Chief Master Sergeant Damian Orslene, or the “Chief” as his friends know him, is a member of Team R4V who competed in the 2012 Warrior Games. Click here to learn more about the Chief.
Being a spectator is hard. This is not something I have had a ton of experience at, for My Bride (Lori) and I have always competed together. We helped each other get ready, and once I finished I ran back for her and stayed with her until we crossed the line…together. But suddenly our competitive lives are not together. I was using the Southern Magnolia 26 Mile as my first Marathon Length Time Trail and Lori was doing the Gulf Coast Half Marathon Series Mandeville Race on Sunday. So Friday night saw her laying all of her things out on the bed while I went over my stuff next to Ms Kitty, my recumbent, in the garage. My goal is to get us back together at the same event by breaking into the Marathon Race Circuit, which currently doesn’t allow Recumbent Bikes. But, and a very big BUT here, we have found two Race Director’s who are receptive to the idea for next year’s races so I was using Saturday as my benchmark. My Bride and I crisscrossed each other through the house handing each other packets of Shot Blocks and water bottles, as she reminded me about extra socks and I reminded her about the race belts that I am normally in charge of. We had just gotten Ms Kitty back from Cycles Plus our Local Bike shop where the Owner Neil and Co. personally handles her with kid gloves. So with new tubes and pedals I was all set. I was excited to have the chance to compete against myself, in preparation for what might happen in the future, but somehow it just wasn’t the same. Inside I wasn’t settled and I wasn’t sure why.
Saturday was a perfect day for a bike ride. Not too hot, not too cool, just a slight wind. The 26 Mile group had 20 riders, (I was the only recumbent), and an on time start. The Map they showed us looked pretty simple, few if any turns 13 miles out and back. Nothing to worry about. That was wrong. It had a total of 14 turns, which if you are in a group, it is no big deal, but this was a VERY HILLY course and after the second hill, not 10 minutes into the ride, as I bombed down it at 28MPH I realized I was very alone. If you think my navigation skills are bad in a car, try doing them in a Trike. There were no upright turn signs, just painted arrows on the street which you can see from some way off when you are on an upright bike, but you can’t see them until you are right on top of them in Ms Kitty…which is how after a power slide, a cuss word and a yell, having missed the turn, we ended up in a ditch. Luckily I learned many valuable lessons in Colorado about power slides and released my brakes and just went with it before my tires blew. So I pulled myself out, checked for broken anything’s on me and Ms Kitty and started off again. It was a tough, going down one, climbing up another hill kind of ride that was over before you knew it. 1:46 minutes. A very good free massage offered at the finish and a plate of spaghetti that my carb loading Bride sucked off my plate and we were in the car and headed for home.
We hit the house, drug Ms Kitty into the garage, showered grabbed our bags, jumped back in the car and headed 90 minutes to Mandeville, LA to get Lori’s race packet before 5PM. At packet pick up I resumed a conversation I had started last year with the Louisiana Marathon Race Director about allowing Recumbents into his race and my Bride skipped merrily from booth to booth and I watched…unsettled.
When she was done we went and got her all carb loaded up for her prerace meal then off to the hotel to get settled in. My legs were screaming from the race that morning, so I needed an Ice bath and she wanted to lay everything out so our 4AM start would be an easy transition. So back at the room, with my lower body a frozen block of ice from a 20-minute ice bath and her clothes laid out, checked and double-checked we headed to bed, 4AM comes awful early. And it did.
I ate as soon as my eyes opened, showered and dressed, my usual routine, then sat on the end of the bed and watched her twist herself in knots in her head about what the right shirt to wear based on the current weather conditions. This is her usual super computer brain routine, I know better than to intervene. The race starts at 7AM. We are 10 minutes from the park. It is 4:30AM. We are good. There was a huge traffic jam last year and the race started with many runners still outside the park in their cars. This year they want all runners in the park by 6AM. At 4:45 she holds up two shirts, recaps the entire weather situation and says what do you think? “Babes, I say, “your first choice was the right choice, go with the yellow. I want to be able to pick you out of the crowd” And she smiles.
