Tom Key was artistic director of Theatrical Outfit from 1995 to 2020. He created and co-authored the 1981 off-Broadway musical Cotton Patch Gospel with Harry Chapin and Russell Treyz and performed in it. He’s next onstage in The Atlanta Opera’s Threepenny Opera and Threepenny Carmen in mid-April. (Photo by Jason Vail)
The Friday after Thanksgiving, I ran my 36th Peachtree Road Race virtually. A virtual foot race was one of a thousand unimaginable realities that manifested over the last 12 months. What made it unique among last year’s shocks was that it was not catastrophic, tragic or evil. It was just hard to imagine. Does a “virtual” 10K mean we get a link to a video game watching animated avatars run 6.2 miles down Peachtree? Would I still qualify for a T-shirt and a waffle? How could I miss the pre-race ritual of the national anthem sung from the starting line just minutes before the race begins? I didn’t think about this much. The deadly pandemic, national economic misery, horrific racial injustice, and a campaign of lies and violence to overthrow our election, made questions about running a race off an app seem unimportant. What was important was keeping hope alive.
The virtual Peachtree seemed lonely and pathetic compared to the communal exaltation of the real Fourth of July event. Maybe it was the lightness of no expectations that allowed me the wherewithal to download the app, put on running shoes and, with none of the usual 90 days of training, show up at the Mason Mill Park trail to run a 10K — alone.
Standing in the November cold, I hit “start” on the app and heard what I didn’t realize I needed to hear, desperately, until I heard it: the national anthem! Six words of that song made my body stand tall, my heart open and my throat release a sob of hope: “And the flag was still there.” Lady Gaga sang the same words at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I needed to hear that. I needed to remember that’s true.
Days before that triumph of democracy, the flag was used as a weapon by insurrectionists assaulting our Capitol. We stand in song or kneel in protest before the flag, and both actions signify that what it is and what it stands for matters. It matters to all of us. I finished the race that day. That was important. I keep expectations of tomorrow low so that I can better pledge allegiance to today. The flag is still there. That is enough. That is plenty.