The first step to addiction recovery, psychologists will tell you, is admission. Look yourself in the mirror, bare your soul and confess. Joe Harris then, seemingly is on the path to healing. He confesses to having a problem.
“I’m addicted,” says the 65-year-old semi-retired teacher from Fairfax, Va.
Harris is addicted to running. He didn’t seriously begin putting foot to pavement until June 2004 after a colleague invited him to run a 5K.
“I thought I was going to die,” he says of that first race.
Today, 10-plus years later, it would a take a marathon accounting session to detail Harris’ running feats. The pure numerical count of the long stuff show Harris has logged 115 half marathons and 26 marathons. There’s some fitting symmetry to that latter figure.
But Harris’ hopes for a full, will-never-suffer-another-shin-splint recovery are miniscule. Admission is one thing. Wanting to tame the beast is another.
“I can never envision myself giving up running,” he says.
Harris fights an addiction within his addiction. He’s hooked on the Rock ‘n’ Roll running series. On March 14, Harris will line up for the 13.1-mile race at the Rock ‘n’ Roll DC Marathon and ½ Marathon. It will be his 100th Rock ‘n’ Roll event—85 half marathons paired with 15 marathons.
No one has run more Rock ‘n’ Roll events.
Says Harris, “I think the Rock ‘n’ Roll series, more than any other races I’ve done, they really get the crowd excited about the run. There’s the music at the beginning, the quality of the announcers getting the crowd hyped up for the run. Then it carries through the race. The bands every mile, the cheerleaders. Knowing you’re going to have a concert when you finish. It’s just that consistent quality.”
“That,” says CGI Senior Vice President Tracy Sundlun, “is incredible customer loyalty. It’s a great honor that he and others think so much of what we do, of what we created. We have to honor their trust.”
Fittingly, Harris has been issued commemorative bib No. 100. He has been extended VIP privileges not only to himself, but 16 friends and family members. He’ll be greeted with a sign at the expo entry. Runners are being offered a special, last-minute $100 entry. He’ll be feted at the start of the race and when he crosses the finish line.
Quite the production for a man who didn’t run his first half marathon until 2005, at age 54. Including non-Rock ‘n’ Roll events, Harris has run a combined 141 half marathons and marathons the past decade. He has run Rock ‘n’ Roll events in San Diego, San Jose, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Savannah, Ga., Portland, Ore., New Orleans, Phoenix and Nashville.
Connecting the dots to Harris’ road racing travels would make a fascinating elementary-school geography lesson.
To answer an obvious personal question, yes, Harris is single. He retired from teaching with a full pension at 55. A year later, he was rehired with a half-time contract.
“That’s what has helped me finance all the running and traveling I’m doing,” he says.
He ran his first Rock ‘n’ Roll half in January 2005 when a man he served with in the Vietnam War, his Marine Corps company commander, reached out after 34 years and invited him to run in Phoenix. After covering 13.1 miles, Harris said, “I felt like I could do anything, that I could conquer the world.”
Harris was going through a divorce at the time. If running didn’t save him, it certainly extended a life preserver. A friend gave him a book that said divorce was akin to being tossed overboard a luxury liner. The temptation is to swim back to the ship (going back to your ex). Or swimming to shore (jumping into another relationship).
“No, those are big mistakes,” says Harris. “The best thing is to stay in the ocean, learn to tread water. You’ve got to take time to get to know yourself.”
One drawback to today’s go-go-go lifestyle—glancing at our cell phones every 30 seconds, surfing the web, channel surfing, microwaved meals, drive-through fast food— is we don’t spend enough time alone, reflecting. Jogging on trails, on pavement grants you solitude. Time to reflect. Time to answer questions. Time to grow.
Here’s what knocking off half marathons and 26.2-milers taught Harris:
“Running was something I could hold onto.”
There’s a humorous angle to Harris becoming so enamored with the Rock ‘n’ Roll series. He raced at Nashville in 2007. There was a problem with the on-course energy drink. It was chalky, hardly satisfying on a day when the temperature was warm.
Harris sought out Sundlun.
“I didn’t know who Tracy Sundlun was,” Harris says, “but I gave him hell.”
Recalls Sundlun, “He did blister my butt.”
Sundlun guaranteed the issue would be fixed at the next race. It was. Sundlun gave Harris a VIP pass to the next Rock ‘n’ Roll event. Harris got accustomed to the special treatment.
“The difference between first class and coach,” Harris jokes.
Harris offered Sundlun a deal. In return for a VIP pass at races, Harris would provide detailed race reports. The wave starts, course conditions, water stations, course flow. Harris covered it all. Now, years later, Harris is still filing his reports.
“The fact that Joe is the first to 100 (Rock ’n’ Roll races) is really cool,” says Sundlun. “In one respect, he is so much Everyman. A middle-of-the-pack runner. He’s a great guy, the kind of guy we want to be first to 100.”