The Last Racer: Discovering Unexpected Rewards at the Back of the Pack

By Ken Lizotte

Thoreau Farm Trust Board President Ken Lizotte

I have run in the annual 5-mile Minuteman Classic in historic Concord every 4th of July for more than 25 years. Though by no means an elite runner – my one Boston Marathon took 4 hours and 15 minutes — I’ve always loved this little Colonial-themed road race so much that each spring I rev up a special training regime around it involving short, easy runs for two months before the race, then pick up the pace and push harder until race day.

One recent year, however, an unexpected challenge struck. The previous November I’d come down with Lyme arthritis, a subset of Lyme disease that typically balloons one knee up to the size of a softball. For the next few months, I could neither run nor walk without horrid stabs of pain striking at me when I so much as stood up.

Fortunately, a crutch, antibiotics and basic rehab ultimately made the worst of this diminish, so that by spring, my right knee pain had all but disappeared, convincing me I’d be fine for this year’s meet yet again. So throwing caution and common sense to the wind, I pinned on my official bib minutes before 9 AM on the big day and milled around with 300 others ready to go.

The Minuteman Classic starts with a volley!

Then, at the appointed time … CRACK, CRACK! Muskets fired into the air by two Colonial-garbed “minutemen” pushed us ahead gingerly with ever-quickening paces past the Concord Free Library and the 300-year-old Colonial Inn. A half-mile further, we clopped en masse by Hawthorne’s Old Manse, clattering next over the Old North Bridge and then past the Minuteman Statue, Emerson’s “shot heard round the world” testament on its plaque egging us on.

Not long after, however, at Mile Marker #2, a throng of seasoned runners effortlessly whizzed ahead. I reminded myself that I had never been that fast a runner anyway so to wash away any concern. Still the ease with which they moved seemed disconcerting, ominous.

Two hundred yards later, a gaggle of newbies slipped by me, too and at Mile Marker #3, pain-pricks at my knee began to jab at me. I was definitely running at a slower pace so that by Mile Marker #4 I was hard spent to keep up even with the back-of-the-pack. 500 yards later, gasping past the big yellow Henry David Thoreau house, I found myself alone totally, just asphalt and me. Most of my competitors had left me in their dust.

Should I quit? Just walk from here on? I’d never quit any race before but this time a shock hit me hard: What if I finished dead last? What if everyone beat me, even the mom or dads pushing strollers? The ghost of Louisa May Alcott then sprinted right by me, running hard in a hoop skirt down the middle of the road, as so she loved to do in olden days.

I squinted behind me, way back in the distance. A lean, tall woman runner was giving it her all but apparently managing only scant progress. She, not me, would be the last racer! I thought. If I could only sustain this snail’s pace a half-mile more, despite the pain I’d finish as the penultimate racer, not its very last. I could live with that.

Ken Lizotte pushes through the final leg of the Minuteman Classic.

The final stretch now in view, I embraced such a meager consolation prize and trudged on. Instants later however, my construct collapsed as that struggling last-place loner out of nowhere came level with me … then pumped ahead! At the same instant, my knee pain had grown louder, clawing and scraping and tearing me down. Rapidly losing all control and resolve, I helplessly watching my only remaining competition grow smaller as she moved farther and farther away.

A police radio next crackled near my ear as a helmeted officer on a bicycle slid beside me to ask, “You OK?” Despite knife-like stabs in my knee, I gave him a nod. Still he voiced words into his unit that I’d prayed I wouldn’t hear. “I’m with the last racer,” he said. It was official!

Ahead at the finish line, a half-dozen onlookers were cheering the morning’s final stragglers. Spying me, they began to whoop. “You can do it! You’re almost there!” Was this admiration or pity? I didn’t know.

Nothing left to lose, I decided to give them a show. Summoning all every waning reserve, I began pushing myself forward, determined to look as good at the end as I had felt at the start. So I pounded toward them, sprinting, stomping, veritably stampeding. 35 yards to go, 30, 25. I ran bolt upright, lungs grinding, eyes tight shut, legs up and down again and again. Strangest of all I was devoid of all pain! No jabs, pricks or stabs.

20 yards now, 15, 10. My loyal fans yelped and howled, feeding off my insistent abandon. “You’re doing it! Almost there!” I seemed to be moving faster at this moment than I’d ever run in my entire life, Louisa May’s sprint-spirit somewhere within nudging me with an invisible boost.

