Watervliet holds a special place in my heart.
Once upon a time, I had family there. My grandmother was born in Watervliet, and my mother lived there when she was small. An aunty on my father’s side, and who-knows-how-many-other relatives, worked at the arsenal back in the days of rations and war efforts.
The city figured into a comedy act that tickled my parents once when “The Great Victor Borge” played locally and somehow my dad wrangled tickets and a babysitter.
“He was a riot pronounced Watervliet as if it were a French city: ‘Water-Vlee-Aye’.”
He laughed at that joke and mom rolled her eyes … for decades.
During my childhood – 20 miles away – Watervliet was still my parents’ Lenten destination for fish fries and the semi-annual expedition for birthday cakes. And more recently, it was the last place my father got his haircut while he was alive.
It was one of the million tales he delighted in telling – starring himself as the befuddled octogenarian standing in front of a vacant salon he’d hoped would be available for a walk-in appointment, and a kindly woman – probably relieved he wasn’t demented, leading him around the corner to her own hair cutting studio so he could look just a little less like Einstein but still erudite. She turned out to be the hero of that little story.
These were the stories that came to mind when a running friend told me I’d be missing out if I didn’t sign up for the Arsenal City 5K Run.
“There is no better run for your money,” he said counting the perks on one hand before switching to the other: You get a beer, a hot dog, popcorn, ice cream, an orange slice, a banana, balloons for the kids, AND one of the best t-shirts of any race anywhere … all for ten bucks. I don’t know how they do it.”
I wasn’t a skeptic exactly, but I was just coming back from an injury and worried that somewhere along the three-point-one-mile course I might break into pieces. But I did what I usually do after I swore off running and someone mentioned a race I would enjoy …
I signed up.
And when I crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe my time.
“Was it downhill both ways?”
By the time we got to the Dome (where the afterparty was held before the pandemic), I had seen the beauty of the city up close. It wasn’t just the places I’d remembered from childhood. It was the people, too. The folks who ran beside me and the ones who marshaled the course. There was even a man who reminded me of my dad, all dressed up in his Sunday suit, carrying an armload of flowers, walking home.
It was also a shock to learn from the announcements that I’d somehow managed to land on the proverbial podium.
As a solidly back-of-the-pack runner, I was stunned to learn that I’d placed fourth in my age group the first time out. It didn’t matter or care if there were only four other runners my age to compete against: My name was in the books.
I was hooked. The next year I decided to train. If I worked hard and consistently I was sure I could shave enough seconds off my time to come in third.