2014 Great River Ragnar Relay: Another Fantastic Run!

August 17, 2014

My life has already been altered by the greatness that is the Ragnar Relay. Last year’s 2013 Great River was my first ever Ragnar experience and was an amazing, eye-opening adventure through Wisconsin and Minnesota that I gushed about over and over again right here.

2014 was different. I was no longer a rookie bracing for the unknown odyssey of multiple runs on short sleep, piles sweaty clothes and the camaraderie that develops among your van-mates. I knew what to expect. The sweaty clothes would be everywhere, gathering in little piles throughout the van. The runs would be long and tough, filled with hills and gravel and dust. I would be tired. The sun would be hot. I’d need to bring water and chews and an extra pair of shoes, baby wipes, a few towels, a bunch of bandanas, cell-phone and iPod chargers. And I’d need to get plenty of sleep. I knew all this stuff. I could predict almost hour by hour exactly what would happen. This was not new – at least, not for me.

What made Ragnar 2014 special was that we had five newbies on our team. Four were in my small crew, making Christine and I the veterans of our 6-person van. We had graduated from rookies to van captains and would be guiding four others through their first Ragnar experience. Chad, Dan, Denise and Kelly (and Rachel in Van 1) were recruited to fill open spots vacated by some of last year’s crew. The new folks had heard stories of Ragnars past, had seen the photos, had read the blog posts. But they, like me last year, really didn’t know what to expect. They’d be seeing it all for the first time, and their excitement and dedication made it feel as if I were doing it for the first time too.

Kelly is rewarded after finishing an amazing hill climb!

Kelly is rewarded after finishing an amazing hill climb!

I was so impressed by how well everyone did. By how hard they pushed themselves. Kelly conquered that impossible hill on Leg 7 without walking a single step. While every other runner broke down at some point during that wall of a climb and was forced to walk, Kelly just kept chugging along and somehow made it to the top, still running, and inspiring everyone in the van. I had a pair of tough hills on Leg 8, with a 104 heat index but told myself I’d have to push it and keep running no matter what (ok, I stopped to buy a cup of lemonade for 50 cents from a little girl whose stand was reportedly “killing it”). Denise also had herself one hell of a climb but seemed to be effortlessly floating along the road as if out for a light Sunday morning jog. And while Christine, now a Ragnar veteran, killed her 8+ mile opening run, Kelly and Denise basked in the glory and accomplishment of having completed their first run. Dan dominated his first leg, passing something like 25 people as the sun started to fall and the vans kicked up giant clouds of dust on those Wisconsin dirt roads. But Chad had one absolute bitch of a twisting, turning up-and-down, gravel-and-dust-filled journey during Leg 12 that made me thankful my first run was pretty much a straight shot. It’s nice when you can see the end but when you’re making turns every half mile and don’t know what’s next it can make your run seem twice as long. But he pushed himself and made it through.

Ready to run!

Ready to run!

Yep – the newbs killed their first legs and as we handed the baton back to Van 1, we collected ourselves, regrouped and settled in for a few hours rest. I had spent the last 12+ hours thinking mostly about the logistics of the van. Finding the next exchange point, navigating the unknown roads, making sure we had all the proper supplies, coordinating with Christine as van captains and deciding where to go next, when to stop, where to stop. This year the running was secondary. So when we finally stopped at Holiday in the middle of a small town somewhere, and I bought myself a much needed Dr. Pepper fountain drink and Little Debbie, I could finally stop and think.

Those first twelve hours had gone fast. We met up at 10:00am – that’s the advantage of being in Van 2. You get extra time to sleep and wake up feeling refreshed vs. being in Van 1 when you have to wake up at 3:00am, meet your team and 4:00 and start running around 8:00. This year I didn’t even wake up until 8:00. So by the time we finished our first leg and stopped to rest, it was about 10:30 at night, and I was simply not ready for sleep. So I didn’t.  

Dan and Chad discuss the finer points of Ragnar.

Dan and Chad discuss the finer points of Ragnar.

Instead I laid on the side of a hill in my sleeping bag, with Christine on one side and Dan on the other while the rest of the group rested on seats in the van, and tried to relax and rest my body. I listened to the applause coming from the exchange point across the parking lot, and the enthusiastic announcer who called team numbers as runners approached, “Runner 152 coming in hot!” 15 minutes I laid there, then 30, trying to fall asleep. I wondered if anyone else from my van was asleep. I looked over to Dan whose eyes were closed, and then over to Christine, who opened her eyes. “Can you sleep?” I asked. “Not at all.” So we sat up and chatted for a bit. Dan rolled over and said he wasn’t sleeping either. It was still too early, or there was too much noise coming from the parking lot, or the streetlight was shining in our eyes. But it felt nice to rest and that breeze sure felt damn good. So we laid and we rested but I barely slept.

Van 1 looks way too happy!

Van 1 looks way too happy!

Soon it was 1:00 in the morning and time to move out. Van 1 arrived and we caught up with the rest of our team. This is always one of the best moments in Ragnar – those few minutes when your entire team is together and you have a chance to connect with the other van. Share quick stories of your adventures, pause for a few photos, make your own moments together before one van says it’s time to rest while the other knows it’s time to move out.

Last year I was in the same van with Donn, Meredith and Becca, who were in the opposite van this year so my time with them and with Sarah, Erica and Rachel was limited to these brief exchanges. I felt myself trying to make the most of this time as I really missed the Van 1 crew and wanted to be around them for a lot longer than Ragnar allowed. Because when it’s time to move, it’s time to move. Off we went for 6 middle-of-the-dead-to-the-night runs. The weather was perfect. Cool…so cool that I could see my breath with every exhale. I ran almost 10 miles for my second leg and it was my best run of the 2014 Ragnar, and was probably better than any run I did in Ragnar 2013.

I am a better runner this year than last year. More sophisticated. More aware of my body’s limits and how it reacts to various conditions, terrain, gels, electrolytes, salts, goos and other nutritional issues. I’m also a bit faster this year than last overall, on my regular runs, yet my Ragnar times were slightly slower this year… almost completely because of those killer hills and the heat during my first leg. But leg 2 was great. I ran for more than an hour and a half and never broke stride. For 9.6 miles I was in a fucking groove. My legs felt great, my breathing was perfect and my headlamp and night gear amazingly stayed in place and never became a distraction.

I finished that leg, collapsed onto a seat and began surfing Facebook photos to catch up on Van 1 while Dan and Kelly

Looking Cool

Looking Cool

managed the driving and navigation. That was one great thing about my van that I must mention. Even through Christine and I were captains and tasked with keeping the van on track, we still had to run and recover which meant the rest of the team needed to step up and help with logistics. This meant driving the van, navigating to the next exchange point, handing off water and generally taking charge in our absence. They did a great job. Chad was the master navigator who seemed to always have the map in hand calling out the next turn, when to stop to give our runner water, where the next road would be and how long we had until we needed to be at the next exchange. Dan was in the driver’s seat as much as Christine and I yet he always found time to meet a runner on-course and hand them a jug of water, or refill their bottle or just spray them down and cool them off. So when I finished by 9+ run and we coasted along while Denise charged through her 10-miler, I was totally confident that Dan and Kelly would lead us to the next exchange. And they did!

Caffeine. Hydration. Straws.

Caffeine. Hydration. Straws.

By the time we finished our second legs, we were physically exhausted, sleep-deprived and sick of goos and various sugar-drinks. I managed to get about a half hour of sleep but once the sun came up and we parked at the last major exchange I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Some did. Others showered and freshened up. I ate a little, rested in the van and chatted with Christine about this year vs. last year. Being captains vs. being rookies. The advantages of Van 2 over Van 1. The advantages of Van 1 over Van 2. The plan for the rest of the journey and whether we wanted to get some coffee. “I’ll drive!” I called out as soon as the idea hit and soon Chad and Kelly joined us and off we went to the nearest Caribou.

Erica drinks and runs.

Erica drinks and runs.

We had what we described as a running hangover. So tired, so clumsy yet aware that we each had one last run before the finish line. We had to summon the last of our strength, gather every bit of courage and grit and push through those final miles. It was tough, it was a grind, our legs were depleted of energy and no matter how fast I willed my body to move, it just wouldn’t go. I normally run a 3-mile route in 9:30 so I was hoping my final leg of 3.1 would be my fastest. It was but I logged a lumbering 10:30, well off my pace but I no longer cared. I ate a turkey sandwich, chugged a giant bottle of Gatorade and was thankful that my body had made it through without an injury, without a massive case of runner’s trots, without barfing or simply falling over dead.

And as the rest of the van completed their final legs, each team member collapsed into the van, sweating and breathing heavily but satisfied that they had pushed their body to the limit. One after another, as each person arrived back in the van they all had the same look on their face. A look that said not only “I’m done” but that “I did it.”

