Smile Politely

“Nice flag, douchebag!”: One man’s quest to run as Lincoln

Jeff with Illinois FlagIt is a quarter to nine on a cold January morning―not so cold that it is uncomfortable, but cold enough, below freezing―and some twenty-something kid leans out of the passenger side of a truck on the streets of Savoy and yells, “Nice flag, douche bag!”

Thanks, I think. The three young women I’m running with snigger under their breaths.

It is the end of week two of training for the Illinois Half Marathon, and I’ve already survived -8° weather and running on streets of ice. What else will get thrown at me? “Nice flag,” that punk yelled. Yes, I’m running with a flag.  It is the State of Illinois’, and it is large―three feet by five feet. There is no hiding it. I’m running the half marathon, 13.1 miles, dressed as Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president.

Now, what would make an otherwise regular guy like me decide to run so far dressed like a dead president? That January morning, I began to wonder myself.

Antler ManIf any of you watch the Tour de France, you may have seen Antler Man. He dresses in a crazy costume with enormous antlers, and he runs alongside cyclists as they charge up mountains like Alp D’Huez. In part, he does it for show. Who doesn’t like costumes? I feel the same way. For me, running as Abe Lincoln puts a big, fat target on my back.

I am a runner. I have been since high school in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where I became captain of the track team. Track turned into my sport of choice. I tried out for football, but it’s laughable that I once harbored dreams of being a football player. I am tall, lanky, and thin, so if it couldn’t be football, then it was going to be running. At the time, the 1984 Olympics were still fresh in my mind, and seeing the likes of Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, and Joan Benoit gave me dreams of Olympic gold. I obsessed about the high jump, and I was thrown into sprints (as coaches are apt to do with new runners) to find their real strengths.

One day, our team set out on a four-mile run around Elk Grove Village, when another high jumper and I decided we were going to go all out. We quickly passed the sprinters and set our eyes on the distance team. In the end, we impressed our coaches, and the following year, I moved into running the 800 meters and then the 1600 meters. On one of the last meets of that year, I ran my fastest 1600 meters in 4:58.

Then, I gave up on running.

As happens, college arrived, and I lacked direction. For nearly 13 years, I left my running shoes in my closet. Occasionally, I would convince myself to put them back on and jog a mile or two. I would even make an effort to do it regularly, but I lacked the motivation, and soon enough, my shoes would get buried under others in my closet, and gather dust. Then, in 2004, my future wife and I decided it was time to “get fit.” If we were going to get married, our thinking was that we ought to try to live fitter lifestyles. The last thing I wanted to do was croak on her at an early age.

Even though people saw me as this super thin person who could eat whatever he wanted, I knew better. I had sat on my butt for far too long. That year, I started running again, and I entered my first 5k race―the 9/11 Memorial 5k in Washington DC. I ran past the Pentagon in 27:09. Not bad for my first steps back into running. Each subsequent year, I would make improvements in each 5k I ran. In 2005, it was 24:58. In 2006, 23:09. In 2007, 22:38. Today, it is 19:39.

I’ve run two marathons since then, and numerous half marathons. I run because I like it. It makes me feel good about myself, and it is something I am good at. I decided to run as Abraham Lincoln this year because there is something to be said about running as a dead president. I want people to see that runners, though a serious group of people, don’t take themselves too seriously.

In the coming weeks, I’ll write more about runners, what makes them tick, and why they punish themselves. Until then, look for me on the streets. Come May 1st, I’ll be the one in the tall hat. On that day, don’t let your friends know a dead president beat you.

Abraham Jeff

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