Monday, November 27, 2017

Return to Lexington: A Team Through Time

 

by Colin Raunig

 
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Georgetown Running Club after the 2012 National Club Cross Country
Championships in Lexington, Kentucky
 
In the sport of running, cross country is the closest construct to a team activity. This sentiment isn’t new. Every year, coaches across the country give motivational speeches to their athletes on the merits of running o’er hill and dale, jumping right into the pool of sentimentality and telling everyone to drink from it. They’re not wrong. If you’ve run a cross country race with teammates you care about, you know how right they are. Running is about the individual; cross country, their collective performance. You start the race together. You unite at the finish line. In between those two points, you run.

The Georgetown Running Club has suffered the loss of two runners in the past five years: Lauren Woodall Roady and Nina Brekelmans. Lauren died in Lexington, Kentucky the night of the 2012 National Club Cross Country Championships, the same site as the upcoming 2017 meet. Nina died June 2015 in Washington DC, the home of GRC. As a team, we mourn their loss and celebrate their lives. As a team, we try to create meaning from who they were. We run and we race as a testament to life.

I used to think the team was about me. GRC. I was on the road with the team from DC to Lexington for 2012 Clubs when we made a stop for lunch somewhere in West Virginia. I had been in good shape, really good shape, the best shape I had been in since the Naval Academy, from where I graduated in 2007, a place where I had little opportunity to prove my fitness, as my attempts to succeed on a Division 1 track and cross country team resulted in me trying to cash in at a level slightly above my pay-grade.

With GRC, I had earned a spot on the A team. But then I pulled my hamstring a week before the race. I stutter-stepped after a deer startled me while I was doing laps on Theodore Roosevelt Island. This was two days after the last big workout before clubs, my best workout of the season, in which I closed the last repeat of a 4 x 1600-meter session in a time that closely aligned with my PR. I had been determined for Clubs to be my college redemption, but it wasn’t meant to be. I decided to go to the Lexington anyways to support my teammates.

 A teammate, Pete Silverman, was filming a documentary of the trip, and stationed himself outside the bus entrance at the West Virginia rest stop, gathering footage as we filed off the bus for lunch. When I exited, I put on my best face of fabricated coolness for the camera, flipping up my jacket collar like a gaunt James Dean, or at least a skinny Luke Perry. No injury would prevent me from playing the part of the stoic runner.

We made it to Lexington later that day, the day before the race.

If there’s better running than the south in the winter, I haven’t seen it. On race day, the sky was overcast with intermittent showers. The east coast humidity was still present, but replaced with cooler temperatures, it enveloped you with a welcome embrace that communicated one message: run. We took the bus from downtown Lexington to the course. A repurposed horse farm, with rolling hills and thick grass of a deep green, it was the kind of terrain that may not have been made for runners, but that runners worldwide and across the generations have made for them.

I helped Pete film our teammates as they raced. After my duties were complete, I stationed myself about 600 meters from the finish line, yelling out my teammate’s names with unneeded instructions like run fast! By that time, I knew most of my teammate’s names, but not everyone’s. I had joined the team just three months earlier, as I was stationed in DC for one year to study Japanese for the Navy at the Defense Language Institute before continuing on to Japan. I knew Lauren Woodall Roady only in passing, sharing a conversation with her just once at a post-race team brunch after the Veterans Day 10k. As Lauren ran by, I hesitated in calling out, determining whether her name was “Lauren” or “Laura.” I decided on Lauren. I told Lauren to run fast. She did.


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Lauren Woodall Roady



The night after the race, the men’s and women’s teams met at a bar downtown. Lauren went out to dinner with her parents and then walked from the hotel by herself to meet the team. She didn’t make it. She was struck and killed by a fire truck that was turning left as she was walking with the signal in the crosswalk. We soon became aware of the subsequent ambulances and fire trucks that arrived, but didn’t realize why they were there until later.

I was woken up by Pete at three a.m. to meet everyone downstairs in a second floor conference room. He told me why. I arrived to see people crying and consoling each other. I didn’t know what to think and found a place to sit. A week later, I drove down with team members for Lauren’s funeral in Tennessee. Lauren’s husband, Peter Roady, gave the eulogy. He was composed. He said we should honor Lauren’s memory by the way we lived. After the funeral, the men’s and women’s team returned to DC. We stopped at a restaurant halfway for dinner and shared each other’s company.

