Three and a half hours after the 8 a.m. starting gun of Saturday's Crescent City Classic, a group of 10 revelers, clad head-to-toe in American flag clothing, strolled through the finish line towing a self-made bar, and assumed they were the race’s tail end.
But after making small talk with a group of nearly 20 people in matching purple T-shirts still waiting tirelessly for Nestor Mairena, they realized immediately how perfect it was that one of them had towed along an American flag.
Nearly a quarter-mile in the distance, Mairena, a former Marine, limped down the closing stretch, flanked on either side by those who spent their morning keeping the former Marine from tripping as he tackled the entirety of the 6.2-mile course that wove from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through the French Quarter and into City Park.
Supporters of Bastion, a local non-profit that supports veterans — particularly those with traumatic brain injuries — and their families with a community of homes that provide onsite care, stood and cheered for Mairena as he drew closer to the finish line. A few yards away, he relinquished hold of the handlebars of a cart to cross on his own. Not long after, he grabbed a few sips from his new friends’ beer cart, smiled through group photos and pounded knuckles with a small boy he wheeled past on his way to the race fest.
Mairena served in Iraq in the early 2000s and returned to New Orleans, only to be struck by a drunk driver in a 2003 accident that caused a debilitating brain injury. With some dedicated training over the next 12 months, Mairena might manage his goal of finishing among the last few dressed-up partiers in next year’s race instead of by himself well afterward.
But his ability to finish the 41st annual 10K for the second consecutive year brought a special kind of joy only Mairena’s story could evoke.
“For a lot of guys and girls with traumatic brain injuries that need full-time care, they tend to be isolated without much social interaction,” said Jeremy Brewer, who met Mairena more than a year ago through Bastion.
The two connected through Veterans Affairs more than a year ago when Brewer drove over and met Mairena at his parents’ home on the West Bank where he’s lived since his accident. Two weeks later, when they rode together to the Crescent City Classic expo, having already hung out several times together, Mairena opened up.
“He told me, ‘You guys saved my life,’ and I said, ‘We haven’t done anything,’ " Brewer said. "But he said that we got him out of his house three times and got him around other people,” Brewer said.
"At 2 or 3 in the afternoon that Friday, he asked me, ‘Can I run with you guys tomorrow?’ And I asked him, ‘Nestor, can you go six miles?’ ” Brewer remembered. “And he replied, ‘What do you think, Marine?’ ”
Nothing else needed to be said.
So Brewer arrived at 5:30 the next morning. Mairena stepped up to the start line and worked his way through the course. By the time he neared the end of Esplanade Avenue, race volunteers had already begun to pack up the cones and metal barriers, but with Mairena’s determination unyielding, Brewer spoke with race director Eric Stuart to have the equipment kept up until the final finisher passed.
This year, Brewer has often fielded texts from his new friend, constantly making sure he hadn’t missed this year’s race.
Though he couldn’t make the expo, the Marine’s story had worked its way through the local running community; numerous people found Brewer to ask if Mairena would be returning for a repeat attempt. The two spoke briefly about starting Mairena part-way through the course, so he could finish among the crowds.
For 20 minutes on Friday, that was the plan, until Brewer’s phone buzzed.
“He said ‘No, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do the whole thing,’ ” Brewer said. “He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter to me if I come in last. I just want to be out there.’ ”