The Dumbass Chronicles: Hobbling Around a Track for Cancer
By Ghengis Ron
In 1999, back before I started looking like the love child of Margaret Cho and Roy “Big Country” Nelson, I was suckered into running for a good cause.
I was a Seaman (E-3) at the time, attending a technical school at Goodfellow Air Force Base, in San Angelo, TX. Every year, the American Cancer Society organizes Relay for Life events around the country to raise money for cancer research. Teams sign up and raise money, and then team members take turns walking around a track for 24 hours straight.
The Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force units at Goodfellow began competing against each other in a “speed division,” because leave it to the military to turn a charity event into a dick-measuring contest.
Petty Officer Struck, a beefy E-6 with a square jaw and a death stare, came up to a group of us after PT to try and get us to run. “The more people we have,” he said, “the more rest we can take. And the better chance we have of beating those damned Marines.”
Fuck it—why not? I signed up. My roommate Nelson signed up too. We were in decent shape. This was going to be cake.
So on a hot Texas evening in May, cancer survivors and old women in purple shirts walked leisurely around a track at Angelo State University. Simultaneously, assholes with short haircuts sprinted past them to the shouts of “Hooah!” and “Oorah!”
My first turn of the night came. Nelson finished his run and handed me the baton, and I took off as fast as I could. I finished two laps in 2 minutes 30 seconds. I handed the baton off to the next runner and lay down gasping.
The team captains scheduled it so that we each had about fifteen minutes of rest between runs. They also made it so that we ran in four-hour shifts. There were three shifts, so it worked out to where I only had to run two four-hour shifts the whole time. Cake.
But that fifteen-minute break ended quickly. My second run was still decent, but I was a little slower.
Then my third run came, and I was slower still.
To make matters worse, people started dropping out. They got tired, so they just quit.
My fifteen minutes of break turned into twelve minutes. Then nine. Then six, at times. People hopped in to help, but the rate of joining in didn’t match the rate of quitting.
Petty Officer Struck finally showed up.
Great, I thought. Another runner to lighten the load.
“I can’t run tonight,” Struck said. “I hurt my leg practicing kickboxing with my friends.”
It was also becoming clear that I had been had. After leading the pack briefly, we squids fell far behind. We had no chance of beating the Marines. We had no chance of beating the Army either. We were even getting beat by the Air Force. But I mean, no shit. In what fucking dimension would you ever hear, “Oh shit, those sailors are fast.” No one says, “I’m going to join the Navy for all the running opportunities it’ll give me.”
Our four-hour shift was ending, and just in time. I could barely make it.
Then Struck came up to me, Nelson, and a couple others and said, “You guys have to run the next shift. Only a few people from the second shift showed up.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting me.”
“Hey,” he said. “I don’t have any sympathy for people running tired. I’ve had to run tired before.”
So we ran for another four hours. My feet hurt. My knees hurt. My ribs hurt. I had to take a shit. Struck got tired of watching us and drove home at around midnight.
At 2 am, Nelson and I crawled our asses up a hill to a tent and lay down inside. I closed my eyes to sleep, and someone came to get us.
“Hey man,” he said, “not enough people showed up for the next shift. You have to run again.”
“Man, fuck you,” I said. “I ain’t going.”
But of course I was going. Nelson and I walked down the hill and ran some more. Whenever it was my turn to run, I just kept shuffling forward. There was no more speed. I had no feeling in my toes, and my face stung from dried sweat.
Nelson and I had just watched The Matrix, so he said things like, “There is no spoon,” and “Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?” It helped.
At 6 am, no one showed up again, because the only time a sailor is running at 6 am on a Saturday is if his girlfriend’s husband just came home. The same thing happened at 10 am. So we had to keep going.
I just wanted it to end. The money had already been raised, there was no way we were going to win, most of my teammates had let me down, and literally no one appreciated my effort. But somewhere I was finishing this out because I had made a commitment, and even at nineteen I wanted to know if I had enough guts to stick to my word. At least Nelson and a few other people were in there gritting it out with me.
At 11 am, after I had been running on-and-off for 17 hours and had covered over twenty-five miles, the Texas gods of weather showed mercy on us and began pouring down rain. The rest of the event was cancelled.
We all met up later for a post-relay celebration. Miraculously, dozens of sailors were there for that. Everyone cheered and huddled together for the photo—even Struck—and I looked at him while I felt like collapsing from exhaustion and said a prayer of thanks for not making me a complete and utter piece of shit like that guy.