I’ve always wanted to be a runner. It just seems so…free. I remember running as a child and loved the feel of the wind in my hair and the way my body felt so strong, like a horse speeding off in a race. It felt like I could go on forever. Not so much now as a grown-up in an almost 49-year-old body. My mind races like a horse, but my body is a little out of practice.
As an adult, the once active and strong child I was got tucked away. Life was busy, people needed me and I didn’t make time for exercise. It seemed like an extra thing, not an essential thing. Most of my running around was in my car as I scratched things off my to do list.
About four years ago, I noticed a man running through town as I was running errands. He wasn’t just any runner. He. Was. Happy. You could see his giant smile from a distance long before you noticed anything else about him. I wasn’t sure where he was running to or why, but it seemed to be important. Even though he wasn’t really hurrying to get there, I could tell he was definitely on a mission. He was holding a sign that said “Think Positive” in big, colorful hand-drawn letters. I felt myself smiling along with him and I realized that reading that sign actually helped me to find my happy place, right there in the middle of the traffic and honking horns. I honked mine too so this man would know I noticed him.
I began seeing him more frequently. My kids noticed him too. It soon became a tradition to wave and honk excitedly whenever we spotted him together. The kids could’ve been mid-squabble, but when they spotted him it was all smiles and waving as a united front.
As time passed, he became more of a fixture in our community. He was the “sign guy” who seemed to be at the right place at the right time just when you needed to see him. He continued to inspire me with his positive words, handmade signs and that joyful smile whenever I saw him.
As a photographer, I’m fascinated with interesting people and always keep my eyes open for beautiful and inspiring things. My eyes are trained to find the beauty in the chaos. People hire me to photograph the people and things they want photographed, but I don’t always get a choice in my subjects. I decided it was time for a personal project and to photograph someone who really inspired me. I reached out to Jimmy Lee and boldly asked if he’d mind if I photographed him. He said yes! We just needed to arrange a time. We discussed it a bit, but, as usual, life got busy for both of us and my little personal project got put on the back burner.
I continued to speed around, crossing errands off my list, and the years sped by as well. Each time I saw Jimmy Lee I was blessed by his positivity, but also felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t made time yet to follow up on that photo story that tugged at my heart. Even if I didn’t get around to photographing him I was struck with an idea. Maybe, we, as a community, could thank him somehow for his encouragement? We could get folks to line the streets along his route and hold up signs to welcome him as he made his way back into town. Maybe as a Thanksgiving gesture or for Valentine’s Day? I had to make this happen. Someday…
As another year was wrapping up and my goals for the New Year were on my mind, I did what a million other people do every January. I started an exercise program, more specifically, a ten-week challenge involving kickboxing and strength training. It was time. I had no choice. I HAD to put my health first and start moving again. I felt myself getting stronger and healthier every week. It was so empowering! I didn’t miss a single day…until the Flu hit. And it hit HARD. It knocked me straight into bed with a high fever and a horrible cough. I had the energy of a brick. My perpetual to do list was put on hold and was beyond my control. I was powerless. During this time, the weather took a strange turn and we had non-stop rain for days, which was out of character for my neck of the woods. Being stuck in bed in my dark cave and not able to do much left me in a major funk I just couldn’t seem to snap out of no matter how hard I tried.
As the Flu was starting to lift, but The Funk was still lingering, I found out that Jimmy Lee was leaving. He was moving, not just to another city, but to California. Time was up. I had to make time to complete this thing that had been on my heart for so long.
I reached out again and we set a time and a place to meet. I asked when his last run would be and it turned out it would be that very night we were meeting. This was my last chance! After taking so long to come to fruition, it seemed like the perfect time to do it was now since I was in the middle of my own health and fitness journey, needed some uplifting to get out of my funk and Jimmy Lee would need some memories to look back on from Little Elm. Even though it was last minute, I reached out on social media to try and get some people to come out and thank him for his service to our community. Someday was now.