Yeah, see how tired I am?

Yeah, see how tired I am?

Ragnar is an endurance race. It’s not about speed, it’s about pushing through long miles, running while tired during any and all hours of the day or night and finishing. Whether your leg is 3 miles or 7.8, it’s only one of three that you’ll have to do. And each member of this Run Long and Perspire team had to push through miles and miles of road that stretched from Winona, Minnesota to St. Paul. For 200+ miles we had to slog on, chugging away through both heat and darkness, uphill and down, hating running and loving it at the same time.

Van 2 selfie

Van 2 selfie

You run your individual legs knowing that you’re only part of the overall adventure. I couldn’t have done 17.9 miles without someone dropping me off at my exchange, without someone meeting me after 3 miles to hand me some water, without a comfy place in the van to sit and recover. Each person struggled as much as I struggled. The only way I was able to complete 17.9 miles was because of my team. The only way any of us were able to complete a single mile was because of the team.

The sweet odor of success

The sweet odor of success

Running is an individual sport but Ragnar is a team event and this group of both veterans and rookies pulled together and moved selflessly from exchange to exchange, looking out for each other, supporting each other as we tried to achieve personal goals. And watching the newcomers get through it for the first time, while the veterans did their thing made me very happy and very proud to be on such a supportive and dedicated team.

Me, running long and perspiring.

Me, running long and perspiring.

This is my favorite race of the year, and one of my favorite weekends of the year. The second go-around, I’m not forever changed as a runner but I know that some were and that I played a part in that. As we met at the finish line and said our farewells, with everything from “See you Monday” to “See you next year,” I went home feeling satisfied that five teammates, Dan, Chad, Denise, Kelly and Rachel went home with stories and medals from an all new adventure. When Denise thanked me for asking her to be part of the team I felt touched, but mostly satisfied that I was able to share this experience with an all new gang of runners.

I write these posts to reflect but also to gather memories that will otherwise fade with the passage of time. And while I know my memories of this team with fade with time, one thing is certain: I will always remember this crew, and I hope they will always remember me.

The crew

The crew

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Baseball’s Greatest; a Book of Top Ten List from Sports Illustrated

December 10, 2013

SIEditors of Sports Illustrated, 2013

288 pages, color and B&W

5 out of 5 stars

A big part of being a baseball fan is debating the nuance of the game from the stands, or at work the day after a game, or during the cold, quiet offseason. Which current players belong in the Hall of Fame? Who was the greatest catcher of all time? Should there be instant replay? What was the single best game ever played? There are hundreds of debates, and each debate has hundreds of opinions. And in the spirit of year-end lists, Sports Illustrated’s Baseball’s Greatest presents a colorful and thought-provoking summary of baseball’s best,  including the top sluggers, pitchers, stadiums, managers and games of all time.

It is the ultimate book of baseball top ten lists, compiled through a collaboration of SI writers and editors, ranking the best players by position but also the best base runners, sluggers, defensive players and baseball movies. Who was the #2 shortstop of all time? Derek Jeter. Who is the #9 center fielder? Kirby Puckett. What was the greatest game ever played? It’s not Jack Morris’s 10-inning shutout during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. As a Twins fan I’m biased towards that one, but it came in at #3. And isn’t The Natural a better baseball movie than Moneyball? As you can see, there is already plenty to debate. Imagine the opinions, the arguments that a top 10 list in over 20 baseball categories can create!

This is a hefty, significant coffee table book, overflowing with wonderful color photos, and classic shots of the old baseball legends who occupied this earth long before many of us. Ty Cobb (the #2 center fielder of all time), Lefty Grove (the #2 left-handed pitcher), and the Polo Grounds (the 8th best ballpark) all make appearances in giant, vivid black and white.

One thing I liked about the book is that it doesn’t ignore the men who have been tainted by their involvement in steroids or gambling, but judges all players by their performance on their field and the field alone. As a result, great players like Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire are held in the same esteem as Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx and Eddie Murray. This is a book of baseball greats, players who contributed significantly to any fan’s enjoyment of the game, and it leaves the debates to the fans.

More controversial are the lists themselves and which players, stadiums and games were chosen and which were left out. How is 1988 World Series Game 1 not in the top 10 best games? Why is 1975 World Series Game 6 the #1? Sure, Fisk waved the ball fair and then jumped for joy after it cleared the monster, but his team went on to lose Game 7 to the Reds the next day. I can understand why Rogers Hornsby is rated as the top second baseman of all time, but why is Joe Morgan #2? Oh, perhaps I’m letting myself be influenced by his broadcasting. Like I said, the book doesn’t fault any player for their behaviors off the field.

I won’t give away much more, but here is how they ranked the greatest ballparks. Feel free to debate these for the rest of your life, as I know you have been anyway, without assistance from this enjoyable book.

Best Ballpark

1. Fenway Park

2. Wrigley Field

3. Yankee Stadium (the old one)

4. Ebbets Field

5. Oriole Park at Camden Yards

6. Tiger Stadium (not Comerica)

7. AT&T Park

8. Polo Grounds

9. Dodger Stadium (the current one in LA)

10. Comisky Park

Are these correct? Did they leave anything out? Can the Polo Grounds be included when it was demolished almost 50 years ago? These are the kind of questions and debates this book can spawn. It’s not only a great coffee table book, not only a great reference book, but it’s a great history book. A tight document of all the greatest things about history’s greatest sport.

Baseball’s Greatest is available from Sports Illustrated, makes a great gift, and you can buy it wherever books are sold.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


2013 Great River Ragnar Relay: My Best Running Experience Ever

August 18, 2013

And I mean that. It started early in the morning. Damn early. A 3:00am wake up followed by a quick brushing of the teeth and splashing-of-the-water-in-the-face. Becca Peterson was to pick me up at 3:30 (she was right on time) but I had a few minutes to sit on my front steps in the quiet dark, to observe the silence of my usually active neighborhood and ponder what I was about to get myself into.

1098257_763117509977_2054142135_nAs I chewed on an untoasted blueberry pop tart I thought about everything that had brought me to that point. It started last fall with a Monster Dash half marathon that I ran with Donn MacDonald and Drew Sagstetter, two coworkers who would become my Ragnar van mates. The Monster was my first half marathon and the longest distance I had ever run. Prior to that I had done a couple 5Ks and a few solo distance runs between 8 and 12 miles, but never the full 13.1. I was just happy to finish. This is around the time Donn told me about the Ragnar relay, which was a new concept to me. 200 miles, 12 runners broken into 2 vans of 6 apiece, each runner running 3 times over the course of roughly 36 hours. Little sleep, lots of sweat and camaraderie like you’ve never experienced. It wasn’t until next summer, Donn told me circa October 2012, so I’d have plenty of time to train. And it would be fun, Donn promised. An amazing experience.

Sure, I thought. It does sound like fun. And with a half-marathon under my belt I felt like I had made my bones as a runner so I was in.

10 months later, after training with a mixture of short runs, long runs, cycling, weight lifting, stretching and general mental conditioning, I felt ready to conquer three legs that would total 17 miles. But I didn’t know what to expect from my team, the course or the experience in general. Some of us barely knew each other. There were members of the team I had only met twice before – at our initial kickoff during the winter and at our pre-race dinner the night before we’d leave for the event. The 12 members of the team were a patchwork of people who worked together, went to school together, ran together, or were friends-of-friends. I had no idea, and no expectations of how we would all get along. I was just going along for the ride with great curiosity, but little expectation of where it all would go.

At 3:30 Becca rolled up and we packed my gear in the backseat: a sleeping bag and pillow, a cooler filled with ice, Gatorade and protein drinks, and my backpack which contained enough clothes for 3 days. 3 running outfits, two pairs of shoes, a few extra T-shirts, socks, towel, pocketknife, toothbrush, magazines and anything you’d need for a 36+ hour journey into the unknown.

An hour later at the Edina Target, our van was assembled and off we went. We drove for a couple hours and as the sun slowly broke over the horizon, and after we stopped for some coffee and snacks, we reached the starting line in Winona, MN on the bank of the Mississippi River. Our spirits were high and though we grumbled that our teammates in Van #2 likely weren’t even awake, we were glad to be at the starting line knowing our van would have the fortunate experience of seeing the race from start to finish.

We wandered along the levee and mingled with other teams as our start time approached. Exact times are fuzzy to me as I quickly lost sense of what time it was and where we were. I was focused on how long I had until my leg, what I needed to consume calorie-wise, what I’d need to wear and how I would hydrate and recover. Once Christine kicked off the race and took off running towards the bridge that connected Minnesota and Wisconsin, the clock was running and it became real. I was the next runner and had only minutes to meet Christine at the first exchange point.