Gliding thru the finish line funnel, I now stood out from the entire pack, my steadfast fans viewing me as the ultimate in never-say-die. Slowing into a stumble for my cool-down, my former dire knee pain ironically returned. I may in fact had set my healing back six months tho truth be told, I didn’t care. Locking eyes with an off-duty Concord firefighter, he hurried over to extend his hand. “Nice work out there, man!” he blurted.” You did so great.” Then: “Better than I could do!”

He drifted off while others came over to high-five me and clap me on the back. But the firefighter’s words clanged loudest of all. “Better than I could do.” Better than I could do? Me? The last racer?

I have never won a road race in my life, resigning myself long ago to the reality that I never could. So I’d never know what it must feel like to cross a finish line before all the others and rein in adulation and attention as the race’s true winner.

But coming in last  that day, I did.

Ken Lizotte is President of the Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees and author of eight books. In 2019, he finished the Minuteman Classic once again, this time well ahead of the back of the pack.

Editors’s note: Published previously in Personal Excellence Magazine.





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Loving Doves at Creekside

By Ashton Nichols

Lovey and chick make the best of their accommodations at “Creekside.”

Lovey (a.k.a. Lovey Dovey) is in residence at “Creekside,”  our c. 1840 farmhouse. Lovey is a mourning dove, of the family Columbidae, and this year she has had the misfortune—largely self-imposed—of moving into last year’s sparrow’s nest for her spring mating and rearing of chicks.

She is twice the size of the sparrows who built this well-made nest last spring in our screened-in-porch. One morning Lovey’s head is hanging over the edge of the nest tucked into the brick wall of Creekside. The next morning her tail is hanging out of the nest, so far in midair that it looks as though she might plummet to the ground at any moment. But she stays firmly at her task, sitting tightly on top of those eggs, keeping the center of her small, down-lined nest at least close to her own body temperature.

The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)  is one of the most common birds of wildflower fields and suburban lawns, evident in in almost all of the lower forty eight states all year round, and in summer well into British Columbia in the West—along the Alaska passage—and in the East to the top of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The call is a muffled oo-wooo-coooo-wooo, and it lasts a long time; the book says often from four to six minutes. The birds also make a loud, flapping whistle every time they take off.

Chandler Robbins’s wonderful Birds of North America (a Golden Guide to Field Identification) reports that while these doves nest singly, they feed “in flocks.” Whether in a nearby flock or off completely on his own, Lovey’s mate showed up for the first time this morning, looking extremely well fed. He sat on the nearby waist-high metal fence for a long time. Then, he flew back into the neighboring maple tree, cooing all the while, and suddenly he flew up to Lovey’s nest, landed directly on top of her, and pushed her off into the air. She flapped twice and landed nearby in the yard’s largest maple tree.

Mourning doves are one of those bird species in which the male shares egg-sitting duties with the female: she typically sits all night and he during the day. He literally nudges her out of the nest when he lands. She acts almost surprised, and yet this must have happened every day since she laid her eggs. Now he sits there quietly, turning his head from side to side, and she flies off across the yard to gather food for herself and her offspring to be.

Yesterday, for the first time, we realized that two eggs had hatched in the sparrow/dove nest and that two newborns were lying still in their down-lined space. Lovey looked as though she could not get comfortable for most of the morning. She would stand, turn around, flap her wings — singly, or in unison — then peck toward the center of her nest as though something was annoying (or pleasing) her? By the afternoon, we could see two balls of fluff, their heads barely visible amid each feathery ball.

By noon today, Lovey as mother was feeding them for the first time. She disappeared without her mate replacing her and returned within the hour to begin feeding her magic dove’s milk. Mourning doves, like their close relatives — pigeons — make a milk-like substances in their digestive tract to feed their young. It looks more like cottage cheese and it has more proteins than cows’ milk; it also has more antioxidants and immune-producing substances. So Lovey is now putting her closed beak into her squabs’ tiny mouths, opening her bill, and regurgitating this life-giving fluid into each chick’s waiting gullet.

It is a spring full of birds at Creekside this year; some mornings we virtually feel like an aviary. A nearby robin occasionally fly out from her chest-high nest into the wide yard, coming back with a worm that she swallows. Soon these worms will not be for her. So far this spring, in addition to countless robins, we have seen the usual starlings, grackles, blackbirds, and sparrows, also several cardinals, mockingbirds, nesting house wrens, and—excitingly—a fluty-throated wood thrush, the flash of two Baltimore orioles and one gorgeous brilliant bluish-violet indigo bunting.

So, keep your eyes open all spring and—with any luck—you are likely to have ornithological sights galore surrounding you!

