Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Real Reason

Over the years I have refined my answer to the most common question when interrogated by someone who does not understand running when they ask “why do you run marathons?” My answer has ranged from a sarcastic comment to a drawn out explanation of the benefits I derive from running and how they permeate other aspects of my life. More recently I have learned that running is not a selfish decision made with my self interest in mind as i previously believed. I also run for other people.

Prior to the 2010 LA Marathon I was committed to running the full marathon but unfortunately life got in the way. As a result my training consisted primarily of quality runs and much less on mileage. I did not have the opportunity for the usual five weekly runs that I depend on when training for a full marathon and instead wound up most weeks running only three times.

Since this had never happened I had no idea what to expect for the outcome. Would the race turn into a long day of regretting my lack of preparation, or would the abbreviated weekly schedule leave me feeling fresh and strong on race day? I came to terms with this race as an experiment in training and all I could do was hope for the best.

I trained and ran the race with a friend of mine who coincidentally wore the same shirt on race day. We both had very distinctive singlets from a previous company sponsored race and we individually decided to wear them in LA. They were bright red with the company name across the back of the shirt.

To his advantage he did not experience the missing weekday runs and followed our training program to the letter. If it said “run 9 miles on Tues” he ran 9 miles. Come race day we started the race together. I intended to gage my ability to keep up as we went along since I was breaking new ground with so few hours and miles of training. Unfortunately by mile six I had to let him go as I began to fall behind. I labored to continue at what felt like the same pace we started running, only to be reminded at each mile marker I was running a little slower.

As I approached the twenty mile marker something most unexpected happened. I spotted the bright red singlet ahead of me, on the right hand side of the road, walking. Sure enough it was my training partner and friend. He proclaimed he was “done” when I caught up to him which frightened me. I had never known him to tap out in an event. Ever.

Encouragement seemed like a viable option. I said “just stick with me, we’ll get in under four hours.” He would manage to pick it up and jog a few steps, only to announce “I’m done” again and start walking shortly after. After a few more failed attempts I realized that it was my turn to leave him behind. I announced I would see him at the finish as I drudged on ahead of him.

I managed to cross the finish line in 3:48 which is not a bad time for me. The training three runs per week proved to be sufficient to finish a marathon, but it was insufficient for preparing me to run hard the entire race. Wondering how he was doing, and worried he may not have been able to complete the race, I started to make my way back upstream hoping to find him and encourage him to finish when I noticed he was already entering the finisher’s area. He managed to pull it together and ended up finishing with a 3:56 to my surprise. If I had any reason to suspect he would be able to get moving again I would have stuck with him. I would gladly give up an all out effort in a marathon for the chance to help get a friend through their first marathon.

When we reunited in the finisher’s area he began to tell me a story. Something truly wonderful and amazing. An unknown runner approached him at the finish line and asked if he was part of a race team? Confused by the question he replied that he was not, but that there were two of us wearing the same shirt. She continued, and asked him to thank me, the other runner wearing the red singlet. She then explained that she was really struggling late in the race yet noticed this person ahead of her, dressed in red, hanging on. She figured if that person can hang on, so can I. And so she did. This runner, unknown to me, was lifted just enough to remain in the race when she felt like stopping encouraged only by a stranger in a red shirt ahead of her who also refused to give up. And sometimes that is all it takes. Knowing it is possible. That we can hang on in spite of overwhelming feeling to give up.

For the first time I knew and to this day my answer no longer varies. In fact I look forward to hearing the once dreaded question from others “why do you run marathons?”

“To inspire other people” I now reply content with my answer. That is the real reason.

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