There are eight million artist stories in the city. This one is mine. This one is called “Running Around”.
One of the perks working for the Merrimack Valley YMCA in Lawrence, Mass was getting to run with the boys during the lunchtime hour. Every day three or four, some days six or even seven men – members of the Y or staff – would gather in the locker room just after noon, change into running shorts and shoes, and head out the front door, turning right or left on Lawrence Street, that decision determining which route would be taken that day. I showed up for these noontime runs generally three times a week. This was the year 2000 and I was at the high point of my running life, averaging between 20 – 30 miles a week, usually sneaking in at least one run of eight miles or more. While most of the runs out from the Y’s front door were five miles in length, we also had some interesting and scenic 10-mile runs, up out of Lawrence into Andover, through woods and fields and over running water before gliding back into the city past the New Balance shoe factory and into the Y.
It was at the end of one of these 10 mile runs on an absolutely pristine June summer day that I noticed a stack of fliers on the front reception desk as we came back into the building. The other guys kept going down into the locker room but I stopped at the desk and grabbed a flyer. It was an announcement for a 10K (6.2 mile) race in North Andover the coming fourth of July, and the race was offering the opportunity to raise money for the Allison Burke Fund. After a shower and a quick sandwich in my office – I was the Director of a program serving previously homeless men now living at the Y, providing substance abuse assessment and treatment, and job training – I looked more into the story behind Allison Burke. And the story was this: Allison was a three year old member of the Andover Y, our sister branch , a member of a swim class there. After a Friday afternoon class she began complaining of a headache and by Monday she was dead from a brain tumor. Her mother, Terri, a nurse at Children’s Floating Hospital in Boston, made the decision to begin a fund to provide housing for families with children in the cancer ward at the hospital, helping to pay for extended visiting stays. The Allison Burke Fund. The fourth of July race was to be the first fundraiser.
I decided then that I was going to make an effort to promote that cause by entering the race and asking some of the guys I ran with to contribute a little money. I have to say that I was not then nor have I ever been very good at asking people for money. I figured I could raise maybe 50 to100 bucks.
A few days later I called over to the Andover Y and was connected with Allison’s swimming teacher. She was thrilled to hear that I was going to raise some money and said she was as well. Not being a runner, she would give me whatever she raised to bring to the race. The day before the race I went to the Andover site and that young woman handed me an envelope holding the money she had collected. When I got home after work and added it to my money, I had $555.55. That amount exactly. I’m not making this up. And that is the amount I handed to Terri Burke at the Fund table before the race the next morning.
Pretty cool, right? Then this happened. I ran the race – my best ever 10K time – and was munching on after-race goodies when I heard my name called from a make shift stage. It turns out the race Director and Terri were giving out prizes to the corporations and individuals who had collected the most money, and it turns out I was the individual male who had collected the most in that category: $555.55. Terri thanked me on the stage, hugged me, and handed me a box of New Balance running shoes. She explained that they were just a model and I could go to the factory and exchange them for my right size. But when I got home to my apartment in Lowell and opened the box the shoes were 9.5D, my exact size. Not 9.5C, not 8B, not 10D. Needless to say I was dumbstruck, even spooked a little, and I walked in a circle in my bedroom for a while until I was stopped with the thought that I had to organize my own fundraiser in Allison’s name and run/walk 100 miles over a four-day period, and put aside my fears and ask everyone I knew to join me in supporting the cause. This thought just came to me and I made the decision to do it. The shoes made me do it.
I got busy. I mailed letters to everyone I knew. I asked my friends and family members for $25. Some sent $50. Some sent $100. I got in the car with my son Cameron day after day driving in different directions until I had planned out four distinct 25-mile routes, taking me in a big circle from the Andover Y out to Newburyport down to Gloucester over to Salem and Marblehead and ending back at the Y. Before I ran my first step on a Sunday morning in September, Terri Burke running the first mile with me, I had collected and turned over to Terri just slightly less than $3400. I crashed on a woman’s floor the first night, stayed at a bed and breakfast in Gloucester overlooking the “they that go down to the sea” statue at the harbor, paying only half price when the owners, two gay men, heard what I was doing. My toes were covered in blood when I got into my room. I ran the next morning right through the filming of “The Perfect Storm” in Manchester, over to Marblehead and back to Salem Common, where a friend picked me up and took me to his house in Newton, then took me out to eat. Dropping me back at the Common the next day I finished the final 25 miles in a mostly steady rain, running a lot of it, and when I walked into the lobby of the Andover Y on the fourth afternoon there was no cheering crowd, no banners proclaiming Buddy Cushman day, in fact nobody noticed. During the four days on the road I had dreamed, a little, there might be. I caught a ride back to my car parked at the Burke’s home and drove back to Lowell. A few days later I sent letters to everyone who had contributed letting them know the good work of which they had played a part. Terri wrote on the master copy of the letter that I was a hero, but I added beneath her writing that the real heroes were Terri and her husband and their two surviving daughters. All I did was run in a big circle, something I’d always been good at.
A year later I helped to raise another $500 for the Allison Burke fund. I don’t exactly remember how. I don’t run anymore, although I am playing with the idea of starting again. Terri’s husband Andy died in a motorcycle accident a year after, and I eventually lost touch with her. I hope she is okay.
So that is what I was doing one week back in September of the year 2000. Running around.