Verklempt at the Races
When I worked in college admissions, one of the most damning things we could say about a student was that he had the “Ds”: determined, diligent, dedicated. Students with the Ds get the work done. They don’t slack off, they tend not to complain, they’re the little workhorses of their class. So what was the problem? When you’re reading applications for a highly selective university (I was at Duke), these virtues are necessary but not sufficient qualities to gain acceptance. When so many students are vying for a tiny number of places, just doing the work is not enough to get you noticed. You’ve also got to shine.
But in order to be a marathoner, or any serious athlete, you won’t get far without the Ds. These are the stuff of coach’s clichéd locker room speeches. I’ve come to appreciate, in my own classrooms, the pleasures of being able to count on students who doggedly attack their assignments, those who are careful to ask questions about what is expected so they can deliver exactly that. These people are easy to work with, and often they excel.
And I understand that you don’t even get to the start of a long race without the Ds.
This summer at the Missoula (MT) marathon I ran the half and then jogged back out on the course, parked myself near the end and morphed into a spectator. Sure it was great to see the leaders of the marathon come in, making it look easy. It was fun to watch people who had trained well and taken aim at a hard goal—between 3 and 4 hours, say—and a little sad to see those who had overestimated and gone out too fast pay for it during those last miles. But later, when the day got even hotter and the sun sapped the energy of those of us just standing still, watching the folks still out there running made me cry.
The good stories are often at the back of the back. The woman who survived breast cancer. The guy who’d lost a couple of hundred pounds. The mother-daughter pair trotting along together. The first marathoners. Especially the first marathoners. I don’t mean to take anything away from the fast runners whose effort I respect, but it’s watching the first marathoners that makes me feel something big.
The night before the race, over dinner, first marathoners Laura and Sarah listened to veterans me and Staci give them hints about what to expect both during and after the race. We gave them an overview of the course, and I mentioned the “false summit” of the one big hill: you think you’re at the top and you start going down, but then you have to go up again. If you’re not expecting it, it’s not a nice surprise. They were scared, Laura and Sarah. The farthest they’d ever run was eighteen miles. They didn’t know if they could do it. I knew they could, and knew, too, that I’d be looking forward to seeing them after they’d run 26.2 miles.
I was also looking forward to seeing my friend Chris get a finisher’s medal in the half marathon. Chris had been an athlete in college, but twenty years, two kids, a recent divorce and job change take their toll on a body. She’s long struggled with her weight and had a surgery looming at the end of the summer. Chris decided she wanted to get fit pre-op, and I decided to help her. I took her on some long, hard hikes in the weeks before the race; like a little drill sergeant, I pushed her past the point where she was comfortable to the edge of, well, pain. Eight miles on a crazy-hilly loop in the woods; five miles where I made her walk faster—FASTER, I said, USE YOUR ARMS, I barked—than she ever had.
She didn’t hate me for it, and she didn’t hate herself for being out of shape. She just put her head down and did the work. Determined, diligent, dedicated.
And so I spent a summer morning running a half marathon and thinking mostly about my friends—Laura, Sarah, and Chris—each competing at their own level and against ideas of themselves (I’m not a marathoner; I’m not an athlete; I’m not fit) and as I watched all those folks at the middle to the back of the pack finish the last mile of the race, I got all verklempt. I have never cried after one of my own races. But I’m telling you, seeing what it took for my friends to get to the line, understanding that what they did was so big, and meaningful, and important, well, that got me choked up. They all finished—Laura, Sarah, and Chris—and they all had a good time and they all want to do it again. That thought, too, makes me want to cry.