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Louisiana Runners:  Run For Your Life
By Coach Brendan Minihan Jr
Metairie Park Country Day School

September 3, 2008

Editor's Note: Brendan Minihan, Jr. ran cross-country and track for Newman High School in New Orleans and for Rhodes College in Memphis, TN.  He and his wife Margaret Ann live in New Orleans with their two children, Aidan and Ewan and are expecting their third child.  He has coached cross-country and track and taught English at Metairie Park Country Day School since 2000.

      One of the essential elements of being a cross-country runner is dealing with pain.  We know the pain is coming, so it’s just a matter of preparing ourselves for it.  An often overlooked sub-element of our success as runners is dealing with uncertainty and ever-changing situations.  As John Short says in his well-anthologized quote, “What counts in battle is what you do when the pain sets in.”  It’s not just dealing with the initial pain of running but dealing with the lasting discomfort that sometimes comes in unexpected ways.  Plans often change, dreams get deferred, when we find ourselves in a situation we could not predict.

This past week, we runners from south Louisiana found ourselves in a situation we could not predict, as Gustav, the prophesied “mother of all storms,” took aim on our gulf coast.  For most of us, it was all too reminiscent of our experience in 2005.  We remembered the pain and suffering that came after Katrina, but we were better prepared this time.

      What can we do as runners to weather the storm?  Well…the best part is that we are runners.  We’re not football or volleyball players, dependent upon a team and equipment to continue our sport.  I’m sure plenty of guys packed a football in the car and will get out on the front lawn and pass the pigskin back and forth to pass the time.  But anyone can do that.  I’m sure plenty of girls brought their soccer ball along to kick with a sibling.  Or a volleyball to pop around with a cousin or up against a brick wall.  Sounds like fun, huh?  But none of these athletes can really continue to train like we can.   Even swimmers need to find a body of water to practice their sport.  Runners – we just lace up our shoes and go.  It doesn’t matter where we are.  We can go out any day during our evacuation and get in a typical workout, without having to worry about teammates or equipment or a coach.

      That is why one of the first things I did after my twenty hour evacuation to Chattanooga - what would ordinarily be a seven hour drive from New Orleans - was go for a seven mile run in the hills.  The next morning, as Gustav touched ground in Plaquemines Parish, I woke up and found a 5k race down by the Tennessee River.  When the newspaper reporter interviewed me after I had won and found out that I was an evacuee, he incredulously asked, “What are you doing out here?”  He meant at the race, as if I had more important things to do, like sitting in front of the tube and watching Anderson Cooper seek out tragedy to report.  I told him, “Running keeps me sane.  It kept me sane through Katrina and it’s keeping me sane now.  It’s what I do.”

      And WHY would we do this?  Why run at a time like this?  The answer is just as obvious as our answer to the question about why we live in a city like New Orleans, or any city in the flood plane in the perennial track of hurricanes.  We run at times like this because we are runners.  We do this because we can – because this is what we’ve trained the whole summer for…our whole lives for.  We can go out for a thirty-minute run and experience the physiological benefits of a training run and the psychological benefits that no other sport can give.  We can get away from the insanity and just run for a while and afterwards feel better physically and mentally.  Running can salvage us and save our lives.

      Here’s an example of how running literally and figuratively saved my friend’s life in a taxing situation.  One of my long-time running buddies escaped on foot from New Orleans during the aftermath of Katrina.  That is not hyperbole.  He actually ran his way out of the city, and when he told me his unbelievable story it elicited feelings that simultaneously made me cry and feel so proud to be a runner.  But the whole story had to play out over the course of weeks before he came to a life-defining realization.  After being rescued by motorboat from the second story window of his apartment, which sat three blocks from the breach in the 17th Street Canal, he made his way on foot down the levee from the lake towards Metairie.  His story is filled with horror of two kinds – bone chilling near escapes and downright helplessness – like fending off ravenous wild dogs with rocks or passing flooded homes along the canal hearing screaming voices of people trapped in their attics.  He came upon a flooded car with a deceased person in it.  How did he deal with that one?  He’s on foot trying to escape and a person in a car couldn’t make it.