552643_763117939117_769711236_nPart of the fun was cheering for and supporting your team during their leg. We drove ahead of Christine, parked and jumped out of the fan to cheer, yell and play songs through our megaphone as she passed. We’d cheer for other runners too….these were honest and good-natured at first but over the course of 200+ miles when we’d cheer for other runners we’d be, well not exactly 100% supportive. Sure, we clapped and cheered and played music for them but we made sure we’d keep ourselves entertained as well. More on that later.

So after stopping a few times to wave and cheer for Christine we reached the first exchange point. I had my uniform on: green shirt, shorts, my good running shoes, black bandana. I had a small water bottle and a pair of Jolly Ranchers in my pocket. I set my iPod to my 50’s rock & roll mix. Fast, upbeat songs that set the perfect pace for my usual 10:30 mile (yeah I know, not fast). Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Stuff that makes me run with a lot of energy.

I was nervous. I had to pee more than I felt I should have, and I was jumping about anxiously knowing that my exact start time was not up to me. I could not wait to go running until I felt right, or until the weather was perfect, or until I was fully stretched and warmed up. As soon as Christine appeared on the road I’d be in the exchange point whether I was ready or not.

1176230_763118318357_2024243755_nAnd just minutes before Christine came jogging over the horizon a funny thing happened: a lady who I had never met before and who I did not recognize came up to me and said “You’re a [name of my company] guy.” During any race like this, or any gathering of people, I usually always know or recognize someone. I’ve spent more than 20 years of my life in the Twin Cities and I’ve met enough people through work, school and social events to pretty much guarantee that anywhere I go where there’s a large crowd, I see someone I know. But I did not know this person. She knew where I worked, but I had never seen her before in my life.

So I challenged her. “Why do you think that? I’m not wearing a [company color] badge. I’m not wearing a sensible button-down shirt….”

She came back quickly. “You were a finance guy.”

Somewhat true. I had worked on a long, high-profile project that supported my company’s division. I had a lot of face time during that project so the fact that this person recognized me, even though I did not recognize her was not much of a surprise.

“How do you know this? Who are you?” I stepped closer to get a good look at her face. But she was wearing sunglasses and running gear, not the typical outfit you’d see in the halls of corporate America. I thought that maybe I just didn’t recognize her in her civilian attire. But when she told me her name, I knew I had never met her before.

“How do you know me?””

“You worked with my sister,” she nodded confidently. “I know ALL about you. You went to [Name of my high school].”

Also true and very specific. Not many people at work know where I went to high school. I don’t recall ever telling anyone on that finance project where I went to high school. How the hell did she know that? She told me her sister’s name but it was a name that wasn’t familiar. It was mysterious and I was left never placing who this person was or how our lives intersected but at least I was notorious to someone. So I left it at that. But if you know this person, or if you are this person drop me a line so we can get this sorted out.

Back to the race. A few minutes after this strange encounter I was between the ropes at the first exchange and Christine 1157579_10202165575165212_1607142899_ncame speeding in with the Ragnar slap-bracelet in hand. I held out my arm and as I felt the bracelet coil around my wrist I turned to the course and broke into an energetic jog as “Long Tall Sally” blared in my eardrums. Right out of Predator.

It took a good two miles until I was warmed up, until my breathing was synched with my pace, my mind clear and my muscles  coordinated. Already it was unlike any race I had ever run. There was no mob of runners surrounding me. The rowdy crowd of the Monster Dash or cheering spectators of the Torchlight 5k were absent. It was just me, a handful of runners and a long stretch of highway. And when I say highway I’m talking about semi trucks speeding towards you at 60 miles per hour, their wind blowing against your body as they pass, the fumes and heat of their engines reminding you that just one accidental half-inch turn of their steering wheel can instantly reset your timer and knock you into Ragnar history.

Can’t have that. You can only hope the drivers see you because it’s a bright sunny morning and there are plenty of runners on course. Drivers know there’s a race going on and they’re being mindful. A few even honked and waved as they passed. That was encouraging. Even more encouraging was when my Ragnar van passed me on the highway, the horn honking, their screams and cheers rooting for me as they sped by. I pointed my water bottle towards them and fired off a stream of liquid, spotting the van with water and making Donn, the driver laugh as he sped away. A mile or so later I caught up to my van, now parked on the opposite side of the road with my five teammates standing outside playing music through the megaphone, shouting and clapping. I did a funny run for a few strides, like a football player waltzing into the end zone before I continued with my standard home run  trot.

It was hot and my water bottle was nearly empty so I was happy to make it to the first water station around 3 miles in. This leg was 6.2, pretty much a solo 10k and now that I was warmed up, I was feeling good. The rest of the run was fairly easy. Though I only had 5 hours sleep the night before, adrenaline and the excitement of the race, coupled with the time I knew I needed to meet meant I had no problem finishing the last 3 miles.

972168_763119206577_1355602844_nAs I approached the next exchange point, the target marked by a lane of neon orange ropes (more on neon later) and a group of cheering participants and their vans, I pulled the slap bracelet from my wrist, found our third runner, Becca in the lane and slowed my pace slightly so that I would not run her over. I transferred the bracelet to her arm and she took off towards the highway. I was catching my breath and don’t remember who walked with me as we crossed the street to our van. Don’t remember who handed me a Gatorade (I think it was Drew). Don’t remember what I said to my team. What I do remember are their smiling faces, their congratulations, the happiness I felt in seeing all of them greeting me at the finish. I thought back to the last experience I had on an actual team sport. Not beer-league softball or pickup games of playground basketball but actual organized sports teams. High-school baseball, downhill alpine racing, 8th grade basketball.  Ragnar. I remember the Gatorade and the accolades and the pats on the back, sure but what I remember most about finishing that first leg was a feeling.  The feeling that I was part of a team. A good team.

On a side note: I do remember the rusty nut and bolt that Christine handed me as an inside joke. I still have it and plan to keep the treasure along with my Ragnar medal. It’s one of those things that anyone who wasn’t part of the joke would understand. A symbol of the race, a tangible piece of camaraderie. A trinket that when unearthed ten years from now will make me smile, nod my head and say “Ah yes… Ragnar.”  A rusted piece of junk discarded and lost in the dirt years ago but discovered and picked up by one of my teammates during my leg and presented to me as a validation of our bond. A Ragnar heirloom that, who knows, I may present back to her at Ragnar 2017, or Ragnar 2021, or Ragnar 2031 after she finishes her first leg.

1187017_639583939394857_742935875_nI needed a moment to catch my breath, to hydrate my body and to change out of my sweaty clothes but I also needed to join my van-mates in driving ahead of Becca to jump out and cheer her on. My leg was over so it was no longer about me. It was about Becca. So I hopped into the backseat of the van, sat under the AC and off we went.

Becca’s run was hot and made me glad that mine was over. There were a lot of sweaty, tired bodies on this leg of the race and by the time Becca finished and handed the bracelet to Drew, I collapsed in the shade and ate a turkey sandwich. I drank two full bottles of water and then changed out of my sweaty clothes and packed them away in a plastic bag. I was recovered. Run #1 was in the books and my role shifted to supporting my team and looking forward to meeting Van #2 some miles ahead.

We cheered Drew, gave him water, played songs on our stupid megaphone and then began to pay closer attention to the other runners. Most of these people were in shape and when I say in shape I’m talking about great shape. Lean, muscular bodies clad in athletic gear with every type of running accessory you can imagine. Utility belts with three or four water bottles, compression socks around their legs, heart monitors, sports bras, booty pants, neon. Neon. Neon, and more neon.

Let me talk to you about neon. This is the fad of our day and it was never more concentrated than at the 2013 Ragnar. Entire teams clad in matching neon uniforms. Neon bracelets used to track your kills. A kill is when you pass a runner on the course and some teams keep track of these by awarding a bracelet for every kill a runner scores on the course, or by marking the side of their van the way a fighter pilot would score the enemies he has blasted from the sky.

To give you an idea of how in-shape everyone was, in 17 miles of running I scored only 4 kills. Now I’m not saying I’m an amazing athlete and was expecting to be passing everyone I could on the course. In fact, I run at a slower pace and it’s tough for me to break a 10 minute mile. But had I kept track of kills at the Monster Dash or the Grand Old Days 5k, I would have scored dozens of bracelets. Not to belittle those races but I feel that your regular 5k has a lot of casual runners. People who enjoy running and like to stay in shape but haven’t made running a lifestyle. The Ragnar was filled with lifestyle runners, and many of them are decorated in neon.

