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NOTES FROM THE MARATHON RUNNER

Notes from: The Marathon Runner

MARCH 2006

On my way to the market at 9:30 am, I saw a big air-filled red arch across the walk path by the park, and people with running clothes & numbered squares of cloth strapped to their chests.

When I returned I grabbed my camera and went down to photograph. Stood around and watched – big speakers, blaring marching music– an announcer with a microphone declared something in Mandarin as each runner crosses the line.

There were lots of sweat-drenched runners milling about who had already finished.

There’s an ambulance parked nearby…doors open.

10:45 a.m.

Tried to take a photo and found that my battery was dead so I stood for a while longer watching the runners come in. I decided to go to apartment for a spare battery. Came back down and proceeded to take a video of people crossing the finish line along with the sound of loud march music broadcast from huge speakers.

Suddenly I saw a man lying on his back in the grass. He was very near me — arms and bare feet sticking out from under a Robin egg blue, rectangular sheet of plastic. It only took seconds to comprehend that he was dead. A small clump of medical people, one nurse in pink, four men in white lab coats were standing away from the body. The other pink nurse was taking blood pressure readings at a little makeshift stand, 20 feet away.

The man had a red flag lying across his ankles and a small red plastic bag by his feet. He was lying straight and flat on his back, face up, arms at sides, legs straight and together. I saw him clearly when the plastic sheet blew up. He was 40’s, maybe. Fit looking.

Stragglers continue to cross the finish line with him on grass 15 feet away. The music was blaring and T- shirt and flag selling continued. People are milling about in the park, crossing back and forth.

Someone shut off the generator that keeps the big red arch blown-up and it deflates. Another man is gathering up colorful flags that were posted along the finish line.

The medical staff is now sitting under squat palm, not too far from body.

Other runners had friends and family waiting at finish line – offering water, giving back rubs. No one around the dead man, no one seemed to be a friend or relative. No one is paying any attention to him now. Backs are turned…. It looks like a regular week-end in the park.

Medical staff stands up….someone important looking showed up. Medical staff sits down again, this time squeezing closer together to catch more shade from short palm.

An old ragged couple are busy collecting empty water bottle containers and boxed drink containers for recycling.

11:00 a.m.

Someone tucked the ends of the plastic sheet under the dead runner’s head so it won’t blow up anymore.

A girl with handheld megaphone is broadcasting loudly – trying to gather her bus group.

The old ragged couple choose a big shady palm to sort their trash and stomp to crush plastic bottles.

Nurses and white-coats pack up their make-shift blood pressure station and carry folded tables. They head straight for the opening in the fence and have to detour around the dead man’s feet.

The medical group has dispersed.

I notice that the dead runner’s skin is turning a deep shade of purple.

A city trash collector wanders through picking up scraps of paper, a few are quite near the body.

I am sitting on one of the exercise contraptions, kids play around me.

One old man, dressed in running clothes, sits with his back against a short palm – 10 feet from the body and facing away. He takes off his shoes.

Only a few people remain, sitting on grass.

The T-shirt/ flag-selling stand is almost packed up.

The medical staff leaves!

The old man under palm is organizing his gear, pulling long pants onto his long bare legs.

1:00 p.m.

Most people have left – a few remain sitting on a low, yellow railing.

The old man under the palm, eats his lunch.

The dead man is still lying there.

Two young Chinese girls from the business college across the street come over to chat. One has pretty good English. I keep looking over at the dead man as we talk. I point out the dead man to the Chinese girl and tell her that he died while participating in the marathon. She looks over, her face drops, eyes widen for a moment…says, “ooooh”. Then bounces right back with a smile, “but running very healthy for you”, she says, as she saws bent arms back and forth in a running motion.

I almost feel an obligation to stay until they take him away.

People are riding by on those two and three person resort bicycles – the dead man lies six feet away as they peddle by on the sidewalk.

No one looks sad, no one is paying much attention. Many people walking or riding by fail to notice, but the ones that do look as long as they can without coming to a stop.

1:12 p.m.

A little police van shows up– 4 officers – men sitting on curb across the path get up and talk to police. Lots of talk. No one looks over at the dead man. There’s a police station one and a half blocks from this spot.

I once saw a woman – shot , dead, lying in a supermarket parking lot in Santa Fe. Her ex-boyfriend had been stalking her and shot her as she was coming out of the store with her daughter.

The police and ambulance were on the scene immediately. Yellow tape went up within minutes – cordoning off a large area. Police held up big white sheets, while they recorded the crime scene, effectively keeping the operation out of sight.

