Robot in Disguise by Jake Lees

I stand by myself, just me and my moustache, Pablo. My first half marathon. Blondes in ass-hugging shorts, Tek tank tops, and color-coordinated water-storing fanny packs shift from foot to foot while guys with matching windbreakers peer through Oakleys beneath an overcast October sky. All kinds gather in Downtown Columbus, but I only see runners, watches set, ear-buds in, ready to put the miles behind them. I wear running shorts, too. A pair I found in a thrift store. Blue with yellow racing stripes, cut high enough that my boxers peek out from underneath, unnoticed I hope. On top, I wear two cotton t-shirts to keep the chill out. My white long-sleeved shirt features a map of Alaska designed to change color in the presence of sunlight. Since I wear it to bed, who knows if it still works? Beneath, a gray shirt with short sleeves declares “a mustache means business,” showcasing different forms facial hair can take below your very nose.

I stopped shaving north of my mouth nine months ago as training commenced for this half marathon. My mustache, named by some of my middle school students, serves as a reminder to run, a symbol I’m trying something new, and an unintentional deterrent to my wife who finds my facial hair unattractive. After three months, it became an assumed persona to hide behind, allowing me to be seen at the same time. Little hairs to disguise my face. A pornstache of solitude.

It was Josh Alexander’s idea: “Hey, you all should run the Columbus Half Marathon with me this year. We can grow mustaches, wear short shorts, tube socks, and go all 70’s together.”

For a while, I looked like Hitler, a little patch of hair connecting septum to philtrum. Thankfully, no one goose-stepped past me.

Josh stands positioned 20 bodies behind me near Dan. Father and son, engaged in friendly competition, bounce so their shoulders almost touch, waiting to see who finishes first. Mark stands just behind them. The three of them together. Runners. People eager to share how much they improved their pace or discuss the benefits of water over Gatorade in regards to proper hydration.

The crowd quiets as someone sings the national anthem. About the time of the bombs bursting in air, it occurs to me that this is an actual sporting event and I am one of the competitors. I signed up to make it 13.1 miles, a distance I had yet to achieve. I have no plan for the actual running. When the start sounds and those around me begin to move, I do too, setting a comfortable pace, because that’s as far as I’ve planned.

I seldom get excited about things I’ve never done before. I like to know what to expect. If I feel under-prepared, I’m in observation mode – looking, listening, being still, trying to identify whom could surpass me. I like to know I can beat everyone else. Always succeeding in school, I earned A’s when I worked hard and B’s when I didn’t, so if my grades weren’t the best in class, I thought it meant I wasn’t the best, that I had failed. I’d never competed against only myself, so the goal of finishing the race didn’t seem a win for me. I know I won’t get the fastest time, but I do know I can win a game I make up, so I run quietly in the midst of over ten thousand runners, trying to think up rules, stacking the deck to my advantage.

Four close friends run the race today, but Josh and I no longer stand within speaking distance and I never found Dustin or the two Mikes prior to the start, swallowed by the crowd of 17,000. Dustin’s pace mimics mine, so my one chance of quietly competing against a friend disappeared. Despite the throng, loneliness hollows me. I become a robot in disguise, hiding in plain sight, observing others without them seeing me.

If I notice a friend I haven’t seen in awhile, instead of walking over to say hello like a civilized person, I watch them from afar, getting a thrill knowing they’re there, unaware I’m there as well. It makes me feel clever, a game of hide and seek where I’m the only one playing and because of that, winning. I challenge my middle school boys to arm wrestling matches and thumb war tournaments. I teach them reflex games to show my superiority. Tribond and Guesstures play to my strengths, but I hate Trivial Pursuit. The mystifying nature of the sports and leisure category prevents my getting pie.

I never learned to appreciate sports. My uncle took me to my first baseball game. We came to Columbus on a Saturday to visit Grandma Lolly and finish some shopping. It wasn’t unusual for the three of us, my mother, sister, and I, to make the half-hour drive on a weekend. Dad worked overtime, and there was much more to do in town than there was out in Croton. Somehow that day, we ended up over at Uncle Tom and Aunt Sally’s.

