By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
Strange doings after midnight in downtown Cumberland, Md.: Dozens of people in shorts and sneakers with little lights strapped to their foreheads pop out of the Holiday Inn. They look like fireflies in the night. They pose for the obligatory goofy picture beside the statue of the mule that marks the beginning of the C&O Canal towpath. And they're off!
One is carrying a rubber chicken. One has a T-shirt that says "Run. Bike. Don't Sleep. Run." Destination: Bethesda.
What a wonderful night for a 200-mile relay called Tom's Run. Actually it takes a night, a day and a morning.
"See you at mile 54!" Jason Briggs, a chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard, shouts after his teammates, one of whom is towing a cooler of supplies behind his bike. "I'm gonna sleep in the parking lot a little bit."
Stamped on Tom's Run Relay T-shirts is the whimsical logo of a pair of thick glasses, a nose and a mustache. That's Tom.
All that's left of him.
Plus, this seemingly masochistic folly that is at once a living, sweating legacy and a meditation on community.
Tom, are you out there somewhere? Can you freaking believe it?
Tom Brooks was an obscure but beloved chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard. In 2004, at 49, he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- six years after his diagnosis.
A few months before his disease was diagnosed, he helped organize a bike-run relay down the towpath to encourage fitness and team-building. It was small, just a few teams. The next year, his colleagues dubbed the event Tom's Run Relay, and Brooks did a turn in his motorized wheelchair.
This year, Tom's Run has grown to 29 teams and almost 500 participants, the most ever. The course follows the towpath from Cumberland to Fletcher's Cove, then veers off to finish on the campus of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences on Jones Bridge Road.
But here's the thing: A decade later, hardly anyone on the trail, including the Coasties, knew Brooks. Tom's Run has floated like a red balloon across many degrees of separation from its original inspiration, expanding and adapting to include other military services, civilians, even several children and a newspaper reporter.
It's like those benches you see with a little metal plate stamped in memory of someone you never heard of. All you know is that person must have shared your love of this same spot. Each time you pass, the name becomes more familiar, finds a home in your routine. Isn't that immortality?
* * *
Entry fee: $5. At the pre-run pasta dinner at the Holiday Inn on Thursday night, race director Roger Butturini, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander, delivers what he calls "the tell." It's the creation story of Tom's Run, the legend of Tom Brooks -- how Brooks urged colleagues at Coast Guard headquarters to stay active. He wasn't a super-athlete, just another Washington office worker with an outgoing personality trying to be healthy. He was a webmaster for the service when he got sick.
"This activity has evolved as a celebration of that philosophy," Butturini says.
"This guy's legacy is he created something that folks can't stop doing," says Lance Abernethy, a Coast Guard master chief. On his team, the men run in dresses, an extreme form of team-building.
What would Brooks make of all this? Last year his widow, Debra Brooks, came to greet the teams. Now she is on the phone from Wisconsin, where she is taking care of her mother.
"He would be so proud that it's still going," she says.
The couple, who met in church in Westminster, were dating when Brooks received his diagnosis. He gave her the option of backing out, she says. They were married in 1998. Brooks had two children from a previous marriage and got to see two grandchildren before he died, she says. "He was my strength. I miss him so much, even now."
At the finish line of Tom's Run in 1999, according to a story in U.S. Coast Guard Reservist magazine, Brooks told the runners: "The Lord says to be thankful in all things, but it was very difficult to do that at first. . . . But when I think of my friends and family here, then I'm reminded of many day-to-day blessings and I can be thankful in all things."
Perhaps a handful of those running know Tom said this, but his spirit of taking comfort in community infuses the event, which is deliberately not called a race.
So instead of having a starting time, Tom's Run has a finishing time: 11 a.m. Saturday. Teams start early Friday any time after midnight, and run at their own pace. The goal is to finish as close to 11 a.m. Saturday as possible. Each runner must have a bike escort. Runners can swap in for tired teammates at 31 exchange points along the route. Most teams have 10 to 25 members. They create elaborate spreadsheets of who runs when and where, and which cars will deliver them and pick them up. For 36 hours, nomadic caravans wander the hills and dirt roads of rural Maryland, making rendezvous, getting lost.
Now it's 5 a.m. Friday, and if the National Capital Consortium of military medical residency programs is wondering where its director is, well, Jerri Curtis is splashing through mud puddles beside a pale-green meadow of hip-high grass, being serenaded by a choir of bullfrogs. The sky is just beginning to glow in anticipation of dawn, and the cone of her flashlight beam defines a mist so fine it is imperceptible on the skin. She's covering 11 miles on this leg, and she'll run again in about 22 hours, at White's Ferry.