Neon shoes, neon shorts, neon socks. Heck, even my good running shoes have neon soles. Neon was everywhere. It does make for a nice contrast with tanned skin, and definitely catches the eye the way, I imagine, a shiny fishing lure reflects the sun underwater and catches the eye of a hungry walleye. So neon reduces the humble male soul to that of a wandering hungry fish who is at the mercy of his potential captor. This is the way we started to think. On limited sleep, in a van that was becoming more and more musty with each completed leg and amid a sea of runners who were detached from the reality of their jobs and home life. Delirium began to set in. We started acting loopy and comparing neon running shoes to fishing lures. It was all a game, this neon phenomenon. A trick used to capture the eye, we agreed. And we were convinced that we were correct, even though the reality is that neon is as much of a fad as bell bottoms were in the 70s, or white powdered wigs were in the 1700s. It will soon pass and years from now people will look back at their photos of Ragnar 2013 and cringe at all the fucking neon!! Can you believe people dressed like that??

1185655_10152453826376758_878080296_nThis is how we began to talk, how we began to interact. The type of banter that went on in the van. We became a subculture of a subculture. Our van was a clique among cliques and though we weren’t really competitive with other runners, we started getting to know our fellow vans at a very superficial level. Sure, we chatted with some and even recognized others as friends from work or other phases of life but for the most part we observed and commented on these other vans they way high school kids would observe other social groups.

“Did you see that lady’s abs?”

“Hell yeah, I hope I look like her when I’m her age!”

Or, “What’s with all the shirtless guys wearing short black shorts? Are they all in the same van?”

Or, “Did you see that van of women who named their team Happy Endings?”

Or, “Why is that guy carrying a blow-up doll. Does he have to run with that?”

This was our world for at least another day and we were loving every minute.

1185834_763119441107_1404438498_nSo after Drew finished his leg he handed the bracelet to Donn who had to run one bitch of a hot one on black top with little shade. At least that’s what I remember. To tell you the truth, there are many times during the Ragnar run that are blurry in my mind. Where I’m not really sure what happened or where I was sitting, what I was wearing, or how I was feeling. The first transfer from Van #1 to Van #2 is one of these times. I remember Donn commenting that his leg was one of the hardest he had ever run. I remember Meredith completing her leg with a nonchalant, no-problem attitude that seemed to give us all a boost of confidence. And I remember Meredith and Becca drinking Slush Puppies that they bought somewhere, but I don’t remember exactly where. And I do remember the beginning of an in depth hot-or-not conversation that lasted throughout the 200-mile race.

We also covered the qualifications of cougarism but since enough TV shows and movies are already covering that subject, I’ll stick to the race.

I remember using an ATM to get cash, and buying two losing $1 lottery scratch-offs. I remember cheering for other runners while we were parked at a gas station and morphing our cheers from encouraging “You look great!” to the (what we thought to be funny at the time) “You look above-average!”

But it was good natured and all in good fun and most runners were wearing headphone and listening to music and couldn’t hear what we were shouting anyway. Hey, they saw total strangers cheering for them and that’s what mattered. At least that’s what I told myself.

Somewhere during all of this Meredith handed off the bracelet to Sarah from Van #2 and Van #1’s first shift was over. Van #2 would run six runners which meant we had time to rest, eat and regroup. But we were not ready to wave “good luck!” to Van #2 and proceed on our way. We decided to linger (heh heh, linger…a Van #1 inside joke) and root for Van #2. Sarah had a tough run uphill and while most of Van #1’s first leg was on pavement Van #2 seemed to be blessed with dirt roads. And with dozens of vans and runners speeding along these dirt roads, the world became a giant dust cloud that I imagine these poor runners had to breathe as they chugged along, uphill under a hot afternoon sun. It made me feel fortune to have started so early. Sure, it sucked to wake up at 3:00am but I least I didn’t have to run in this shit!

1185987_10201618196353909_1172737559_nWe watched Sarah hand off to Molly and then meandered back to our van and went to find ourselves a meal. It wasn’t breakfast or lunch of dinner because at this point I had no concept of time, and I had lost all memory of the order of daily routines. I just knew I needed to eat. And apparently every other Van #1 in the rest of Ragnar felt the same way because every restaurant in this small town of Pepin, Wisconsin was packed. But we were lucky to find seats at the bar and small nearby table at The Pickle Factory. I had a cheeseburger with two Sprites and a glass of water with lemon. It was a glorious meal. Exactly what I needed but more important than the food was the time Van #1 got to spend together at the restaurant. We were on a break, and didn’t need to hurry to the next exchange point to pick up one of our runners. It was the first time we had been all together since the starting line. We had a chance to reflect on everything that had happened that day. It was sometime in the afternoon but I don’t know the exact hour. I think it was just before the regular dinner hour, late afternoonish, so we were probably a good 12 hours into the event.

The break at the restaurant also gave us a chance to clean up. The soap and running water in the bathroom was like an oasis in the desert and I rinsed not only my face Mollyand hands but arms and legs (and more…). It was very refreshing and I felt ready for my next leg.

I could tell at this dinner that our team was going to continue to have a great time. We had really gelled up to that point. There had been good chemistry. And as we ate our meal, that chemistry only solidified. Any tension among the group had been almost sarcastically directed at other teams. In the form of our “You look above-average!” or “I give you a 4.5!” supporting cheers and our observations that we’ve seen enough tutus to last for another 10 Ragnars, thank you very much but damn these people are in good shape! Really, they were. It was something to aspire too.

After dinner, or our meal, or whatever it was, we refilled our ice supply, filled the van with gas (I think) and headed to the next major exchange point to meet up with Van #2. This exchange point was a park by the lake populated by rows and rows of vans. People were everywhere, some were sleeping but most were socializing. We caught up with some friends who were running on other teams and had a chance to look over the other vans. The most exciting one was the actual Uncle Rico van from Napoleon Dynamite.

1014329_10201776967283584_2027020605_nSoon it would be time for Scott to finish his run, completing Van #2’s first shift and handing things off to Christine so Van #1 could begin our night running. This meant headlamps, butt lamps and reflective vests which everyone was required to wear once it got dark. We realized we hadn’t applied our Ragnar temp tattoos so we took care of that, only Drew accidentally left the plastic covering on his, coining the phrase “Polish tattoo.” We also had no cloth to apply the tattoos except for a sweaty rag from my first run which somehow ended up dangling from Christine’s fingers.

Things seemed to be moving quickly and before we knew it, Scott came bounding into the exchange point and Christine took off and disappeared into the night. Van #2 had completed their first legs and the race was back in the hands of Van #1. It was dark almost as soon as we left the exchange point and Christine had the fortune of running along a very narrow stretch of highway that was also cluttered by construction. Confusing and probably not very safe but we tried to stick with her and hop out to give our regular cheers.

Since it was dark we broke out the glow sticks (I tied two within the laces of each of my shoes). We cranked up the music in the van, turned on our headlamps and created a roving disco. It looked pretty funny from the street, as I would later learn during my night run. I had a 5+ miler coming up but the last two miles were a constant incline up a fairly steep hill. At least on paper, it looked like a beast.

After Christine handed off the bracelet, I broke into my second run. It was probably around 10 or 10:30 at night and once I ran out of the small town where the exchange took place I was in almost pitch darkness. There were no lights, no buildings, no nothing. Just miles of dark highway and a car or truck speeding by every few minutes. It was hard to feel completely safe during this leg, and I tried to stay close to the edge of the shoulder and as far from the street as I could. But beside the shoulder was a very soft track of sand or loose dirt. So if you veered too far from the road and too close to the edge of the shoulder, your foot could slip into the seam between hard road and soft ground and trip you up. This would prove to be perilous for our next runner.

I had to thank the Ragnar brass for requiring reflective vests and headlamps because they were literal lifesavers. I needed to use the headlamp to see the street otherwise I would have stumbled over obstacles or missed the street entirely. Practically the only thing guiding me was the red blinking of butt lamps from the runners just ahead of me. But the darkness ended up being to my advantage as it masked the severity of the hill I was climbing; I had no idea how steep it was or how far it stretched. I knew I was running uphill but to what degree I had no idea.

This meant I was able to finish strong and run into a great crowd that was waiting at the exchange point. This one really 1176277_10202170235201710_452962527_npumped me up and I would point to this finish as a personal high-point for the race.  I had conquered a tough hill and did it nearly within my pace but felt as if I could run another five miles. When I handed the bracelet to Becca the team apologized and said we needed to hurry to the next exchange because Becca had a short leg.

The high point of my race would quickly be followed by the low point for another. While waiting at the exchange point for Becca to cross, another runner said that a runner from team 63 had fallen on the course. We are team 63. The fallen runner was Becca. There was a moment of confusion to confirm the news and then we started walking backwards into the course, in search of our fallen runner. Drew was up next so he took off running to grab the slap-bracelet and continue the race. Minutes later I was heartbroken to see Becca walking with Donn, tears in her eyes and blood all over her leg. My first thought was that she was injured and out of the race. With all the months of preparation and training, injuring yourself out of the race would be a crushing blow and I hoped that under that blood were just a few scratches. I hoped that Becca would be able to recover quickly and complete her last leg. If not, Meredith was available to run in her place but it wouldn’t be the same to have one runner sit out. We needed to get Becca cleaned up and ready for her next leg, which would be in less than 12 hours.

