Joe Harris tried his best not to cry. The 65-year-old retired teacher from Fairfax, Va., kept his emotions bottled up for 13 miles at Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll DC Half Marathon. But less than one-tenth of a mile from the finish of his 100th Rock ‘n’ Roll Series event, Harris and the three runners who shared the entire wild, wet, windy day began to hold hands.
And that’s when the semi-retired teacher broke down.
“I could feel it welling up inside me,” Harris said. “I was on the verge of sobbing. Then the tears came. The emotions were bubbling over.”
Some 20,000 runners pounded the pavement in our nation’s capital Sunday. President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, covered the half marathon in 1:48. There was a guy dressed in a Spiderman costume and at least one U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier.
But the man of the morning was the unassuming, gray-haired, man-next-door Harris. His normal prerace routine was broken up by two TV interviews. He wore bib No. 100 to celebrate his Rock ’n’ Roll century event.
Harris was treated to a personal finish line banner. He drew the loudest ovation at the awards ceremony and was given a beautiful plaque with a collage of pictures collected from many of his Rock ‘n’ Roll memories.
Regarding the rock star treatment, he said, “I don’t know how famous people do it.”
Clearly, he was moved.
“This is so special,” he said, “because it’s so personal.”
Harris didn’t begin running until 2004 when a teacher friend invited him to sample a 5K. A self-described couch potato at the time, Harris remembers that 5K for one reason.
“First of all, it was June in Virginia, so it’s hot and it’s humid,” he said. “You could barely breathe. And afterwards, everything hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurt. I didn’t have any running form.”
He ran his first half marathon at Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona in January 2005 at the invitation of his former Marine Corps company commander, whom he served with in Vietnam. Harris liked the bands, the brand, the cheerleaders, the race’s organization and soon was a Rock ‘n’ Roll regular.
“I think this whole week, today especially, epitomizes why (he’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll lifer),” said Harris. “The people who work for (Competitor Group Inc.) are the nicest, most accommodating people I’ve ever met. They’ll do anything within their power for you. And it’s not just me. That’s for any runner. They’ll bend over backward.
“I think the Beatles said it best. ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make.’”
Sunday’s conditions were not pleasant. The temperature was in the mid-40s at the start. The runners were drenched by a steady drizzle. A slight wind made the morning drabber.
Harris didn’t complain.
“You just have to put it out of your mind,” he said. “You’re in this to finish. No matter what the conditions are, you’re not going to stop. You’re not going to give up.”
He thought of friends battling cancer, particularly Karin Gander, the teacher who challenged him to run that first 5K. Gander is fighting breast cancer.
“They don’t have a choice,” he said. “They can’t give up. That’s what drives you forward.”
Over the 10-plus years Harris has collected Rock ‘n’ Roll medals and Rock ‘n’ Roll friends. He calls them his RNR gypsies. Four of them ran with him the entire way on race day.
There was Michelle Bogush and Ted Ruane of Virginia. Al Hernandez of California. And in fitting running’s “We don’t care what color, creed, political affiliation you are, just as long as you can talk mile splits” bond, Harris knew his fourth gypsy only by his first name.
Hyalker from Chicago.
Hernandez, too, is a fascinating fellow. At 43, says he has run 250 half marathons. His day job: a food and wine critic.
“I eat and drink for a living,” he said, “so I have to do this or I’ll weigh 500 pounds.”
Because Hernandez has been knocking off halves for 30 years – he started as a teenager – he’s much more impressed by Harris’ feats on feet.
“What Joe accomplished, in his time span, at his age, is a totally different accomplishment,” said Hernandez. “To go from a couch potato to 100 in 10 years, that is nothing short of amazing.”