18 December 2013

Flameless, Yet On Fire

When it finally happened, it wasn’t just cool, it was downright cold. And dark. And an embarrassing hour late. But we didn’t care. We had a ball – or more accurately, a torch, minus the flame. Take a sacred event, cross it with holy ground, and you get something ethereal, unreal, and almost mystical. Then somehow, accidentally, find yourself in the middle of it, and you question how the world sorts these things out. This time, the world sorted out the highly improbably outcome that I ended up running the Olympic torch across the Boston Marathon finish line Thursday evening.

Adding to the irony was the fact that I hadn’t been back to the finish line since the day of the race, the day of the bombing, the day the world changed, and the previous day when I’d asked the question of how world-scale events could cross paths with little old me. It was somehow fitting, I suppose, that world-scale events (that’s a bit of a stretch here, but go with me) should cross paths again with little old me, at the same place, but this time all for good. Let’s say we cancelled out that previous ugly day with a polar (and polar-feeling) opposite.

So let’s sort this all out. Mighty Employer, that same one so roundly lambasted a few weeks back regarding their rather inane online wellness programs, really is, despite that episode, a pretty interesting place to be. Mighty Employer doesn’t have the marketing power of some of the more well-known names, but quietly continues to supply a major chunk of the world’s business communications technology, and even more quietly cranks out some seriously amazing networking technology. Networking, that is, being the business of moving bazillions of packets of data around the world so that you can, amongst other things, pull up this column any time you feel like it.

It is this very seriously amazing technology that won us the honor of building the entire network for the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Come February when the games begin, everything you see on television, every score, standing, timing, and replay, not to mention the connection for every one of the hundred thousand of devices carried by every spectator at every event, plus every feed from every one of the thousands of surveillance cameras… all if it will ride our network using a new technology called Shortest Path Bridging. I won’t go any geekier than that, but suffice to say it’s new, different, better, and way cool. Yes, I’m proud, yes, I have my fingers crossed, and no, I wasn’t personally involved, so if it burps, I too will burp, but not panic.

We’re by far not the only critical vendor to the games, but we are a critical vendor, so as part of the deal – call it a thank-you, call it hype, call it whatever – we were sent one of the torches actually used in the relay that is carrying the flame from Greece’s Mt. Olympus, throughout Russia, landing in Sochi this winter. I can’t tell you how many of these torches were made – it could have been thirty or thirty-three thousand; it matters not to me. But ours was numbered twenty-six, a nice coincidence considering where it ended up, at mile twenty-six of the marathon route.

Two days before said torch was slated to arrive in Boston on its cross-country tour, I knew nothing of these marathon plans. All I knew was that Thursday morning there would be a torch reception at our local office, after which it would be taken on a few customer visits. I begged a few customers to show for the reception, and was excited enough at the prospect of seeing it there. That, I figured, was it for my involvement.

Life is never simple. Somehow, one thing always leads to another. A simple request came in: a colleague asked if I could deliver the torch to a nearby customer, since she couldn’t make it down in time. Just the prospect of having the Olympic torch in my car made me giddy. Seriously, how goofy is that? But wow… toolin’ down the highway, just me and a real live official Olympic torch. Oh, and I’ve got the Hope Diamond in the glove box, too. I recalled seeing the torch relay come through town on its way to Atlanta in ninety-six, and remembered how cool I thought it would be just to lay my hands on it. Now they wanted me to take possession of this thing? Are you kidding?

Schedule rearranged, now a transporter for merely one leg of the torch’s day-long agenda, I was suddenly on the “torch team”, invited to the next torch planning call, and privy to the torch’s agenda. And on that agenda, there it was… at the end of the day… after the visit to Fenway Park (the Red Sox are our customer), the torch was slated to go to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just because it was in Boston, and we were having fun in each city it visited, photographing it at local landmarks. Yeah, sort of like that famous gnome.

As I noted, take the sacred event – the Olympics, of which the torch is the symbol, carrier of the flame representing the best that mankind can be – and cross it with holy ground – the Boston Marathon finish line, holy even before last year’s tragedy, and many times more so afterward. To an athlete, a marathoner, a citizen of our global community, well, my bell went off. I made known on the call that I’d really like to be there for that stop at the finish line, would they mid if I tagged along? I didn’t say was what I was thinking: how incredible it would be to actually run the torch to – and across – the finish line! But far be it for me to impose or suggest that which I felt would be such a rush, such an honor, no, cannot ask… The team was pleased at my enthusiasm to travel with the torch to Boylston Street, and that was enough for me.

But there was a logistical problem: they’d slated only ten minutes to get the torch from Fenway to the finish line. Nobody seemed to note this problem until I pointed it out. I suggested they’d better take a cab, since trying to drive, park, get out of the garage, and to the line would take far longer than the time allotted. Murmuring all around…

…then it happened. A voice on the call said simply, “Why don’t you just run it down there?”

Seriously? As in, “You’d let me do that?”

This is where you learn one of those life lessons that sometimes things you think are high and mighty are in fact begging for someone to step up and, in this case literally, run with them. To me, this was akin to being knighted. You might as well have offered a gold medal. To them, I was solving a problem, and making their torch story all that much more interesting. Win-Win.

I couldn’t conceive of doing this alone; it was simply too cool not to share, and would be far better with others alongside. A few emails later I’d rounded up enough interest to hope I’d have a gang to run with, and maybe a gang waiting at the finish. A couple of folks from Greater Boston. A few of their friends. A couple of employees of one of the companies we visited earlier in the day.
It happened, the crowd of perhaps a dozen converged outside Fenway at the appointed hour, while we made our visit inside Fenway, out onto the field, posing the torch with the Sox staff in front of the Green Monster (the scoreboard reading, “We Welcome The Olympic Torch”), three Sox players holding the three World Series trophies, and Wally the mascot holding the torch in one hand and a Boston Marathon medal (yes, mine, my little touch) in the other. It was one of those life moments.

Then, after a day in which all had gone to plan, suddenly it all went south (or more accurately, east). I parted from our company team to change into running duds while they carried the torch back to the Sox front office. What happened next is still unclear, but as best I can tell, our gang of assembled runners had ducked back into Fenway to keep warm, so the company team didn’t see them, thought they’d left, and they themselves then left for the finish line, in a cab, with the torch. I went mildly apoplectic, having promised these dozen runners a torch run and having no torch.

It took an hour, during which our runners showed patience beyond the call of duty, but they were rewarded when the company team finally came back with the torch. Our daylight was gone. It was that much seriously colder. I was tripping over my own apologies. But we didn’t care. We had a torch, a real live Olympic torch, even though we couldn’t light it since we had to ship it later to its next destination, and we were running to the finish line.

The best part was that it was blatantly obvious that the magic of the torch was as strong for all of the runners as it was for me. They too bounced like goggle-eyed kids on Christmas morning. Countless cell-phone pictures were snapped as we took our sweet time and savored the route. The torch was passed around the group repeatedly. The two-thirty-one marathoner in the group was ebullient to jog at ten-to-eleven minute pace, because we had the torch. We hollered at passers-by that this was the real deal, the Olympic torch. We savored every step and we stepped until we stopped traffic at the finish line for picture after picture after picture, followed by a visit to ground zero in front of Marathon Sports, where for me at least, we erased April’s tragedy with joy and triumph.

At least until our adrenaline wore off, when I remembered that it was, after all, really cold.


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