a 6 x 6 while traveling at 70 mph on the West Virginia Turnpike.  I distinctly remember being airborne and looking at the trucker in the next lane. He had a “this ought to be good” expression on his face.  The bent rims added vibrations and fatigue.  Riding a motorcycle for two hours the day before the race is not something that I would recommend to any aspiring marathoners out there.  See? I can mentor.  There was much confusion and delay in Raleigh because nobody wanted to rent Tony a car.  We were almost resigned to riding the motorcycle to Virginia Beach when we finally got a car from the aptly named Rent-A-Wreck.  

We started out of town, and I don’t think we even got past the State Fairgrounds before the car started to overheat.  The guy at the rental lot had made it clear that we had his last available vehicle, so there was not a lot to do.  Roll down all the windows and run the heater on high.  By doing this, we were able to keep the engine temperature out of the red zone.  Again, I would not recommend this combination of the outside heat/humidity and the car heater to somebody on their way to race a marathon.

Because of our rental delays, Tony and I missed out on the pre-race dinner and social, where I was supposed to hook up with Karen.  At a pre-race meeting the night before the Peachtree Road Race, Tony and I had made fun of Bill Rodgers by repeatedly glancing at our watches and saying “I guess all the serious runners will be asleep by now,” pretending we didn’t recognize Bill.  We stumbled into Ya’s house about 11:00 that night, to find that he had indeed reserved us two places on the floor, no more, no less.  The house was crawling with runners.  Ya was a runner at UVA, Ya’s brother ran for Virginia Tech, and they knew lots of runners too cheap to spend money on a motel.  After six hours in a sleeping bag on a hard floor — you guessed it, again not recommended — and a breakfast of cake baked by somebody’s sister — thank you, wherever you are — we were ready to go.  

It was a well-organized race and a great course.  I was on schedule through 15 miles to get a personal best, but then I started having shoe problems.  I had debated with myself about whether or not to wear socks.  Usually, I ran without socks and simply taped potential hot spots.  Having left my training-room tape (that refers to the type of tape, not the place from which it was stolen. Honest.) in Winston-Salem, I had the choice of risking blisters or running with socks.  In the end, I decided to do both.  About 17 miles, I pulled to the side of the road to quickly remove my sweat-soaked socks.  A guy behind me implored me “Don’t give up now.”  To which, I patiently explained “Fuck you, I’m taking my socks off.”  I knew then that you could have made me run the rest of the race over hot coals, and I still would have hunted that guy down and passed him.

As another aside, I have to comment on the incredibly stupid things people sometimes say in a race.  I recall an 8-mile race I ran about two months after the Shamrock Marathon.  There were two or three locals preparing for a marathon the following week, and I knew that they were only running the first three miles of the 8-miler.  I figured that I was leading the race, as they reached three miles, but then one person did not stop.  “Who’s that?  Is he running the whole thing?”  Indeed, he was running the whole thing, so I put in a concerted surge and caught Larry at four miles.  He immediately turned to me and said “Do you want to run in together for a tie?”  This was wrong on so many levels.  How did he know we wouldn’t be caught by another runner?  Why would he run a race if he didn’t want to compete?  So, I answered with another surge.  We ended up racing hard and with a half-mile to go, I got the dry heaves (a little late race habit I had developed, probably because I wasn’t eating properly my senior year).  Larry gained about 50 yards on me, and then glanced back over his shoulder.  I recovered sufficiently to grunt “Oh, yeah, I’m still here, Mother Fucker.”  I was not overly concerned with eloquence at that moment.  I wish I could tell you that I ran him down and won the race.  I did make him work for it, though, and he beat me by only two seconds.  “Do you want to run in together for a tie?”  Aargh!

Meanwhile back in Virginia Beach, the feet that had been parboiling in the socks were free to rub against anything and everything.  What’s more, the shoes had been stretched to best facilitate unwanted friction.  By 21 miles, having left the “don’t quit now” guy well behind, I could feel the blisters growing, but I was not ready to go back to wearing socks.  Actually, I had made an unappreciated gift of my socks to a spectator back at 17 miles.  Watch for them on ebay once this story is published.  Marathons are supposed to be about perseverance, so I kept on.  I ended up with a 2:44, which was alright considering my preparation and lost time.  

Besides which, I could now track down Karen at the finish.  I had told her my anticipated finish time (2:35-2:45) and I had indeed finished in that range.  Alas, no Karen.  I mean, how many marathon finish lines can there be in Virginia Beach on St. Patrick’s Day?  She had finished the 10K race at the same line; surely she could find it an hour later.  After hanging around the finish for another 15 minutes, and at Tony’s urging, I went for a warm down run before the award ceremonies, probably the only sensible thing I did that week-end. 

I again hoped to see Karen at the awards ceremony.  I figured she would remember when she heard my name called.  Instead, it was an overcrowded room full of hobbling people and free green bagels (remember, it was St. Patty’s Day).  Marathon award ceremonies are always good for a few laughs.  Everybody has tightened up, and they forget that standing up after a marathon is not the same as jumping up from their desk at work.  Joe Smuck’s name would be called, Joe would jump up, Joe would immediately grab his hamstring and stumble toward Sam, Sam would jerk his leg out of the way, Sam would grab his calf…  

Anyhow, I got my T-shirt and my certificate, and still no Karen.  A last-ditch phone call revealed that Karen had gone to the big race, which was a big help.  I managed to get Tony to hang around an extra half-hour, but there was no sign of Karen.  Always sympathetic, Tony remarked “Snaked!” an old UVA term meaning somebody else is going home with your date.  Ya added his condolences, observing “No Snatch!” an old weight-lifting term.  Facing a warm trip home, Tony and I gave our regards to Ya and the others, and headed down the highway.  As before, it was full heat all the way.  In addition, the liner under the right front fender began flapping and banging, having been knocked loose by the large egg developing on the retread tire.  Our mechanical expertise suggested that the best idea was to simply ignore it, which meant constantly steering toward the centerline to maintain a straight course.

So there we were, stinking to high heavens and seriously dehydrated.  We made it to the Raleigh beltway before the car stopped.  The fender liner had finally detached, and it messed-up something in the engine, perhaps the fuel line.  The rent-a-wreck place was closed, so we simply left the car on the shoulder and got a friend of Tony’s sister to fetch us.  This, of course, required a short hike, returning my bloody feet to my racing flats.  At 5:00 in the evening, I finally got a shower, just in time to get on my motorcycle for another two-hour ride.  As I explained to the training room guy the next day, I had not exactly thought this through.  

Of course, because I wasn’t sure that I was going to run the marathon until that day — sure, you all believe that — I had not told my fellow tracksters at WFU (those who, like me, were not worth taking to Florida) of my plans.  The next day brought the usual banter “you look a little stiff there, Chrispenshade.  What’d you do yesterday?”  To which, I responded “a 2:44 marathon” thereby ending the conversation and adding to my mystique and/or my reputation as a fool. 

In the end, Karen was extremely apologetic and came to town and did all kinds of things usually reserved for letters that begin “you are probably not going to believe this….” Oops, wait, no, that didn’t happen.  Instead, a week later I got a letter from Karen apologizing for not being able to find me.  She also allowed as how she had wanted me to meet her fiancé.  I tried to convince myself that she had really wanted to have a wild amorous weekend with me before her nuptials, but I think she was actually just a bad letter-writer.  

That 2:44 was my last marathon ever.  I had run a marathon six times.  I was unlikely to ever improve significantly on my 2:37, and my knees were protesting 100-mile training weeks.  I also sensed that I was losing respect for the race, and I figured that could lead to real trouble someday.