Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 18 Apr 2013 05:17:50 -0400

Good-Byes

RUNNING COMMENTARY 985

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one, continued here from RC 984, comes from the May 2006 issue.)

You never know which visit will be the last. Ours came at the 2004 Des Moines Marathon. Seldom had seen my brother Mike happier or more relaxed, and my last live image shows him laughing. Two months later our brother-in-law Elliott Evans called. “I have awful news,” he said. “It’s about your brother Mike.”

Mike wasn’t programmed to live a long time, and didn’t. He gave himself so fully to – what was it; not a job or a career, but a calling and a passion – that his work habits might have cut his life short. While recording the triumphs of healthy youngsters, he neglected his own health.

He smoked for 30 years before a health crisis scared that habit out of him in the mid-1990s. This brother who had never shown any self-discipline in physical matters went from burning through several packs a day to never lighting up again. I was never prouder of him.

Never, that is, until the day-to-day care for our mother in her last years fell to him. No one was ever less prepared for that duty than Mike, yet he carried through to her end.

The smoking still had left his lungs damaged. In the end they failed him. Now the family’s oldest, I wrote a eulogy and spoke at the funeral. There I repeated words from brother-in-law Elliott: “Mike packed 126 years of living into his 63 by sleeping so little and doing two or three things at once.”

I spoke mainly about a part of Mike that few knew. Despite never marrying or fathering children, despite working nights and sleeping days (or not at all), he was far from alone and lonely.

His funeral came on the worst day of an Iowa winter. An ice storm had closed many of the state’s roads. Yet 300 of his family and friends still turned out to honor him. They came to the Drake University basketball arena, made available during a school break. A lone chair, his chair, sat at the scorer’s table (and would remain there, empty, all season).

“Mike had a big family that he got together with regularly and happily,” I said. “Mike’s family members who are here today, please stand up so the others can see who you are. It’s okay to clap for them, because what would have an event been in his world without applause?” Two-dozen of us stood. Another dozen would have been there if weather had allowed.

“Mike, in his own sometimes odd ways, touched thousands of lives,” I added. “All of you here knew who he was and appreciated what he did for you. Thanks from all of us to all of you for coming, And thanks, Mike, for bringing us all together today.” This brought a standing ovation. It wasn’t the last honor he would receive.

MIKE’S MEET

The Drake Relays is Iowa’s annual Super Bowl of track and field, selling out the stadium in Des Moines each April. For the Hendersons it’s a holiday weekend as anticipated as Christmas.

The meet turned 97 years old in 2005. For more than three-quarters of those years, two generations of our family had watched and worked there. None of us served longer than Mike, and perhaps no one at all ever loved this event more or lived it more completely.

Few athletes and fans at the 2005 Drake Relays would have known his name. But most of the supporting cast – the officials, coaches and especially the reporters – knew all that he did for them and valued him for it.

By title, Mike was the Drake Relays statistician. He was much more than that: a living history book and human computer for this meet and this sport.

Starting in the mid-1960s, he shared the Relays’ statistical load with our late father Jim. Mike later worked with any sport that needed him: at Drake, the girls and boys high school championships, even arena football. But track and field always came first.

This was his family’s sport before he was born. An uncle, Charles Henderson, won a Drake Relays title for Iowa State in the early 1930s. I ran there, brother-in-law Elliott Evans won there, and our cousin Bruce Henderson coached winning teams there.

Mike not only loved the Drake Relays; he lived for and with this meet. From just after the state high school basketball tournaments in March through the high school track championships in late May, he camped out in Drake Field House or the stadium press box. He never sought praise for this work, and in fact acted embarrassed when told how well he did it.

One of his last tasks was to gather information for the Iowa Hall of Pride. His favorite part of the newly opened shrine to the sports achievements of Iowans, the track & Field and cross-country wing, now bears his name. The plaque reads:

“Mike Henderson (1941-2004) was Iowa track and field and cross-country’s best friend. Mike never ran in a state meet or the Drake Relays, but his many contributions made hundreds of these meets run smoothly for generations of athletes and coaches, officials and journalists. While working as information director at the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union for almost 32 years, his service spread to the Boys Athletic Association, Drake University and wherever else his talent and devotion were needed. Mike’s family and friends ask you, while visiting these exhibits, to relive the rich history of the sports that were his first love.”

Mike was loved in return, more than even his family knew. Only when we sat down in Drake Stadium for the 2005 Relays did we learn that a high school hurdles race had been named for him.

We hadn’t been warned that a message from his friends in the press box would appear on the scoreboard during the qualifying rounds and final of that race. It read, “God bless you, Mike. We miss you.”

KEEPING WATCH

These memorials to Mike are most fitting, but are too far from my home in Oregon. I needed others to carry home with me. One is his computer mouse that has guided these paragraphs and pages. Another is the race number that I wore in the 2005 Drake Relays road race, with the initials “M.A.H” on the back.

Right now I carry the most tangible reminder of him on my wrist. It’s my version of the Lance Armstrong “Live Strong” bracelet. Mine will never sell millions of copies as that yellow rubber band has done. Mine will never go on sale at all. The only way to get one is to earn it, or in my case to inherit it from someone who had earned it.

My armwear honors an event that has been part or me since... well, since before there was a me. This is the Drake Relays wristwatch. For most of that track meet’s nearly century-long history the watch has served as its big prize. Winners at Drake don’t talk of “taking a gold” but of “getting a watch.”

These aren’t running watches. They have hands, not digital numbers. These aren’t Rolexes but can’t be bought for any price. Only the athletes who win at Drake receive them, plus the few officials who work harder, longer than any athlete.

I ran at Drake a dozen times but never came close to winning a watch. My best finish was second in a high school mile, but even winner Don Prichard collected only a medal. Kids our age weren’t eligible for watches.

Mike likely never even walked a full lap around that track. But he did earn a watch – maybe several of them, though we only found the one from 2004, his last Drake Relays, among the belongings he left behind. I inherited it. Wearing this watch connects me with my big brother.

UPDATE: I can hear Mike silently coaching me even now: Live longer and stronger and I could. Take better care of yourself than I did of myself. Remember who and where you came from. Keep coming back to celebrate Christmas-in-April with our Iowa family and friends. Think less of your own efforts and more about pushing of others across their goal lines.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
Previous Posts
 Tweet