Every year, my hometown hosts a 2-mile race on the Fourth of July. It’s a great way to kick off the day’s festivities, which also include a parade and a bunch of booths on the Town Common sponsored by local organizations and offering games, the work of local arts and lots and lots of food.
The race itself is a bit of a zoo. The logistics are great, the spectators are great (the last mile and a half follows the parade path, where folks often set up their lawn chairs and blankets long before dawn) but the field is crowded, and every year there are more and more little kids sprinting like bats released from hell at the start, only to die about 400 meters into the race, that I legitimately fear some sort of trampling incident.
I’ve run the John Carson Road Race more than any other -- several times as one of those annoying kids, every year of high school and a few years after that -- and definitely have plenty of fond memories. Chief among them is sprinting to the finish alongside a former assistant high school coach a few years ago. We gave each other plenty of crap over the years, both of us taking it as easily as we dished it out, and I was glad to see that he was still getting after it.
I haven’t done the race in a few years. For starters, I don’t go home very often. In addition, I seem to get slower every year, while the field remains just as fast, with the latest crop of sub-11-minute high schoolers darting out after the gun, never looking back and leaving old men like me in the dust. (Note: I know many of you reading this are probably older than I am. You know what I mean.)
That said, this race means a lot to me. It’s the reason I never run with headphones.
John Carson, in this case, wasn’t a late-night TV host. He was a promising high school runner in the 1980s. According to lore, my town was full of such runners back then, regularly winning conference and state championships. My teams tried to replicate that success, with mixed results. (No thanks to me. I was seventh man on the cross country team on a good day.)
One day, John went running along a set of train tracks while wearing a Walkman. He didn’t hear a train coming. The first paramedic on the scene was his coach -- and, later, my coach. (Not the one I bumped into a few years ago.) He was the last one to see John alive.
I’m rarely tempted to run with music. I usually use the time to think -- sometimes about my run, but mostly about other stuff. Whenever I’m tempted, I think about John Carson. Sure, I’m a safe runner -- I stick to sidewalks and crosswalks whenever I can, I wear reflective gear at night and my shoes are obnoxiously bright -- but I’m also easily distracted and refuse to risk something awful just so I can listen to some tunes.
Many in my hometown call it the Fourth of July race. They’re not necessarily wrong. But to me, it’ll always be the John Carson Road Race. And I will never forget why.