Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Free T-Shirt

Writer Pete Kennedy muses on his annual 4th of July race day tradition.


America’s first patriots marched for days and weeks with meager provisions, only to do battle with the British in pursuit of independence. It is in their honor—in the same heroic spirit—that every July 4, I run 3.1 miles in $100 sneakers, with water stations and sprinklers along the way, in pursuit of a T-shirt. Which, by the way, I receive beforehand.

I concede that my holiday fun run doesn’t stack up against the struggles endured by Continental Army soldiers. But the little bit of sacrifice involved is what makes it a tradition I enjoy. The past few years, I’ve been running the Firecracker 5K in Broomall, a straight out-and-back path along a strip of West Chester Pike located roughly three miles beneath the corona of the sun.

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There’s a special energy in the air at a Fourth of July run, because everyone knows it’s just the opening act. Still to come: a parade, lots of barbecuing and—citations be damned—that guy down the street setting off Magic Kingdom-caliber explosives from his deck.

My favorite part of the race is that moment when everyone is waiting at the starting line, the race director yells, “Go!”—and suddenly nothing happens. At least that’s been my experience, because I’m always fairly deep in the crowd of runners, nestled among the seniors and the parents with strollers. When we finally get moving, there’s a surreal feeling to it all. Everyone in a bib—students, doctors, CrossFit warriors, handsome Main Line Today freelance writers—is just part of the herd at that point. After a mile and a half, runners, having put significant effort into getting away from the starting line, turn around and hurry back like they forgot their keys.

For me, the return trip becomes more introspective—a series of complex negotiations between my brain and my body.

“Let’s just make it to that crack in the road,” my brain insists. “We’ll get that far, then we’ll re-evaluate.”

Then come the water-cup bearers. Like sirens on the rocks, they call out to me to partake, to enjoy. But if I do, the water ends up on my shirt and in my windpipe. At long last, the finish line comes into view. Ideally, this is the time to turn on the afterburners—except I can’t run any faster. And what I’m doing in the final stretch is more like a caricature of a runner—elbows crooked, back arched, knees pumping—the kind of thing a stage actor might do to convey running without actually moving.

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As I cross, I open my eyes wide and try to take in the whole scene—the other runners, the volunteers handing out bananas, the paramedics, the children waving miniature American flags. I smile and think to myself: “Where’s the nearest place I can collapse inconspicuously?”

This July 4, America turns 243 years old—and Pete Kennedy expects to feel every bit of it as he limps back to his car after his annual 5K.

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