Birmingham. Magic City. Early morning. I showed up to Regions Field at 7 a.m. I arrived by Uber.
I called an Uber because I didn’t want to fool with parking downtown. Not on a busy day like today.
Oddly, I have only taken an Uber a few times in my life. I come from people who wouldn’t eat canned vegetables unless they came from Ball jars. Uber would have been a grievous sin.
It was 33 degrees. All I had on were skimpy running shorts and a light jacket. I located the race-day registration and packet pickup booth.
“Name?” the woman said.
“Sean Dietrich,” I said.
She found my name in a ledger.
“Are you the guy who writes those deals on Facebook?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Oh. Good. Because he really gets on my nerves.”
She gave me a bib with a number on it. I was number 750. I got a T-shirt which read “Magic City Half Marathon and 5K.” I put it on and looked like a dork.
Runners showed up by the hundreds. Regions Field was alive with athletic people completely devoid of body fat.
There were old folks, young folks, and everyone between. Fit people, ultra-fit people. And people like me—Frito Lay enthusiasts.
There were also hundreds of little girls wearing colorful tutus. Some of them were accompanied by fathers who were also wearing tutus.
“What’s with the tutus?” I asked one father.
“Girls On the Run,” he said.
“An organization,” he answered, as though reading a cue card. “Girls On the Run focuses on the whole girl. Girls meet in small teams or connect virtually, and well-trained volunteer coaches inspire girls to build confidence and incorporate important life skills by using dynamic, interactive lessons and physical activity.”
Well, okay then.
I was here to run a race today. Me and all five thousand little girls. Along with other serious runners all over Magic City.
I came to the sport of running via the back door. My father was a marathoner. He competed in the Pikes Peak marathon each year.
Ironically, before I was born, he was an ironworker, a heavy drinker, and an aficionado of unfiltered Camels. But he took up distance running when I came along.
He ran the Pikes Peak Marathon each year. Come hell or high water. Pikes Peak is where his ashes are scattered. I am not a true runner. But sometimes I move my legs quickly.
The starting gun fires.
Everyone at the starting line takes off. I meet several exceptional people out there on the route.
I met a woman named Chandra, who started running after her child died in her arms. She is 33.
“I gave birth to him, I named him, I loved him. And he died while I was holding him. He had a bad heart. My husband left me. I had to do something with my grief, so I started running.”
Her child’s name was Andrew.
I met a woman named who has mild cerebral palsy. She is walking the half marathon. In her own words, “I’m doing it because I can, dammit.”
There was a young man who used to play professional baseball. He was a pitcher. He got cut from a famous pro team when his performance began to suffer after his father died.
“My father’s death changed me,” he said. “I just couldn’t do life as usual anymore. I gave up pitching. Now I am in pest control and I love it.”
He took up running to deal with stress. He runs very fast. And he makes me feel about as masculine as Cyndi Lauper.
“What about you?” he asked. “Why are you running today?”
And well, the truth is, I suppose I went running for a lot of reasons. Because last year was a hard year for me. I lost family members. I went to six funerals for close friends. I cried a lot.
And then, just when things couldn’t get any worse, the doctors told me I probably had cancer. They gave me a bleak prognosis.
I went through test after test, and my health started to sort of deteriorate. More from stress than anything. I lost a bunch of weight. I thought I was going to die.
But that didn’t happen. The doctors were wrong. And for some reason, I’m still here.
We moved from Florida to this fine city of Birmingham, because we needed a fresh start. And we got one. My life if so rich and full it hurts.
When I finished the race, there were about 350 little girls at the finish line, dancing and wearing tutus. They high-fived me. And I cried a little.
But I wasn’t alone. There were other people crying as they crossed the line. There were people hugging and telling loved ones how much they loved each other. There were families embracing and smiling.
And I thought to myself about how lucky I am to live in a place called Magic City.
Because it really is.