A few months back, I was asked to write a follow-up to my initial post on the Four on the Fourth. On the eve of the race I thought I would post it. A ton has changed since I wrote this, and it feels like the world is hurtling toward a clearing. As it turns out, I’ll be lacing up my shoes and running the race in person tomorrow in my hometown. Nonetheless, I still thought these reflections to be worthwhile.
The days have stacked on top of each other like thin sheets of paper. In waiting for the return to what we had a book of experience has formed. It can be hard to read the pages, time feeling both brief and elongated.
The news is the same on the English language Korea news site. Everyday the editors find inventive ways to talk about virus numbers. The numbers go up and down and up again. One day in the 300’s, one day in the 400’s. Back to the 300’s. Hope has been anesthetized by boredom and repetition. Waiting has become a habit that I take for granted. It’s a privileged routine, but still a tedious one.
I wake up and run 10km every day before work, training for nothing in particular, snapping photos of the sunrise from the same spot at the same time each morning. And so it’s another March with the same spring weather, the same blossoms, the same return to green. Jeju starts to wake up. The picture I take imperceptibly grows brighter.
I receive the news of a widespread vaccine distribution with the weight of a year of waiting. It’s warming but so distant. Hope shouted from halfway around the world. Who knows when it will reach Korea. It could be another year. But, in the midst of it I receive an email that brings it more into focus.
It’s the race director, Bill Graham, from my hometown race, the Four on the 4th. He’s read my previous piece on the run, and is hopeful about this year’s return to a more normal event. There will be a virtual option, but also potential runners side-by-side in the streets of small town Bridgton.
It conjures up a memory of red, white and blue–tank tops, hats, bumper stickers, flags–flooding the street like vivid paint on a sunny day. The race’s waiting corral packed with anticipation. Thousands of tight springs waiting to be released. The national anthem, a gunshot, and then the joy of running. Falling in with a pack and sprinting away from the noise of main street into the quiet backroads of a small town. Enjoying the freedom of movement.
The race has always been a benefit to raise money for the local library since it began in 1977. The course has shifted from time to time–the starting place moving from a couple’s doorstep, to the golf course and eventually to downtown. It traces four miles through the heart of the small town. There were no more drastic changes, however, as in 2020 when I found myself running my hometown race “virtually” along the Han River in Seoul. I was a lone maniac sucking breath, trying for a fast time as I dodged the leisurely joggers. My time fell well short of my goal, but I called it good enough.
It was a fleeting connection to the streets of my town as I snapped a blurry selfie and sent it to my family, joking that I was the first one to the finish line. There’s nothing like that last mile in Bridgton, coming down main street while you’re pumping air. The smell of hot dogs, the flashes of yellow from the Lion’s Clubs Great Bridgton Duck Race, the library on the right. Seeing familiar faces in the crowd blur by. The final turn onto depot street where you spring toward the loudspeaker that blares the same classic rock tunes that have been a soundtrack to small town life for 40 years. The drama of a real finish line.
There’s a meaning to this race that transcends others that I have run. Even though it’s a race full of “out-of-towners”, the race still manages to bring everyone into its fold. Rich folks emerge from the solitude of their summer lake houses, summer campers drive their kids in droves to the starting line, locals take a short walk down to the starting line, and returners like myself show up for the mixing pot of the race.
Other races lack this community. Big events with corporate sponsors and plastic goodie bags full of swag. There’s a personal touch to the Four on the 4th that elevates it. Even the elite pack at the front stick around at the finish line, chewing on watermelon and catching up with old acquaintances. It’s a race that brings you back.
What is it that makes the Four on the 4th a little different? Perhaps it’s the seed that was planted at the race’s inception. The idea that we are running to raise money for the library. The library itself is a brick building in the center of downtown surrounded by tall sentinel oak trees. It’s a town mainstay that’s easily taken for granted. It’s a physical and intellectual guidepost.
Growing up, I didn’t run the race. I never fancied myself a runner, and in my teenage years I wanted to be anywhere besides Bridgton. An event that brought the town together was something to avoid. My friends and I invented a harmless counterculture of guitar playing, kicking around skateboards and late night drives. We weren’t into partying in high school, and so we had to find creative ways to spend our time. Bands with names like The Warbirds and The Sneakies formed. We were more interested in the quiet nighttime stage of the small town than seeing the whole town’s population in the light of day. Late night talks on lawns or by lakes about how we were going to get out.
And eventually I did get out. It’s my tenth year living in Asia, but I’ve had the chance most years to return to Bridgton in the summer. The race has become a yearly ritual that will continue this year (whether it be virtual or in person). There’s meaning in returning to grounding points. The revisiting of old sign posts spark insight. I’ve shifted from small town escapism to appreciation.
I used to be more intense about my training, designating specific workouts for speed or endurance. Now I take a more patient approach, taking what my body gives me on my runs. I usually get in a daily run, but don’t feel the need to force it. I enjoy the movement and the daily accomplishment of distance. I’m slowly settling into something more manageable.
The Four on the 4th is a testament to the power of intention and tradition. A race that started with the goal of bettering its community has continued to cultivate community. Its runners get a small taste of that intention and carry it with them–new seeds to be planted wherever they are in the world. The race will keep going, building upon itself each year, writing its story. The oak trees will continue to grow and stand guard. I’ll be running the race this year whether it’s in Bridgton or Korea. In the meantime the library’s bricks and the asphalt of main street will wait patiently for the race’s yearly return.