Running with Cleo

In my fifty-odd years of sailing about the country, I’ve dropped anchor in Southern California several times. I was there for a summer in the early ’70s, again in the early ’80s*, and once more in the mid-’90s – that time to stay for 20 years. The fads and fashions of Los Angeles and environs are subject to constant change, but to one who just drops by periodically certain things seem to remain the same. One of those never-changing qualities is the continuing Quest to be Cool. Most of the population of Los Angeles is engaged in this pursuit.

 As soon as some pastime or interest has been pronounced to be “Cool”, within days seas of humanity up and down the Southern California coast are involved. And then, within a few months or a couple of years, the fad is suddenly gone, leaving its most dedicated practitioners flopping like fish in the mud of a recently drained lake. Imagine a fellow in the late ’70s who spends hours and hours practicing with his quad roller skates. He gets to be good at it enough to head to the beach and dance on skates to disco music coming from a cassette-powered boombox. He is Cool. But then quickly he is not cool. The cool dancers are breakdancing, the cool music is punk, and the cool devices are portable CDs.

In the Los Angeles Garden of Cool, most of the plants are Annuals. They sprout from seeds, grow and flower quickly, and then die just as fast. But there are some Perennials there too. An abundance of money will always get you into the Cool Club. The Entertainment Industries – movies, television, and music – don’t follow trends; they make them, and therefore will forever be Cool. Another of these Perennials is physical beauty. Being stunningly beautiful or ruggedly handsome doesn’t guarantee you a place in the School of Cool, but it certainly can get you in the door.

It’s not difficult to spot this frenetic competition for the hollow and pointless exercise it is, and many of my friends during my early ’80s run in LA refused to participate. But one young woman I knew was driven to forever try scaling those cliffs of Cool.  Her name was Cleo.

Cleo had the attractiveness part down cold. Beautiful of face, she had dark hair, dark eyes, long legs, and the slender, almost boney, look that professional models starve themselves to obtain. Clothes hung on her exactly the way the designers had pictured they should. She had an amazing eye for shape and color and made a decent living as a Graphic Designer. What she really wanted to do was be a celebrity shopping consultant.

Unfortunately, for the time I knew her, Cleo never achieved her place on the heights of Cool. I think it was because she had a warm heart, a lively intelligence, and a soft spot for goofy fun instead of an icy disdain for those who were not cool. She loved nothing better than to hang out and laugh it up. I was proud to call her my friend.

While I was in Los Angeles, a passion for physical fitness was sweeping through the city. Jane Fonda was “feeling the burn,” Olivia Newton-John in a headband and leg-warmers was challenging people to “get physical,” and a German bodybuilder with a toothy grin was Pumping Iron. Even the slightly less-than-cool such as myself were getting inspired to get in shape.

One day I ran into Cleo and told her I had read about an upcoming 10K foot race that I wanted to enter. The LA Weekly, the local lefty birdcage-liner, had not only run a story about a race to be run through Universal Studios following its tour route, but a calendar-specific plan to get your lungs and legs in shape in order to run in it. When I told her that all participants who finished the race got a free commemorative T-shirt, her eyes lit up.

“I want to do that too!” she said.

“Can you make the commitment to train?” I asked. “You can’t just show up on race day and expect to run more than six miles.”

“Six miles?” she blanched.

“Six point two to be exact,” I said. After a moment’s consideration I added, “If you really want to do this, we’ll train together. We can encourage each other. It’ll be fun!”

And so we began to train for the big race. Since I had a little apartment on Santa Monica Beach, we did most of our training running barefoot together on the damp sand just above the reach of the highest waves. At first, Cleo seemed to be a very slow runner, but that was understandable as we were just getting started. After a few days, I began to feel a bit stronger and so decided to pick up the pace. She did not. It soon became very clear that her “pace” was similar to a wad of used bubble gum on the pavement – not something she would ever want to pick up. If you’ve ever seen a jogger pausing at an intersection until the light changes, you’ve seen Cleo’s running style – bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet without much forward motion.

I had to improvise different ways to physically challenge myself, such as running backward or in circles around her as we went up and down the beach. I also found a track at a nearby Junior High that I could run solo on in the evenings. I had made a commitment that I would help Cleo through this, to help her earn that T-shirt she could sport around in, so I was disappointed after a few weeks when her enthusiasm began to wane. She began to miss running sessions or say she could only run for fifteen minutes because she was busy.

When there were still three weeks to go, Cleo called and asked me to meet her for coffee because she had something she wanted to tell me. I was a little down-hearted because I had a strong feeling that our days of running together were probably over.  I was going to miss our sessions on the beach, however slow and odd they were, and I really wanted her to get that T-shirt.

