"Give Us Your Organs, Please."
Two hours, 28 minutes and 39 seconds for a 12 K... it was the slowest race I had ever run. Is there a term in running that implies the opposite of a "PR"? How about "WR" worst race? What had gone wrong? Would I be forever embarrassed when they printed my name in the sponsoring newspaper as second to last in a running event with 70,000 participants? Would I be forced to retire from running at such an early age? Nothing had gone wrong. I had run the race of my life.
Where is Joe Ault with the gear? 7 am and still no Joe. Six months of preparation and we are going to miss the start? My event organizing experience helps me remain (externally) calm. "Is everyone ready? Let's warm up, " I tell the team.
Finally the truck arrives and we spread out the equipment as an event official tells us we have to move now to our elite starting position. "Give us just 5 minutes," I plead as we unroll tubing and fasten tie wraps. "Let's go," orders the official and we wind our way to the starting line. Joe, still attaching parts, sprints to join us before we disappear into the crowd. One last delay as the television crew interviews our team captain. An elite woman runner is doing aerobics as a warm up next to me. "Please don't slow us down," I tease. She smiles nervously, eyeing the orb towering above me.
I realize we are in trouble already. The official has stretched us across the road like ducks crossing a freeway with traffic eerily halted for the occasion. Headlines flash in my mind, "18 Trampled at Bay to Breakers, Bodies Unrecognizable." I scramble forward and the team falls in behind changing our orientation. "How do you feel, Matt?" He beams a smile back at me. Matt received a heart lung transplant 6 months ago, and he is ready. We all are. The gun sounds.
The Adventure Begins
After obtaining permission from 7 counties, 36 cities, 40 law enforcement agencies, the Golden Gate Bridge Commission, Caltrans, the National Park Service and 30 private property owners for The Relay, "California's Longest (197 mile) Party," we have proven that a long distance, 12-member team relay can succeed in the Bay Area. When KPIX 5 ( CBS) agreed to be a sponsor of The Relay, little did I know that I would end up at the head of such an amazing insect in another race. In return for television promotions for The Relay, I had promised PR Director Lance Lew to provide 13 runners to run as a centipede in the Bay to Breakers. Since KPIX 5 also sponsors the Bay to Breakers, Lance wanted his team to win. What had I agreed to?
It was well known that the Power Bar Centipede always won the Bay to Breakers, beating the female winner of the race in the process. I had never beaten an elite female runner in the Bay to Breakers (or come close), but now I had promised to captain a centipede capable of beating the Power Bar team.
An Excellent Alternative
A cry of "slow down" travels from behind just as my arms tire from holding the 3-foot-diameter eyeball 8 feet in the air. I wonder how Joe is doing holding the heavier 4-foot heart at the rear. He has spent months carving the organs out of styrofoam. Joe made the heart heavier than the eye so I decide it is his problem. Thankfully, he is 60 feet behind me, well out of reach for mid-race organ transplants.
As we approach the first mile marker, I notice a man taking pictures of us from all angles. "I am visiting San Francisco from the east," he explains. "You guys are the best thing I have ever seen. I work for the United Network for Organ Sharing and I am taking these pictures back to our national office." What a nice show of support I think, as he disappears into the crowd. This is only the beginning.
The San Francisco Examiner article that appeared 3 days prior to the race described us as "the most unique team to run the Bay to Breakers in its 86 year history." This is quite the accolade in a race where costumes (or lack thereof) are more important than finish times.
The crowd knows what we are about. It is hard to describe the feeling of being passed by 70,000
runners all offering support. We create a chant to march cadence:
The crowds cheer so we chant louder. A runner passes and lifts his shirt revealing a scar from having donated a kidney to a family member. A woman approaches in tears and tells of her daughter who died recently and donated her organs. This endeavor is a strange mix of frivolity and impassioned encouragement.
A group of naked runners overtakes us. "Eyes ahead," I command. "Those are not the kind of organs we are promoting."
It is hard to look behind and stay on course, but I love the view. There is Captain Audrey Cook, chanting as loud as possible. "I am planning for something that I had not given much thought before: my future," she tells me knowing her double organ transplant saved her life. And there is 10-year-old Kelly, liver recipient at age 2, holding the red and blue tubing (symbolizing arteries and veins) connecting the lead eyeball with the heart in the rear.
As the centipede grows during the race, two young girls join in. I keep reminding them that when they pull on the tubing connected to the back of the eyeball, they are jerking the eye (and my back) backwards. They finally see the connection.
Imagine a race with 1,000 to 2,000 people at every water stop. To avoid entanglements, we veer away from the stops and the entourage relays water to the team.
Carolyn Berry is ahead on the sidelines with her camera. This wonderful woman had the donation banners that we carry printed in 3 languages. I smile as she loses focus hearing the centipede chant for the first time. She is grinning and crying at the same time.
Give Us Your Organs, Please
"Give us your organs," I blurt out to one of the TV cameras. What a crude thing to say I think. Oh well, this is the zaniest race in the world. Of course, KPIX 5 aired that statement for the next 3 days between clips of The Deck Chair Drill Team and The Boxing Nun.
As I later watched myself on television, I wondered why I had made that statement. Memories of my days as director of the Critical Care Transport Service at the university hospital fill my thoughts. I organized "donor runs," sending teams in Lear jets to recover organs to be used for transplantation. I know the precision timing, the coordination and the numerous details necessary to complete a successful heart transplant.
I have talked to donor families consumed with grief and remember times when a family member hesitated to go ahead with the donation." The patient waiting for this heart could die if you change your mind," I thought to myself as I watched a family left without direction struggle to make the right decision. And far away, the critically ill prayed for the gift of life. How could I be angry with a family who was doing their best to deal with the sudden loss of a loved one?
But I was. I realized that I was letting out years of frustration with my comment to the television camera. It was so simple. Think about organ donation and let your family know your thoughts. Don't make them guess during such a difficult time.
The Organs 'R' Us Team
Wendy Marx tells of Carl Lewis coming to her bedside while she was in a coma waiting for a liver transplant. The Wendy Marx Foundation now works to increase public awareness regarding the need for organ donors.
Every member of our team is a unique story. "The members of this team have endurance training that most athletes do not understand," I tell KPIX. "They train on a daily basis to face a life threatening illness."
The Big Finish
We are already talking about next year's race. Engineer/inventor David Pariseau is promising lights and organs with moving parts, high tech all the way in the Silicon Valley of Oz!
We chant our way across the finish to the amazement of reporters and photographers. Young Kelly tells the cameras that she is hungry so we march the mile up the hill to the Footstock post-race festival. As the Channel 5 booth looms into view with its 20' by 30' inflatable TV screen, I unintentionally step up the pace which whips the tail of the pede as we wind through the crowd. "Slow down," sounds again from the rear.
I tell Lance that we lost the race but captured the event. He is happy and he laughs when I show him the CBS eye that we velcroed to the back of the 3-foot eyeball. Nearby, paramedics take pictures of one another next to the heart.
2 hours and 28 minutes was a personal worst and my best race ever.
Jeff Shapiro and Femi Sonuga are the coaches of the Channel 5 Organs 'R' Us Centipede. To join this team, contact 650.508.9700 or organs@TheRelay.com.
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