Before. During. After.

This is normally a running site. For those who don’t know, I live in Houston, TX. It’s under water right now. That’s tragedy #1. I also found out that the running community lost one of its well-respected members, David Torrence, at the age of 31. That’s Tragedy #2.

I needed to write. Here are my thoughts.

My Flooded City     

In 2001, my parents took our large SUV, drove me 3 miles to the local track, and I commenced to doing 400-meter repeats. The street to get there was flooded. The track itself had been partially covered with the turf football field that had been ripped off the center and spread across 5 lanes of the track. The wind was blowing 35+mpw, and it was pouring rain. Everything was flooded. This was Tropical Storm Allison.

In 2005, I went out for my standard 9-mile jaunt, running on the concrete streets of Houston, Tx. My friend Andy and I whizzed past car after car. No, we weren’t on bikes, or even running fast, we were on an easy run taking in the sites. And we were running smack in the middle of the I-45 freeway. It took friends who were stuck on that packed road trying to evacuate almost 8 hours to make it 15-20 miles. This was Hurricane Rita.

I’ve been through a slew of several Hurricanes and Tropical Storms, as one would expect for a kid who grew up in Houston. We expect hurricanes and we expect to flood. The 4th largest city in the country is a concrete jungle held together by a series of bayous that often overflow. As a runner, we become intimately familiar with the bayous, because they are freedom from the traffic, as each has a running path running alongside it.

After a while, you know the spots that are going to flood after a minor sprinkle and where the catastrophic flooding will occur. Lake, I mean Highway 288, is a prime example. If the flooding gets really bad, you can say goodbye to the freeway.  The day before the hurricane, I walked around and took pictures of the spots that I knew would flood. I figured before and after shots would help conceptualize just how it was. I knew where it was flooding, so it seemed a simple task.

On Friday night I went to bed knowing the flooding was going to occur.

I woke up looked out my window and called my dad saying “It’s not that bad. About what we expected.”

Then I walked outside.

The street that never floods, was under water. My mind raced from an accepting calmness not “Oh Shit!” The spots I had stood several hours earlier to take my “before” pictures at were flooded over, no not the spots I expected to flood, the spots where I expected to be able to stand to take the after pictures.

Not only was the highway under water, but the highway had merged with the Bayou, which had spilled over two side roads and into the Luby’s parking lot which ran right up next to my townhouse community.

I wandered the early morning streets of Houston seeing flooding that was astonishing. Not merely because of the amount, but because of how quickly it had come. After a sleepless night in which I fell asleep at midnight, I woke up 6.5 hours later to see a world under water.

I wasn’t the only one. People began venturing out of their homes, first shocked, and then reality would set in. You could see the wheels churning as they came to the realization that after only a night of rain, much more was on its way.

The known had become the unknown.

Once that realization set in, the attitude shifted. “How are you? Are you in high ground? Is your place one story or two?” These are the questions I got while aimlessly wandering the back streets of Houston. One man dressed in Army Camo, who was assessing (and projecting) how long he had until his home flooded, asked how many stories my place was.  Not, “what’s your name?” How high is your place? And it seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do.

In the span of 30 seconds, I’d just given permission for random army camo dude to stay with me

My own mind shifted to what do we do. Can we drive the cars to a parking garage, do we move the 1st-floor furniture upstairs, can we barricade the house to minimize flooding? Should we blow up the air mattress as a raft if it gets really bad?

These are the thoughts that go through your head, and all of them seem completely logical. Once your mind flips into “Oh shit” survival mode, your mind becomes an interesting place.

That’s the world we woke up to. We were all projecting.

Over years of living in Houston, our data had been honed. We knew what catastrophic flooding looked like. We experienced it in Allison. We knew not to freak out and evacuate everyone because we saw the disastrous results of mass evacuation during Rita.

What makes this storm so different is that it was unimaginable. Not in the cliché way, but in the true sense of the word. Areas that have never flooded are gone.

There is comfort in certainty, even if certainty is doom. When we know, we worry less, because there is an answer. When you wake up, walk outside and see the unimaginable, your concept of what you know is shattered. Hello uncertainty, and therefore stress, anxiety, and worry.

When faced with these stressors, the reaction is often to panic. To reach for comfort in any way we can, perhaps in thinking I must drive to my families or friends, without realizing that safety is in staying put. Or maybe, the reaction is to hoard water, food, and supplies, as you plop down in front of the TV for endless disaster coverage.

Both are natural reactions. But what I saw as I wandered the many miles of Houston’s streets that I could traverse upon, by car at first, and foot for a large portion of it, is another reaction. Hope.

