Like President Calvin Coolidge said when asked if he would run for re-election, “I choose not to run.” Unlike Coolidge, who at least ran once, I have chosen to never run. Yet each Spring I find myself in the cold and damp in the pitch darkness of a Civil War battlefield pulling an all-nighter at Burnside Bridge, more commonly and more prosaically known to American Odyssey Relay runners as, simply, “Transition #22.”
What would cause an otherwise reasonably sane 50-something (recovering) lawyer – and two of his friends – to drive 75 miles each way to man a Transition Area so remote that for the first few years of the American Odyssey it didn’t even have port-a-potties? To a Transition Area that’s so dark we have to set up glow sticks to light the path for the runners and bring a load of lanterns to light the area? To a Transition Area where it’s the middle of the night when you arrive and still dark when you leave? Where the humidity standing next to freezing Antietam Creek causes the pages on which we record the teams’ arrival times to curl up as we try to write on them?
Is it Race Director Bob’s charm? Believe it or not, as considerable as that charm is, that’s not entirely it. Nor is it the incredible enthusiasm of Kelly, the Director of Volunteers and Fun. It’s not even the opportunity to get American Odyssey swag – the three of us now have enough Odyssey gear to open a small clothing store – or the chance to pretty much close up the Boy Scout pancake fundraiser in Shepherdstown after our shift. And it’s not even bonding with the runners as they come through: it’s the middle of the night, faces are a blur in the dark, it’s cold, everyone is tired, and the runners can’t wait to hustle back to the warmth, however smelly, of the van. What is it, then?
Well, it started out for this Civil War buff as the naïve idea that it would be awesome to spend a night on a Civil War battlefield, the site of the single bloodiest day in American history and the battle that enabled President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And true, the first year of the American Odyssey Relay I walked a couple hundred yards in the dark with only a single lantern to keep me company, and I could feel the eyes of thousands of soldiers on me. And still, each year, as we move towards dawn, I can feel the soldiers stirring around me and I strain to hear the artillery at the opening of the battle from the far northern edge of the battlefield. (The runners run right past that area soon after they head out of Transition Area #21, at the point where they make a big turn from heading north to heading south right through the heart of the battlefield.)
But that’s still not enough. And it doesn’t explain why our spouses eventually joined us as unaffiliated Volunteers – although, being much smarter than their husbands, our spouses volunteered to be the bike patrol that handles the last stretch of the run, the Virginia side of Leg 36, in the middle of Saturday afternoon. And it doesn’t explain why the Burnside Bridge Volunteers often catch a few hours of sleep when we get home and then bike down to join our wives for a second round of volunteering.
No, I think it’s hoping for the few small miracles that happen each year. The runners who run through the bloodiest battlefield of the Civil War, or their teammates who stand a moment with us at the foot of Burnside Bridge – one of the single most iconic spots of the Civil War – and “get it.” The runners who, no matter how tired, are still enthused. The runners who say “thank you” and actually mean it. The disabled runners who invariably refuse special treatment. And, most of all, the runner who arrived at Burnside Bridge two or three years ago and, when asked by her teammates how her run was, beamed and said simply, “best run ever!”
You make it worthwhile. And we’ll keep coming back.