By Andy Barton
[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #E6790B;”] T [/dropcap]he Jackson Day 9K is not a race, but an institution. If you didn’t believe that when you heard the zydeco version of “The Battle of New Orleans” blaring from the loudspeakers of the pace truck, you needed no more evidence than the sight of four-hundred shivering souls, their shoes already soaked before the starting gun, eager to dart off into freezing rain and high winds on an empty stretch of Wisner Boulevard. But the story of the 2013 Jackson Day Race, much like the Battle of New Orleans almost two centuries ago, does not start at the Spanish Fort.
For myself, and countless runners, the day began in the French Quarter, where participants got their first taste of the conditions they would face along the route. While waiting for the buses to transport them to the starting line near the lakefront, nervous racers huddled together along Decatur Street, mulling over the task ahead of them. Some greeted the cold front with smiles that seemed either defiantly stubborn or blissfully ignorant, while others looked as if they were about to reenact a battle against the British with live ammunition. Whether running or fighting, I would probably have put money on them, if civilized society didn’t frown upon gambling on road races*. And with the arrival of two heated (!!!) school buses, the obstinate masses shuffled off to wage war on mother nature.
Any hopes that the rain would dissipate farther North were quickly dashed when we disembarked at the corner of Robert E. Lee and Wisner. The grounds surrounding the makeshift registration tents were an unnavigable bog, and most runners dashed between the start line and the small shelter fifty meters away to retain some semblance of warmth. The War of 1812 reenactors, clad in kilts and toting authentic-looking muskets, began to unfurl the New Orleans Track Club banner. Runners assembled at the line, hands over hearts, staring into the damp mist in order to catch a glimpse of the flag at the start line. It was hard not to feel a little patriotic. No, it was hard not to feel a lot patriotic.
If the runners and racewalkers were tentative at the firing of the gun, they hid it well. The start unfolded as all great cross country races do, with a brisk sprint for position. The front pack contained the usual suspects—Nick Accardo, Sean Allerton, Ian Carr, Richard Bouckaert—while the massive peloton of competitors jockeyed for running lanes behind them.
By the two-mile mark, atop the bridge overlooking Pan-American Stadium, the crowds had thinned, and runners began to focus on the arduous task of hunting, one-by-one, the competitors just ahead. Their gazes fixed upon the pairs of shoulders in front of them, they faced the assaults of wind and rain with shrugging acceptance.
There is a unique pain that can only be felt in frigid, damp races. It begins in the toes, and creeps back, and then upward, until it consumes you. The pounding of pavement numbs the soles, and so the pain is not obvious until it begins to metastasize into the ankles, the knees, the hips, the chest. It is a general lack of sensation, accompanied by a sense of unresponsiveness in the tendons and ligaments, and punctuated by occasional surges of lactic acid throughout the entire lower body. By the final stretch, these surges become heartening, as they remind the runner that he or she is still moving, still living. As the leaders trotted down Orleans Avenue, separated from one another by dozens of yards, they bore the telltale grimaces and pained strides of those who remembered vividly what it once was to be warm.
The rain reached its zenith as the elite competitors began their descent upon the Quarter. Allerton (29:39) was first to the tape, followed by Nick Accardo (30:20) and Ian Carr (30:25), with Zachary Albright and Richard Bouckaert rounding out the top five. The women were led by Michelle Hymel (34:58) , who garnered her first Jackson Day victory in impressive style. Behind her were Celeste Dolan (36:33), Mary Erin Imwalle (37:04), before Kristie Buddenbaum and Eva Lustigova battled for 4th and 5th places. Allerton’s victory in the 106th Jackson Day race was his third in the event, ranking him among the most successful runners in its history. Despite the conditions, both winning would prove to be the fastest since 2011.
Some races are celebrations, and others are death marches. We watch the sport hoping to see achievement; to witness deeply personal victories, and to share in the joys of those who achieve them. On some mornings, these victories are simpler, if less resounding: we revel in the simplicity of endurance. As I watched wave after wave of runners make the final turn on to Chartres Street, and saw their relief upon catching that saccharine-sweet glimpse of the finish line, I suddenly had all the proof I needed that the spirit of the Jackson Day Race was alive and well. They fought, they endured, and then they marched home, dreaming of next year’s battle.
* How, in Louisiana, is this not a thing?
For more photos: [button link=”http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.440033476067710.98858.114724801931914&type=3″ color=”orange”]Album 1[/button] [button link=”http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.440043386066719.98861.114724801931914&type=3″ color=”orange”]Album 2[/button]