I waited on our designated meeting corner nervously. Surprisingly, the weather was cooperating. The recent rain clouds had dissipated and there was a faint glow of sunshine behind the gray sky. While waiting, I suddenly became hyper-aware of myself. Did I look like an idiot, standing there with a camera and wearing workout clothing, but not taking pictures of anything and not working out? It seemed like an eternity passed, but it was only a few minutes. Then I saw him jogging toward me. “Hello Friend,” he said. He was wondering how I planned to proceed, but I assured him I was just along for the ride and wanted him to just do his thing, while I attempted to keep up with him. I didn’t want to get in his way. I put on my brave face like I knew what I was doing, running with a camera around my neck and a heavy backpack of gear strapped to my back – a chiropractor’s nightmare. I’d been working out for 6 weeks after all and had willpower. This was now my mission. How hard could this be?
We took off on his route about town. I wanted to be invisible. Suddenly I felt like this glorious smiling athlete had a Doofus dangling behind him for the world to see. I just wanted to be a fly on the wall and to capture him in his glory, but I was so…exposed, or at least it felt that way. He ran out in front of me for a bit while I chased him with my camera like a stalker and then we joined up at an intersection and began talking. He immediately expressed his gratitude for his current situation. “I’m breathing! I ate today! I’ve got a place to stay! It’s a great day!” So true. Positive words began to spill forth from his mouth. Everything he said resonated with me. I got the feeling that, despite our differences in age, color, sex and background, that we would’ve been great buddies as kids on the schoolyard. When all that junk is stripped away, we shared the same outlook and essence at our core…and even some of the same pain. I got him.
He continued to speak his positive affirmations and share some of his story with me as we ran through the residential streets on the first part of our journey. As I was getting lost in his words (and trying to seem like I wasn’t really about to pass out from the running and lingering Flu cough), I noticed an elderly man walking through his yard carrying a big bag of trash staring at us. When I made eye contact with him he looked at me while making the “loco” sign, circling his finger next to his head. I couldn’t figure out in that moment if he was trying to protect me, or just trying to be a bully toward Jimmy Lee’s positivity. I didn’t feel in danger so I just stared back at him as we ran past, processing it all. I quickly pointed the camera at him and took a picture to capture this part of our journey, as odd as it was. That would show him somehow…aiming a camera at him and shooting off a picture. Jimmy Lee didn’t seem to notice him.
Our pace began to pick up. Jimmy Lee remained out front as I tried to take the back seat, leaving him to do his thing as he normally did it while I captured it with my camera. He checked on me regularly, looking back with a smile to see if I was okay. I smiled back, pretending as if I wasn’t winded, determined to keep up with his pace and to not be a burden to his process. “Get it!” he yelled. “You’re a soldier!” Suddenly, I felt like I could run 100 miles.
He’d yell back often to update me on the plan. ”When we get to the next light, we’ll take a rest.” Oh, how I watched for those lights. I kept telling myself, “Just make it to the light.” When we’d hit one we’d run in place and rest a minute while we waited for traffic to pass. I watched him do his thing…ministering to the community while pointing to the message on his signs, pointing to the heavens and literally throwing joy at passing cars. I loved seeing the response people gave him. So much love was being exchanged back and forth between him and the passengers in the cars as they made their way to and fro along the busy streets. I told him I felt guilty even being a part of this exchange of love, like I was stealing part of it from him. It was palpable, the love that most of the commuters reflected back at him. “This is living,” I thought. I was so in the moment, which was rare for me. I was in touch with what my body was feeling, with every breath (since breathing was becoming a struggle) and with the feeling of happiness that came from watching people receive joy. I was simply putting one foot in front of the other. This was just what the doctor ordered to lift a Funk. While I was tuning into the moment, I realized I was actually in pain. My left butt cheek felt like it was going to explode and my whole left leg just didn’t feel right. I figured it would go away the next time we rested at a light.
On our route, several men, women and families came out to meet us, stopping their cars by the side of the road or just running out to greet us on foot. Even a former student from Jimmy Lee’s days as a high school substitute teacher came out to give him a goodbye hug. I noticed Jimmy Lee really spent time pouring his wisdom into the kids. He looked them in the eye and encouraged them to believe in themselves and to strive to make their dreams come true. The kids gazed back at him, smiling and soaking up the positive words directed at them as if they were sunlight.
