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The Meaning of Marathons

I knew when to talk to my oldest daughter about the Boston Marathon bombing. On the way to school. But I didn’t know how to talk to her about it. So I gave the matter some considerable thought, not just the tragedy, but also marathons in general.

* * *

Like so many, my life has been touched by the marathon experience. I ran my first one the Portland Marathon when I was a Seattle resident back in 1997.

What made you enter? my friends would ask. The truth was, I didn’t know.

My dad had recently been diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually claim his life, so that was obviously part it. It was part of everything in those days. But to say that was the sole reason wouldn’t have been accurate.

Living in Seattle had been a wonderful way to spend my 20s. I had a crew of fantastic friends in the city, as well as another crew of college friends scattered about in places like San Francisco, LA, New York and Atlanta. Then, of course, was my gang of lifelong buddies who’d stuck around my hometown. And I fancied myself as the type that would bounce about to any one of those places and make merry wherever I was.

But things were no longer going as well as they had been going for me, and my dad’s diagnosis was symbolic of that fact. It forced me to see things from a different perspective, one that made me realize that I was like a tree with roots that grew far and wide, but not very deep, and those types of trees topple easily in a storm, which was exactly what was happening to me at the time.

And I didn’t wanna be that kind of tree anymore. I wanted to be the kind with roots that grew deep and in one centralized location so that I might remain steadfast when the next front rolled through.

To do that, I believed I needed to plant myself closer to home. The only problem was I didn’t know how. Things were going well with work, so it’s not like I was willing to just pick up and interrupt a career. I needed a plan.

* * *

There were these steps close to this house I rented in Eastlake. They were impossibly steep and shot up as far as the eye could see, connecting two neighborhood streets that were carved into the side of the hill that rose from Lake Union to meet Interstate 5. I used to run up and down those steps in sets of ten as part of my training, almost always at the very end of a long run. It sucked, right? But it was just part of the deal.

One part of the deal that didn’t suck was the involvement of two of my closest friends Jeff Alexander and Patrick Brennan. Compared to me, they were hardcore. In fact, they’d just run the Boston Marathon that year and qualifying for Boston was no easy feat. They had to run sub 3:10s, something they accomplished in the 1996 Portland Marathon. In a gesture of solidarity, they’d run the entire race together and crossed the finish line side-by-side, hands clasped and raised above their heads in a champion’s pose, an image captured perfectly, if not poignantly, on film.

You could see it in their facial expressions. In that moment, they’d actualized a dream. The two best friends from UMass who lived in Seattle had earned the right to return to the place where their roots grew deepest as an active part of an iconic 24 hours known simply as Patriots’ Day by running what they and many others consider to be the greatest marathon in the world.

Know why they had a champion’s pose in that picture? Because my boys were just that.

They were also quintessential in my training and even accompanied me to Portland for the race. The night before, we went out for a carb-heavy dinner, which was when we hit our only bump in the entire process.

They thought my goal was too ambitious for a first-time marathoner and encouraged me to dial it back by 15 minutes or so.

But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Just like the steps, it was part of the deal.

* * *

It was darker and colder than I expected when the gun I’d waited on for four months finally sounded. And just as my mentors had warned, I had to watch my pace the first half hour or so, lest I get off too fast and expend too much energy too soon. But by mile six, I’d settled into a nice, comfortable rhythm which I was hopeful I could maintain throughout.

At mile 13, I was passed by a group that was really clipping along, a good tick or two faster than my pace. So I filed in line and began drafting off of them just to see where I was at. I matched them stride-for-stride, gliding behind the group with relative ease, an act which filled me with confidence.

But it was short-lived. For by mile 17, I began to fade. Which is when my mind started to wander even further than it already had all the way to the bar stools which rose from the linoleum floor and flanked the drugstore counter where I’d ordered hundreds of vanilla cokes as a child.

Then down to the boulevard, a tranquil road which travels alongside the river, one I’d run countless times, its deceptively undulating track rising, falling, twisting and turning like a ribbon being blown by the wind.

Then up Blows Ferry, right at the fork, then left onto Noelton Drive and up that final hill to the stone house covered with ivy where I stood breathless in the den as my moribund father lay peacefully on the couch.