Very different culture.

Now a uniformed man is taking photos of the dead man. The policemen are writing reports.

A small case of instruments appears and rubber gloves are donned. Now a crowd starts to gather because something is happening. The plastic sheet comes off.

A grandmother and little girl with hair poking straight out of her ponytails stand by the yellow metal fence, watching every move closely. It looks like the little girl is asking questions – pointing at the body. I wish I knew what the grandmother was telling her.

The man’s sleeveless athletic shirt is purple and yellow. He looks as though he believed in exercise. Someone had tied his shoelaces together and put his shoes between his feet. The shoes had miles on them. The forensic man cut off the dead man’s number, 862, and his shirt.

His skin was mottled purple and a lifeless pale color. Foam was coming from his mouth. One of the investigators grabbed his wrist and pulled the arm until the body flopped over stiffly. Legs straight out, his stiff neck held his head in the same position. Now he is stomach-down, with his face smashed hard into the grass, neck not giving at all. The rubber-gloved forensic man is finger-poking on the purple back. He conducts a gloved examination of head and back of skull (for injuries?) As the body is turned back over, blood streams from the mouth.

Bystanders crowd in. Some right up against the policeman who is writing the report, craning to look over his shoulder to read what he is writing. Police leave. Now it’s just him and me. I am under a short palm not far away. There are a few people sitting on the curb, across the path.

1:54 p.m.

It’s getting breezy and cooler. Lonely.

I am struck with a vivid feeling of the truth in the statement “you die alone”. It’s Saturday, and the park is crowded, bikes, pedestrians, buses and cars. People are cutting through the park. But the dead man is totally alone.

This man just lies there. Unaccompanied. No one crying, just curious looks—slowed walking – no one stops.

He’s lying there cold on the cold ground—while life continues on around him – in fact, life didn’t skip a beat.

I should leave but I can’t.

I am watching people’s faces as they pass, watching as it sinks in that it’s a dead body they’re looking at. His arms and feet are sticking out from under the blue plastic. I wonder what they’re thinking. Every face takes on the exact same expression — concentrated puzzlement.

The racing paraphernalia has all been hauled away, the man’s running uniform is covered. There’s just this dead body, bare armed, bare footed, under a blue plastic sheet.

No one stops.

2:21

A white and purple van pulls up and backs up near the break in the fence — as close as it can get to the body.

ZHONG GUO MIN ZHENG is printed on side.

No media ever showed up.

More talking, crowd gathers now that something is happening once again.

A man approaches the body with long lengths of a gauzy fabric and a black plastic sheet. He lays out strips of cloth on the ground, unfolds the black sheet and places it on the strips.

2:30 p.m.

Three men use squares of brown paper to protect their hands as they lift the dead man onto the plastic – one man on each arm and one lifting the feet. They fold the black sheet over the body and tie it tightly around him with the cloth strips. They lower a red coffin-shaped box (white inside) from the van, and lift him into it.

A man comes along behind, rushing now (because it looks like an afterthought) to put the dead man’s shoes and red plastic bag, into another plastic bag. He also looks at a few scraps of paper that were lying next to the man. Looking on both sides (maybe something he could use to identify the man)? Is it possible that he arrived in his running clothes and had no identification with him, and no one knows who he is?

3:22 p.m.

Ineke called and I told her about it. I choked up with unexpected emotion. She said that she saw a man die on the street by the old gate, near McDonalds, and he lay there for most of the day. They covered him but left him there. She said that Chinese people are very afraid of dead people, and believe that the soul takes a long time to find it’s way, and if you get too close it might come into you.

I’ve also learned in talking with people here that the regulations and traditions dealing with dead people are complex. Someone suggested that the authorities wait as long as possible for family members to claim the body in order to prevent complications. A dead body brings with it certain rights and responsibilities …both legal and cultural. It is not unheard of for a funeral facility to charge a family ransom for the dead body of a relative.

Maybe someone is missing this man now.

I won’t easily forget this experience — sitting in the grass near the dead runner. Keeping watch, as it were, for 3-1/2 hours.

Life kept on flowing around us, but at a distance. He was lying alone in the middle of that big empty space. We were alone together, since long before I’d moved to one of those squat palms near his body. No one paid much attention to me either.

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2 Comments»

  pawpawandmango wrote @

Very thought provoking, I enjoyed reading. Did this happen in China?

  Colette Hosmer wrote @

Hi,

Yes. This happened during a six-month stay in Xiamen, Fujian Province. Thanks for reading,

Colette


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