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Sometimes breaking through the marathon "wall" seems easy compared with crossing the border.
A couple of years ago, I picked Chicago for my first marathon – not a difficult choice. Records had been set there, thanks to the flat course. The race is in October, so I'd have the opportunity to train all spring and summer.
Chicago was also well known to me as a company executive – I've visited many times. In fact, I knew exactly which hotel would provide easy access to the start/finish line.
Most of my career has been spent travelling the world, and security and passport checks are second nature to me. Yet I'm always aware that there is a moment when you end up at the mercy of one individual when you go from one country to the next.
For me, it is still a challenge to be completely submissive and answer the inane questions about purpose of visit, occupation and nationality with full compliance. Don't they have all of this information? Can't they access 25 years of my travel history? I sometimes feel they are trying to trip me up just for the fun of it.
I was late as I headed out to Toronto's Pearson airport for a flight to the Windy City. Only this time it wasn't traffic that was holding me back. I was delayed by the last-minute packing of electrolytes, gels, vitamins and everything else a jittery runner could possibly need.
When I reached the airport, the line at the Air Canada check-in was long and slow. My stress level started to rise as I mentally calculated that I would barely make it to the departure gate.
For the umpteenth time, I rummaged through my carry-on bag. I decided to get the necessary documentation out so I'd be ready.
It didn't take me long to figure out that my passport was missing. No calculation required this time: There was no way I could return home to retrieve it. All that training was going to go to waste. My stress indicator went up a couple more notches.
"Sorry, I can't let you through, sir," the agent informed me after I declared the missing document.
"But I'm running a marathon tomorrow – my first one! Please?"
He looked at me, hesitated, and then said: "Okay, go ahead. But I'm sure U.S. Customs won't let you through."
As I approached the U.S. Customs gate, I imagined the words "Illegal Alien" emblazoned across my forehead. I decided on an offensive strategy. On the verge of stammering, I managed to look the agent straight in the eye and blurt out: "I'm going to Chicago to run the marathon tomorrow, and I have no passport."
The agent furrowed her brow and pondered my statement for a few very long seconds. My whole life in the hands of a public servant. Eventually, she asked: "How much do you have to train for one of those? I'd like to run one in the near future. Any tips?"
Ah, a possible opening in the border. This wasn't a test. I was sure she had decided to get off the couch and consider running. I mumbled through a list that included strength work, speed training and the long run. Her eyes now rolling, she stamped my immigration card and waved me through. I suppressed the desire to kiss her full on the lips, and darted to my plane with my best finishing kick.
Chicago was great, the marathon a big success. I finished! Hours later, I happily hobbled through O'Hare airport and caught my return flight to Toronto. Confident and endorphin-infused from a job well done, I reassured myself that I was a Canadian re-entering my native land, so should have no problem getting through immigration.
My son Martin had spent a few summers working as an immigration officer and he advised by phone: "Don't worry, Dad, just be honest!"
I arrived at the immigration gate in Toronto to find frowning agents dressed for intimidation in regulation blue shirts. "Passport, please," my particularly dour-looking officer commanded.
"Um, I don't have it with me," I said. "I left it at home, yesterday, before my trip to Chicago."
"And U.S. Customs let you in?"
"Well, I wouldn't have!"
Mr. No-Nonsense Immigration Agent called for his supervisor, consequently alerting all officers within earshot. Like highway motorists who slow down to examine a wreck, the surrounding agents craned their necks hoping for some immigration-gate carnage to liven up their day.
In the peril of the moment, a flash of brilliance struck me. I reached into my shoulder bag and waved my Chicago Marathon finisher's medal (one of the 30,000 or so handed out that year) before the startled agents.
"By the way," I told my audience of officialdom, "I won this medal for Canada at the marathon."
Then my agent smiled, the supervisor smiled, and from within the crowd of immigration personnel, as well as the travellers around me, a building rattle of applause swept through the terminal.
Feeling the glory of the moment, I closed my eyes and raised the medal proudly at arm's length above my head.
It was a magical moment in Canadian history – Canadian immigration history, anyway. And amid the cheering, the sweet sound of the stamping of my landing card awakened me from my hero's reverie.
"Welcome home, sir."
Pierre G. Robitaille lives in Oakville, Ont.