5AM we are in the car. 5:25, having missed a turn, we are sitting in the parking lot of the park with about 20 other cars and 50 parking attendants. “Where is everyone?” I ask. “Oh, they’re coming” a small redheaded young lady says with a two-way radio pressed to her ear. “You know runners”, she continues “They don’t ever listen and they hate to lose sleep. They will be here at 6:45 just like last year.” And she runs off as her radio crackles with a crisis at the front gate. I look at my watch and then at my Bride with raised eye brows…”You got something to say there Mister?” she says to me, her eyes hardening, “No Dear” I whimper and She says “Damn Right!” as she heads for the Port-a-Johns to “beat the rush”.
The “Rush” does come, at 6:30AM at least instead of 6:45AM, and it just keeps coming right up when they call the runners to get in line behind their respective estimated running times. There are these huge cardboard sign, mini-billboards, with 7:00, 8:00, each representing how many minutes you will take to run one mile. We walked past those to 10:00 and here we started to slow down. There was no 11:00 and the next Sign said 12:00, I’m I here somewhere, My Bride said almost sheepishly as if to walk past all those faster people was something to be ashamed of. “Babes…just celebrate running” I say and she smiles for she understands I would give anything to be there beside her, to be able to run again.
I take a few pictures before the crowd swallows her up and suddenly I am on the outside looking in again…unsettled. The gun goes off and I start the video camera rolling to capture her as she goes by and in a flash of Yellow and a wave she is gone. And now there is nothing to do but wait. This is very unsettling.
Being a spectator is hard. Something you have to work at. I have always been on the field in one way or another, but suddenly there I was surrounded by many other people like me. People waiting. So I turned my attention from what was going on inside me, to what was going on around me. Across from me on a camp stool sat an older woman in purple, a color I had seen often that day and knew as the Team in Training, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s endurance sports training program. She had six pieces of purple ribbon pinned to her shirt. I crossed over to her, opened my cane chair that My Bride had bought me and asked her what the ribbons meant. She looked at me a moment, and touched each one. “We have this terrible disease in my family” she said. These are my family that I have lost”. One was her daughter, both of her sisters, an Aunt, and both of her parents. “I’m 62 years old, I haven’t got any money, so I didn’t pledge any amount this year, instead I pledged to recruit one runner for each of my ribbons, and I asked them to recruit one runner too. Before you know it I talked 9 people into joining Team in Training this year, and wouldn’t you know they all raised more money than they had to. Every single one,” she said, as a tear, rolled down her cheek, “I’m real proud of that don’t you know. Maybe that money can help somebody else’s family. I sure wish it could have helped mine.” And she squeezed my hand, and I hugged her and walked further down the race route.
There were four very pretty young ladies sitting amongst a plethora of “We love you Donny” signs that peaked my interest. “He must be quite the stud to have four pretty girls like you fighting over him” I said and smiled…but they don’t smile back…and that little voice goes off inside my head that tells me I just messed up big time. But a skinny blonde steps forward and says “I guess he is, but he’ll never know it, and we do love him, but we’re not sure if he knows that either. See Donny’s not running the race, his 55 year Mother Pat is. Donny has severe Cerebral Palsy and is being pushed in a specially designed race chair. We are his sisters and Step-sisters. But Mom insists that it’s not her Race but Donny’s and she won’t accept the medal at the end, but insists they put it around his neck. She’s our hero, and Donny’s hers”. I look at their eyes, so full of hope, and love as she talks to me, and tears. I can think of nothing to say. They seem to understand, and I hold out my hands to them and they squeeze them. And hug me, a complete stranger; suddenly bonded as if by telling their reason for holding their signs will make Donny better. We stand together for a second, when someone else they know comes by and I say my goodbyes, and take my Cane chair and move on. My heart is so full it feels like it will burst.
Fifty yards farther down the race route I spot a family wearing the white T-shirts with a digitized print of a young man’s face on it. How nice I thought to myself. So I stop, “That’s a great idea.” I say, “He will surely be able to pick you guys out from a crowd.” And I smile. But once again, the smiles I get back are strained. A woman my age holds out her hand, so I take it. “This is Brian” she says to me. “He’s not running today, his Dad is. We lost him this May in Afghanistan. So Bill is running for all those families that lost loved ones”. I am wearing my Wounded War Heroes hat and she asks me about it, and soon I am sitting with them as if I was part of their family, a temporary Band-Aid over the hemorrhage of a lost son, a fellow wounded soul. My heart was leaking, as were my eyes, and she told me it was ok.
