Ode to Sunburst

Author: Dar Cutrona '91MCA

I didn’t see Louis until he ran past me. When I recognized his backside I yelled out, “Stay strong! You look good!” I searched but never saw Vince. I waited a few minutes, certain he must have already come by somewhere in the mass of runners finishing the last quarter mile of the Sunburst 5K. I had to have missed him in the now steady stream of runners picking up their pace in anticipation of the finish line.

Still slightly worried about Vince since his unexplained bloody nose before the start, I made my way into the Notre Dame stadium and began scanning the growing mob of people in the finishers’ area for my two sons.

Vince and Louis had signed up for race only a few weeks before. I could not have been more proud. A veteran runner myself, I had to reign in my enthusiasm when both of them decided to run at Sunburst. I had run my first race here, the 10K, 17 years ago, when Vince was 2 and Louis not yet born. I was thrilled that they had chosen to run one of the events. Vince, fresh off his first year of college, had taken a jogging class the spring semester and was interested in putting his new knowledge to the test. Louis had run 8th grade cross country and track and was ready for the challenge of a longer distance.

My own running was not race-worthy. I had no consistency or focus in my mileage; I simply was not confident enough to toe the line. Instead, I would happily serve as coach, cheerleader and taxi driver.

The three us drove downtown a week before the race to survey the course. We parked near the start line at the College Football Hall of Fame and walked the first three blocks of the course as I expertly pointed out the jutting sidewalks which could easily be overlooked, but had to be avoided for a good run. I advised the boys to run center, center-right in order to make the two early right turns cleanly and safely, staying clear of the cement hurdles. We discussed the uneven brick section of Lafayette Street, and I also reminded them watch for parked cars — and potentially hazardous side mirrors — along the way.

We drove through Leeper Park, made a couple of turns, and stopped to see the slight incline they’d have to tackle midway through the course. Neither boy thought it would pose a real threat to his race. Finally, after a nice straightaway, we turned onto campus. I reminded them to pace themselves carefully so they would have some energy for the finish.

A Rudy moment

“You’ll hear the finish line before you see it,” I told them. “When I’ve run Sunburst, I come into the tunnel pretending it’s a football Saturday. I lift my shoulders despite my fatigue,” I said, “Suddenly I’m a walk-on for the team — a Rudy of sorts. Enjoy it and finish well.”

We went through a few traditional race rituals the night before Sunburst. The boys feasted on homemade spaghetti and meatballs. I showed them how to place and pin their bib numbers onto the front of their T-shirts. I also explained that most runners don’t wear their new race shirts to the actual event — they must earn the right to wear it by running the race. The boys folded, peeled and looped the newfangled plastic computer chip through their shoelaces. They were set.

Race morning dawned beautifully. Low humidity, cool (for northern Indiana in early June) temperatures. Blue skies. Near perfect conditions for racing. My husband took the utilitarian part of race morning — up a little before 6 o’clock to wake me and the boys and load them into the car. He gamely endured the traffic and dropped the boys at the start line. I grabbed the glory: the finish line reunion. I parked my car at the stadium, made a quick call to my husband to make sure they had gotten to the start fine, and then met up with a fellow runner to watch the 5Kers make the final turn to the finish.

A parade of humanity ran past us: college guys, bare-chested and serious; surprisingly fast older men; the first two women battling for the win. We clapped for them and called out to those we knew, reminding them were tough, looking good and almost in.

As anticipated, Louis finished before his older brother. He’s tall, weighs nothing and runs as though it’s the most natural movement in the universe. Born lean, he barely crawled; he walked at 9½ months. He crossed the 50-yard/finish line at 21:33. He heard his name announced over the loudspeaker. Vince was two minutes behind him.

Vince is built like me — small, compact and made for distance, not speed. I’m not usually pegged as a runner. Once, while wearing a T-shirt from a marathon I had run, a stranger noticed my shirt and asked if it belonged to my husband, guessing I couldn’t have run that distance. Bemused by the assumption, I told him I had done the race and shirt belonged to me. Still curious, he asked me what my time had been. When I told him, he walked away shaking his head, muttering, “You beat me.”

Vince was pleased with his result. He saw his time and smiled. Louis had a different reaction to his race. After checking the time on his watch and realizing that he had bettered his previous 5K time — but by only five seconds — he cried, “I went out too fast! I could have done better if I had paced myself right!” Wow, I thought, he’s already suffering from runner’s remorse, after only two races.

I get them to pose for a quick photo in the stadium. They smile broadly, sweaty and proud of their accomplishments. “Good job!” they say to each other with appropriate fist bumps. I walk between my two boys through the stadium, where the old and new sections meet. It seems as if, indeed, an echo, a dream — something intangible — has been shared that morning through a simple 3.1 mile/20-some minute run. It is not a long distance, nor does it require much time. The three of us know the enjoyment of running and completing a course. I savor the moment: the weather, setting, the effort of each son has made for a perfect morning.

I can only dream that my helping them through life could be so simple. Turn this way when a friend betrays you. Avoid the shortcut of having something handed to you that you haven’t earned. It’s a real effort to stay committed, but few things rival the rewards of honesty. Watch out for distractions that can change your course or cost you dearly. Train intentionally to stay strong. Smile to draw others to you and your endeavors. Hear and believe the encouragement that those older than you offer.

A blank race form lies on the dining room table. I’ve talked it up little, that a lot of high school and college age kids run it. The race is next month, and easily makes the list of my all-time favorite courses. Vince and Louis have made noises about entering the 5K, but I may not want cheer them for that one. I may be smiling and bringing up the rear.

Dar Cutrona is a freelance editor who lives in South Bend. Email her at jacutrona@yahoo.com.