Lauren’s death caused me to reevaluate my relationship to running, and my relationship to the team. In one sense, running didn’t matter in the face of such tragedy. In another sense, it mattered more. As an outlet, as a distraction, as a way of finding meaning in the sport, or assigning it one. I doubled down on my ambitions for the upcoming track season, and as soon as my injury healed, I threw down workouts on the track I hadn’t touched since college. I was determined to run the races of my life, because the time for running--the time for living--was now. And then: another injury. I was pretty much injured until I left DC for Japan the next summer.

But if the team was just about running, I wouldn’t be writing about GRC five years later. Because it’s not. For example, why did I join the military? For a middle-class sense of patriotism? Perhaps. But what sustained me were the relationships, the men and women to the left and right of me. Side by side. The same is true of GRC. In the interim, and in the wake of what happened, I may have absorbed the wrong lesson, that running and racing are solitary ventures. But the long-term lesson remains: that running is more than just about running, that it’s about the people we run with, and even run against, that we get to the finish line at different times, but we all get there. That’s what binds us.

Two and half years later, June 2015, I was preparing to leave Japan and return to America when I learned of Nina Brekelmans’ passing. She died in a house fire in Dupont just weeks after she earned her Master’s degree from Georgetown. At the time, I was still on the GRC email list, which helped to fuel my running for the two years I was the sole American in Eta Jima, Japan, an island near Hiroshima that is the site of the Japanese Naval Academy.

To get through my time on the island--“my island”--when I wasn’t injured or working, I ran. My Japanese co-workers were nice, but despite my best efforts, and my language training, I often didn’t understand them, wakaranai, both literally and figuratively. Running was my escape. Much to the Japanese Navy’s chagrin, I ran my workouts on their 613-meter grass parade field, on which I had wheeled 400-meter increments marked with white spray paint, and relayed the results to Coach Jerry Alexander over email. I did my easy runs off-base in my GRC singlet along the road that separated the coast from the island’s mountainous terrain, black crows dive bombing me when I encroached on their christened turf during mating season, and older Japanese women yelling at me from passing cars when the DC-like weather was hot and I had slipped my singlet off. I lived in Hiroshima on the weekends, taking the ferry to get there, and did my Sunday morning long run along its southern port, weaving my way through the throngs of Japanese fishermen and feral cats who lined the water’s edge, and, upon returning, checked the GRC blog for the weekend race results—it was Sunday evening back in the states. I got through those two years through a combination of fortitude and dismay, and by leaning hard, maybe too hard, through the internet and on the relationships I had formed in America, the most adjacent being GRC. I was physically separated from my past; that plus the passage of time created a palpable detachment. When I read Jerry’s email about Nina, I didn’t know how to process the event so far removed from DC and from my teammates.

In July, six weeks after Nina’s death, and back in America, I visited DC before moving to Colorado for grad school, taking the metro to Tenleytown for the summer team meeting. I mistakenly thought that the team I had left would be the one I would return to. I wanted it to be. The team had changed after Lauren’s passing, but I had been there to absorb that process. Upon returning from Japan, I quickly discovered the team I had left was not the same. It couldn’t be. Not after Nina’s passing. Not after all that time. I wasn’t the same either. As much as people change, I had changed, and my decision to leave both the Navy and Japan at the same time left me unmoored, to use Navy terminology, or rather, split in half, exposed, as I tried to stich myself together again. I thought the team would be there for me as they were before. In many ways, they were. But they were hurting, too.

The meeting started as most do: late. While I waited for it to begin, I sat on the couch in the living room. I remembered that this was the same spot where I had sat during the team meeting after Lauren’s passing, held the week after her funeral. I remembered Nina had been sitting on the floor in front of me, her arms draped over her knees as she cried, surrounding team members consoling her, while others stood up to share their memories of Lauren. Nina hadn’t been able to go to either the race or the funeral and that was perhaps her first opportunity to mourn what had happened.

And now Nina was gone, too.

When the meeting began, Nina’s passing was spoken of by Jerry and other members of the team in a way that made me realize that the processing of her loss had began before I had arrived. I was only beginning to understand the gravity of what had occurred, and the reaching effects it would have. I stood along the perimeter of the living room, and listened, and the way I internally processed Nina’s passing was perhaps similar to how Nina had processed Lauren’s.


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Nina Brekelmans


The first time I met Nina was on the same day we both ran our first races for the Georgetown Running Club. It was the fall of 2012 and we ran a 5k cross country race in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The first time I saw her, I didn’t know she was a member of GRC. She didn’t have a uniform yet. Neither of us did. But I do remember the gaze of a determined and focused young woman as she took her place at the starting line after finishing her final pre-race strides. It was the gaze of someone who knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted to run fast.

