A Marathon Tale

This is a "chapel" presentation given in 1999 to the high school I worked at.

Youth vs. Experience: A marathon tale

There was an editorial in the school newspaper this past issue about competition, particularly in sports, which I thought made some good points. From a different perspective, I think I’ve learned something about competition, and I’m going to tell you a couple of stories from my recent races to illustrate what I mean.

Pittsburgh and “Sparky”

Last year (98) I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon. In spite of all the hills, I was running a decent race, probably only a little more than 1/3 of the way back in the pack. Then, somewhere around 15 or 16 miles into the race, Sparky ran by. I know his name was Sparky because he had a homemade “Cheer for Sparky” T-shirt on. I remember him so well because just about the time he passed me he turned around and started running backwards, and dancing like Rocky as the onlookers yelled “Way to go, Sparky!”

I was offended. At the time, I could only think of two reasons someone would do such a thing. If he was a really good runner and able to run part of his marathon backwards, he was hotdogging to show up the rest of us and was a jerk. Or he was an idiot who didn’t know and respect the difficulty of running 26.2 miles and he was really a jerk. In any case, I began to think that if there was any justice in the universe it would only be right for me to pass a suffering Sparky later on.

Amazingly enough, about 5 miles later, as it was starting to rain and I was starting to hurt a bit myself, I caught up to Sparky again. He was walking slowly and looked like death itself. Of course, seeing one of my fellow racers suffering like this, my reaction was what you would expect – a silent “All right! Not dancing now, are ya, Sparky?” as I straightened up and pretended not to be hurting as I ran by.

My reason for telling you this is to establish that I’m a fairly serious competitor when I run a marathon. I know I’m not going to win anything, but I’m serious about performing my best and finishing ahead of as many people as possible.

I had “beaten” Sparky, but other than a momentary very uncharitable gloat, that “victory” did nothing for my performance in the race. I didn’t run faster, and I didn’t really draw any lasting satisfaction from it. I think that was because that competitive spirit was basically negative and focussed on something other than running the best race that I could.

A duel in Cleveland

Fast forward one year to the Cleveland Marathon last May. We had been doing battle for the better part of the morning. This one was young, in his early 20’s, with baggy shorts and tied back mop of fuzzy hair, and way too much enthusiasm.

Mr. Fuzzyhair first passed me somewhere around 8 miles. I had started well back and was slowly working my way up in the middle of the pack when I heard footsteps behind me. Soon this kid had pounded by me, and then gained even more ground as I made one of my planned water and rest stops. But once I started again, I managed to speed up enough to catch him. With just a bit more pushing, I got past him and started to pull away.

Before I got far, however, we hit another water stop. I stuck with my plan and slowed to a walk for 60 seconds of rest and rehydration. Fuzzyhair grabbed a gulp of water and kept on running, right past me. I took a few deep breaths, tossed down my paper cup, and started after him.

So it went for the next several miles, both of us passing and being passed in turn. We didn’t say much, but we got to know each as runners. He was running well for a first timer, with a more even pace than I expected, and for my part I was giving a fine performance as the old guy who wouldn’t stay passed.

As the miles went by, he was the first to slow. Somewhere, and it’s strange that I can’t say where, he stopped catching me at the water stops. I was pulling ahead. This was what I love about the marathon - disciplined experience beating youthful enthusiasm. Yeah, right.

Unfortunately for me, I was trying to sneak by on too little training and by 23 miles I was suffering. I was walking quite a bit and many of the runners I had passed miles before were passing me, including my young “friend” Fuzzyhair. I hate being passed late in a race, but this time I was forced to admit that the runners going by had managed themselves better than I had.

The good news about feeling bad in the late stages of a marathon is that you know it will end, most likely in minutes, not hours or days. So it was with me. I was jogging more as I made it past the 24 mile mark, then the 25. As I went by a volunteer was shouting, “Just 10 more minutes! 600 seconds! You can take that!” He was right. I yelled back, “No stopping now!” and I meant it.

At about that point I again caught up to Fuzzyhair again. He was stopped, bent over, working on a cramp. Rather than just running by with smug thoughts of experience beating youth, for some reason I slowed and said, “Hey, come on, we’ve come too far to stop now! We’ve been passing each other for miles!” He grinned and agreed, “Hours.” As he started running with me, he summed up everyone’s dilemma at 25 miles, “It hurts too bad, but it doesn’t hurt bad enough”. Me too. Too bad to keep going, but not bad enough to stop. But at least we were both running.

At the time I was thinking this was going to be a simple story of a kindly veteran nobly helping a novice to the finish, but my marathons are never simple. After we started running, I noticed something. He was picking up the pace! Having been the first one to be noble, I now felt compelled to keep up the pace, and soon the two of us were moving faster that we had for several miles.

It turned out he didn’t realize how close we were to the finish. When he found out it was just 6 more stoplights to the finish, he said, “Maybe we should start sprinting.” “Kid, I AM sprinting!” I deadpanned. He agreed, but we picked up the pace some more. We were flying, pulling each other to the finish and passing people as we went.

Now we could see the finish line just a few blocks away. We didn’t talk - we just put our heads down and ran, working together. If one of us started to falter, the other would immediately back off for a moment until we got back in sync, pulling each other on.

That’s the way we finished – we crossed the line together, running as fast as we could. After catching our breath, we exchanged a sweaty hug and a mutual “thanks, man,” and went our separate ways. Over that last mile, working together, we had probably taken 3 minutes off our time. And we had shared the triumph that comes from pulling together, helping each other to achieve more than either of us could have alone.