This weekend I am reminded that one year ago, I competed in the Urbanathlon. It was one of those things I wasn’t sure I could do. One of those things that makes you nervous. A real challenge. “What’s an Urbanathlon?” you say.
Well, the Urbanathlon is a 12-mile footrace through the streets of Chicago, complete with “urban obstacles.” This includes running through and jumping over monster truck tires, climbing monkey bars, hurdling beams that are five feet off the ground, running the steps at Soldier Field, jumping over taxi cabs, and scaling an 8-foot wall. Apparently, these are all things that Chicago’s urban population must do while walking to school or work.
Glad I don’t live in Chicago.
I had seen an advertisement for it in Men’s Health, the magazine that sponsors the race. Making small talk, I made the mistake of telling my brother Jeff about it during a family gathering.
As my sister says, Jeff “looks like somebody won him in a raffle.” The guy belongs on the cover of Men’s Health, or featured in an ad for underwear.
I, on the other hand, once drew a stick figure of myself on the cover of the magazine, and own lots of underwear. Some of it could even be called “vintage.”
As soon as I mentioned it, my brother got really fired up for the race, and I got caught up in his enthusiasm. He said, “Man, that would be really fun! I have an old fraternity brother who would be up for it, too! We could do it as a 3-man relay team. That means each of us would only have to do 4 miles plus obstacles.”
Jeff’s fraternity brother, Todd, makes my brother look like Chris Farley when it comes to fitness. When my brother called Todd about the race, his reply was,
“I don’t know. I usually don’t do races that short.”
And he was talking about the full 12 miles.
Todd is an adventure racer. You may have seen them on TV. These are the nut jobs that team up with other screwballs to try and cover as much rugged terrain as they can in a 12-24-hour period. Using only a compass and a map, they hike through mud, carve their way through dense brush, bike up mountain trails, scale cliffs, raft on rapids, and set their own broken limbs. I believe they get bonus points for eating granola made from twigs and burrs, and starting a fire using only some wet bark and the heat of their steely-eyed gaze.
After some coaxing, Todd was in.
We arrived in Chicago the evening before the race. We registered, checked into our hotel, and went out for a meal. As is the common wisdom of all elite athletes, we opted to do some “carb-loading” before the race. This consisted of 3 slices of deep dish pizza for each man, and 3 pitchers of beer shared among us. I’m fairly certain that this is the same pre-race meal eaten by Lance Armstrong when he is out in Chicago with his fraternity brothers, and he’s preparing to watch the Indy 500.
When we awoke the next morning at 6:15am, it was a tropical 36 degrees outside. I say “tropical” because the air felt as moist as the inside of a dog’s mouth.
When he’s sucking on ice cubes.
Five minutes before race time, it was 39 degrees, and sleet was falling from the sky. Luckily, I was responsible for the first leg of the race. This meant that I would be able to work up a sweat on my four miles of the course, while my brother and Todd waited patiently, freezing their pectoral muscles off at their checkpoints.
As worked up as I was about the race, it ended up being a non-event. About two miles into the run, I found my groove. The monster truck tires were a large, yet manageable bump in the road. I got a second wind just as I arrived at the checkpoint to make the hand-off to my brother. I passed him our timing chip, and he was off like a rocket.
When it was all said and done, we finished 76th out of 405 in our age bracket. I wish I could take credit for our top 18% finish, but I was the slowest member of our team. Given the fact that I was also the youngest member, it’s even more pathetic. My brother ran like a gazelle and worked the monkey bars like Curious George. Todd ran the steps at Soldier field like he was riding an escalator. He literally left it all on the course, stopping just 20 yards shy of the finish line to deposit his breakfast at the feet of a lucky spectator. I think I’d rather catch a foul ball at a baseball game, but I guess that’s the kind of souvenir you get when you watch an endurance race.
Afterward, we decided to celebrate with some more pizza and pitchers. The place we found was a bit like Cheers, with regulars coming in just to hang out. We found a table surrounded by televisions, ordered our food, and discussed the morning’s race. As you might expect, our conversation focused on Todd’s over-the-top performance.
As we spoke, a guy lumbered in. He looked like a homeless Albert Einstein. He was disheveled, with his long wool coat bearing stains from long ago. He carried a shoulder bag filled with knick-knacks.
The regulars saw him coming a mile away. They didn’t make him leave, but they didn’t respond to his small talk, either. It seemed that he was their bothersome gnat – something annoying to be tolerated. He attempted to start up a conversation with a few folks, but was ignored.
He approached the bar and ordered a beer. When the bartender brought him his glass, he paid for it using a handful of change. In my head, I repeated my mantra:
“There’s no such thing as ‘worthy poor.’ There’s no such distinction. Everyone is worthy.”
All the while I wondered how many handfuls of change this man had poured into a pint glass.
Our pizza arrived, which distracted me from the man. When the waitress laid it on the table, it was the size of a cheesy manhole cover.