      By the time he made it to uptown New Orleans, he found himself holed up in a Garden District house in an unsettling darkness of night without electricity.  As the sounds of breaking glass and gunshots crept closer outside, he made a critical decision.  He had to get out.  But on what?  How?  Well…he’s a runner.  He knew what he had to do.  He ran down the flooded neutral ground on St. Charles Avenue, four miles to the river levee as fast as he could.  At the levee he took a right and ran another two miles to Oschner Hospital, where he finally found transportation out of the city.  Who else could do that besides a runner?  Stressed out and exhausted and scared and he still managed to run what he felt was sub-six-minute miles in standing water on the muddy streetcar tracks.  Running literally saved his life.

      When I finally got through to him days after his harried evacuation, he seemed shaken on the phone.  There was a tremor in his formerly confident voice.  He told me that he was done with running.  After that run out of the city, he just couldn’t imagine doing it any more. 

      The defining moment for him came when he moved back.  Of course, he moved back.  And he came back to running.  We all did.  Oddly, our tempered steel from a lifetime of ignorant, lazy people asking us why we run had prepared us well for all of the ignorant, uncultured, insensitive people asking why we would move back to New Orleans.  The problem for him was that every time he ran, the ghosts of that dark evacuation haunted him.  But he simply had to run.  He realized that he couldn’t give up running.  It was part of what defined him.  It was part of what made him strong.  He found himself and his confidence again through running.  Only months later, he placed in the top ten at the Mardi Gras Marathon, and today he’s still one of New Orleans’ elite runners. 

      If a story about a thirty-something road-racer doesn’t hit home for you, let me tell you about one of my high school runners after that same storm.  I had an enthusiastic high school team coming into the 2005 season, ready to train and go after the State title.  My number-one boy, a rising senior, had spent five years training for that season.  Jay had done his summer training, attended cross-country camp, and was looking stronger than ever.  He had finished runner-up once and third twice at the previous three State championships.  That was going to be Jay’s year to win.  One week into the season, the levees broke and flooded our school in the Old Metairie neighborhood.  We did not reopen school until November, so our season was over before it started.  State took place that year in Natchitoches without many of the best runners from South Louisiana, but Jay did not give up.  He enrolled at an all-boys’ school in Chattanooga, TN and walked onto their successful team as the sixth runner.  For a few weeks, he fought just to earn his place on varsity, meanwhile adapting to the hilly terrain and the foreign school and the uncertainty of whether his home would be there when and if he returned.  Jay’s house took in eight feet of water.  How did a seventeen-year-old boy deal with that kind of stress?  He ran.  Jay persevered and moved up to number three on their team, running personal bests on courses much harder than any course I’ve seen in Louisiana.  Jay made the best of his situation.  He was not going to let something like the country’s largest natural catastrophe (govt. civil-engineering disaster, depending on how you look at it) ruin HIS cross-country season.  It sounds trite, but he made the best of the life he was given.  Two years later and out of high school, Jay tragically died in a car wreck.  His sudden loss shocked family and friends and left our school with a hole in our spirit.  As hard as it is to think about Jay’s tragedy, it also inspires me.  I’ll always remember how strong and determined Jay was when presented with challenges in life.  We can all benefit from Jay’s example and persevere through hard times through running. 

      This is going to be a stressful time for all of us in south Louisiana, from New Orleans to Houma to Morgan City to Baton Rouge and Lafayette.  What counts is what we do with what we’re given.  Whatever happens after Gustav, wherever you end up, whatever you lose or don’t lose, remember that you have something that nothing can take away.  Running is part of you.  It will always be with you.  Now go lace up your shoes and go for a run.  Oh, and one more thing.  When you get back from your run, e-mail or call or Facebook every member of your team and tell him or her that you have a season to finish.  Tell them to get out and go for a run.  Tell them, “Run for your life!” 

  

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