Birmingham. It’s 4:23 a.m. It’s chilly. There is a quilt of fog suspended over the foothills of the Appalachians. The whole world is dark.
I should not be up at this hour. I am hardly awake. My hair is a mess. My eyes are crusted. But here I am. Standing in a park alongside a handful of average, middle-aged people all wearing impossibly short jogging shorts.
We’re a small group. We are strangers. None of us have met before. We don’t even know each other’s names.
We come in different shapes, colors, creeds, and sizes. Some are runners. Most of us are just ordinary people who haven’t donned athletic shorts since the Jimmy Carter administration.
We are here to finish Eliza’s run.
Eliza Fletcher. She was 34 years old when she was abducted and killed in Memphis. It happened after she woke early last Friday to complete her jogging route. She went out early. Around 4:30 a.m. She never finished. Her body was found, like refuse.
She was a kindergarten teacher. A wife. A mother. She was beautiful. Just out for a jog.
This morning, all over the United States runners are getting together to finish Eliza’s run.
In Memphis, 2,100 signed up to run Eliza’s daily route and finish what Eliza started. In Raleigh, North Carolina, people have gathered. In Cleveland, Ohio, hundreds from around the city are running privately. In Colorado Springs, nearby mountain trails are choked with runners for Eliza. Oklahoma City. Sacramento. Detroit. San Antonio. Wichita. Laramie. Orlando.
We start jogging. Within seconds I am acutely aware of just how hopelessly out of shape I am.
One of us is a 48-year-old woman. She is tall, well over six feet. A lawyer. Her friend challenged her to run a half marathon on her fortieth birthday. That’s how she started jogging.
“I’m here this morning,” she says, “because Eliza could have been me.”
I meet another woman. She maintains a pace faster than a squirrel on amphetamines. She is 41, mother of three. Originally from Holyoke, Massachusetts.
“I’m here” she says, “because I run every morning anyway. Just like Eliza. And I get it. I get why she was out that early. My morning run is sacred to me.”
Ten minutes into our jog, I realize I do not belong here. I am sucking serious pondwater. My thighs are seizing and my ribs hurts.
I find myself hobbling alongside a guy with shaggy hair. He wears a Grateful Dead T-shirt. His beard is salt-and-pepper. He is 44, newly married. He recently adopted an infant daughter from China.
“Yeah, I know people get killed every day in America. But this one just hit hard. Maybe because I have a daughter now. I don’t want my daughter growing up in a world where women have to be afraid.”
A woman trots past me. Blond ponytail. She is short, powerfully built, with calves the size of regulation NFL footballs. She looks like she could be a drill instructor for the Marine Corps.
“Eliza was us,” she says. “She was every woman who has ever gone for a walk, a bike ride, or pushed a stroller through her neighborhood. That’s what this is about. Women should be able to run without fear for their safety.”
We round the two-mile loop and I’m hanging in there. But barely. My hamstrings are straining. My feet hurt.
These people are wickedly fast runers. And I am not a fast jogger. I run sort of like a penguin escaping from a Sea World exhibit.
A woman and her daughter are trotting beside me. The mother is 63 years old. Her daughter is 39. They run shoulder to shoulder. They have completed numerous half marathons together.
“This country has been so divided,” says Mom. “It’s important to pull together for things like this. That’s what I think we’re doing this morning, we’re unifying ourselves. We’re honoring the sanctity of life. Eliza’s beautiful life.”
When the long, arduous run is finished, the veterans among us aren’t even out of breath. Whereas some of us amateurs look like we fell into a swimming pool.
Someone suggests a moment of silence for Eliza.
All 14 of us bow our heads. No preamble. Just quietude. The stillness is serenaded by crickets and the sound of heavy breathing.
Eliza was born in 1987. If she were alive to join us, she would have been the baby of our group today. A sobering thought.
The sky is turning pink over the treeline. The first pangs of a Birmingham sunrise. Birds sing. A train whistles in the far off. And one redheaded columnist wipes his tear stained eyes and asks God why.
We finished your run, Eliza. But it wasn’t the same without you.