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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Allowing for an audience of one

Never in a year and a half of running road races did I want anyone there at the finish line waiting for me or coming or going with me to these races.

I was adamant about it. I had set down this journey of getting in better shape and losing weight alone. No fanfare, no smiles, nothing.

I wanted to do this by myself. So I traveled to a lot of races, only there to run a good time, but mainly to finish. And I was content to say hello to the people who ran the races, especially if they were local in Putnam County like I was.

Afterward, I'd read the posted results of the race, hear a little of the ceremonies knowing I wasn't winning any prizes, and head to my car to go home. Mission accomplished in that regard.

But in early 2008, a woman who I had met a year before via the Internet and someone I grew close to wanted to go to the races I ran. Again, I wasn't all that crazy about having someone there with me. I think it took a while for me to feel comfortable with her going with me to races. I just didn't want to take anyone. That's how stubborn I was.

Shirlene, though, was persistent in that persistent way of saying, "I want to see you run and that's all." If she felt I didn't want her to be cheering or be excited for me running, that was all right to her. It took me a while for me to figure out she just wanted to be with me and do things I did.

And that made me uncomfortable. My previous ex-girlfriends wanted to be part of my world and things I did, and I was glad to let them in, but ultimately, they grew old of doing things I liked to do and ultimately, got tired of being around me.

The stubborn part of me didn't want any woman hanging around me doing things I liked doing ever again because ultimately, they too would tire of all that. Sad, but true. I grew too cautious in the time my ex-fiance walked out of our relationship in October 2006. I was pretty determined to live the rest of my life alone, not necessarily bitter, but more scared of what I'd do to any woman I was around. Even to this day, I have issues with "bringing someone into my world."

But Shirlene was persistent. She wanted to go, see what this was all about. Her work schedule would never jive with when I ran races on select weekends. Still, I'd text her the times and she'd text back telling me how proud she was.

Finally, our schedules did match up. It was June 7, 2008. I ran in the inaugural -- and it turns out the only race -- Neighborhoods of World Golf Village 5K in St. Augustine. We packed up her infant son Nio's little stroller and other things to preoccupy an 8-month old to head to the World Golf Village off of I-95.

By 8:30 that morning, the temperature was becoming oppressive. By the time the race started at 9, the temperatures were almost in the mid-80s. I suddenly remembered midway through the race why I don't competitively run in the heat of the day. I struggled to the finish line, which was the final loop around the village's lake and came across the finish line in 28:24. That was good for 18th in my age class and 222nd out of 483 runners.

And as I came to the last oval to run what was the final couple tenths of a mile, there was Shirlene behind Nio's stroller looking on. No cheering. I know she was cheering for me inside though.

We made a morning out of it since we went to the Denny's nearby for brunch after that. All was good and she wanted to do it again at another time. I couldn't see why not.

Now it is Saturday, August 2, 2008. For the second year in a row, I was running in the JDR Bridges 5K race in Jacksonville, the rare night race where it's not as super hot as it is during the day. And again, we started heading up to Jacksonville on US-17 through Putnam County and into Clay County. And the weather was looking ominous from the west. It looked as if it might rain before the race.

I had my concerns, but again, Shirlene was there to tell me she and Nio would be fine and find a place for cover in case it did pour during the race. Somehow, she always seemed to have the right things to say to stop me from worrying.

As we found a parking garage to be in that was free, we got everything from the trunk of her car again and I had her hold my cell phone and keys, leaving my wallet in the glove compartment. We locked the car up and walked off to where the race began.

Once there, I started going through my whole routine of preparing for the race, which would mean a small jog up and down the first mile and back. Shirlene had let me go on and do this and put my stuff under Nio's stroller. So I figured all was fine in that regard.

The race started at 7:30 p.m. and my goal was to do a time kind of close to the time I had done the year before, which was 26:25. My times were getting a little slower over the year, hurt the previous December by pulling a calf muscle running three days before a race in Leesburg. It slowed me down somewhat.

The bridges race included having to run down a street, coming back up that street, then making my way up the Main Street Bridge, then down it, then a turn to the right and suddenly going up and down the tougher Acosta Bridge and then back down the same street the race started and to the finish line.

This time, the race was a little more challenging. It never did rain and it was a little warmer than it was the year before. I ultimately finished the race in 28:34, good enough for 27th in my age group and 277th out of 687 runners. Slowed down a bit, but I still couldn't complain.