She received some quick first aid but there would not be an official first aid station until the next major exchange point, 3 runners later. She’d have to hold on.

946358_763119805377_1352036285_nDrew conquered his run and then Donn took over. We were off the highway now and running through farmland and corn fields. I had completely lost track of time – the movement of the sun had been my only reference and who ever knows exactly what time the sun sets? All I knew is that my body was starting to crash and I desperately needed to lie down and stretch my legs. Even two hours of sleep would be most welcome. As we followed along with Donn and eventually Meredith, I observed Becca (who was driving) and was happy to see she remained in good spirits. The rest of the crew was getting quiet as we had been awake for nearly 24 hours.

Finally we reached the next major exchange where Becca went to the first aid tent and the rest of us went into some high school (again, I had no idea where we were) to use the bathroom and wash up. Soap and running water was very welcome and I rinsed my face, arms and legs again. I returned to the first aid tent to watch Becca wince in pain as the medic cleaned and dressed her wound – and quite a wound I was. Not deep, but big. Scratches covered half her leg below the knee and had been layered by gravel. It could have been much worse but I was happy to hear Becca felt a lot better.

At the exchange point we regrouped with Van #2, who had spent their time resting. They had slept a few hours and were just waking up when we found them. It was around 2:00am by now and I couldn’t wait for Meredith to reach the exchange point so we could retire and lay down for a few hours. When Meredith arrived and handed off to Sarah, we didn’t stick around long. Roughly forty-five minutes later we pulled into a crowded parking lot at Stillwater Junior High, unpacked our sleeping bags and gear and carried it into the school where we could sleep in one of two gyms, and even catch a shower if we so chose.

I was more concerned with sleep than cleanliness and felt an extra 30 minutes of sleep was more valuable than spending Emilythat time cleaning up. I would describe the walk into the school as the physical and emotional low point of the journey for me. I had been awake for 24 hours, my body was exhausted, my mind was pretty much already asleep and I wanted nothing more than to just lie down. Having to unpack gear and carry it across a parking lot and then through the halls of the school was a downright drag but it would be unremarkable compared to what I was about to see.

Imagine when a tornado hits a town and there is nowhere for anyone to go except the local high school gym. Imagine hundreds of people, refugees, packed into the gym with their blankets and sleeping bags, and maybe a few personal possessions. This is exactly what we saw at Stillwater Junior High except instead of homeless families they were runners. A dark gymnasium filled with hundreds of sleeping runners. Organized in rows, side by side by side, resting in silent darkness. Maybe there was  a muffled snore, or someone shifting in their sleeping bag but otherwise it was dead silent, and very eerie. My clock told me it was 2:45am.

563336_10201780736657816_1586469465_nThere were two gyms like this in the school. The first was filled to capacity and the second one had only a few spaces, so we unrolled our sleeping bags and like kids having a sleepover lied down among the rows and quickly fell asleep.

We slept for roughly 3 hours and when we awoke the gym was nearly empty. All those people had awoke, gathered their things and quietly stepped out making barely a sound. Or perhaps we were all so tired that we slept through the noise of two hundred people leaving a crowded gym but I like to think or fellow runners were as respectful as we were when we entered, and moved about as quietly as possible.

When I woke up I asked how much time we had only to learn that we needed to move. We had less than an hour to get to the next exchange point and Van #2 was breezing through their night runs. After a quick visit to the head, I slammed a cup of coffee being handed out to all runners outside the gym, brushed my teeth and met up with my team at our van. I was happy to be runner #2 in our van and let someone else run the tough early morning run on 3 hours sleep. I would have a few extra minutes to wake up, eat something and stretch out.

I hardly remember the hand off from Scott to Christine, or seeing any of the Van #2 runners at the exchange point. I was barely awake but by the time we reached the next exchange, and I was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, or uniform as I called it, I felt ready for my final 5.5 miler. But I had questions…. would my body hold up for this last leg or would it quit on me halfway through? Would Becca be able to finish her third leg? How would the others feel during their third legs? Would we all crash or had 3 hours sleep been enough?

One thing we kept saying was that we couldn’t believe what little amount of time had actually passed. We had been together for roughly 28 hours. Christine’s opening run at the starting line the day before seemed like 2 days ago. Our meeting at the Edina Target late in the night seemed like 3 or 4 days ago and the pizza dinner the night before the race began was a distant memory. Weeks in the past. The reality was that it had been only 36 hours since that pizza dinner. Yet it was among the most distant of my many memories.

My third run was fairly easy. The weather was perfect and the terrain was fairly flat. It was another highway run so I had to be careful of oncoming traffic but I had a nice little trail run at one point and during the last two miles I had enough energy left in the tank to go all out. The final run of my final leg was actually my fastest mile of the 17 I had run during the Ragnar. I literally ran that mile as if it were my last.

When I finished I was cheerful, I was happy, I was satisfied. And handing the bracelet to a somewhat rested and hardly repaired Becca was inspiring. With that nasty wound on her leg there she was waiting at the exchange point for the handoff so she could run her final leg. That’s the true definition of playing while injured. We were all so proud of her!

1001399_10152455570796758_1847720542_nBecca finished her leg and said it was painful but she finished anyway! and Drew’s took us into Afton Alps. It was getting warmer now and the sun was bright and high in the sky. Donn was going to have some tough hills on the way out of Afton and then a long stretch of farmland style roads. A long, straight stretch with no shade and lots of challenging hills. We stopped a few times to give him water and even aid runners from other vans, most who appreciated our efforts. I say most because there was one guy who refused our water three times, even though he carried none and was clearly in need of a refresh. We practically insisted he take some water and he finally agreed to a very tiny pour on the back of his neck and god forbid, don’t get any on his hair.

We got smart with a few of these runners and tried to charge them 50 cents for the water but they knew we were kidding. As we departed from our impromptu water stand we patted ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and then admitted we only gave out water to make ourselves feels better, and no to make sure runners didn’t pass out. In the end, it was all about us. This is how you think when you’re sleep deprived and exhausted. We were not living in a rational world.

A fun thing happened at the next exchange point. While waiting for Donn and carrying around the ice cold 32 oz Gatorade he would need once his leg was complete, we met a tiny kitten who was running throughout the parking lot at top speed. Ducking under vans, jumping into vans and just scurrying about with the most excited attitude I’ve seen in a kitten. And he looked almost exactly like Flash, a 7 month old cat we had in our family until he got sadly sick and had to be put to sleep.

Meredith was able to catch him so I could take a few pictures to show my family back home (back home, it sounded so far 9360_10201782633505236_1314409343_naway at the time)…She let the cat go and he kept running around and ran right to the exchange point, finally resting right between the orange ropes where the runners would soon arrive. To the derision of the 30 or so spectators a runner in a rainbow tutu picked up the little guy and threw him off the course. And I mean threw. She did not pick him up and gently set him aside, she tossed him into the grass like you toss a dirty shirt into the laundry.

The crowd witnessed this and reacted with almost universal scorn. “Hey!” “Come on!” and gasps of horror arose from the people but tutu lady turned to us and said, “He landed on his feet!” as if we were in the wrong for calling her out. A minute later tutu lady was nowhere to be found. I don’t know if that’s because she was the next runner or if she hid in her van but I never saw her again. However, the cat was picked up by a friendly lady who said she would give him a home if he had no other place to go. All was well in the world of stray cats.

1146698_763119765457_843607026_nSoon Donn rounded the corner and handed off to Meredith for our van’s final leg. He slammed his Gatorade and we jumped into the van and headed to Park high school where we met Van #2 for the final exchange and the end of our shift. Another major exchange point so vans were everywhere. We were also able to catch up to some of our volunteers – Donn’s wife and Christine’s husband were there helping out at the booths. It was good to see them and I wish we had more time to chat but with Meredith coming through for the final exchange and our teammates from Van #2 hanging around I wanted to get as much team time as I could.

Meredith finished her leg, told us about her skinny kill (when you pass a runner who appears to be more fit than you are – a nice way of saying it) and then we cleaned out the van. All garbage was removed. Our clothes and possessions were organized and then we had the sad act of returning to that original Target parking lot in Edina to get in our cars, drive to a restaurant for another meal before heading to the finish line to meet Van #2.

The Target parking lot was surreal. People were shopping. People were engaged in their routines. This world seemed to have order to it. A mundane sense of tasks and to-do lists. A world of people naïve to what we were going through. Since our team’s theme was Running Back to the Future, I imagined it was how Marty felt when he returned to 1985 and met up with his family, who was completely unaware of what he had just been through. Reality for them had never changed, while Marty had returned from a life-altering quest.