My cousins, Ben and Jeremiah, grew up playing soccer, basketball, football, and golf, but whenever we were over for a visit, we’d tramp along a stream, play G.I. Joes, chase each other around the yard, or shoot some bad guys on the Nintendo. In a rare moment of quiet, Uncle Tom asked if I wanted to go to the Clippers game. I had no idea what that was, but I knew if the boys were going, I wanted to go too.

It was puzzling. The Columbus Clippers, the minor league team of the New York Yankees at the time, had a sailing ship with a baseball bat for a mast for their logo, but their mascot was a guy dressed up in a chicken suit. I had never heard of a Clipper ship before, so I had no idea why the team was named after the things Grandma Ginny used to trim me up while cutting my hair.

I was even more confused about what was happening on the field. My attention strayed to the scoreboard, which was my only guide. When it told me to clap, I clapped. When it said to cheer, I cheered. When we sang about Cracker Jacks, I ate Cracker Jacks. When it showed a hand ringing a bell, I rang one of the bells Uncle Tom brought with him. I had no idea why. I still have no idea which team won that day.

Josh and his dad were supposed to pick me up the morning of the race at six, but by 6:09 all my nerves felt like they were on overload. I hurried outside to stand in the driveway so they would see me when they pulled up, but it was too cold and I decided I could wait inside just as impatiently. Pacing the living room, I patted the left pocket of my warm up pants, causing my bib to crinkle inside. Good. My race number and safety pins hadn’t fallen out since I zipped them in three minutes before. Had I missed Josh and his dad in my hurry to get ready? Did I have everything I needed? Should I give Josh a call? Do I take off my shirt to get to my iPhone strapped to my upper arm? Wait, can I use it through my shirt?

The sound of a decelerating SUV cast these thoughts from my head as I rushed through the front door. A short horn blast let me know they had arrived as I locked the door behind me, my wife and daughter asleep upstairs.

Laura grew up with exercise-induced asthma, always the second slowest in gym class, so when I signed up to do the race, she set all her baggage right in my path, and I tripped over it — hard. Her feelings about my running a half marathon came out on date night.

While dropping our two-year-old off with Josh and his wife, he triggered our argument by asking Laura if she was ready for me to be a mean, lean running machine. Laura avoided the question. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t supportive of my doing this good thing for my health. Whenever I consistently worked out before, she liked the results and got inspired to work out herself. In the car, she wouldn’t meet my eyes as I pestered her about what she was thinking. She hemmed and hawed, finally asking if I wanted to know exactly what she thought. Frustrated, I demanded she tell me. She shot back, “You’re going to start training for the race and quit before October.”

I couldn’t understand how she could think that. I was going to be running with my friends and had paid too much money to quit. I lost it, bellowing, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE NOT SUPPORTING ME IN THIS! YOU DON’T THINK I CAN DO IT?” following up this prize performance with more choice words and fuming all the way to the restaurant. Laura, scared by my yelling, sat stiff, hands tight in her lap. Even though she sat no more than a foot from me, the space gaped like a canyon between us.

We both suffered through dinner, upset that the night designed to bring us together had so distanced us. It wasn’t until I pulled into the parking lot of the movie theater that we talked it through and I learned of her negative experiences with running.

“Jake, I was always the second slowest in gym class. It was me and the fat girl bringing up the rear.”

“Really?”

“I didn’t know I had it then, but because of my asthma, every time we ran, my chest tightened up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t run.”

Comprehension dawned in me. “That’s why you don’t think I can run a half marathon. Because you didn’t run well as a kid, you presumed I won’t run well either.”

“I guess so, but there’s been some other times where you started something and didn’t finish it.”

“Like when I’ve started working out before?”

We both laughed at this. I’d start a workout program, last a few months, and let it drop by the wayside.

“Well, we’ll have to see whether or not I keep up with this, but I do really think running with Josh and the other guys will keep me motivated, and fifty bucks is a lot to spend on something I’m not going to finish.”