“You’re home.”

If only life were as easy to chart as this marathon. Then I’d simply put one foot in front of the other and arrive exactly where I wanted to be exactly where I was meant to be. No matter how hard it was. No matter how much training it took.

My daydream ended when Jeff joined me at mile 25 to “take me home” as he called it. I was near depleted, relying upon whatever it is one relies upon when more is required, yet nothing is left.

“You’re doing great, man. Looking strong,” he said.

He was lying. I looked like shit.

After a few silent minutes, I glanced at my watch to confirm what I already knew. That’s when the tears I never anticipated began rolling down my windburned face.

“I’m gonna do it,” I said between sobs. “I’m gonna break my goal.”

“I know man. I’m proud of you.”

“Y’all didn’t think I could.”

“We were wrong.”

Jeff peeled off at the 26-mile mark, leaving me to negotiate the final two tenths of a mile by myself. It was then that the finish line came into view and as it did, the image of Jeff and Patrick crossing that very line just one year prior flashed before my eyes, their clasped hands raised high above their heads compelling me to sprint the rest of the way. And suddenly I understood the reason for my tears as well as what had compelled me to run the marathon in the first place.

I simply wanted to be great — if even just for a moment — during a time in my life when I felt anything but.

* * *

Marathon finish lines are wonderfully joyous places. And I believe the primary reason is because everyone who crosses has attained a greatness for one and all to behold. And it doesn’t matter if it took two hours and ten minutes or ten hours and two minutes to cross it. They’re all great no matter what.

But it’s not the simple act of crossing the line that has made them so, because greatness is never achieved with a single step. After all, it’s not an event. It’s a process. And the finish line is the culmination of that process, a trail of blood, sweat and tears left in a wake which extends behind it for months and months and months.

Marathons are metaphors which empower all who run them. No matter their fitness level. No matter their back story. No matter their motivation for doing so. Marathons are at once universal and unique and they fill those who complete them with confidence, determination, resolve, hope, peace and love.

Exactly why all who finish are so great.

To this day, I maintain that the 1997 Portland Marathon was my ticket back to a place where I’d finally drop my roots. The clarity and peace of mind I gained through the countless steps which the process contained gave me the confidence to know that a daunting transition was well within my grasp. And less than a year later, I proved as much when I accepted a better job in my same industry that took me back to the Southeast, a move which will always be profound for two reasons.

First, it allowed me to spend the last chapter of my dad’s life right where I hoped I would. And as luck would have it, dad’s condition improved, at least for a bit. He died in November of 2002.

And second, the move was the very beginning of the long road that led to Caroline and the kids. I suppose we became a blended family on the day Caroline and I got married. But I always felt it was the birth of the triplets that made it official — a birth that took place exactly one decade and one day after the race that empowered me to come home and drop my roots for good.

* * *

I started by telling Alli just how beautiful the human spirit is. And that while there are several things that showcase that spirit, none do so any better than a marathon. I explained the dedication and commitment completing such a race takes, and all the wonderful things which spring therefrom.

Because of all that, I explained, marathons are sacred, exactly why, in fact, so many were outraged at Paul Ryan’s misrepresentation of his. You don’t mess with marathons because when you do, you belittle the collective greatness that they represent. In many ways, the glory is shared, so by misrepresenting yours, you disrespect everyone else’s. And greatness is nothing to disrespect.

But that’s exactly what these cowards have done, I told my daughter. They’ve disrespected the collective greatness of one of the greatest institutions in the world, in one of the greatest races in the world, on one of the greatest days in the world, in one of the greatest cities in the world. And they’ve done so in an unimaginably horrific manner, by planting bombs in the very place so many had gathered to celebrate the greatness they knew to expect.

Even so, I told her that these cowards should never cause us to stop running, should never will never cause us to change the way we live our lives.

Because, yes, the world has some evil people in it, but it has so many more good people. And everyone knows that good always defeats evil.

And great simply crushes it.

My thoughts and prayers are with every single person directly or indirectly impacted by the Boston Marathon bombings, particularly the victims who were injured or lost their lives, along with their families. 

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