As we made our way through the part of our journey where we were visible to the most people and were running along the busiest stretch, Jimmy Lee looked back at me to make sure I was still smiling. “You’re smiling, right?” I assured him I was because “I get more oxygen that way with my mouth open.” That seemed to satisfy him. He was serious about me looking the part of a joyful human if I was associated with him. If I was going to be his sidekick for the day I needed to project happiness just like he did. It didn’t make sense for me to be tagging along behind Mr. Joy with a scowl on my face and a look of agony, even though that was just what my body was feeling. I tried to keep myself in check and to hide the pain. Then it dawned on me…I’d been diagnosed with a baker’s cyst behind my knee and a hip impingement issue on the same leg last summer. I’d been in a lot of pain then, but it had since gone away so I hadn’t even thought about it…until now. Stupid me, I probably shouldn’t even be running at all. Oh well, it was too late now. I was stubbornly determined to push myself. After all, it was for a great cause so it was worth it. I would not give up and let Jimmy Lee down. This was important to me and I would stay the course.
Between breaths, we began to talk again. He told me, “You’re the second person to run with me." I felt a little proud that so few people had the opportunity to make this journey with him. “Were they a runner?” I asked. “He was a young guy.” He said. Oh. My pride instantly diminished as I remembered I wasn’t that young.
Before I knew it, we were on our way back. On our homeward trek, Jimmy Lee walked backward. He said it worked different muscles and made him less sore. Although that sounded awesome, I wasn’t brave enough to try it, sure that I would trip over myself and cause a scene. I told Jimmy Lee I would spot him though. He fiddled with his knit had that had “Wisdom” embroidered on it. “Is it straight?” he asked. I inspected it and made sure it was. “You’ve got to keep your wisdom straight”, I reminded him. He laughed. As we walked, with him backward and me in front of him, I hoped some more friends would come out to surprise him. I tried to act natural as I noticed people coming out to the sidewalk ahead to greet him. I waited till the last minute to say, “Watch out, there’s a pot hole.” He turned around and was met with smiling friends, ready to wish him luck on his adventure in California. He grinned from ear to ear. I loved seeing him feel appreciated.
As we continued to work our way back, passing the growing traffic, I saw Jimmy Lee laughing to himself. He told me, “Only one person flipped me off today.” I was shocked that anyone would do that. He shared that it wasn’t uncommon to be flipped off as he was running. People can be so dang annoying and cruel and, still, here he was choosing to spread joy to these strangers, some of whom chose to flip him off. I told him it makes me truly believe some people can’t stand to see happy people because when it’s reflected back at them it reminds them of how miserable they are. That was my two cents anyway. He agreed.
Since our pace was slower on the way back we had more time to talk. Jimmy Lee told me that Little Elm reminded him of Mayberry. I giggled. “No really. Compared to some of the places I’ve seen, THIS is Mayberry. It’s so clean and family-oriented.” I began to whistle the Andy Griffith Show theme song and he laughed. It made me appreciate my little town all the more.
The finality of this last run started sinking in. The sun had started its descent and was setting in a beautiful show of colors. We passed the Little Elm water tower and he hammed it up a bit as I took some photos of him with it in the background. Jimmy Lee looked at his Fit Bit and said we’d already run 25,000 steps. Holy cow, with or without a sore leg, that was a long distance for me in such a short timeframe, or even in a whole day. It was inspiring thinking this was just part of an almost daily run for him.
Suddenly, he seemed more determined, like he was rushing a bit. He told me he felt like he needed to reach more people before going home. He wanted to make sure he had a positive effect on as many people as possible before calling it a night. Right about that time, an elderly woman slowed her car and rolled down her window. She gave Jimmy a hug and told him how much she looked forward to seeing him and how much he’d lifted her spirits. After she left, Jimmy Lee pressed on, saying “Somebody needs to see me today.” I don’t think he knew that the somebody was me and I’d already seen him.
I think I may have been a little more saddened than he was that this was his last run. Our community would be losing such a bright light. How ironic that he had become like a star here in our small Texas town, but he was moving to Hollywood, the land of the stars. He was ready to move on to his next mission though. He had a purpose and that’s what was driving him. I realized I now had the answers to some of my original questions about him the first time I saw him running. Why was he running? He was just moving forward. Why was he happy? Because he’d decided to be. After all, the happiest people in the world seem to be the givers and those who can make an impact in their corner of the world. Today I was happy too for so many reasons. I was happy to connect with and thank someone from my community who’d made a difference in my life. I was happy to finally take the time to complete this task that spoke to my heart, but the busyness of life had tried to keep me from doing. And…I was happy I finally got to be a runner, even if this was my last run too. Jimmy Lee was right. Today was a GREAT DAY.