That’s how I felt: life-altered. Not so much enlightened but feeling as though I had been through something that few people could completely understand. I could tell people about what I did and show them pictures and videos but would anyone every really get it? It was in that Target parking lot where I realized that the Ragnar people are like a family. We belong to a world that many people are not a part of, and would chose to never be part of! We’re crazies, weirdoes, fools who spend money to torture our bodies and minds and then return with nothing but a medal and a T-shirt. To an outsider I can understand why it may appear that way, but having gone through it, I now understand. Ragnar fundamentally changed who I am as a runner and as an athlete.

1170743_10202171572195134_1569983632_nBut it was not over yet. We still had not crossed the finish line. After breakfast at the Pancake House (breakfast at around 3:00pm) we headed to the U of M and for the first time, 203 miles later, encountered the finish line. It was a glorious sight. The end of an epic journey. White tents, music blaring, runners wandering about. The inflatable orange threshold above the finish line was our Sea of Tranquility. We were there, man. We made it! And in just a little while the final runner, Scott would come speeding into view and then we’d all run through the finish line as a team.

But first we needed to fuck with more runners.

That megaphone came in handy again and as each runner came by and gathered their team for a final 12-person sprint to the finish we took turns shouting out things like “Looking mediocre at best!”, “Squeeze those cheeks!” and “Your fly is open!” To a team of women dressed as brides, we asked if they really should be wearing white even though, as I shouted “They look like virgins to me!” To a team dressed like pimps and whores we asked where they purchased their outfits and one flashed us her purple panties. For a good hour we made cat calls and shouted one-liners. Most of which I can’t remember although I do know that some were hilarious….to us…at that moment and in that frame of mind. Who knows how annoying we were, or if anyone actually heard anything we were saying.

21426_10201958554872458_1159161861_nThere was enough time to grab a beer for those of us who wanted one and then Scott came tearing into view and as planned, our team-shirted crew ran through the finish line together. A team photo took place soon after and then we tore into two pizzas and devoured them in minutes. The Great River Ragnar Run of 2013 had ended. We didn’t linger (heh…linger again). We were tired and wanted to get home and cleaned. We hugged, we shook hands, and we wished each other well. Some of us asked to be involved next year and whether or not we would do the Ragnar again, we all left with smiles.

I spent several hours that night going through pictures, which did an excellent job of filling in the many gaps in my memory. I drank a couple beers and rested on the couch and then slept for 10 hours, one of the longest sleeps I’ve had in years. I woke up feeling tired and sore and a little depressed. The event was over and it had been such a departure, such a thrilling adventure, that I wanted to be only in that frame of mind. Morning meant I was confronted with the routine of life, obligations at work, bills to pay, to-do lists to execute.

It was a sad feeling knowing the Ragnar was over and that I could soon be like one of those unknowing souls in the Target parking lot. All the hours or training, the many protein drinks and smoothies I’d consumed after my runs, the times I had spotted my Ragnar coworkers in the hallways at work and asked how their training was going. That was all over. I was downright bummed. I wanted to be with my team and enjoy the banter and jokes and excitement of the race. But then I realized all quests come to an end. All adventurers eventually return home to tell the tale, which is why I’m writing this very long blog post.

I know I left out a lot. Spit-siblings, feminism, card games, Daytona Beach, baseball talk and descriptions of water bottles so I hope your memories can fill in those gaps. And I feel bad that most of this is biased towards Van #1 but it was with Van #1 where most of my experiences took place.

The friends I made during the event, especially my mates in the van will always occupy a fond place in my memory. I’m not even sure if I would call them friends because they are more than that. I guess it’s like how veterans feel returning from war. Not to put us anywhere near that class, but combat soldiers share an experience that no one who wasn’t part of their group would ever understand. Fortunately our experience was much more positive.

1006332_763119166657_345649024_nFrom now on, whenever I see any of my teammates we’ll share a knowing smile. 36 hours and 203 miles of running will be contained into a tiny little nod. A grin. A look that will say I was there with you, friend, and I know how hard you worked. I know exactly what you went through and I’m so glad that I did it with you.

It’s a bond I hope to have for the rest of my life. Twenty years from now when someone asks me “Do you know Drew Sagstetter?” Or Erica or John or Emily or Sarah or Christine or Donn or Scott or Meredith or Becca or Molly, I won’t say “Sure, we used to work together,” or “Sure, we ran together.” Instead I’ll say, “Hell yeah, we did Ragnar together and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life!”

As I sit here, forever changed as a runner and more experienced as a person I can’t shake the gloom. This is probably what an athlete feels like after they retire from a sport knowing their years on the field are over and it’s time for a new stage of life.

But hey! I am not retired! I’m not paid to run, I do it because it’s something I love to do. It gives me peace, it helps me stay healthy and it’s a great way to make new friends. I’m not retired, I’m just taking a few days off. I’ll be back at it in no time. And the only way to build that excitement, to experience the thrill of the Ragnar is to start training for next year and do it all over again. So…who’s with me?

Come on now…don’t linger.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Home to Nagasaki – Chapter 9

March 16, 2013

Hiroshima, Japan

August 6th, 1945

2:18pm

The Murakami Tea House was burning to the ground. Neither Turner Denton nor my family were anywhere in sight. I feared their bodies were lost among the wreckage, their blackened corpses buried underneath a pile of flaming coals that used to be the Tea House.

I resisted the urge to climb into the fire and start digging for their bodies. Instead I walked along the restaurant hoping that perhaps a portion hadn’t caught fire and inside that portion, my wife and son would be waiting, untouched and smiling. But as I circled I saw that flames danced across all four corners of the restaurant.

A twisted ankle and injured knee prevented me from walking faster than an awkward limp so I found a piece of lumber to use as a cane. If Masaru or any of his men happened to catch up to me, they could take me down quickly.

Which is why I needed to find my family and leave Hiroshima as soon as possible.

But how? Most transportation had been destroyed and whatever was left would be part of a massive rescue effort that would likely be supervised by the military.

Was this how I was to repay my debt? Wandering throughout a burning city, on the run from my deranged captain, desperately searching for a family whose fate was unknown?

I had circled back to the front entrance of the Tea House. To the exact spot where Denton was to be waiting with Kimiko and San. Yet all around me were black embers and what looked like twisted car wrecks.

If my family had been in the restaurant they were surely dead, which meant I was free to leave. But if Denton had never brought them to the restaurant they were likely alive, possibly even nearby.

Who was Turner Denton? Why was I trusting him? Why did I believe he would show up with my family? Surely Kimiko had received my letter instructing her to join the mysterious American in Nagasaki but what made me think his motives were true, that he was a man I could trust. He could have taken my secrets to the Americans, and taken my wife with him.

I began to lose all faith in Turner, in his plan, that I would ever see my family again…then I saw the writing. On a brick wall that still stood across the alley from the Tea House, its walls were pristine and unblemished, protected from the blast by the shield of the Tea House, I saw words scratched in black soot.

As if someone had taken a charred piece of lumber, the graffiti read, “Doc K. Meet at the port. Tom A.M. -T.D.”

Doctor K. Doctor Kiyoshi. Meet at the port. Tomorrow A.M. T.D. Turner Denton. With my forearms I rubbed my eyes and looked again. It was written clearly in large black letters so that anyone who stood at the entrance to the Tea House could see them. “Meet at the port. Tomorrow. T.D.”

A change in plans from Turner. Everyone was still alive but how could they meet at the restaurant? It had burned down! So of course Turner returned to the port, to the place we would be headed anyway. To catch a boat. To leave Japan. To never return. I smiled, knowing all would be well.

“Kiyoshi!” A voice called from a distance, like a nighttime echo calling me into a dream. My hearing had not been correct since the bombing and though the voices sounded distant, when I turned I was startled to see Masaru standing just a few meters behind me.

This was impossible. When I last saw him he could barely lift his head. Now he stood mere paces away and only I stood between Masaru and Turner’s message on the wall.

“Kiyoshi! Come back here, you coward!”

My walking stick would make a useful club. I saw myself swinging from the hip like Kaoru Betto to deliver a devastating blow to the side of Masaru’s head.

I held my club before me in a defensive stance; upright blocking my face, two hands gripping one end, elbows out ready to swing.

“Put your weapon down,” Masaru said as he walked towards me.

I took a step back. To break for the port would mean going into the city center, through the heart of the fires. And if I moved, Masaru would see Turner’s message on the wall. If he understood the writing, he would know I was going to the port…and so what?

In his injured state he would never catch me.

So I ran. As best as I could with a tender knee and a twisted ankle. Limping on my stick, I ran. And Masaru followed. His arm was maimed and his face was burned but his legs were healthier than mine. I cut into an alley and between two brick buildings but Masaru was right behind me. I turned corner after corner, trying to lose him but he was catching up fast, and my ankle felt like it could give way and break apart at any moment.

