Thursday, February 23, 2006


I’ve been forced recently to think of my 1982 run/walk from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. You would think that a person would remember every minute of something as fantastic as that. A person would be wrong. I hardly remember any of it; I sometimes wonder if it was me who did it.

I recall only small bits of the train ride to Philly. Coming into Altoona, I remember the conductor shouting “Altoona! Charlie’s brother, Al!” I remember riding around the famous Horseshoe Curve, and the conductor saying, “We’re in it. We’re in the Horseshoe Curve.” I remember arriving in Philadelphia, a place I’d never been, and hearing the conductor say, “It is 101 degrees this afternoon in downtown Philadelphia.”

I called a cab and had the driver take me to a hotel near the Art Museum. I have no recollection of checking into a hotel, or what I did there. I must have paid the cabbie, but I don’t remember doing it. I only remember the wake-up call the following morning. A man who sounded very much like Sylvester Stallone grumbled sleepily into the earpiece: “Yeah, it’s 3:45.”

By four a.m., I was bolting up the Art Museum steps, the same steps Rocky bolted up in the movie. I pranced and danced like the underdog boxer himself, overlooking the sparkling city. By 4:02, I was away into the darkness.

I remember seeing people in the shadows of doorways. I ran and ran. I was too naïve back then to be afraid for my life. My safe passage through the worst parts of that city at that hour only confirms for me that crazy people leave other crazy people alone—it happens all the time—and that God has for years protected me from my own stupidity.

At the Ben Franklin Bridge came trouble. A police cruiser pulled behind me, lights engaged: it was illegal for pedestrians to cross the Ben Franklin Bridge. Had I any identification? I reached down for the small change purse attached to my shoe, where I kept a small plastic card with my name and address on it. What in the world was a kid from out-of-state doing trying to run across the Ben Franklin Bridge at 4:30 in the morning?

“I’m running to Atlantic City,” I said.

The cop wasn’t sure whether to believe me or hit me with his nightstick.

“That’s sixty-two miles from here,” he said.

I said, “I know. I should be there by seven o’clock this evening.”

I begged him to let me run the bridge, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He probably considered arresting me for my own good. Perhaps he should have. Instead, he drove me across the bridge, let me out, and wished me luck. This was the last thing I remember until Egg Harbor City, forty miles away.

I take that back. I remember throwing my sweatshirt away in someone’s roadside trashcan. I had attached reflector tape to the sweatshirt and planned to discard it as the sun came up: plan accomplished.

I had never been to New Jersey.

I traveled insanely light. All I had on the train was a) what I was wearing, b) a toothbrush, c) the reflector-taped sweatshirt, which I carried, d) a plane ticket home, e) about a hundred dollars of paper money in my sock with the plane ticket, and f) the aforementioned plastic i.d., along with about two dollars worth of change in the tiny Velcro purse attached to my right running shoe. After leaving the hotel that morning, I was minus the toothbrush. After the sun had come up, I was minus the sweatshirt. All I had now was a little bit of money, a plane ticket, a plastic i.d. card the size of a matchbook, and balls the size of an elephant’s.

I cannot remember eating or drinking a thing, but I must have. I have no recollection of bathroom stops. I remember running through Egg Harbor City, for who can forget a city so named? I patronized a McDonalds there, but cannot tell you what I purchased, or whether I dined in or consumed my banquet en run. But as I sit here writing this, I suddenly see an apple pie. No, wait! I see two! Two apple pies are appearing in my mind! That’s it, then! I must have gotten two apple pies!

Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Next thing I know, Right Knee is complaining. This begins in the late afternoon, sometime after Egg Harbor City. I realized later the mistake of attaching the change purse change to my shoe. The purse is designed to be threaded into the shoelaces for short-term use. Employing it for this long-term run, I unconsciously asked Foot to bench-press it thousands of times. By six p.m., Right Foot told the accompanying knee: “Make him pay for this. Now.”

I was forced to walk the remaining distance to Atlantic City.

My fear caught up with my common sense at the same time night caught up with New Jersey. Route 30 became a wilderness as the highway wove around mysterious-looking marshes. But the cars still came, and I was now unable to reflect oncoming headlights. But there were the lights of Atlantic City ahead. Would I ever get there? I walked and walked, but nothing seemed nearer, not even the ocean.

I know I arrived. But sitting here today, I cannot remember doing so. But I do recall the grocery store where I found a phone booth and called a cab place.

The dispatcher said, “Where are you again?” I looked at the street signs again and told him.

“Shit, man, I don’t even like to drive through that neighborhood. Don’t do anything stupid; I’ll be right there.”

I stood very still and followed his recommendation to the letter.

The next thing I remember is a dark and damp motel room with no bathroom. I remember neither going to bed nor getting up, though I know I did both. My next memory is of the Atlantic City airport, blanketed in fog. I remember all of us passengers trundling onto a bus bound for Philadelphia. I have no recollection whatsoever of the plane ride home, but I do have a photograph of me standing next to my fiancé Melody and my sister Kelly at the Akron-Canton airport. They looked happy to have me between them, and I looked happy to be there, which I was.

(I talked several people into sponsoring me-- so much money per mile--and I raised over $2000 for an organization that grants wishes to terminally-ill children. Thus, the shirt.)

The trip to me, now, seems like a dream in the night.

And so will this life seem, when I am finally finished with it.

© 2006 by Martin Zender