Ashton Nichols is the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies and Professor of Language and Literature at Dickinson College


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Solid Seasons — The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Sandy Stott

Make no mistake, Solid Seasons by Jeffrey Cramer (Counterpoint Press, release date, April 9, 2019) is a scholarly work.  By page 20, liberal use of Henry Thoreau’s and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prolific writings, has generated footnotes accruing to 60; were such a span represented by a snowstorm, the going might be deep already.

Yet, Cramer’s lucid, spare writing and deep knowledge join one quotation to the next without seeming effort. The book’s two primary characters become familiars, each one easily approached, often via the observation of the other. Cramer has a knack for choosing and integrating his subjects’ words, and from that you get sentences and stories that are easy walking. That sums to a wonderful read, both for the general reader interested in Emerson and Thoreau, and for those who feel themselves academic family to these two famous 19th-century thinkers and writers.

I spent more than 20 years teaching Henry Thoreau’s work and helping 17-year-olds plumb his presence in his and our worlds. And so I knew a number of Thoreau backstories, those narratives that arced together to help shape him. Famous among them was the enduring one that I always thought of as Henry and Waldo, or, on occasion, Waldo and Henry. Surely, without this linkage, each man’s life would have been different, substantially so. For starters, Henry’s Walden experiment might instead have been called White; or, Life in the Woods (after White Pond), or Flint’s, after the nearby Lincoln, Massachusetts pond. Or perhaps those 2+ years might have gone over to other experience and work entirely instead of being sited at Waldo’s woodlot on Walden Pond.

As Cramer points out, “Any biography [study] that concentrates on either Thoreau or Emerson tends to diminish the other figure because that person is, by the nature of the biography, secondary.” Solid Seasons has a different aim: “In this book, both men remain central and equal.”

And that is so. To achieve this balance, and so to better know the deep effects each man had on the other, Cramer has done what he does so well: He has gone deep into each man’s writings, published and unpublished, and into the galaxy of others’ words surrounding these two central American thinkers. The result is a deeply pleasing three-part book.

Part I — Solid Seasons — offers “A Biography of the Friendship.” Part II examines “Thoreau on Friendship; Selected Writings on Friendship; Thoreau on Emerson”. Part III then looks at “Emerson on Friendship; Selected Writings on Friendship; Emerson on Thoreau”; it then closes with Emerson’s famous eulogy of Thoreau.

The tracery of Part I is most fascinating. Cramer finds each man’s musings about the other in their letters and journals, and he locates them also in the letters and journals of others, Lidian Emerson, for one. These insights are attached to a scaffold of time that climbs to conclusion with Thoreau’s death. The written record Cramer develops reveals the bumpiness of this friendship and the inevitable bruisings when two such capacious minds and varied personalities find (and finally) revere each other. Thoreau’s flinty contrarian presence was rarely an easy companion for Emerson’s more accepting, universal one. And yet the pull of one on the other is always evident. What a gift that they lived together in time and place.

As if to affirm this gift, near the end of Part I, Cramer repeats Emerson’s observation from 1852: “Thoreau gives me in flesh and blood and pertinacious Saxon belief, my own ethics. He is far more real, and daily practically obeying them, than I; and fortifies my memory at all times with an affirmative experience which refuses to be set aside.”

Jeffrey Cramer is also a precise reader and writer. Here and there throughout the book, he takes on some of the apocrypha that have grown around Thoreau and Emerson. One footnote’s example unhorses the supposed exchange between the two when Thoreau is in jail for nonpayment of taxes: Emerson: Henry, what are you doing in there; Thoreau: Waldo, what are you doing out there? Cramer: “That dialog did not take place.” The truth of this relationship, Cramer implies, is ample and deep; no need for fabrication.

So Solid Seasons begins with an interleaving of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s words and actions as they find, sometimes collide with and come to love each other. Yes, they encounter famous impasse and episodic disappointments; one would expect no less of two opinionated, brilliant people, who differ in age and temperament. The book also brings them together with their ongoing efforts to know each other, and finally with Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau that affirms both men.

This return to each other gives body to the 1878 anecdote Cramer uses to conclude Part I. It comes from a writer’s visit with Emerson near the end of his life. Emerson’s memory was fading in some measures, but strong still in much.

As the two writers talked, Emerson called out to his wife in the other room: “What was the name of my best friend?”

“Henry Thoreau,” she answered.

“Oh, yes,” said Emerson, “Henry Thoreau.”

Just so, I thought as I closed the book.

Sandy Stott is the author of Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains. He is founding editor  of  The Roost and retired chair of the English Department at Concord Academy. Sandy lives in Brunswick, Maine.

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