I had one hope: to lose Masaru in the mass of fire and smoke. To disappear into the chaos of rubbish and bodies.

To fade into a spirit and float away from this earth.

To stand alone on the hilltop of time and undo all the wrongs of my life.

I picked up a rock and turned to throw it at my commanding officer but my aim was bad and the rock sailed high. “Coward!” Masaru shouted as he ducked out of the way, his good hand clutching his injured arm.

I threw another rock and then turned towards the burning city. And kept running, directly into the fire.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Home to Nagasaki – Chapter 4

March 6, 2013

Ping Fan, China

1939

Masaru planned to turn Manchuria into a gigantic chemical and biological warfare laboratory and it was my job to execute his plan. We decided nearly eighty buildings would be constructed on the compound, including an administrative building to house laboratories, dormitories for the civilian workers, barracks for the military, and a collection of barns and stables to house test animals.

Masaru was proud of the special jail that would house Chinese prisoners of war and Masaru personally supervised the construction of a facility that could conduct frostbite studies year round.

There was a power plant, a group of furnaces used to animal carcasses and human waste and a recreational facility that Masaru designed himself. I wasn’t surprised when I learned it would be staffed with what Masaru described as “a healthy collection of comfort women.”

A railroad connected the facility to the city of Harbin and a private airfield was constructed where newly developed chemical and biological weapons could be tested.

I would later learn that the facility’s perimeter rivaled that of Nazi Auschwitz.

“Japan needs to expand in order to survive as a great nation,” Masaru told me as we stood in a corner watchtower and surveyed the completed facility. “The Home Islands are simply too limited in resources.”

Total war with China was underway and our government believed Manchuria to be the most obvious place to fill our needs.

“This is the most advanced weapons research facility in the world,” Masaru proclaimed, his arms opened wide and his face frozen into a grin like a father admiring his beautiful children. “It is time we started to experiment.”

I was more concerned about my filtration system and the munitions needed to deliver our weapons. I poured over my own blueprints, constantly revising and updating the schematics. I created designs for a portable water purification system that could be carried to the field of battle. A setup big enough for an entire barracks, even an entire base. Bombs that dispersed biological agents when detonated, balloons capable of traveling great distances to deliver these poisons to their target.

Japanese army soldiers at the facility were constantly coming to me asking for decisions on administrative matters. I delegated these mundane duties to my underlings and focused on my designs.

Masaru was more concerned with the experiments. A chemical and biological weapons development facility means our concoctions were to be tested on rats and other rodents. Wild animals captured near the facilities. The Chinese POWs were a constant reminder that we were at war.   

Our prisoners were Chinese, yet we didn’t call them prisoners. We never referred to any of them by name. “Logs,” Masaru decided they would be called. Nothing more than a word used by the military to dehumanize our enemies. As far as we knew, these prisoners never even had names. Only numbers.

Log 741. Log 622. Log 881.

I was more concerned with spare parts needed to build my machines. Not all pieces could be manufactured on the islands and we needed to seek outside help. The army put me in contact with a firm from Australia where my chief contact, ironically, was an American named Turner Denton.

Purported to be a member of the international scientific community, I knew little of Turner at first and our relationship began as nothing more than a buyer and a supplier discreetly exchanging goods and monies. Over the years our relationship would change considerably until I saw Turner as the only man who could deliver me from the predicament I took part in creating.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Home to Nagasaki – Chapter 2 & 3

March 5, 2013

Chapter 2

War Ministry Grand Conference Hall, Tokyo

1937

 

Masaru dressed immaculately in his military uniform and stood half a head taller than the Imperial officers in the auditorium. With a handsome face and a deep, bombastic voice, he took the podium and stared for a moment into the standing-room sea of Japanese military officers, scientists, and even Prince Chichibu, brother of Emperor Hirohito.

Masaru was to demonstrate the advanced water filtration system that I had invented and he had championed. “Conduct the demonstration yourself,” Masaru had urged me, but I politely declined.

“I’m a man of engineering and science, not theatrics.”

Masaru smiled knowing we both thought of him as the superior showman. I owned the scientific contributions while Masaru pulls strings and converted my designs to reality. He was a better advocate of the device I had developed, of anything we had developed. Now he stood on the auditorium stage beside a table with a prototype of the filtration device, a complicated mishmash of tubes, piping and chemistry. This was a miniature version of the system we hoped the army would fund. A funnel at the top collected the unpurified water while pair of dials measured its chemical properties. A tin canister underneath the device would collect the purified water as it dripped from the pipes above.

Masaru addressed the room, needing no microphone as his voice boomed and echoed off the back wall. “Who can deny the importance of providing drinkable water to our armed forces in the forward theater? I present the most advanced water purification system in the world, capable of cleansing the most putrid water into a clean, drinkable supply. Allow me to demonstrate.”

Masaru unzipped his pants as the military audience gasped in horror and watched him remove his penis. He produced a metal cup and urinated into it in front of everyone. This move shocked me at first but I had already learned to accept this flamboyance as part of Masaru’s personality. He cared little what others thought of him. He was known to brag loudly of his successes with little regard for decorum, and to indulge in wine and women recklessly and frequently. This brash act of peeing into a cup as a crowded room of his superiors watched every drop fall was simply Masaru seizing attention. He thrived on the discomfort he caused and used it merely as a method of engaging his audience.

Masaru zipped his pants and carried the piss-filled cup to the device, pouring the urine into the funnel atop the contraption. He narrated the filtration process as the urine made its way through the pipes and eventually came dripping out of the nozzle above the collection canister clear as air.

He poured the contents into a glass and carried the seemingly clean water into the audience. I wasn’t surprised when he stopped before Chichibu Hirohito and offered the water to the Emperor’s brother. Stiff and surprised the prince quickly refused the glass with a curt wave of his hand. Masaru, surely expecting the prince to decline the test, raised the glass as if he were toasting the room, tilted his head back and quaffed the entire portion in one gulp. The crowd gasped but Masaru wiped his lips with the back of a hand and then smiled proudly awaiting his applause.

The dutiful assistant that I was, I started it with a hearty clap that slowly spread until the entire room was on its feet. The purification device was a success and the army soon awarded Masaru with the funds he had requested, yet the money was for more than an innovative system of cleaning water. We were on our way to Ping Fan to the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, code name: Unit 731.

With the funding we’d receive for our water purification system, Masaru and I would soon turn the facility into the headquarters for Japan’s chemical and biological weapons program.

“This is an incredible honor, Captain,” Masaru said to me as we celebrated that night, a bottle of sake in both hands and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He emptied one of the bottles into my glass and tossed the spent bottle aside.

For as long as I had known Masaru he had been a heavy drinking night owl, but only after a day of hard work. The microbiologist was tall and athletic, his uniform always spotless and he often bested me in footraces or games of tennis. Our fellow officers envied his physical bravado and his seemingly constant supply of cash. In social settings, women flocked around him and postured for his attention. He advanced quickly through the ranks of Japan’s military and was eager to take me with him.

His giant hand proudly slapped my back. He grinned and showed his shiny white teeth. “Drink up, Kiyoshi. Celebrate!”

He toasted our drinks as Masaru nibbled at the pair of young women on either of his shoulders. The nightclub was loud and rowdy. Music blared from above and Masaru made sure my glass was eternally filled with liquor. “The demonstration was a resounding success!” he declared. “I am anxious to put into practice these ideas we have developed. The ideas we have developed together, Kiyoshi. I’m anxious to make Japan the leading nation in the technologies of warfare.”

Developed together, he stressed. I had been the man behind the science, to engineer the water purification devise, to birth ideas for our military technology.

Masaru was right. It was an incredible honor for us to be chosen to head Unit 731. Masaru and I had studied together at Kyoto University. We became doctors together, men of chemical engineering, and had served together in the Army ever since we engaged the Chinese in Manchuria in 1931. Masaru was always one rank ahead of me, always had one more friend than I did, and seemed to need me one step below him always looking up. So he kept me around. When he was promoted and transferred, he always brought me with him, made sure I was paid well, confided in me, and trusted my expertise.

And when Masaru had been chosen to run Japan’s premier chemical and biological weapons research facility, he named me his second-in-command.  

Masaru’s remaining sake bottle clanked against my glass. “Congratulations, Captain, and be proud! It is an honor to serve the Emperor!”

I said nothing, sipped my sake and took the last drag from my cigarette.

Chapter 3

 

Hiroshima, Japan

August 6th, 1945 8:16am

 

White skies.

Then a bright and clear morning was suddenly dark.

My military instincts told me to dive for cover but before I hit the ground, a force like a giant’s hand lifted me into the air and threw me towards the river. I hit the paved road, landing on my knees as my wrists slammed onto the pavement. Ignoring sandy cuts and scrapes, I clawed my way behind a stone wall as I was showered by a bomb of splinters and dirt.