We were dishing up our first slices when the man walked past our table with his glass of beer in hand. He paused and asked, “How are you boys doing?”
“We’re fine,” we answered, all hoping the conversation wouldn’t get long and awkward.
“That pizza looks good. I love the stuff. Lemme’ know if you don’t finish it.”
We made some reference to being from out of town, enjoying the Chicago-style pie, etc, etc. etc. He said a few more things and sauntered off to a booth twelve feet away. He sat there sipping his beer, mumbling from time to time, singing along to the jukebox, and watching people come and go.
The bartender came over and asked, “Is that guy bothering you?”
“No,” we replied in unison. “He’s fine.”
“Just let me know if he gets to be too much.”
We chatted some more, laughed some more, and ate until we nearly burst. I looked down and saw we still had a couple of slices left.
For some reason, my mind went back to my childhood. I saw an image in my head of my mother. She was scolding me for bringing home a stray dog, which I had lured onto our front porch with pieces of ham. He was a good-sized dog, too. Like a German Shepherd.
“You feed a dog like that, and he’ll never leave. It’s just trouble.”
Sure enough, that dog got into a fight with my little dog. Treated him like a chew toy. I thought he was going to kill him. Luckily, I was able to scare the dog away with some yelling and a well-aimed tennis shoe.
But Einstein wasn’t a dog. He was a human being. A human being who liked pizza. From a purely mathematical perspective, it just made sense. We had two slices. He had none. We didn’t need any more food. He did.
I approached the bartender and asked for an extra plate, napkin and fork. He didn’t say a word, but gave me a knowing look. The same one my mother uses. And my wife. It must be in a book somewhere.
Faces of Disapproval, by Ima Woman.
I loaded up the pizza and carried it over to the man. He was scribbling something in a notebook he had pulled from his knapsack.
“Oh! Thank you so much!” he said. “That is very kind of you. It looks delicious.”
“Yes, it’s really good.” I said. “Enjoy.”
As much as I would have liked to create a connection with this man, the reaction of other people in the bar made me question this. If they had been so pestered by him, there must be something about him that makes him a bothersome guy. So, I cut our conversation short, and went back to our table.
My brother, Todd and I watched some more football and enjoyed another beer at the restaurant. We were basking in the glow of our 76th place finish, and killing time before our flights. As we chatted, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The man stood up from his seat and approached up once again.
Oh brother. What have I done?
Einstein came over to thank us for the pizza. He made small talk, asking us where we were from. Why we were in town. When we were leaving. We talked for a couple of minutes, wondering where this conversation would lead. He would ramble a bit about random subjects. There were lots of long, awkward pauses. Then he said,
“Do you mind if I take your picture?”
He swung an old camera off his shoulder, and held it in his hand. It looked like a toy from the Nixon administration.
“Sure!” We answered.
It was dark in the restaurant, but as he clicked the photo, there wasn’t any flash.
“So, where should I send it?” he asked.
“The picture! Where should I send it when it gets developed?”
We all sort of looked at each other. Should we give him our address? Maybe not. I thought it might just be safer to give out a fake address, like the girls I used to meet in high school who would give me their phone number. When I would call it, it would be some bank’s time and temperature information line.
Todd grabbed a napkin.
“Sure! Here you go!” and he wrote something down and handed it to Einstein.
The man thanked us again, and went back to his table to finish his meal. When he left, we asked Todd what he had written.
“I gave him my mom’s address.”
“Yeah. We’re building a house now, so that’s where my mail is getting sent for the time being.”
We all joked how there wasn’t any film in that guy’s camera. How it was all a ploy to get personal information. Now Einstein was going to show up at Todd’s mom’s house someday, looking for some pizza. Worse yet, he would steal Todd’s identity and ruin his credit.
When the man finished his meal, he simply waved and walked out of the restaurant.
Fast forward three weeks. I am seated at my computer and receive an email from Todd. The subject line reads: “You won’t believe this.” I flashback to Todd giving his address to Einstein, and half expect that his mom has been abducted. I gotta’ check the police blotter in Springfield, Missouri.
But when I open the email, I see this:
A photo. A note. And a homemade business card.
I was floored. We didn’t even think the guy had film in the camera. Heck. We didn’t even think the camera was real. Now, here it is. A dark, blurry picture of three friends who didn’t have a clue about the guy behind the lens, who calls himself “Z.”
I had gone to Chicago to do one of those things I wasn’t sure I could do. One of those things that makes you nervous. A real challenge.
And that’s exactly what I got. But it wasn’t about the race at all. That’s the way God does it sometimes.
I saw a side of myself that makes me nervous. The side of me that judges. The side of me that gets it dead wrong. The side of me that misses seeing Jesus in others because I have simply forgotten what He looks like. Ordinary. Carpenter. Vagabond. Loner. Radical. Blessed.
Child of God.