It wasn’t much longer that it was time for my bride to return and I wanted to get to a good spot to take pictures so I said goodbye to Brian’s family and moved forward once more. Ahead of me was a young dad with his hands full with two young kids in a perfect spot in the road for pictures. I asked if I could join him. He said he would love the company and soon his 4 year old daughter Olivia was sitting on my knee waiting for her mother Michelle while I waited for my Bride. Two wayward souls, staring down a piece of blacktop sharing our knowledge of what our runners were wearing and what they had eaten for breakfast that morning, both apparently, were very important subjects to Olivia, and I was happy to oblige her, while I digested the things I had just witnessed. My bride arrived in a whirlwind, looking stronger than ever before and crossed the finish for the first time ever with a smile on her face, with Olivia’s Mom Michelle right behind her. So a quick goodbye and I was off to take more pictures. My thoughts suddenly only on finding Lori and making sure she was okay after the run.
As I got near the back of the runners shoot I heard a tremendous roar and yelling so I turned and ran back to the fence just as four pretty girls came running down the lane behind an exhausted woman pushing a race chair. They were screaming and yelling and jumping around hugging her and squeezing Donny and the crowd cheered as they put the medal around his neck…and I cried, along with the crowd.
So much was going on that I missed the man in the white T-shirt, but saw Brian’s family all together hugging Bill off to the side who had already come in. They saw me and waived. I still hadn’t found my Bride so I started up the route thinking she might have started back to where she saw me, when coming down the course was a huge wave of runners in purple and standing on the sidelines yelling and waiving her arms was the Purple Ribbon Lady, the unofficial Team in Training recruiter. Not far from her was Lori. I hurried to her, pausing for just a moment to squeeze the hand of Purple Ribbon Lady, whose face was streaked with tears. She just smiled at us, and nodded her head. Nothing more needed to be said.
My bride asked me who the Purple Ribbon Lady was, and why a 4 year old was hugging my leg, and who the four really cute girls that were waving to me were? And I could not explain. I told her I would tell her later. I still haven’t. I’ve had to write it here in order to make sense of it all. Why it was so unsettling to me? I had no idea of what went on while I ran down that road. Lori used to ask me, “did you see the Green house, or the guy running dressed as Big Bird?” and I’d say, “No, I saw 3 feet in front of me. Period” I was a focused athlete. I was so focused that I cut out a whole world of people around me. I don’t want to be a spectator. I don’t want to fit in that world. That’s what was so unsettling to me. I want to run again damn it! Or at least walk a race again! It’s like, by standing on the sideline waiting for My Bride, I was finally admitting to myself that I would never run or walk a race again, and I didn’t want to do that.
I was resisting, as if you wear some stupid spectator sign or something, or once you’re a spectator you can’t ever be anything else. Silly I know, but in this PTSD brain, I was afraid. The thought of sitting for 2 ½ hours with strangers, without my Bride, and have them ask me questions was also very unsettling to me. So, instead, I talked to them and asked them questions. AND IT OPENED MY EYES, and made me ashamed. Ashamed because I had been thinking only about myself. I was pissed because I was reminded about my loss of ability to run, and here I was surrounded by people who had lost a loved one, and in some cases, more than one! How little of me!
That Lady in Purple; the pretty young girls; the family in white, and of course darling Olivia, all taught me what an honor it is to be a spectator. There was an entire crowd of people suffering pain and loss, and in it, they still found Hope and Inspiration. It was a heart wrenching, amazing day.
Being a Spectator isn’t easy. But…Nothing in life worthwhile ever is. And they, those Spectators…are priceless.
AUTHOR’s NOTE: I’m not a professional writer. I’m just an old bald Chief who likes to talk to you from his heart. I didn’t go into to this particular weekend looking to write a blog, so I wasn’t thinking that way until the day after the race when I was wrestling with all this emotion. Unfortunately, I also have Traumatic Brain Injury and short term memory loss which meant by this time I had forgotten some of the finer details, such as specific names and dialog etc. So I filled it all in the best I could. I did not obtain the families permission to use names or likeness. My Blogs all come with some Poetic License, or Rule 14, for those that know me, this one, more than others. I wanted you to get the story without having to know “the story”, to protect the families, and my butt. So…hope you can understand. Chief O