(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from May 2006.)
I don’t just believe in ghosts; I know they exist. They live, invisible but real and generally friendly, wherever we have made memories. We can visit the ghosts from our past whenever the opportunity or need arises.
Some of my oldest ghosts live in and around Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. I visited them again this spring on Drake Relays weekend.
Much had changed since my last trip here. So much that I wondered if my ghosts were still here, looking out for the legacy.
My first run of this trip felt wrong from the start. Instead of going out the door at our family home near campus, as I’d done for more than 40 years of living in and visiting this city, I ran from a hotel.
A student group now occupies this house. One of them, who could have been me at 21, walked outside to pick up the newspaper without glancing at the geezer gawking from the sidewalk.
From there a two-minute run took me past Drake Stadium, the building that housed the most ghosts. From the first time I saw the place in the early 1950s until my last viewing a year ago, the stadium’s outlines were unchanged. Only the track surface had evolved.
Now I saw what $20 million and a year’s work had done to this shrine of the sport. It looked great, and it brought the stadium up to standards required for hosting championship meets. But the new look didn’t match my old memories of the place.
Gone was the unique track, elevated above the infield, which made runners feel we were on stage. Gone was the old scoreboard, where my name had appeared (in 1961) for placing second in the high school mile, and where last year a message to my late brother had read, “God bless you, Mike. We miss you.” Gone was the gate where I’d turned into the stadium to finish the first Drake Relays marathon (in 1969), and which I’d climbed for unauthorized runs inside as a kid.
With Relays events already underway this day, I couldn’t set foot on the track. I would wait until the meet ended to check on my ghosts.
That Sunday I hoped to find a gate unlocked, allowing a lap or two on this hallowed ground. It’s still the same ground, even after the renovation.
Luck was with me, or so I thought. The new main gate stood open as workers removed the portable toilets.
As soon as I touched the blue Mondo surface, my feet couldn’t stay in an outer lane, where someone of my pace now belongs. I veered to the inside, which approximated where I’d first run (on a crushed brick track) as a high schooler… where I’d trained thousands of laps as a student-runner at Drake… where I’d made the sudden decision on a hot August day in 1966 that running long and slow on the roads would be more fun than going for speed here… where I’d run the last tenth of a mile in the first Drake Marathon.
This was also where at least a few molecules of brother Mike’s ashes remained. The family had sneaked in to dust the former finish line and long-jump pit. I stopped briefly to pay tribute.
My pause was almost too long. Running again, I saw that the workers’ truck was backing toward the gate. One man waited to lock it.
I didn’t quite sprint but did my fastest running in maybe a decade. Visions of being locked inside the stadium, shouting for release by a security guard, raced through my mind and drove me through the gate seconds before it swung shut.
Two competing facts left the Drake Stadium with me. First, my history means nothing to the people who control access to this arena. I’m someone the fences were built to keep out. Yet no barrier is high enough or strong enough to keep me from my memories.
UPDATE FROM 2015
I haven’t had a chance to revisit the Drake Relays since 2006. I tried to get back three years later for the 100th anniversary, but cancelled flights put a late end to that plan.
The best I could do in recent trips to Des Moines was peer into the tightly secured stadium. The ghosts remained safely locked inside, available for visiting anytime from anywhere.
[Hundreds of previous articles, dating back to 1998, can be found at joehenderson.com/archive/. Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]