I was willing to jump out of a second-story window.
by John Harmon
In late July of 2006, my wife and I were on holiday ending in The Thames Valley. We had just spent the last six months living on the Prinsengracht in Old Amsterdam. I have been given an assignment with European accounts and was stationed there to gain better access and build stronger relationships (that venture is a whole ‘nother story).
When we left our Holland adventure, we visited Normandy. I had always wanted to go. We took the train to Paris, grabbed a taxi to change train stations and then boarded another train to Caen where we rented a car and drove to Arromanches, which lies between Omaha and Juno Beaches.
We were having a heat wave. It was miserable in Paris with the stone reflecting the 100F heat. But it was no better on the beach. No wind and high humidity. Still, it was beautiful and the sunset with the humid air was stunning.
We stayed there and in Mont Saint-Michel for a week. I ran every morning starting at dawn and before sunrise as is my custom. Then it was a necessity to avoid the heat. I ran from Arromanches toward Omaha. The two are separated by a high bluff from which you can see across the Channel. As I ran up the trail to the crest and along it, a bunker came into view. It was situated back from the bluff almost a km. It turns out it was Batterie de Longues-sur-Mer. I checked it out and ran on to Omaha Beach then returned. The sun shown brightly by now and its light on the amber fields of grain was beautiful. It’s an eerie feeling to be so alone in such a beautiful place knowing how much death and destruction occurred there. I think of this run often, but especially on D-Day. We visited the cemetery at Omaha that morning. That you can’t forget.
In the following days I ran the other direction toward Juno along the beach. The tides in Normandy are notoriously wide (later on that) and fortune was with me. I still had to make my way over a deep and long deposit of rotting kelp. With the heat it was full of flies and wreaked (I confess I have envisioned such an obstacle for XC at times just to make it interesting).
My most memorable Normandy running story is when I ran out the causeway to Mont Saint-Michel and then out into the bay (tide out, of course). The sand was powdery and soft, often crusted which would collapse beneath my feet. I got out about a mile and decided to return. My uncle (a history prof who spent his youth carrying an anti-tank gun around here) had told us stories of attacking armies thinking themselves clever to approach the Mont from the sea with the tide out. They typically perished in the crossing as the tides can reach speeds of 20 mph (it’s really flat!). It’s also a reminder not to go wandering about soft sand in chainmail. This was on my mind as I returned to the fortifications of the Mont only to then notice the multi-lingual warning sign, “Danger – quick sand. Do not go further.” One life down, eight to go (if one doesn’t count the other stupid things I’d done before that).
We traveled on to London and spent several days there. Hot still, we spent a lot of our time in air-conditioned buildings. I managed a run or two. In Battersea Park, an enormous bough broke from a maple and lay on the footpath I chose. I stopped to try to move it aside with no avail. It would pivot though, so a I happily swung to aside only to have the severed end sweep by me to slice a quarter-inch-deep slice on my thigh just above the knee. I still have the scar to remind me not to try such things again.
It was after London when we made our way to Henley-on-Thames and the point of this story. This is a special place. The river is narrow, there are beautiful estates lining either side, and there is rowing. We were just past The Championships so it was less crowded but the local clubs were all out. I come from Seattle, so rowing is a big deal (as with Berkeley). Henley is rowing’s holy land.
We booked a room at a B&B just outside town. It was a manor house – not Downton, but similar in that it was a working ranch and the owners were blue bloods through and through, with commendations from the Queen and all.
They were a delightful couple but were working their ranch so they spent little time with us. I did visit with him a bit. Interesting chap – very proud of his heritage. Rightly so.
He told us we were free to come and go but not before 7 am and not after 10 pm. They locked the house and set alarms on the ground floor. This came about as several estates had been burglarized of precious heirlooms by people posing as guests who canvased the property and then returned with a lorry to empty the place. They implemented this policy after each of their neighbors were victimized.
This presented a problem for me. We typically retire earlier than most, but I needed to run early (the heat wave was still with us). He informed me there was no latitude in their policy. I looked for another option.
Our room was on the first floor (2nd story) just above the breakfast room. There was an embankment just below our window (a cellar) which decreased the usual height by about 4 feet (you see where this is going). The rooms and therefore their windows of a manor house are tall. I could stand easily in our window. It presented a good ten-foot drop to the grass below. I checked out the landing conditions below. There was a cellar access grate just off center which might pose a problem should I land or roll incorrectly. Thus I would have to project myself off to the left and further away from the window ledge to avoid this. The scenarios of disasters danced in my head. Was I crazy? Yes. Was it worth risking a broken leg, torn something-or-other or even a concussion? I had just turned 50 that spring. Perhaps it was a middle-aged-man moment. I decided to go for it.
For the record, my wife was never in favor of this plan. The proprietor wasn’t too keen on the concept either. But in his defense, he didn’t try to talk me out of it. He just told me he’d bury me in a place where no one would find my body should the worst happen. He did have a wicked sense of humor, but on this point I took him at his word.
At 04:30 the next morning, I arose, dressed and stood on the sill of our bedroom window. My wife turned to get one last glimpse of me still intact. I took a deep breath and out I went – best not to think too hard about such things. The ground came quickly. I remembered to bend my knees and roll on first contact. It all worked out. I checked everything – no apparent damage. One last glance up at the window met my wife’s relieved face. A blown kiss to her and off I went.
Upon my return, the proprietor met me at the front door – a little after 7. He smiled and said, “Well, you seem to be all in one piece. Please don’t do that again!” I didn’t.
The run along the Thames tow path was lovely. I’d do it again sans the jumping out the window bit.