In late September ’84, I was picking races closer to the suburbs as my time living in the city was coming to a close. Spotting an event listed in the Warrenville area, I signed up on race morning and lined up eager to get a win on a cloudy, cool day.
The gun went off and within two miles I’d built a solid lead. The course wound through neighborhoods and I followed a guy on a bike over hill and dale. I ran the first mile in 4:56…but the second mile seemed really long. I passed through that marker in 10:32 even though I had not slowed a bit.
“Something’s wrong,” I called ahead to the lead guy on the bike. “Are we on the right course?”
The time only got worse at three miles, which I passed in 16:10. I hadn’t run that slow through three miles in more than two years. The same thing held true through four and five miles, only the splits were further off-base. And then the race kept going and going. I ran harder to try to make up the pace difference but it didn’t seem to matter. At some point, I decided to just run until the finish line showed up. We were well past 33:00 and counting as the miles rolled on. I finally finished at the 37:00 minute mark. The course was nearly a mile too long.
Disgusted, I crossed the finish line in first place and turned around to see if anyone was close. There were nearlly one thousand people signed up for the event but now of them were in sight.
“Stupid race to run,” I wrote in the running journal. “Course inaccurate.”
Linda and I waited around for the awards ceremony that were held inside a high school cafeteria. We walked past table after table filled of prizes. “Geeeez,” Linda observed. “You should get something pretty nice for winning…”
We there waiting for the awards ceremony while the big raffle giveaway took place. There were home goods and fitness membership, glassware, and electronic doodads like Walkmans and boom boxes. I leaned on the cafeteria table eager to get on with things. But the priority was clearly on making the masses feel glad that they came. The race even seemed secondary to the damned raffle.
Finally, they started announcing age-group winners. That process took a half hour. At last the time came to hand out awards to top finishers in race. Toward the end, my name was (at last!) announced and I received a polite round of applause while walking to the front of the room. This was almost two hours after the race had finished.The woman handing out the awards shook my hand and handed me a small box. It was sealed in wrapping paper, which I considered a bit odd, and I walked back to the table with it clutched inside my fist, and sat down with Linda.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I have no idea…” I replied, lifting up the box to turn it around for inspection.
“It’s about the size of a watch,” she volunteered. “Maybe a sports watch. That would be nice! Open it up!”
I tore off the wrapping paper and looked at the object inside. It was a Christmas ornament, a plastic Santa Claus holding a torch forward like he was running an Olympic Relay. Linda looked at me with an expression of mixed bemusement and total disbelief. “What the hell??” she stuttered. “All this nice stuff they give out and you get a Christmas ornament for winning? There must be a mistake!”
I sat there thinking about the whole experience that day. The long course. All those prizes and waiting for a couple hours for the awards ceremony. It all felt like a cruel joke, as if someone was pranking me.
As the crowd started to leave, we walked up to the front of the room. I was half planning to ask if there was a mistake. But then I turned to Linda and said, “Screw it. Let’s go home. This whole day was a joke.”
Later that week, I pulled out the ornament and shared the whole story with my father. He thought it was hilarious. “I’ll take that ornament if you don’t want it,” he chortled. And he kept on Ho-Ho-Hoing about “Marathon Santa.”
For years later, on every Christmas Eve my father would wait for us to arrive at their house before he’d pull out the Marathon Santa ornament and hang it on the tree with a big flourish. “Here’s your Big Award!” he’d roar. When my kids were little, he’d hide the Marathon Santa in the tree and encourage them to find it. Then he’d Ho Ho Ho all over again. He loved to give me joyous grief about that ornament.
I suppose there was a lesson in that annual display of grandiose teasing for me. My father loved taking the pomposity out of things his entire life. He never liked guys who smoked pipes, for example. Nor did he like men with big beards. And toupees? Forget it. All were signs of conflicted vanity in his eyes. The Cudworth Clan of four boys is all bald to this day.
My father loved trolling me about receiving that Marathon Santa ornament instead of some nice prize for winning the race. The tradition lasted for decades until my father passed away at 89 years old. I wound up being his caregiver after he had a stroke in 2002 and my mother passed away from cancer at the age of 80. He’d lost his speech due to the stroke and yet found a way to still tease me every year when hanging up that damned little Santa ornament. “Hoo hooo hooooohhh…” he’d say with eyebrows raised and a big grin on his face.
Stewart Cudworth was a pretty big advocate for me in many aspects of life. While there were plenty of times in my youth and beyond when he exasperated the hell out of me, I ultimately absorbed all of that into a blanket of forgiveness. In so doing, I also learned to forgive myself for some of the failings in my past.
I think earning the Marathon Santa helped all that in some way. While cleaning out my father’s house after he passed away, I happened upon that ornament but decided not to keep it. The torch was broken off, for one thing, and also, my dad was no longer around to mock me with it. That plastic talisman stood for false and acquisitive pride. The Marathon Santa no longer meant the same thing to me without my dad to tease me about it.