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November 27, 2017

The Blue Collar Runner: An oral history

Here’s how narrative arcs work. After the introduction, the rising action is built, and eventually we reach the climax. That’s the turning point of the story. We’re then treated to the unfolding of events and are led down a path of resolution.

But sometimes, the rising actions keeps rising. It passes right by the climax and turns on its afterburners, spiraling out into the void. It goes so fast and becomes so dense that time bends around it. It’s no longer an arc, but a curve between dimensions. The story is now sentient and we’re just living in its world.

When does this kind of thing happen? Not often. The story needs to morph into legend, which then evolves into lore. But it does happen; and in the instance of what took place in a small college town, one innocuous summer morning run led to a ballooning, community-altering narrative.

The following is an adaptation of an oral retelling of the events. The point of view is not my own. The people and places have been made anonymous to protect the sacredness of the tale. It exists because it was a story meant to be heard, or in this case, read, and then subsequently told anew…

***

The year was 2008. I had recently turned 21 and was moving into my own place for the first time. So just as any young, single, 21-year-old man would do, I decided that I would throw a party at my house. It wasn’t the first party in my new home — you could tell the vintage Victorian woodwork had hosted a few events over the past decades — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t deserving of another.

The date was July 3rd, also known as the eve of America’s Birthday. We decided to have a celebration to commemorate the next day. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

The night started smoothly. High fives could be heard in every hallway of the house as Boyz II Men’s greatest hits blared out from the stereo speakers. Life felt good. Life felt right.

All sorts of different characters started showing up. Friends, townies, non-townies, and everyone in-between. But this legend’s Hero happened to be one of my best friends, a man that would later become the Blue Collar Runner.

This guy eventually walks in and immediately starts talking about throwing a perfect game. I had never seen him throw a baseball, but my educated guess was that he could throw an 86mph cutter. It wasn’t that he was particularly country strong or a top baseball prospect earlier in his life. He was just the kind of guy who excelled at whatever he did. I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in natural talent. The Blue Collar Runner had plenty of it.

We were all thinking, “What is he even talking about?” But he just kept repeating that he was going to throw a perfect game. What we later discovered was that he was going to drink all thirty cans of Budweiser that he brought to my house. Obviously, a perfect game of baseball is 27 up, 27 down. He said he was going to throw 30 up, 30 down. So basically an extra inning.

Semantics aside, the party got rolling. Everyone was having a good time. The Blue Collar Runner just sat in my kitchen, plugging away at Bud Heavies. He makes it through three or four and we thought that was it. He’s just sitting there with his shirt off, denim blue jeans, iconic belt buckle, and steel-toed work boots.. This is very important.

Eventually, the party was over and everyone was looking to go out. He said, “No, no, no I’m not going out.”

We yelled back, “C’mon man, just come out.”

He said, “No, no, I have a lot of work to do.”

Initially confused, we quickly realized that he still had 10 beers to drink. The Blue Collar Runner finishes what he said he was going to do. A true man of his word.

So, we left him there and all went out. We were probably gone for 3 or 4 hours. When we came back to the house, he was still sitting exactly where we left him. He had killed almost all of the beers. We sat there and watched him crush the remaining couple. He drank all 30 Bud Heavies. This is also important.

At the time I was a collegiate runner, and my other friends were collegiate runners, but most of the other guys were just regular guys. You know, non-running types. We were talking about how we were going to get up the next morning and do a little Fourth of July run. 10 easy miles. Pretty casual.

“Yes,” the Blue Collar Runner said as he slowly, but emphatically pointed his finger towards us. “Yes. I’d like to do that run with you guys.”

Brushing off the absurdity of the statement, we gathered ourselves. “First of all, you just drank 30 beers,” I said. “Second, you’re not going to be able to keep up with us. Third, I don’t think you can even stand up right now.”

He just sat there stone-faced. I couldn’t tell if he was so drunk that he couldn’t hear me, or if I genuinely offended him. He looked me right in the eye, down to the core of my being, my soul, and said, “Hold me to it.”

We get up in the morning and we’re all a little bit hungover. My one friend and I, another fellow runner, get our running shorts on, strap on the Nikes, and head out the door. My buddy, the Blue Collar Runner, was still passed out on my couch with his denim blue jeans, iconic belt buckle, and steel-toed work boots.

