Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Crescent City Classic race shows civic spirit

Why I run the CCC: Running as a fleur-de-lis is for fun and civic pride

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2011, 5:43 AM     Updated: Wednesday, January 26, 2011, 10:17 AM
Chris Wiseman By Chris Wiseman 
Editor's note -- There are a lot of reasons the Crescent City Classic is a popular race. So now that the countdown is on for the April 23 race, we're going to be posting some first-person stories from people who enjoy participating in the event -- runners, walkers, volunteers, anyone. We want you to tell your story. 
“I can’t believe I’m losing to a flower!” she shouted.
12cccevl153.jpgChris Wiseman ran as the black fleur-de-lis after the New Orleans Saints changed to it.
That’s the exclamation I heard in City Park, under the live oaks, as I passed a competitor at approximately Mile 5 of the Crescent City Classic in 2006, the first CCC after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures had devastated our city.
I was running the race in a foam rubber fleur-de-lis of my own construction. As I am 6-feet-2, with the costume I was more than 7 feet tall and approximately 4 feet wide.
There was no malevolence in my fellow runner’s voice — just disbelief and a little resignation. As I also was losing to runners dressed in other costumes, I felt more solidarity with her than superiority.
The fleur-de-lis symbol had been such a part of my consciousness for so long — like the New Orleans Saints, I was born in 1966 — that it had never occurred to me that I was dressed as a large flower, even though I knew “fleur” is the French word for “flower.” Now, in April 2006, sweaty and breathing hard, I was being reminded that I was dressed as something big, gold, and pretty.
Check out other 'Why I run the CCC' stories
For me, the fleur-de-lis was about the football team that had given me so much pain and fun (mostly fun, even in the bad years) throughout my life. After August 29, 2005, the fleur-de-lis meant so much more. I joined fellow Orleanians in making the fleur-de-lis a symbol of civic identity, strength, and even personal renewal.
That’s why I decided to run the Crescent City Classic in 2006 in that costume. I convinced myself that by running 10 kilometers as a fleur-de-lis, I would prove to myself that my city and I were making progress. I even invented an alter-ego name for myself: “Lee de Fleur.”
After all, it seemed a minor miracle that the race was even being run seven months after the levees failed. By running 6.2 miles without stopping, in an awkward costume I had made earlier that year for Mardi Gras day on St. Charles Avenue, I was proving something to myself and, perhaps, my fellow runners and citizens.
I was also hoping to make people giggle and smile. Mission accomplished on that count.
There were peculiar challenges for me in running as Lee de Fleur. The smell of the gold spray paint I had soaked the foam rubber with stayed with me through the whole race. Early on, when we runners were so tightly packed in the French Quarter, I had to say “Excuse me” a lot and twist left and right so that my 4-foot width did not poke other runners. Wind resistance on the streets between skyscrapers downtown was significant. I had to avoid the hoses being sprayed by race supporters on Esplanade Avenue, as being hit would result in a much heavier and floppier costume.
In the end, I did it. I ran the whole race without walking or stopping. I finished in about an hour, unofficially. At the end, there were many pictures with fellow runners, a lot of smiles and giggles, and a sense (overblown, I’m sure) that I had helped myself and fellow Orleanians re-take our city.
16_ccc_MR3.jpgChris' original fleur-de-lis was gold.
I put the costume away for a few years and ran 2007 and 2008 as myself, but then in early 2009, the Times-Picayune ran a funny little article about Saints Coach Sean Payton. The year before, Coach Payton had run the Crescent City Classic. His personal motivation to kick up his speed during the race was when he encountered a runner dressed as the Easter Bunny. Coach Payton said he would not allow himself to lose to the Easter Bunny, and apparently he did not that year.
When I read that, I thought it would be funny for Lee de Fleur to try to beat both Coach Payton AND the Easter Bunny. This time, though, I would do it in the same costume, but I would spray paint it black, over the gold. Like the Saints when they switch to the all-black uniform, like Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 3” when he wants to get really nasty and switches to the black costume, I wanted to bring attitude and a new look.
Thus, in 2009, the all-black Lee de Fleur made his appearance in the Crescent City Classic. He finished in a better time than did the all-gold Lee de Fleur. I think he lost to Coach Payton but probably beat the Easter Bunny. Once again, there were pictures, smiles, and giggles. No one expressed offense, though, at losing to a big flower.
All of this is part of why I run the Crescent City Classic. In both 2006 and 2009, Lee de Fleur’s picture ran in the Times-Picayune's coverage of the race. Both years, there were world-class runners (I don’t know their names) who had trained their whole lives to become honed running machines and who finished third or fourth. Their pictures did not run in the paper.
I felt a little guilty about finishing more than 30 minutes behind them and getting a little silly notoriety—me, a mediocre, middle-aged runner engaging in a little street theater and civic action. However, I am sure that I, like thousands of others doing their own things New Orleans-style, made the race a little more fun that year for the runners and the spectators.
Lee de Fleur sits in my closet now, overly floppy with some holes and beer stains. It turns out that foam rubber degrades over time. I’m sure Mr. de Fleur will make a return sometime. After all, the football season following the all-black Lee de Fleur, the Saints won the Super Bowl. And Lee still needs to beat Coach Payton.

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