The 2.5-mile oompah

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2010 - 11:01 PM

For hydration, there are water stops. For spirit, there's Justice Alan Page's annual sousaphone jam on a Minneapolis corner.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and former Vikings great Alan Page played “Whistle While You Work” and other sousaphone hits again this year at the Twin Cities Marathon.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The corner of Knox and Douglas avenues has a reputation as one of the liveliest spots along the Twin Cities Marathon route. Neighbors in that slice of Minneapolis, near Kenwood Park, have held race-day parties to cheer the runners since the marathon began 28 years ago.

When Alan Page and his wife, Diane, were invited to one of those gatherings, they were asked to bring noisemakers. Page has never been an ordinary man, and the state Supreme Court justice and Pro Football Hall of Famer hit on something extraordinary that day. He brought a tuba. Sunday, Page stood on the corner for the 10th or 12th or 13th year -- nobody really knows for sure -- and oompahed for a river of runners in his yearly performance at the 2.5-mile mark.

The tuba doesn't exactly lend itself to virtuoso expression. And Page, now 65, never played much after his two years in junior-high band. Like most of the citizen runners grinding their way through the marathon, he makes up for his lack of proficiency with an abundance of enthusiasm, which continues to surprise and delight the thousands of people who hear him for a few seconds every year.

"It became a tradition after the first time we did it,'' said Page, who greeted a steady stream of fans during his hour on the horn. "When I ran around the lakes, people training for the marathon would ask whether I'd be there again.

"About 20 years ago, I started thinking about taking [music] up again. I didn't take it up the way I thought I would, but it's fun to be out here.''

Page's instrument is actually a sousaphone, the wraparound, marching-band version of the tuba. He put it away after junior high as he became a defensive tackle for the Vikings and Bears, an attorney, a judge, a father and a grndfather.

But Page never stopped loving music, developing eclectic tastes that run from Mozart to Seal. (He diplomatically sidestepped a question about whether he dislikes any kinds of music, a savvy move by a justice who is up for reelection this fall.) He occasionally brought out the horn, dented and tarnished by age, to play at his kids' soccer games. But with the marathon, Page found an outlet that connected with the masses.

Just before 8 a.m. Sunday, Page warmed up with a brief serenade of the nearby water-station volunteers from the William Mitchell College of Law. Several dog-walkers, a couple wrapped in blankets and a little boy dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi -- complete with light saber -- joined him at the corner. So did Diane Page; children Justin, Kamie and Nina; Justin and Kamie's spouses; grandsons Otis, 2, and Theo, nearly 2; and family dogs Riley and Charlie.

With his band days some 50 years in the past, Page's repertoire consists of one steady refrain, punctuated with some rhythmic blasts. A couple of the wheelchair marathoners were first down the street and gave him a bemused look. The elite runners behind them were so intently focused that they didn't seem to notice the 6-4, one-man brass band.

Then came the vast rush of recreational runners, and the performance kicked into full gear. Hundreds of people waved or gave Page a thumbs-up. Some veered over to get a high-five, which he somehow managed to do gracefully without stopping the music. They smiled, they pointed, they applauded, they called out: "Sousaphones rock!'' "You are my hero!'' "It's the Tuba Man!'' "Do you know the Iowa fight song?''

Some of them wanted to preserve the moment. One year, a runner brought a disposable camera and an envelope. As he came toward the corner, he handed off his camera, ran up to Page for a quick photo, stuck the camera into the envelope and deposited it in the mailbox at the corner. "He knew where we'd be,'' Diane Page said. "He came prepared.''

A couple of runners slowed down to get pictures with Page on Sunday. Mostly, they thanked him for being part of the race's atmosphere year after year. He stayed on the corner and kept playing even as the flood became a trickle, the runners became walkers and the volunteers swept up the crumpled water cups and discarded shirts.

Page has run marathons himself, with a personal best time of 3 hours, 27 minutes, 50 seconds. He gave that up several years ago for the more subdued pleasures of daily runs with Diane. Every day, no matter how frigid, they hit the trails around the lakes.

He plans to make his tenure at the corner of Knox and Douglas just as reliable. "It really is a tradition now,'' Page said. "Though it might be a good thing we're here so early in the race. I'm not sure the runners would like it so much at mile 25.''

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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