This is a story about a road race that went terribly wrong, with dozens of runners lost in the Carolina swamp, and a lone Optimist who saved the day.
It’s also a lesson on character and courage – two traits on which you can build an awesome Law Life.
Our tale begins in 1979, on the banks of the scenic Black River in my hometown of Kingstree, South Carolina. This was at the height of the jogging craze – or as legendary anchorman Ron Burgundy might say, yogging – where even in Mayberry-like Kingstree you could see sweaty souls in garish attire pounding the pavement at insanely early hours.
Enter the local Optimist Club, which decided the only thing missing in our tiny slice of paradise was a 10K road race. After all, Manning, Lake City, and Andrews had races. Heck, even Hemingway had one.
And so the Black River Run was born.
To Think Only of the Best
Here it should be noted that my father was not just in the Optimist Club, he’d helped start the Kingstree chapter a decade earlier. But really, he’d been a member his whole life.
“Answer this question,” he’d say to my brother and me as he displayed a Welch’s jelly jar of water. “Is the glass half full or half empty?”
“Actually neither,” said my brother, the future scientist. “More like 60 percent full.”
“Actually both,” said me, the future lawyer.
Undeterred by his snarky sons, my father just smiled and pointed to the Optimist Creed framed on the wall of our den.
“Look at the sunny side of everything.”
To Forget the Mistakes of the Past
Kingstree was excited about its inaugural Black River Run. Cool t-shirts were printed. A lovely, winding 6.2 mile course was laid out that would take runners down Sandy Bay Road and past Thirteen Oaks and so far out into the swampy wild you could hear the trickling water and smell the mossy glades.
Hundreds registered to run, including a contingent from the cross-country team at Francis Marion College in Florence.
Everything was going great. Until race day.
The Harley-Davidson of Hope
There were two major problems. Well, three. The first was the pace car. By “car” I mean the enormous Harley-Davidson driven by our county sheriff that would escort the runners from Kellahan Park towards the river. The sheriff had been told to stay ahead of the leaders. Which he did. But when the starting gun sounded, the elite Francis Marion athletes bolted out and quickly distanced themselves from the pack as the roaring motorcycle blazed the way.
The second problem was a lack of course monitors and directional signs along the impossibly twisting and intricate route. Within minutes, the leaders were out of sight, leaving the rest of the slower mass to guess where to go.
Bedlam ensued. Runners were spotted dashing through backyards, stumbling dazedly on dirt trails, circling the Moose Lodge endlessly. Some gave up and began thumbing for rides home.
Back at Kellahan Park, the sheriff’s Harley roared into view, siren blaring. It was trailed by the first, second, and third-place finishers, followed by … nobody.
Over the course of the next two hours, runners straggled in. They came from all directions: sprinting, walking, one on a bicycle. Most took the situation in stride. Some laughed about it. Others, not so much.
When the Going Gets Tough
Which brings us to problem number three. When the magnitude of the disaster became clear, the race director – a local bank president – did what no self-respecting Optimist would ever do. He ran away.
By then, all runners had been safely accounted for. But what about the awards ceremony? How to determine who gets a trophy when some finishers ran half a marathon while others went only a mile or two?
The crowd was growing restless. The race director had fled. No Optimist stepped forward to bring order to the chaos. Until my father spoke up.
“Of all the races you’ve run,” he said to the runners with his trademark smile. “I bet you’ll never forget this one.”
And then he proposed, in the absence of a better suggestion, to distribute trophies by group consensus.
What happened next was a beautiful reminder that when life produces lemons, most people – not all, but most – will make lemonade. One of the Francis Marion winners gave his trophy to the youngest participant. Another gave his to the oldest.
And so it went, with trophies being passed around and shared and everyone smiling and the sheriff letting children sit on his big bike and the sun bright and glorious on a perfect October day.
To Be So Strong Nothing Can Disturb You
What does any of this have to do with practicing law? Not much, I suppose. Unless you think staying positive and being unafraid to stand up when others wilt are nice qualities for a lawyer to have.
Years ago, I returned to Kingstree to clear out my parents’ house after their deaths. I ran into Billy Stafford, who still had his t-shirt from the 1979 Black River Run – and a trophy too.
“The only trophy I’ve ever won,” he said. “Thanks to your father.”
Thanks indeed. How lucky I was to be raised by a man who was comfortable in his own skin, who moved through life with lightness and grace, who lived through tougher times than I can imagine but never let it pinch his heart.
Every day I miss him. But I sense his presence on my daily runs, and I know my glass isn’t just half full, it’s overflowing.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.