"Oh, this is just glorious," she says. "We all have such stressful jobs. Out here, the BlackBerry doesn't work so well."
Curtis didn't know Tom, nor does she know well anyone who did. For her team of mainly neonatologists and pediatricians -- called Midnight Delivery, with a stork carrying a baby as an insignia -- this annual adventure is to build office camaraderie.
They are overtaken on the path by Alix Paye, a graphic designer, and Mike Reese, an administrator at Johns Hopkins University, of team Boh Legged -- so named because a cooler of National "Natty Boh" Bohemian beer is stowed in the support car with other energy drinks. "Tom's always been this mustache and sunglasses on a shirt," says Reese. And yet, "you feel like you're part of a bigger movement."
Shortly after 2 p.m. Friday, in a grove at Four Locks, mile 76, most of Butturini's team, Mixed Nuts, is having a cookout, and swapping Tom's Run war stories -- the time a biker plunged into the canal; the time they saw a "flying train" in the dark of night and thought they were hallucinating, until they realized the train was rolling on tracks elevated above the trail.
The team called Tree and Stump Removal arrives with Army Reserve Sgt. Chris Malloy running. Three years ago, Malloy was deployed in Iraq during Tom's Run, so he ran a satellite leg on his base. After covering his assigned distance, he e-mailed his time to his teammates, who waited the correct elapsed time before sending a runner off on the next leg.
"It was a way to feel like I was not forgotten while overseas," Malloy says. He doesn't know all the details about Tom, but he's glad the event raises awareness about a terrible disease -- "Was it Parkinson's?"
* * *
Shortly after daybreak Saturday at Swain's Lock, mile 170, everyone is punchy with sleep deprivation, including me.
I heard about Tom's Run from a neighbor at a dinner party last year. He gave us the tell. Three families on our block joined Midnight Delivery last year, and again this year, with the parents running a leg or two and the kids riding. Several families on other teams along the 200-mile route do something similar.
I'm in the run again with my daughter Lily, 10. I wonder if she knows who Tom was, so I ask her. "He died of Lou Gehrig's disease when he was 30 or 40," she says, then adds: "I like a relay race where you don't have to be fast, you have to be your planned time." She rode this same leg with me last year -- 7.9 miles to Lock 10.
This year she's so confident on her seven-speed bike. I'm the one who cringes as we pass Great Falls. One false move, and she's over a cliff. "This is the only time I ever want you to ride in the middle of the road," I say.
An Airborne Ranger team zooms past us, and we overtake runners from two other teams.
Around a bend, the sun has crested the tall trees on either side of the canal. Sturdy, golden, straight-edged bands reveal themselves in the light mist, connecting the sky to the trail.
"You don't usually see sun rays!" says Lily, and she picks up speed, pulling farther and farther ahead. I struggle to keep up, but can't. She is disappearing into the future through a corridor of sunbeams.
So yeah, at that moment, I think of Tom, somewhere out there. I remember him as an idea, not as a person, and how through a chain of circumstances, he made this moment possible. I wonder if this moment will outlive me, in Lily's memory. I think that's why I'm running Tom's Run.
* * *
Everything about the finish is low-key -- befitting a race that is not a race. The finish line isn't even marked. The participants gather in front of the university and cheer each new arrival. Everyone gets a medal with the iconic image of the glasses and mustache.
A team called Sexy Beasts, made up mainly of current and former cross-country runners from Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, arrives at 10:29 a.m., for a time of 23 hours 29 minutes, since they started at 11 a.m. Friday. But Butturini rounds up their official time to 24 hours, since the finish cannot be earlier than 11 a.m. Saturday. It's believed to be a record time for an event where no records are kept.
The rubber chicken finally concludes its 200-mile, 34-hour-49-minute journey in the hands of John Trentini, a medical PhD student in the Air Force. His team used the chicken as a baton at each exchange point. He's also carrying a McFlurry, obtained at the drive-through window of a McDonald's on the way to the finish.
Trentini's team -- called Tom, Dick and Sweaty -- wins the prize for the most newcomers to the Tom's Run community: All 19 members are first-timers. They had been hearing rumors of Tom's Run for years. "We'd say, 'What the heck is Tom's Run?' " says teammate John Pesce.
Now they know. The Tom in their team's name stands for Tom Brooks.