Black spots, white spots. Ringing bells.

I rolled along the dirt and turned by back towards the blast. Was I asleep? Did I awaken? I tasted dirt in my mouth and was stung by burning soot up my nose. Hot, acid snot oozed down the back of my throat like lava.  

For a moment I remembered the bomb shelter just fifty feet away but a hot wind blew dust into my face and prevented me from going very far. So I kept my eyes closed and my head down. I was curled into a ball, covering my face with my scraped wrists and stinging hands as the wind pelted me with sand and sticks. There had been no explosions. No familiar pop-pop-pop of bombs detonating in the distance, no BOOM! when one landed nearby. There was no mass of airplanes buzzing above, no whistle as their bombs fell from the sky, no return fire from our anti-aircraft batteries.  

Just a flash of light and a burst of burning wind followed by an avalanche of dirt and junk. Silent shock. Splintering lumber, buildings crumbling. Bricks walls toppling like toy blocks, glass shattering, trees snapping like twigs.

I had crawled onto a pile of rocks so I tried to push them away. The vial with my capsule dug into my ribs. Minutes later, as the wind began to die I lifted my head to see all of Hiroshima shrouded in a brown haze. Through the dust, a cloud of fire grew a mile into the sky.

I was suddenly disappointed that another city had not survived. I was outraged at America for the bombing. At Japan for starting the war in the first place and not being able to defend cities like this one. At myself, for being in the middle of it all and having no power to do anything.  

I wanted to know what it meant for my plan. Where was Turner Denton? I wanted to ask someone. I wanted to know.

My eyes burned as grit filled my pores. I began to lose focus. My head hurt and I could feel wetness dripping from both ears. I used a hand to wipe the moisture from my face and looked down to see red fingers.

Did I hear no explosion because I’d lost my hearing?

But I could hear the wind, the shattered pieces of lumber slapping and splintering against nearby houses. The fire. Like a rush of thunder, the fire! But there were no screams, no voices, no aguish. No cries of panic. Absent was the despair that had been so common during the wars I had known.

I checked my hands and saw the backs were scalded and burned, as if they had been dipped into a pot of boiling water. But I felt no pain. I felt nothing. Only a dull, numbing sensation.

Still in shock, I tried to stand but my knees wobbled and I toppled to the ground. A small child walked by in a daze. A black dog passed the child from the other direction, limping and silent. A group of soldiers crawled from the bomb shelter, their bodies covered in soot, their ears bleeding, their faces dazed. I heard a child ask his mother, “Why is it so dark in the morning?”

I saw myself walking up to the mother as she held her child close, towering above them as the wind and the dirt blew overhead. As she brushed dust off her child’s face, I saw myself looking into her blurry eyes, her mouth caked with dirt. I saw myself ask her, “What does this mean for me?”

The air raid was over in an instant. Had there been only one bomb?

“Impossible.” I muttered.

I imagined myself standing before a classroom of schoolchildren, looking upon the kids who raised their hands and wanted to know if Hiroshima had been hit – if it had been utterly destroyed – by a single American bomb?

I shook my head. “There is no way one bomb can damage so much.” Yet I saw burning buildings all around me. Bodies lining the street as if an army had marched through and executed thousands of people at will. Survivors rose from the wreckage, their faces blank, their eyes lost.

“No way one bomb can do this,” I told myself yet I had a suspicion that the Americans had won the race to develop a functional nuclear weapon. If they had more than this one they would likely begin dropping them on all our major cities.

Then a hand wrapped around my ankle. I looked down to see Masaru, my commanding officer and saw half his face burned red, his eye sockets swollen. His hair singed and smoking, his good looks destroyed. But when I saw the alertness in his eyes I knew his mind remained unblemished. There was a flicker that I recognized.

As his fist squeezed my ankle, I thought of Masaru’s intense patriotism. His sense of nationalism that refused to let me escape with our secrets. I was reminded of his exuberant need to carry out his orders and guard the tales of the facility.

I had survived the bomb but Masaru was alive and still wanted me dead.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Home to Nagasaki – Chapter 1

March 5, 2013

Hiroshima, Japan

August 6th, 1945 8:11am

 

I was given a cyanide capsule and instructed to take the secret to my grave. The pill, that pharmaceutical breakthrough, was so toxic that once swallowed it would instantly stop all cellular respiration. This little miracle would then block aerobic energy production and hopefully, according to its design, send me into an instant coma. I’d break into a violent seizure and if all went according to plan, fall into cardiac arrest and be dead in a matter of minutes.

I’ve read reports about cyanide capsules like this, and their effects on experimental subjects. I’ve studied the drug’s effect on rodents, reptiles and humans, and the poisonous black and yellow tube I carried in my pocket does exactly what it’s designed to do. A triumph of chemistry, and one that works quickly. Sitting inside a small metal vial with a screw-top lid, this pill waited in the inside pocket of my jacket, ready for its call to action.

The idea is that if I’m captured the cyanide will kill me so fast that our project, all of our work, will remain protected. No one will ever know what we did. Years of research wiped away instantly with a violent seizure followed by cardiac arrest.

When the boat reached the island and I stepped into Hiroshima I saw a city untarnished by the fires of war. A place our research was meant to protect. But a town crippled with anticipation of an inevitable attack.

The signs of impending war were everywhere. A column of soldiers trotting up the road wearing clean, pressed uniforms. The cement tops of pristine bomb shelters buried at foot level by the roadside waiting to protect however many people could cram into one of those dark caves of stone. Citizens sharpening spears from bamboo, ready to defend their homeland.

I hurried through from the port. A road ran east towards Minami but turned abruptly north just outside the port and headed for Hiroshima’s city center, just two miles away.

“Meet at Murakami Tea House in the city center,” Turner had said. “August 6th at nine o’clock.” I checked my watch. Plenty of time to walk the two miles.

The rumor was that the Americans were saving Hiroshima for a special attack, but I would not be there to see it. I was merely passing through town and planned to be gone by the end of the day. My memory custodian of the secrets I had sworn to protect, and in my pocket, the eternal honor of Japan was stored in an easy-to-swallow pill.

“Kiyoshi.”

An unmistakably deep and pompous voice. Masaru’s. He found me. He had chased me, caught up to me and would try to kill me.

“You had no clearance to leave.”

I turned to face my superior officer. “My research has ended, Colonel. The facility has been dismantled.”

“There is still work to be done, Major.” His hand went to his pocket, possibly for a knife or a gun. I wasn’t sure.

I stepped away from him, ready to dash for the city center to meet my contact. “You mean there is work to be erased. Nothing is to remain but our memories.”

I looked around for the Soldiers of Black, Masaru’s loyal security force who were likely hidden in the crowd, dispersed in all directions to prevent my escape.

I took another step towards the road leading to the city center. Another road ran east up a hill. Or I could double back and try to disappear into the port.

Masaru stepped towards me; we were five feet apart. He was nearly a head taller and his dark eyes peered down reproachfully. “My memories no longer exist. They have already been purged. I expect you can say the same for yourself.”

As we inspected each other a trio of planes flew overhead. American B-29s on a scouting mission to a nearby city, or possibly observing the weather over Hiroshima. Not an air raid. Air raids always came in swarms. Air raids caused panic: a loud siren followed by a swarm of people running for those flat gray bomb shelters.

These planes were merely passing over our territory, a daily reminder that our American enemy owned our skies. But I had recently dreamed of seeing American skies. I had Turner to thank for those wishes.

Beads of sweat crept from Masaru’s sharp black hairs and dotted his forehead. He was slightly panting for air and I could tell he had been running after me. Yet his uniform was impeccably clean and his brass insignia shined, never in need of a polish.

Again his hand went to his pocket. I told myself it was time to run, yet I remained in place, unable to remove myself from my commanding officer.

He nodded towards the city. “Where do you think you are going?”

Masaru knew enough but I could not tell him I was going to meet the Australian businessman Turner Denton at the Murakami Tea House. I could not say that Turner had promised to deliver me to safety and that if I missed the meeting, I would be on my own. Turner was to have my wife and child with him. We would eat one last meal in Japan and then travel with Turner by boat to leave our country for good.

The sound of airplanes faded. It was 8:15 in the morning. I looked over the quiet city and saw a town doomed to the chaos I had seen during this war. Men shot, bodies dismembered. Their eyeballs melted, their hair in flames or reduced to stubbles of black ash as the men lay dying, screaming for their mothers. Legs bleeding, fingers and limbs severed.

Would we, the human race, always fight to make ourselves better fighters?

I tried to believe that we wouldn’t. That we were satisfied with the weapons we had invented. That we decided we had gone far enough. Up until 8:15 that morning, I tried to believe we were satisfied with our progress.

Then a flash. A brilliant yellow light.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


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