Madison, November 6, 2015
This is it, kids! The day before the morning of the moment I’ve been aiming for. Not quite a forever moment, not as big as birth or citizenship, but surely as significant as a college degree or a career launch. I’ve given this my last three years, after all, and now, tomorrow, I’m going to cross that stage and get what I’ve got coming to me. Many others, hundreds if not thousands, will earn the title with me tomorrow, but that will not diminish the accomplishment. Call us Marathoners, and by that medal that says “Finisher,” consider us all winners. That, folks, is the magic of the marathon: only a very small number will be running for first place, but all of us will be proud of our personal achievement.
At the end of this race there will be a bell that runners can ring if they set a new “personal best.” I already know I’ll be ringing it, because just finishing, which I will do even if I have to crawl the final stretch, will be the best I have ever done. In fact, if I keep at this, I can imagine my second and third and fourth race each being a reason unto itself to ring that bell. Each new race will bring me to a new level. Ring it up! I will never have run at the age I have then reached. Ring it! I will, with each race, have conquered a new city or a new course. Ring them bells!
I know that not every runner will reach that finish line, but this too is the legendary spirit of the marathon, that even if one stumbles, the moment is big enough that eventually, by any means and to whatever extent possible, there will be a victory to declare. After miles and hours, indeed months and years of running to this point, the forward moment will carry that journeying soul, in spirit if not in fact, to get to that bell and ring it!
This is what that most famous running town meant when they declared themselves “Boston Strong.” The year was 2013. The fastest runners had already crossed the finish line but there were still thousands of runners behind them when, at the sick whim of a couple of miscreant brothers, a nail bomb went off near the end of the course. Several runners were killed, many more were injured. Many who were able to run on were prevented from crossing the finish line because police had
to take safety measures, and for the briefest instant it looked like the bombers had achieved what they perhaps had intended, to not only take the lives of a random few but to kill the spirits of a city and a country.
Ah, but those bombers had no idea how big that spirit was. There would be community after this, and a resolve to keep running in 2013 and onward into 2014. There would be mourning for those who had fallen permanently, but then, in their honor, there would be many more who would run forward and ring than bell for them all.
Along the course of Boston’s race is a statue paying tribute to one of Boston’s most enduring runners, Johnny A. Kelley. Johnny entered his first Boston Marathon at the age of twenty, but he did not finish. Discouraged, he did not run for several more years, and when he tried again, he failed again. A momentum was beginning to build, though, and the next year he was back, and he finished this time, then repeated the achievement the next year and the year after that. When he was twenty seen, he won the race, first place, but perhaps even more impressive is what happened next: he kept running, every year for a total of sixty one years, with only one other run not completed because of a race day injury. He ran his last full race at the age of 84. His statue, called “Young at Heart,” shows two runners, with Johnny the elder holding up the hand of Johnny the younger, declaring victory across time. Ring them bells, Johnny, one for every year!
But where was I? Oh yes, accountability. Eight chapters in eight days, and anecdotal ninth in the dog days of summer and then, suddenly I am on the eve of my first big race. Tomorrow. Twenty six point two miles, all in a morning run.
And where did the time go? The training, like the journal writing, was less than perfect. I did progress to a 22 mile run to weeks ago, but I had once had higher aspirations. It was my intent to reach 26 miles three weeks ahead of race day, to consistently run five runs a week and to hit a 9:30 average pace for a four hour run. It became harder to fit the longer runs in, though, and even short runs were a challenge during some very active work weeks. I will still finish this effort, but with an adjusted goal of four and a half hours, and I am resigned to the possibility of a little walking towards the end.
I had higher goals for this journal, too, but maybe this is as it should be. I though I might have completed a definitive, publishable marathon book, but I know I’m not quite there. I’ll keep writing, though, just as I will keep running. Today, in fact, just before I sat down to write this final paragraph, I signed up for the next one: the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, June 2016. And you can hold me to that.
I’m afraid to stop running.
It feels too good.
I want to stay alive.
— Johnny A. Kelley, age 70
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast!
And when I run I feel his pleasure.
― Eric Liddell, as quoted in Chariots of Fire (1981)