The Craziest of Legs

The Crazylegs Classic. A staple of Madison-area civic events, delivering 20,000-plus groggy participants to a cramped Capitol Square to get drizzled upon before jogging twice as far as their aging body should and collapsing at the finish in Camp Randall Stadium before they ever get their two free beers. All in the name of fundraising for the threadbare, ragtag University of Wisconsin Athletic Department.

In 2001, during a snap where I hung with marching band alums, they informed me that our/their Saturday morning basketball game was being interrupted because they were running Crazylegs. Five miles long? Hey, that’s cool, I’m in, because I ran a mile once.

I signed up, I ran, I walked, I ached, I prayed mercy to Thor the Mightiest of Gods, I chafed the living daylights out of my crotch, and as I hobbled home bow-legged, I passed my band mates as they headed out for their basketball game after all.

Auspiciously, that became my first of fifteen runs over seventeen years, starting with the first Crazylegs available after my graduation from UW and continuing now into fully-certified midlife. I missed 2002 on account of knee pain (official diagnosis: “fat”) and 2009 for my brother’s wedding (whose reception was dutifully situated on the Crazylegs route).

20,000-plus people pretending to be runners. Except neon orange. She for real.

Fifteen isn’t necessarily a memorable milestone — the modern anniversary present for #15 is watches, the gifting equivalent of “You’re an acceptable seatmate on this flight called life” — but it’s a milestone nonetheless, especially since twenty seems too far off for a man who greets his chiropractor on a first-name basis.

I do suffer flare-ups of the romantic condition author Lev Grossman labeled terminal nostalgia, and it compels me to call out the notable runs. Like 2002, when I fell to the literal back of the pack, every runner ahead of me and only the clean-up police car behind me. And 2003, when I ran the five miles in seventy minutes despite my long legs being fully capable of walking fourteen-minute miles. Do the math.

There was 2006: the year I wore a cotton tee, shorts, and roughly 280 pounds in the snow. There was 2008: the year I saw paramedics pull a runner from the lakeside reeds. There was 2012: the year when Crazylegs was the second-last event my sister ever knew about my life before passing.

2015: the year I spotted linebacker Chris Borland in my wave and lined up directly next to him. Borland had shock-retired from the NFL six weeks earlier, after only one season, due to concerns about concussions. On the square, he was just another runner in just another wave, and I was going to beat his ass. At the starting line, I smoked him and ran my first mile in under eight minutes.

During the fourth mile, he cruised past me, him without even a dot of sweat, me sucking all the wind the air would allow and praying for someone to end me. The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for November bested me by three and a half minutes.

I’m at the point of diminishing returns. After a solid decade of year-over-year improvements, my body realized it has two kids and a pension. I’ve exchanged grey hairs for ground since my 43:28 in 2014. I’ll still make it to Camp Randall Stadium in under an hour, but it says here that in 2016 I finished 3,226th out of 4,405 people in my group (which I take to mean tall dudes with a soft spot for modern muzak and pretzel M&Ms), and I don’t see myself improving on that.

I’ve logged over twenty years in Madison, the blessing and the curse of the non-mover from your college cohort. The Crazylegs route winds through downtown and the heart of campus — a map that, if you’re someone who’s the age where he should start taking his life insurance coverage more seriously, you mawkishly mark up with mile-by-mile memories.

The first mile, which wraps in front of the Memorial Union, past its strangely Venetian main entrance where Brian Hansen and I took shelter during a nighttime monsoon in 1999 and testified on how each other’s prospective lady was a keeper. We’d each go on to marry them.

The second mile, past the Porter Boathouse where Young Professional Me showed UW officials the research that fans in the premium Camp Randall seats were suddenly deeply dissatisfied with the field-level walkway. They kindly shared that the walkway had been removed.

It becomes a 3-mile run if you park your car just past this sign.

The third mile, which makes a hairpin turn by Picnic Point, destination of a 17-year-old me when I came home to a note from button-cute sophomore Gretchen Klein to meet her there. I borrowed a bicycle and biked (poorly) (frantically) to meet her at the point, where she… elatedly showed me a letter from some beau abroad. Birth of the friend zone.

The fourth mile, which passes the university’s softball diamond, location of a UW game last year dedicated to autism awareness. It was fun for our family until the second minute, when we realized they didn’t LOWER THE VOLUME of anything in the name of autism or, in my son’s case, the sensory sensitivity issues that accompany it.

And the fifth mile, which goes past the stadium, down to the corner of my first grown-up apartment, and past the dumpsters where they threw out all the old turf they replaced in 2002. I stole some, cut it to freezer bag-sized swatches, and carefully gifted it out like the perfect present it wasn’t.

(There’s a sixth mile to the five-mile race: the walk to your car, which gives you ample time to reflect upon your life choices as they pertain to fitness. Or if it’s a few years ago, for me to get a text from my buddy Shaun, who said yes, he’d love a snack wrap from McDonald’s, but the iPhone insisted he wanted an anal wrap. Whatever that is. I doubt it comes crispy or grilled.)

At some point, the scales will weigh evenly. I’ll have enough memories, and memories of the memories, to feel satisfied.

The prospect of that moment scares me a little, and probably for the same reason that motivates many modest traditions: What do I do, if I don’t do this?

The terrifying answer is: nothing. I’ll wake up that Saturday morning and go through motions like gym-grocery-mow. I’ll get to 11 or 12 before I realized it was Crazylegs day. We pretend we would reallocate precious time to something else that’s precious, but there’s a good chance I’d spend part of that morning — gasp! — catching up on magazines.

That, good people, is crazy.

Minor traditions, like running five miles every April, are vessels for accruing memories. And in the world of memories, the more the merrier.

I believe sentimentality is no sin. I know I stand in the minority on this, especially since this kind of nostalgia smacks of adolescence. As I pass the reeds for the fifteenth time today, I should be mulling something serious and mature. I shouldn’t think about how those reeds flattened under the tires of the ambulance in 2008, but I will. And it’ll bring forth every other memory from that patch of ground, in that leg of the race, from across the years.

This is my fuel, and Crazylegs replenishes me every year.

Even if it still makes me walk like cowboy from the chafing.

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