People trying to help others is well covered and should be commended. But in a city where many don’t know their neighbors, even the small gestures become noticeable. The people asking if you are okay if you need anything if you have power. The individuals informing you where to find food, what the streets look like down the road. The strangers who stop to ask if you can help them find a way to the hospital so that they can check on a loved one.

No one has all the answers. We’re all trying to find them.

From a selfish standpoint, it’s brought out the best in my team. The men and women rallying around each other for support. The pooling of resources, of encouragement to keep some semblance of normalcy (running) in their lives.

Is this all some false idealization, a seeing of a disaster through rosy tinted glasses? Possibly. Bad things are happening as well. But in a world that’s been so divided, it’s nice to focus on the large majority. Those who want to help each other.

*Note:  Thankfully, my home has not flooded and we are safe.

A Life Remembered: David Torrence

David’s 1st sub 4 minute mile. David is in 5th on the outside in the blue. I’m in the white.

One of David’s best memory was one of my worst. We lined up for a mile at Cal, David’s home track. As we lined up, it was a unique race. There were only 7 of us in that field; 6Cal runners donning blue, with a single red and white jersey of Houston sandwiched in the middle. I darted out front to position myself right on the rabbit, like the anxious to prove himself runner that I was at the time. David bided his time in around 5th place. For the next 1,000 meters, the race remained the same, as we clicked off splits right on the verge of sub 4-mile pace. As we made it to within 600 meters of the finish, David made a strong move past me, and shortly after, my airways literally ceased up and I was left on the side of the track gasping for air. David powered into the lead on the last lap, pulling away from the rest of the field and stopping the clock at 3 minutes and 58 seconds. His first sub 4 miles. And he did it on his home track.

In my mind, that’s when David Torrence had arrived. His grit and determination that day were second to none. He ran with a purpose. And it was something I’d see over and over in the years to come. When racing, his passion shown through. He always seemed like he was attempting to will himself to the finish line. The ever-lengthening arm swings over the final 100 meters, as if he was lengthening his stride through nothing but determination.  David had guts. He’d force you to put everything on the table to win. He’d go out over his head on occasion, or make a strong move to bid for the win. As a runner, he was someone whose racing you admired.

As the years passed, I would see David at meets and casually talk, as our paths crossed. He continued his rise through the professional ranks, culminating in an Olympic dream, among a laundry list of accolades. But the moment that really defined David to me was off the track.

On two separate occasions, once over the phone and once sitting at a Pappasitos restraint in Houston, we had long talks about what the sport should be. If you got David going, he’d go an idealistic rant, talking about how we could make it more popular

But what cements his legacy in my mind was a conversation we had of his prompting. He divulged information that led to the Jama Aden drug raid. He spilled the details, the freak turn arounds of athletes, and how he couldn’t make sense of the exhaustion of athletes and then miraculous performance. For the next hour, he commiserated, and I listened.

I was not best friends with David. I knew him casually, a conversation at track meets here, another there. But in that moment, you had two guys with experiences that we were both trying to process against the sport we both desperately loved.

Why is that important to me? A man who was in the prime of his career, who had a lot to lose, stepped forward. He walked away from the “best” training group in the world at the time and all he had was his experience. No smoking gun, no definitive evidence. He stepped forward and spoke his truth. One of the hardest things someone could do.

And in that conversation, he ended with hope. We talked about how track could become popular and clean athletes could win. He talked about what he could do. A man who had just done more than almost all of us to clean the sport up was asking what he could do to make the sport better.

Hope

As I reflect on this past week of tragedy and struggle, I can’t help but turn to where we are as a society as a whole.

We are often a divided world, segmenting people into convenient labels on opposite ends of the spectrum. With division comes fear, resentment and a lack of understanding. Fear and anger are powerful emotions that sometimes deceive. Like a runner afraid to fail who has the inner voice screaming at him that he’s not good enough and too slow down, as a society we’ve listened far too much to the negative thoughts. They seem so convincing in the moment, leading us to the world where you choose which “tribe” you are in, and automatically despise the other. Individuals prey on our susceptibility to be a part of the group and hate those who are not in your circle.

Unfortunately, it often takes true tragedy for us to realize how fragile these labels are and that the shades of gray between all of us are much smaller than we realize.

I often tell the runners I coach, that running is a great sport because I get to see you during your rawest moments, the highest highs and lowest lows. During these periods of extreme stress and fatigue, an individual’s true self-shines through. They no longer have the energy to put forth the carefully crafted mask to the world. It’s in these moments when pushed to our capacities, that our true character breaks through.

The moments I’ve seen in individuals like David Torrence or the numerous people I’ve seen in Houston saving lives during the flood gives me hope. Hope that the divisiveness and anger that has taken over our country in the past years does not represent humanity. It does not represent our true character. Instead of fear, Human beings are defined by hope.

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Flooding and Tragedy: A Lesson in Hope.

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