I gave him a light kick and told him that we were taking off. He said, “Alright. It’s going to be a blue collar run.” We had no idea what he really meant, but this is the most important.

So, the three of us head out the door. He didn’t even have a drink of water beforehand. Nothing. Fueled by sheer will and the complete discography of Bruce Springsteen, he started running. We made it one block and thought that this was really funny. We respected the commitment to the physical bit, understanding just how miserable he must have felt for the sake of what we assumed was a laugh. It was worth a laugh.

Eventually, we make it down the street, probably almost a mile into the run, and he’s still there. He’s ghost-white. You could tell he had a vicious sweat going. It wasn’t so much the beer sweats as it was his brain running to the body’s control room and smashing the big red emergency button. He was trying to survive a self-assigned 95 degree death march. Mind you, he’s still wearing those denim jeans and steel-toed work boots. The belt buckle had to have been searing his skin.

But nothing changed. We make it another block. Then two more. A quarter-mile turns into a half mile and soon we’re 3 miles in. He’s still keeping up. We couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t even begin to grasp what was transpiring. And caught up in all of this amazement, we had forgotten about the parade.

It was the Fourth of July, after all, and the city was setting up their parade route. It should also be mentioned that if there was ever a location that encapsulated the American spirit, it was this city. It’s as if someone bottled the essence of Waffle House and drained it into the city’s water supply.

At the time, there were a ton of people on the street preparing for the festivities. So we did what so many collegiate runners — egos as inflated as our shorts were short — would do in our position: we waved and said hello to everyone. As expected, each person was confused that two really skinny guys in short shorts were with this laborious man. We didn’t want to cause a panic, or further confusion, so we decided to clear the air.

It’s as if someone bottled the essence of Waffle House and drained it into the city’s water supply.

We started yelling to the crowd that this man, this symbol, was the Blue Collar Runner. We told everyone that he’s coming out to run with us today to celebrate America’s birthday. People nodded in silence, looked on bemused, and waved with caution. We thought no one really appreciated the slow moving, weird parade that was our morning run. Though one woman did yell something back. An elderly lady with a white shirt, overalls, and a walker told us, “I’m not cheering for you because I’m gay.” In a way, that sort of summarizes the entire experience.

The run itself was a 5-mile out and back. Along the way, we saw hundreds of different people. We said hello to everyone. My other friend and I kept yelling, “We’ve got a blue collar runner here. He’s made it about 4 miles with us. Make sure you give him some words of encouragement because he’s trying to run 10 miles today to celebrate America’s birthday.”

Again, constrained applause. There were folks from all walks of life. Families, down and out homeless people, city workers, you name it. Some people shot some disappointing looks at us and those supporting our cause. Others were into it. They were all getting ready for the day’s events.

While we didn’t know at the time, but there was a cosmological event brewing. A phenomenon of collective, obsessive behavior was growing. We left the downtown area with smiles on our faces. That should have been it. We weren’t prepared to experience what was waiting for us on our return.

Eventually, we turn around and start making our way back into town. On the return trip, we started seeing all the same people that we saw on the way out. But something happened. They were started to rally behind story. It was growing and growing and growing and soon no one was in control. The story intimated life and then created a replicant of it. It wasn’t an alternate reality. It was happening all before our eyes.

The best way I can describe the feeling was that one scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You know, the one where Ferris tries to cheer up his friend Cameron by spontaneously joining the Von Steuben Day parade. At first, Ferris lip syncs to Wayne Newton’s cover of “Danke Schoen” and everyone has a good laugh. People wave, the judges try to figure out what’s happening, but for the most part, everyone just sort of goes along with it. I mean, he’s pretty good, and not harming anyone, so why stop him.

But then the song ends. For some reason, The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” starts playing. The marching band plays along. Then, everyone starts dancing. The crowd. The construction workers. The German women on the float. It’s like American Bandstand meets mass hysteria. People are running towards the parade to perform large choreographed dances. The parade viewers breach the police line, mainly because the police are too busy singing along with John Lennon as the chorus kicks in.

It’s pandemonium. It’s controlled chaos. The song comes to its triumphant conclusion. Balloons are released into the sky. Everyone’s arms go up. Ferris falls backwards and is caught by the dirndl dress sporting women on the float. He holds the microphone to the crowd.

