Brandon Schafer was two years old when his family moved to 1308 South Grand Avenue, just a couple of blocks from Akin Park. Most of his formative years would be spent in this small, three bedroom, one bathroom shotgun house with a large walnut and persimmon tree in the backyard. Built in 1909, it no longer stands today.
As he and his siblings grew older, they joined with the neighborhood kids in touch football games and home run derby in the streets. Afternoons were spent playing sandlot baseball and taking their dog, Toto, on walks throughout the park. Brandon’s paternal grandmother lived just three blocks away on Madison Avenue and his maternal grandparents lived down the road on Riverside Avenue. As he got older, he and his friends expanded their range throughout the southeast side on their BMX bikes. Countless burgers and fries were consumed at Zestos; sunsets were witnessed on the rooftop just outside his bedroom window. When Brandon was 12 years old, his parents divorced and he and his family moved a few miles away.
Over three decades later, Brandon and approximately 1,300 other runners at the 16th annual Evansville Half-Marathon stood on the starting line on a clear, crisp October morning. It was a welcome reprieve after a hot, humid training period that ended just a little over a day before. As the starting gun went off, Brandon found himself quickly swept up into the race, but as he approached the home on Riverside Avenue where his grandparents used to live, memories of his childhood began to surface and he felt the emotion well up inside of himself. The house and yard had fallen in disrepair, no longer the proud, well-kept home where seven children had been raised. But as he passed by, family gatherings and time spent on yard work, especially when his grandfather became bed-ridden at the end of his life, followed him along. As the run continued, past Grand onto Kentucky Avenue, visions of himself and his siblings continued to flood his consciousness. Happy, youthful memories intermingled with difficult moments associated with his family’s departure became as real as each step along the race course. On Madison Avenue, a smile came to his face as he thought about his 93-year-old paternal grandmother, who remains a treasure to his family. Now himself a married father of two, he was running through the early crossroads of his own life, where people and places had formed him into the man he would become.
As the race wove through the rest of the course, Brandon carried this emotion with him all the way. By the time he left Garvin Park, he could feel the surge of energy, leading him to (unknowingly) run the fastest four recorded miles of his life, let alone at the end of a half-marathon. As he motored down Riverside Avenue, with his wife, Jenny, and his kids, Jack and Ellie, and his Dad waiting on him near the finish line, he reflected on just how life had been. As he would later say, “I will always cherish those moments regardless if they were good or bad. It is who I am and who I have become today. Those memories are me. I am just your average person, but on that Saturday I finally achieved a goal that in my mind made me greater than average.”
Sometimes in life what we “have to do” must give way to what we need to do for reasons that only become clear when it is done. This is why we run. Not because it is easy or comfortable, but because within these moments, we begin to see our life in a different wayꟷa complex, interactive mixture of positive and negative experiences, all full of meaning and clarity if we choose to take the time to consider. It reminds us that life is a story being told, and the measure of a person is not so much how the story (or race) goes, but how he or she plays the part that is given.
It is one reason why races like the Evansville Half-Marathon are so important as they provide an excuse to step outside of our busy, frenetic lives into the quiet, reflective discipline of a different kind. Not all of us have the opportunity to run a race through the streets of our childhood, but we all do have a chance to commit ourselves to a process of movement that gives us the time to consider where we have been, and who we have become. As we weave through the avenues of our memories, we may find ourselves reliving the experiences of our past, but always free to run a new course, one that might have been difficult to imagine as a little boy growing up on Grand Avenue.