Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind


By Gordon Cherr, 


I was in Hogtown (“Gainesville” to some of you), last week to attend a seminar. Of course, I couldn’t go there without getting in at least one run so the day would not be a total loss, and I was really ready to log a few more miles, as I had slept through most of the seminar anyhow. It is difficult to stay pumped all day for “Changes in the Law of Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Coverage”. A good run would snap me out of my lethargy and make the two hour drive back home somewhat more bearable.

Gainesville is actually steeped in running history, and that makes it a fun place to run. In no small measure, it was from Gainesville and the University of Florida that the 1970’s running boom really took hold in this country. The Florida Track Club, which has since submerged itself into the great nothingness, was home to running legends such as Frank Shorter, Jack Bachelor and Barry Brown. Another member, John Parker, who is absolutely the best running writer ever and still living in Tallahassee, was no slouch either with a 4:01 mile to his credit. When Parker writes about running you can smell the Atomic Balm, and if you don’t know what that is, go find a real runner and ask him. Beyond that, my running progeny, Corey, is in graduate school there, and I never pass up the opportunity to see him and log a few miles with him.

We weren’t five minutes into this run when we narrowly averted disaster. A burgundy Buick nearly skewered the two of us as we were trying to cross a busy intersection at 5:00 p.m. The car was going way too fast and ran the stop sign while we committed the cardinal sin for runners who are trying to share the road with cars. If you don’t make good eye contact with the driver, DON’T GO! This was typical for such an encounter. He was trying to make a right onto the road and looking back to his left for traffic to clear. We were approaching from his right, and he never bothered to look that way.

I don’t care to be a hood ornament for anyone and a short discussion was in order. I broke the ice first: “Why don’t you watch where the f%$*k you are going, you dumb f*&&^k…?” Ok, it was not very articulate, but the driver did grasp my meaning. His short response was similarly animated. I do recall his license tag, disappearing up the road. “Choose Life”, it said. Really…

Cars and runners has been a constant friction in my life. The two simply never mix well. When I started running in high school in northern New Jersey the local sport seemed to be the bottle dodge. Tossed articles could be most anything and eggs were a favorite, but most often it was an empty beer bottle. A good contestant could flip one out of the passenger window with the flick of the wrist and nail a runner from 50 feet. The head shot was mandatory, blows to the body were considered amateurish. On our after school runs we learned to be wary of any approaching cars that had their passenger windows completely down.

I was never hit by a beer bottle, but I was egged occasionally. My worst encounter was in Boston, running as a member of the Boston University cross country team, when I was hit full in the face by a big plastic cup full of beer while taking a deep breath. I thought that I was going to drown, but then the most amazing thing happened. The team captain, Peter Hoss, lit out after the culprits. Hossy could run, I mean he was a 1:49 half miler and an 8:50 two miler, and he meant business. He caught those ruffians at the next red light, leaped onto the hood of the car and began to jump up and down, denting the sheet metal good. He then jumped off the car and disappeared through a side yard, heading for Brookline, the next town over. They never caught him of course, he was way too fast. The rest of us scattered like the miserable cowards we were and it was about a month before we decided to run over on that end of town again. There were no further incidents.

Believe it or not, I saw that same behavior displayed during the Turkey Trot one year. The old Turkey Trot course started on the FSU campus and ran east on Call Street to ML King Boulevard, then south to Pensacola, left and over the railroad tracks at Gaines Street, and west on Jackson Bluff, to a turn around point. I was on the return portion of the course, running on a downhill stretch on Jackson Bluff Road and racing as hard as I could with Jim Hanlon. Jim was a fierce competitor and refused to give an inch. We still had about 4 miles to go, but no matter, one of us was going to break the other on that stretch. We were passing a cross street when all of a sudden, some ditz driving down Jackson Bluff turned left and directly in front of us while we were both in full stride. There wasn’t anything to be done at that moment. I went over the trunk of the car and landed hard on the pavement. Jim was to my left and he ran smack into the driver’s door. Her mistake was to stop to see if we were ok. Jim got up in an enraged fit, and began to kick the side of her car as hard as he could. He was beating a steady tattoo into the side of the driver’s door, screaming at her at the top of his lungs. I seized the opportunity presented to me and put about 50 yards on Jim before he came to his senses. He did catch me about 2 miles later, cursing me from behind the entire way. When he caught me we both started laughing so hard, the race was nearly forgotten. I don’t even remember who beat who in the end, but Jim did get a TKO over that car.

Another time I was running a regular course for me, on Miccosukee Road near Phillips Road, when some guy in a pick up swerved suddenly and sent me diving for cover. I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t anything but an accident, but a few days later it happened again in the same place and around the same time of day and I knew that someone was trying to be funny. Some people just don’t realize, or worse, don’t care about how vulnerable you are as a runner. Being clad in nothing but shorts and shoes sometimes, we never come off well in such encounters. This guy actually had me spooked. I couldn’t catch his license tag and I thought that he might really kill me one day, so I took to running with a golf ball. It was lighter than a brick and far easier to hold and throw, and it wouldn’t accidentally discharge and blow away a few toes. It was the weapon of choice.

Sure enough, a few days later I was running down Phillips Road when I saw that same truck coming up the hill directly at me. I got off the road and onto the grassy shoulder to my left, and he pulled off onto the shoulder to his right, still coming straight for me. There wasn’t anywhere else to go and no time to get there, so I ran directly at him, and when I got close enough, threw the golf ball into his windshield as hard as I could. The glass shattered and the truck stopped. I kept on going (of course), half expecting to be shot in the back or run down from behind. But nothing else ever happened. I never saw him again and I was never bothered. Now, years later as testosterone has been replaced by experience, I know just how stupid that was. But I also felt that the roads were ours to enjoy and to share too, and come to think of it, I still believe that today.

I have Richard Henry to thank as a role model. We were trying to cross a street one day one day when Richard didn’t make the required eye contact and he ended up riding the hood of this car for a while. Until the car stopped and he bounced off onto the pavement, anyway. Not one to mince words, Richard picked himself up, dusted himself off and approached the driver who was rolling down his window to apologize. I seem to recall Richard calmly walking up to the car and as the driver’s window came down suddenly rearing back to punch the driver in the face. It was a pretty good move, unfortunately he missed.

Well, we could regale each other with stories about our close encounters, and certainly we have all had them. My best memory of such an encounter actually had to do with a bicycle and not a car or truck. Before Bobbin Brook and Bobbin Mill and Maclay Hammock and Walmart, etc., you could actually run on Maclay Road where there was little traffic and the speed limit was 25 mph. I was taking a Sunday afternoon run there one day and heading down a big hill. I saw a kid, maybe 12 years old, at the top of the next hill on the ground tangled up in his bicycle. It looked like he had been struck by a car. I panicked and began to sprint down the hill and then up the next hill to where he was motionless on the ground.

It was a very long sprint with a sizable uphill portion and I was in serious oxygen debt when I got near him. I didn’t even have a clue about what I was going to do once I got there. I never found out because when I got about 10 feet away, he suddenly jumped up and hopped onto his bike, said “Ha, ha”, and pedaled furiously out of there. About four other kids came flying out of the bushes and rode away with him all laughing hysterically.

Try to not take this running thing too seriously, ok?