Not completely confident, but willing to give me a try, Laura responded, “We’ll see.”

 

As soon as I opened the door to the backseat, Josh Alexander, pumped to be running 13.1 miles, gave me the verbal equivalent of a high-five. “Jake, good to see you, man. Are you excited?” I told him I was as ready as I was going to be and thanked whoever handed me a Gatorade Prime 01 from the front seat. I took the concentrated Capri Sun and set it next to me. “Jake, this is Mark. He came down with my dad.” I greeted them both and settled in for the ride.

After a mile or so, I found two of my safety pins in the dark and pinned the crinkled race bib to my shirt, smoothing it down and deciding it would pass, just like me. I shifted the Gatorade to my pocket, an act that enabled my anxiety to dissipate as there were no more preparations for me to make at the moment, no more early morning runs down the bike path, no more research on what to wear or discussions of how training was going.

The boys from Sandusky spent most of the ride tossing around names of people I didn’t know and analyzing the latest developments in college football, a subject as clear to me as concrete. I was silent most of the way to the race, feeling out of place, odd.

Falling into a rhythm of running, I just keep moving, consuming the course one step at a time. I feel like a Transformer stranded on Earth, an alien surrounded by all these humans, though there is a man running in a gorilla suit. Whereas I go it alone, hiding behind facial hair, trying to come up with a way to win the day, he’s disguised as a gorilla wearing white boxers with red polka-dots accompanied by a girl keeping pace, so even he isn’t by himself. It feels as though he’s playing my game by his own set of rules and doing it better than I. He’s already won the challenge I’m still trying to formulate in my head.

I remember staging epic battles between the forces of good, the Autobots, and the denizens of destruction, the Decepticons, in my room as a boy. There the Transformers, toys of plastic and metal, would come to life, mimicking their cartoon counterparts, changing from cars, trucks, airplanes, helicopters, tape decks, microscopes, and pistols to robots equipped with cannons and attitude.

I was five years old when Transformers, the syndicated series, aired in 1984, earning big money through toy and airtime sales until 1988. Each season, completely new characters fought and joked their way through 22-minute adventures, convincing my putty-like child’s mind these robots from Cybertron were cool enough to beg my parents to buy them. There was even an episode of The Price is Right where a boy about my age came on down, and Bob Barker presented him with the entire line of Transformers toys for being the youngest person to make it into contestant’s row. That’s the moment I came up with my master plan to get all my cousins and aunts and uncles together to go on that game show and win every single Transformer. Oh, it was heady stuff. I never did figure out how to get us all to California, but that wasn’t important. Dreaming about winning the toys was.

The crowd of runners cheers as each wheelchair racer zips by, accompanied by three bikers and proceeded by a police escort. I watch and get chills. We pass a band performing “Hang on Sloopy,” Ohio’s official rock song, and when everyone around me chants “O-H-I-O,” making the letters with their arms, I watch. Further on, a deejay has “YMCA” by the Village People playing and when the runners again make the letters and sing along, I watch them do it, but don’t participate myself.

I watch from inside the race, like a kid in the outfield gawking as the ball flies over his head for a triple, not understanding my role in the game. People all along the course hold signs, clapping and cheering. Every time they yell, “Go racers!” I automatically assume they root for those around me.

Why am I alone in this crowd? Did I lose track of my friends due to the shifting multitude or because I pulled away? Why do I feel like a sentient robotic life form, my analytical take on the race at odds with the physicality of all these moving bodies?

Two weeks before the race, Dustin and I join Josh for a ten-miler. I think my legs will buckle underneath me, but they stay put. Those ten miles were the farthest distance I have run before the big race, so as I pass mile marker ten of the half marathon, something shifts inside. I’ve done it! This is the farthest I’ve ever run, and every step after this is going to be the farthest I’ve ever run. When I slow down at a drink station, I feel out of synch. My rhythm is off. I have to keep moving.

