It may have been the most ridiculous question I’d ever been asked. The phone rang and the guy on the other end said, “Ken, can you do the 5K run this morning?” Me? A 5K run? The guy must have been drunk or called the wrong number. My answer was quick and to the point. “No.”
Then he explained that his newspaper staff was stretched to the limit on the Fourth of July and he needed someone to cover the story. I often act as a “stringer” for this paper, but I reminded him, “I’m not a reporter. I just write features.” He said, “Write whatever you want. We just need some copy on the event.” I told him I’d do it, packed my camera and headed for the designated park.
Okay, I know nothing about runs, 5K or otherwise. I know that the participants are into sweatbands and energy drinks and that I wouldn’t want to wash my socks with theirs. Arriving at the park I was faced with a problem. How am I supposed to interview someone while they’re running? If you talk to them ahead of time nothing has happened and afterwards they’re out of breath. What little chatting I did ahead of time gleaned nothing more than, “I don’t know, it feels good,” or “It’s fun to run.” Fascinating news.
I did discover that runners fall into two broad categories: the weekend runners and the pro’s. About two-thirds of the 100 or so runners simply ran as occasional exercise and some were all out addicts. The professional runners gave the briefest and most boring interviews, consisting usually of a long list of races they’d run. Ho hum. The weekend warriors were more interesting but still not feature fodder.
Someone fired a gun and they were off. I’ll admit that was truly a beautiful Fourth of July morning, a blue sky punctuated by a few fluffy whipped cream clouds. In fact, I was more entranced with the atmosphere above me than the runners on the ground. But sensing a noon deadline approaching and still no story I started talking to the crowd of folks who didn’t run. The question was simple: You just saw a 5K run take off and you’re still standing here. Why?
The first fellow I asked was way beyond running age and he told me that his Army daughter was here from Colorado and he came to support her. He said, “I was raised on a farm where at the end of the day you did your best to sit down and rest. That’s why I don’t play golf, either. When you sweat all day, more sweating is not fun at all.” My second interview wasn’t even asked for. A lady saw me interviewing the old farmer with my tape recorder in hand and she volunteered her own story: “I’m here to haul my husband’s body back home when he’s done. He’s no business running in these silly things. He’s got two bad knees and allergies and every time he runs in one of these damned things he’s sick and sore for days.” She claimed to have his insurance policy in the car but I didn’t ask to see it.
I could see already that I had a better story in my hands than what had been assigned to me. After all, the newspaper said, “Cover the 5K, not glorify it.”
A lady from Taylorville had perhaps the most puzzling answer. She said, “I was in town and I’ve never seen one.” I asked her what exactly it was that she had seen. After all, if you watch a 5K you simply stand there and observe 100 people run down the block and turn the corner. Unless you brought your own helicopter that was pretty much the end of your viewing. She said, “It was interesting. . . I guess.”
The local hospital had dispatched paramedics to the starting line so I asked a young lady if she covers many 5K’s. She said that this was her second and that according to hospital records there are seldom any injuries. “Sometimes you’ll have dehydration or a sprained ankle. Mostly we’re just here for PR.” I asked her if having a life support system in full view of the runners was actually good PR. She agreed that I might have a point.
There were a group of young children hanging around the water stand so I walked over to ask them why they weren’t running. A couple girls said they wanted to but their parents wouldn’t let them. One girl said, “I would but I’ve got a bunch of stuff like lactose intolerance and stuff.” Huh? Do they force-feed the runners cottage cheese halfway through the race?
I went home and dashed off a few hundred words and the newspaper filled the space on July 5th, thankfully with author attribution. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at clouds. . . much more interesting.