“You all made this happen,” he thinks. “I am just the shepherd for the blind and bad dancers.”

On the way out, we were “Danke Schoen.” A good joke. A funny ephemeral event that didn’t hurt anyone or anything. But what it did do was plant the seed of the Blue Collar Runner. And it scattered. I think if you believe in a cause, and have fun at the same time, then the feeling is contagious. Like wildfire, it spread through the town as we made our way back.

When we turned back onto Main St., we were immediately met with fervor. “Oh hey! It’s the Blue Collar Runner,” one man said. “Keep it up man. You’re doing great how far in are you?”

We were no longer trying to spout the gospel of the Blue Collar Runner. We have our first evangelists. And while we were gone, they were preaching the good word.

Each step we took, the story further materialized into legend. More and more the legend grew bigger and bigger. Folks are clamoring to see him. By clamoring, I mean starting to push and jump over each other to get a clear view of their new messiah. They were starting to understand the story behind the Blue Collar Runner, whatever that was.

Eventually, we make our way to the actual parade. Then, all of a sudden, we’re a part of it. The Blue Collar Runner is running along and people are taking his picture. Cars are beating their horns. American flags are being waved en masse. He’s waving his hand back to his supporters, blowing kisses, running by kids and giving them high-fives. People were jumping into the street and giving him water.

Then, and again very suddenly, we became the focal part of the parade.

By the grandstand, there was a loudspeaker to announce the paraders and the floats. Upon seeing us approaching, the Grand Poobah grabs the microphone and gives a little speech.

“Hey,” he bellowed out from the speakers, “let’s give it up for the Blue Collar Runner celebrating America’s birthday. He’s out here running 10 miles wearing boots and jeans. Let’s all give him a hand!”

The crowd erupted. The was thunderous applause and hooting and hollering from all corners. Now we are the parade. We’re right behind the Little League teams and the War Veterans. It was incredible.

Then we saw the same elderly lady who refused to cheer for us (because of her sexual preference, apparently). She wasn’t upset or disappointed. She was ecstatic that we had made our return. She waved at us. We waved back. It was like seeing the Grinch’s heart grow five times. Her chest had swelled up with love for the Blue Collar Runner. Love conquers all, I suppose.

It could have ended there. We could have run through the parade, had a few laughs, and made our way back to my house. But in that moment, we knew that whatever we did, the crowd would get behind. Anything was possible.

I looked at the Blue Collar Runner. Then at the faces in the crowd. It was pure euphoria for a legendary hero that didn’t really exist. I knew what we needed to do. We needed to make the Blue Collar Runner realer than real.

I started chanting, “We need a hero, we need a hero.” My friend immediately joined in, no questions asked. Some of the townsfolk nearest to the street heard us and started chanting too. Soon, it was everyone. “This town needs a hero,” I thought, “and we’re damn well going to give them one.”

In truth, the town didn’t need a hero. It’s not like the factories had recently been boarded up or there was overwhelming systemic poverty or something like that. They were doing just dandy. But we gave them a hero anyway. But don’t let the “why” take anything away from the “what” of the situation.

The chant was eventually shortened to just “Hero.” We kept running, hoping it would never stop, knowing that the Blue Collar Runner was as much a part of the town as he was to America. The chant kept going, slowly dissipating, lowering in volume until we made our way out from the parade. Then it was just the three of us. Two regular runners and one legend.

By the time we make it back to my house, I had forgotten the reality of this guy running 10 miles in his Blue Collar attire. We never should have doubted him.

He eventually gathered himself. We got him a shirt, some water, and he got a ride home. We thought after such a grueling morning we’d never hear from him again, but we saw him a few weeks later. Not quite how standard hero stories work but we were happy he survived.

Perhaps it makes sense that the Blue Collar Runner became the town’s hero. The irony of a town celebrating a man who had consumed thirty beers the night before and most likely won’t remember the moment during which he became a legend seems fitting. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, or he was the hero the town deserved but didn’t need right now. I don’t know. But if not for drunken stubbornness and a few hard-earned miles, we wouldn’t have this story, which is why we’re all here now. And that, again, is the most important thing.

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