A few moments later as I checked out my time posted on the board near the truck set up for the race by 1st Place Sports, the main holders of the race, I go back to where Shirlene and Nio were and next to her she was in some kind of conversation with overall winner Jason Arnold's girlfriend, Anna. Obviously I knew Jason since he was in race I ran and he was from Palatka, so I made the formal presentation of the parties. We were in and out of there in a couple of minutes and said our goodbyes for the night.

I knew I wasn't hanging around this time for any post-race ceremonies and Shirlene was hungry, so we took off, heading down I-95 to the same Denny's we had stopped off at in June. I ordered something so sweet -- it had strawberries in it -- that Shirlene started questioning my sanity and if my blood sugar would skyrocket. I couldn't blame her at all since I don't believe this was something I wanted to eat either.

Going into the restaurant, I had taken the wallet out of the car, but for some reason, did not find the keys or my cell phone under Nio's stroller now in the trunk. It became a concern, but we went in to eat nonetheless.

When we came out, it was just around 9:45 p.m. and we decided to check the trunk of her car again. No keys, no phone. Now we have a potential problem. We take a ride back up to Jacksonville to see if we could find someone who may have found the keys or the cell phone.

Thankfully, someone did find a pair of keys and a cell phone, and turned it in to race officials ... but they had already left.

Greaaaaaaaaaaaaaat! Now I'm stuck without a cell phone for communication AND no way of getting into my apartment. I had a spare set of keys for my car and for my apartment, but getting into the apartment was going to be a little bit of a challenge.

Shirlene had her cell phone. We tried to call the 1st Place Sports store number to see if someone stopped by after the race to drop off anything from the race -- and my phone and keys. No answer. I must have tried to call them a dozen times. Nothing. Left a message on their machine to call her cell phone if they had both keys and phone in possession. Nothing.

By about 11 p.m., the realization was setting in that we had a problem of getting back into the apartment. At one point, my irritated lady friend was to the point where she was rationalizing maybe having to drive to her sister's place in Sanford to spend the night there and try again the next day to locate the 1st Place Sports people and maybe my apartment superintendent to get into the apartment.

"That's just too much driving to do," I said, knowing in the back of my mind this may be what we had to do.

So the next step was calling the emergency number at my apartment complex, which I didn't know, and had to call the regular number to pick the emergency number up from my manager's message on the answering machine. I had left the number on his beeper and my super called back within minutes.

I told him the situation and though he wasn't all that happy, he was still able to help. So back home we came and by almost midnight, he had gotten there moments after we got to the apartment to give us a hand in letting us in. I confirmed I had my spare key in the drawer under the microwave oven and all was good.

Shirlene and I didn't go very far the rest of the weekend as she headed back to her home near Cocoa the next night. Before Nio was born, she'd stay until Monday, but now with her son (she was 17 weeks pregnant when I first met her) in tow, she needed to be home at night.

I really didn't need the cell phone until I could get up that way, which I did by Tuesday, August 5. I got to 1st Place Sports on Baymeadows Road, identified both the keys and the phone and all was well again.

As for Shirlene, we decided a month later to make it official and be boyfriend and girlfriend and she would go to a couple more races of mine -- one in Crescent City on a dreary, yucky December morning in 2008 and the Gate River Run in March 2009. Unfortunately, being two hours apart from each other and strained for money was wearing the relationship thin until finally, she, too, decided it wasn't working anymore.

She and I remained friends, though not as close as we once were. We decided to go on with our lives separately and not be a burden to the other, though we would be there for the other if we needed to be. That's how I looked at it at least. The last time I saw Shirlene was in November 2010 after I played a round of golf near where she lived and took both she and Nio out for dinner. It was a wonderful time.

I always thought Shirlene would be there if and when I needed her. That's a good friend.

Sadly, Shirlene suffered a stroke and passed away 17 days later on June 30, 2011. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't see a picture of her in my apartment or I'm thinking of her, how things were good at the best of times.

And as I prepare to run my first race in over a year on November 12, 2011 in Destin at the Hog's Breath 5K, a race I haven't competed in since 2007, I am reminded that there is at least one person who will be watching me in spirit.

It's the first race I've done since Shirlene's passing. And I know I won't be anywhere near the 28-minute mark to start. I'm back to the concept of "just wanting to finish." But that's fine.

I'm a little more open now to letting those who want to go see me come to my races. I don't mind the friendly face at all either. They can even cheer me on if they wanted to now.

One of the many things I will always be reminded of and thakful to have had Shirlene in my life.

I miss you.

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