I bought the shoes for this: to run a 5K, wearing a suit jacket and tie, carrying a kayak, which carries a memorial urn. I am paid to do this. This is not a joke.
The job notice comes through my improv theatre, which doesn’t stop me questioning its legitimacy. It is confirmed the theatre works with PR and marketing groups to supply people for odd jobs and stunts, funneling the money to us. The job is for a marketing firm with a mortuary client, some moderate-sized corporate operation moving into town. To emphasize the attention paid to each deceased with “memorials as unique as you”, a TV spot featuring older men with chiseled good looks in the dark clothes of formal mourning carrying a kayak with an urn conveyed on its final journey. I see the spot in a very marketing conference room: one lime green wall with the rest glass, the table some noveau recycled wood. To further get the word out, the marketing company has arranged for the client to sponsor several running events. This is de rigueur for local marathons and similar runs: men run around in costumes handing out flyers and free bling. Whether anyone has run with a kayak bearing an empty urn I don’t know. My opinion is such a thing is not a barrier that needs breaking.
Is nothing sacred? is my initial reaction. Hardly on a level with stealing elections or genocide, I calm down about a PR stunt that at its worst is shameless and annoying. Raising awareness is a phrase that has become as empty as tolerance, but in this case I am paid to try for it. In the end it’s just one more message for people to ignore.
The race is thinly attended. Friends who run haven’t heard of it, which does not bode well for PR potential but gives me no trouble parking. The day is overcast and a little clammy-to-steamy, an unusual combo for July Seattle but one that no doubt saves us over five kilometers.
The kayak is from the TV spot, a beautiful piece of work custom made in Port Townsend hardly marred by the corporate logos, their small size working against the client but leaving the kayak unsullied. The marketing firm has made a fabric sling to carry it, but the seat belt material isn’t long enough in either lateral or handstrap length, and we eventually abandon it for the kayak’s tiedown bungee cording. We practice lifting it, now dressed in suit coats and ties. It is uncomfortable and unwieldy, but not impossible.
Milling around the open space by the water, race preparations are light: one man running the sound system plays standard amp-up music but not too loudly, and runners pin their bibs under pavilions by the lake. We realize we should have a story about the kayak and who is supposed to be in the empty urn: why not make it an improv exercise? “Slim” Jim was kayaking in the Antarctic wild, testing his ability to slide through the narrowest of ice caves–he wasn’t named Slim for nothing. A self-assured man of the world, he laughed at nature’s fury. In the end, irony got him. There was a crevasse too slim even for Slim Jim. It’s what he would have wanted. What better way to honor such a brazen hero. It’s not much of a character. My mind is waterlogged.
We pin our bibs to our backs. I stab one of my comrades trying to get it on, apologize profusely. The timekeeper, as unsure as us, comes to ask us if we want our times. Someone from the mortuary gets on the PA and announces how proud they are to sponsor the race and to be sure to come to the booth and get your picture taken with the kayak runners. I am unable to believe anyone would want that.
I begin to realize as a physical inevitability that we will be running in suit coats with a kayak. Dedicated runner types come asking what the booth is for and advises that thirty minutes would be a good time for first-timers. We both assume we won’t come close. A three-mile-an-hour brisk walk would put us back at an hour. He advises that as a reasonable goal.
For a light race, quite a few runners jam the start. Could they have walked here? A pair of heavy women with thick shoes and two wiener dogs fill out the powerwalk class. Five, ten and fifteen Ks run simultaneously, a sandwichboard pointing ahead for another lap or out to the finish. No one looks at us curiously as we block out space, getting into their internal spaces. They face the distance. I haven’t thought to do this. I assume swimming an hour a couple times a week has me in shape to run like this, in brand new shoes.
There is a noise but more than that is the movement, the marching burst forward as if the road has tilted ahead. People stream past us but we are not still. We are wearing coats and ties and carrying a kayak, a shiny brass urn resting on a sky-blue velvet cushion, and to the runners we are invisible.
We talk and joke. I know this is a mistake and someone calls out the adrenaline will fade sooner than we think. It isn’t that heavy and the jacket doesn’t bind that much. The temperature is odd, the air neither warm nor cool, wet nor dry. It is a little after 9:30 and I can’t tell what season it is.
Sound drives as much as anything, rhythm susurrating air with its strange untied mass of huffing, squeezing sound and the mushy tack of plastic on pavement. Bodies pass and I can sense their mass without looking at them. We all make a very modest wake as we pass, a real one along with our fake one.
We are passing the anaerobic burst and needing to breathe.
Running has a surreal quality. There is no lightness as you lift and push yourself stepwise ahead, sucking in air that is never enough, focusing on what is to come and then the end but always too much where you are. The path isn’t smooth, at times narrow; we block runners and move aside as soon as we can, and they say nothing, staring straight ahead. We are not runners, and hardly runners to carry a load. But we are running, not walking. We don’t walk at all.
Toward the end it is the torment I remember from middle school, but I am far stronger now than then. Shoulders ache from carrying this stupid thing, no longer funny, no longer meriting calling out to the few onlookers who turn to us. We trade off faster. I run alongside, unable to carry and run. One of the guys does standup and was out late last night at a gig. He can do this, somehow.
The last stretch is a wretched deception: the finish line is ahead, but the path runs away from it, then doubles back. A woman passes us and makes a funny comment. My filtering is at an ebb and I promise this isn’t over in a puffy Snidley Whiplash voice. It’s a strain–the kayak, the shoulder, the legs, the lungs–but it’s not firey impossibility, the last gasps before catabolic collapse. The three mile marker is a weak taunt. Finish dances ahead, pounding into view. You can stop then, rest then, put it down then, then.
We finish. We are not last, to our amazement. We ran the whole time. I can’t see for the sweat burning my eyes.
The kayak is lowered to earth, somehow out of the way. I heave with clear lungs but can somehow breathe, move my legs, get my numb hands to work. I splash water in my face to stop the eyes stinging, not caring about the rented clothes. Sweat clings to the jacket interior, impregnating the shirt with a clammy dampness like the mist coating a cool glass. Steam rises from our jackets. Someone passes out energy bars.
A table holds a bowl of jewel oranges and a bowl of fresh wheat rolls and a block of butter. I eat a roll and comprehend that we finished in just over 37 minutes. People still trickle in to a smattering of claps and encouragement. I can see better, move and breathe less like being pulled by strings.
The kayak is a minor hit, or an interesting distraction, for runners. More than I would have ever guessed come to hold it, with one of the marketers snapping their photo and printing off a race badge with the client’s prominent logo. They seem to pass out brochures, but the message doesn’t seem to register. It seems unlikely this can generate many leads, but then, I assumed nobody would care to have their picture taken with a kayak, an empty urn, and some improv students in rented coats.
I don’t have anything brilliant or pithy to say. I did it. I feel good about it. Spending money will be nice. The two women above are interested in improv, and instead of talking up individualized arrangements I answer questions about where we take classes, what it’s like, books to read, theory and practice. There’s a free drop-in practice every Monday. The woman in blue–the same woman who taunted me and who I taunted a little too strongly back–asks the most questions, seems the most interested. Maybe she’ll go.
The practiced runner expresses his impression with our time: not bad at all. With a kayak.
The marketing people thank us. Pins removed, I can wriggle out of the sodden jacket. I hope the shop cleans everything. I wander off with my steel water bottle into the steel-cast morning. The guy that does standup knows a friend of mine, is performing at Seattle’s Comedy Underground, the premiere club. Maybe you’ll drink and smoke less now. He laughs.