Over a new kind of coffee, called a latte, she surprised me. She had recently begun going out with a handsome, young stockbroker who loved to go running. Once he had heard that she was training for this 10K, he not only wanted to run in it too but wanted Cleo to train with him. Cleo being Cleo, she was afraid she might hurt my feelings and was relieved to hear that I was very happy for her. And I was. I may have even overplayed the magnanimous card a bit because not only would I get to train on my own terms, but Cleo would get to run her race and wear her T-shirt with pride. It was what you’d call a Win-win.

On the morning of the race, I joined the huge throng of runners gathered in front of the Universal Studios’ front gates. When I registered, they checked to make sure my fees were paid, and then gave me a number and two safety pins to attach it to my shirt. I was official.

I went looking for Cleo. I finally found her in the company of her new boyfriend. His name was, of course, Chad or Tad and he was tall, sandy-haired, and had a well-tanned athletic body. If his running shorts had had pockets, the Cool would have been spilling out of them.  I shook his hand, wished them both good luck, and went off to find a place that was not nearly as intimidating to stretch out and get ready to run.

Fifteen minutes later, a crowd of more than nine thousand runners waited outside the just-opened front gates of Universal Studios. A voice on a loudspeaker said, “Runners, attention… Get Ready…” and a loud gunshot rang out. Slowly at first, the crowd started to move. Faster runners moved toward the front while the slower runners drifted back. I was just wondering if I should step it up a little or stay at my current pace when I came upon Cleo chugging along in her not-much-faster-than-walking stride.

“Hey Cleo,” I said as I slowed down to jog along beside her. “Where’s Chad?”

“As soon as the gun went off he said, ‘See you at the Finish Line,’ and sprinted off toward the front. He’s got this competitive personality thing going. He can’t help it.” Then she looked at me with those big, needy eyes and said, “Will you run with me, at least for a little while?”

What was I going to say? “Nope, sorry babe. I’ve got to get this thing over with so I can go knock ice cream cones out of the hands of children.”

Off we went together, slow-jogging through the big box buildings with huge doors and giant numbers painted on the sides. We talked about mutual friends, and work, and I told her a couple of stories about being a kid growing up in Wyoming.

Just as we got to the backlot of the studio she once again turned up the candlepower on those big eyes and said, “Tim, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I just keep thinking about how long it is and how tired I’m going to get.”

“Well, you can just forget that noise,” I told her. “You’re going to finish this race and get that T-shirt if I have to carry you. And believe me, you’re going to feel a lot worse after being jounced along over my shoulder for six miles.”

“Then you have to tell me a story. I want a long story with a beautiful and brave heroine – something to keep my mind off this stupid race.”

Relieved that she didn’t call my bluff about carrying her – I doubt if I would have been able to get another hundred yards before I bunged her into the nearest trash can – I began.

“Deep in the dark forest of Bumonia…”

“Bumonia? That’s a silly name.”

“Quiet, you. Deep in the forest lived a giant, golden-haired bear with long claws of tempered steel and teeth as sharp as sword-points…”

As we circled the pond where some of Jaws was filmed and Bruce the Shark still leaped out at tourists, I introduced the character of Princess Gwendolyn. As we trotted down the Chicago street that Robert Redford had strolled along in The Sting, Casimir the Dark Adventurer made his entrance into the tale, and the Evil Wizard Belshazzar was worming his way into the councils of the king as we passed the Roman villa from Spartacus.

When we passed a sign that said we were at the halfway point, Cleo was more concerned about Casimir who was out hunting the Golden Bear and had fallen into a trap of fire set by Belshazzar.

Two hours later, as the final climactic battle loomed between the forces of Good, led by Gwendolyn, the Golden Bear, and Casimir against Belshazzar and his evil minions, I was relieved to see the Finish Line come into view. I had been scraping the very bottom of my imagination’s barrel. Cleo was so thrilled to be finishing that she almost sped up into a slow run. Hand-in-hand and grinning like fools; we crossed the Finish Line together.

To his credit, Chad had waited for Cleo and was congratulating her as I went to check on our place in the order of finish. There were still a few people who had not yet crossed the Finish Line, but they were senior citizens who had walked the course. Of those entrants who were runners, we were… last. We were something like nine thousandth and nine thousand and first. I claimed my shirt, a tan-colored T with dark brown lettering, and went to say goodbye to Cleo. When I found her I noticed that instead of being thrilled and brimming with enthusiasm she looked thoroughly disappointed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Well, just look at this,” she said as she held the shirt up under her chin. “I can’t wear this. It’s not my color!”

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