My eyes look past the runners around me; I start seeing the people. There’s that gray-haired man with the inflated sticks again, whacking them together, still cheering. That lady with the curly hair is still yelling for us as loud as she can, having a great time doing it. A mother and father hold out their arms to hug their daughter and get a picture with her before she finishes the race. My pastor, Andrew Oswalt, with a big, stupid grin on his face cheers me on, slapping my hand and patting me on the back with a, “There you are, Jake. I’ve been looking for you. Good luck!” I accelerate without even intending to.

Even better than being encouraged by Andrew, is running beneath the skyway connecting two hospital buildings. All the other spectators planned for this day. They set their alarms, got their signs ready, and came out to see us, including a couple in their bathrobes. But up on the hospital walkway, two or three guys stand there, watching us pass below them. I imagine they’re just people at work heading to their next task, or somebody on their way to visit a friend or family member, or perhaps even patients stretching their legs.

I’m not sure if any of the other runners notice them. The windows are tinted to reduce glare, but I see them, my route passing beneath the feet of an older African-American gentleman wearing glasses. He looks right at me, so I give him a big smile and a full-armed wave. His face lights up as he waves back. It only lasts a second, but it’s a moment I will long remember.

With that connection, I feel recognized. Not as a friend, neither as a runner, nor as one of many, but as an individual, unique out of the thousands of people running that day. When I singled out the man on the skyway, he singled me out. It felt like he picked me for his team.

I’m accepted for who I am and what I’ve done.

I don’t have to hide behind my moustache so I can make up a game to win, I don’t have to be a Transformer hiding to gain the advantage. The kindness of one spectator encourages me to see who I am: the injured man in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Numbed by doubts and beaten by fear, I ran the race like one separated from his body until someone generously picked me up and carried me along. I can do this. I don’t need to hide or feel less than. I can believe in myself.

All along the course, people hold signs: “My girlfriend runs like a Kenyan,” “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon,” “Run like you stole something,” and my favorite: “Keep running, complete stranger.” That sign is for me, the strange one who finally fits.

Laura and Maggie met up the morning of the race with Dustin’s wife and daughter and Josh’s wife, son, mother, and sister at First Watch, a piece of prime real estate smack dab on High Street, positioned a mere two miles from the finish line. They’d come out to support us, and Laura started texting me encouragement while I was still an hour away. I know where they’re going to be, and as soon as I trot into the vicinity, my eyes begin raking the buildings for the diner’s sign.

For the most part, the course laid out for us is relatively flat, but High Street begins to incline as it makes its way to the statehouse. It’s a gentle hill, unnoticeable in a car, but unmistakable after running so far. At this point, if I don’t keep moving, I know I’m not going to start again, so even though my pace has diminished significantly, I keep putting one foot in front of the other. The rise of the street slows my pace but not my excitement. It’s an uphill battle to see my family.

I catch sight of the low brick building up ahead and keep pushing. They’re all standing on the sidewalk, bundled up, and I hear a shout, “There he is!” But I only have eyes for Laura. She holds a sign she made on the back of her paper placemat using crayons, but she made it for me. She stands there for me. She got up early on a Sunday morning to cheer me on, and is doing a fantastic job. Maggie, however, looks confused. She’s way past due for a nap and is scowling at the street. I don’t know if she sees me, or if it even registers that I run by, calling her name and waving like an idiot.

I sprint for the finish line after making the last turn, while Dustin cheers from the sidelines, and earn a time of two hours thirty-three minutes thinking, “I can do better next year.” Dustin got a sweaty hug from me and Mike Condo got a high-five. I’m still not sure if he’s a hugger. Josh, Dan, and Mark all finished as well and joined us on the corner of High and Nationwide to trade times and compare experiences. Mike Stafford, the last to finish of our group, opted to walk the 13.1 miles, but when he came around that final turn, he was running and smiling.

Pablo’s gone now, shaved off while soaking my sore legs in the tub. Soon after, I got the best kiss from Laura I’ve ever gotten from anyone. I don’t need my disguise anymore. This Transformer has rolled out.

About Jake Lees

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