After the race, Jerry introduced Nina and I to each other, and we both shook hands. Nina and I piled into the back of Jerry’s car as he talked running and told Nina that she should consider signing up for the 2012 National Club Cross Country Championships, a 6k race for women and 10k race for men, that would be held in Lexington, Kentucky that year. She instantly agreed. Jerry then told me I should run the race. I was hesitant. The Navy had flown me out of shape at my previous duty station in Oklahoma City and I was only beginning to get back into it. And, to be honest, I was still a little gun shy from my disappointing college career. But I agreed: because Jerry insisted and because of Nina’s confidence.

The military is an institution that often breeds camaraderie, but my language training was one-on-one, ichitaiichi, and I didn’t know anyone in the DC area. Quite literally, I had asked for it. I had wanted to leave my aviation job in Oklahoma City and had taken the Japanese orders after being declined for a military foreign language scholarship in which I applied to live and study at a civilian university in France or Spain. Japan wasn’t Europe, and the job I took wasn’t a civilian one, but it wasn’t in Oklahoma, so, in that sense, it was the same. I wanted to take control and get away from the track the Navy had ordered me on. Before I left for Japan, in DC, I was still happy about my chosen path despite inklings of doubt about it: the early signs of incompatibility with the Japanese language and the vestiges of loneliness. I wanted to achieve the self-satisfying notion of being an individual, but I missed the camaraderie I had come to take for granted in the Navy. And I maintained the nagging and permeating feeling that no matter where I lived or what obligations I would be required to fulfill, that I was a runner.

I wanted to race again. But I was having trouble finding the motivation by myself. The purpose of my daily solo runs lay somewhere between opportunity for ethereal reflection or to fight back an encroaching tide of pudginess. I knew that such idle goals weren’t good enough. But I couldn’t do it alone. That’s when I found GRC. The team became my primary outlet while I studied Japanese full-time for the Navy. The people supplanted my military friendships and were a superior version of the team camaraderie I had lacked in military college. Within months, I was running the races of my life. I wasn’t running my best ever workouts, but my newfound enjoyment of racing made up for it. I toed the starting line to races with a true desire to succeed, instead of not wanting to fail. There is a difference. For me, it was the difference that mattered. In the moment, I may not have been able to articulate the lasting impact of this team, but I felt it. This was my last tour in the Navy, and the members of GRC were my shipmates.

Earlier this fall, in October 2017, I attended my 10 year college reunion in Annapolis, Maryland. I flew in from Colorado, where I am in my third and final year of graduate school. After the summer meeting in 2015, I continued running and intermittently emailing Jerry for training advice, until I suffered torn hip cartilage and bone impingement in my left hip, and underwent corrective surgery in June of this year. By the reunion, I was walking normally, and I made my way to a memorial event on the Friday before the weekend football game.

Dozens of my classmates and their families arrived to pay tribute to those who passed before us. The event was held in Memorial Hall, a room dedicated to those graduates who died in the line of duty. Retired Vice Admiral Rodney Rempt spoke. Rempt was the Superintendent of the Naval Academy from our Plebe Summer until our graduation. He told us to make the most of our lives, because we don’t know how long we have, and we don’t know why some are taken earlier than others. Later that day, when the reunion activities began in earnest, I took solace in the company of my classmates. A lot has changed for many of them: hairlines, waistlines, children. A lot hadn’t: our friendships.

How do you measure loss? Or a life? You can’t. Neither can be quantified, just as Lauren and Nina’s contribution through their lives is immeasurable. What would have become of Lauren and Nina? A better of question: who will we be in their absence? We live with the cumulative knowledge of who they were. Maybe the answer is to live by the examples set by them. That doesn’t cause the hurt of the separation to go away, it just repurposes it. Time and distance aren’t just measurements of loss, but of a race to be run. Time in relation to a distance raced creates a new meaning. I think of the examples set by Lauren and Nina, of passion, ambition, and drive. They toed the starting line of the race with optimism, even in the face of an uncertain future.

There is an answer in the team. The same is true for servicemembers and civilians alike. Even though I have left GRC, the team remains. Members come and go, but there is always the team, and as long as Jerry has enough stopwatches and pairs of blue jeans, he will be there to oversee them. Our time on this earth is temporary, and it’s up to us to make the most of that time, and to honor those who go before us, to harness the memory of them as examples to live by. To run by. GRC isn’t about me. It’s about all of us, those who are on the team, those who were, and those who will be. Although I work hard everyday to rehabilitate my hip, it’s possible I won’t be able to race again, and I’ve accepted that possibility. There’s more to racing than just running alone.



Georgetown Running Club, 2017





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