Posted by: trevormeers | May 10, 2010

Running for Big Sugar and Anthem Man

For months, I ran alone through wind, ice and snow just to eventually find out how I’d fare in a marathon. But before the National Guard even fired their cannon to start my first marathon, I judged the venture a spectacular success. If you’ve never cued up to begin running a long race, you’re missing a jump-start for the soul. These races light the candle, as they say, for those of us about to burn out on our culture’s binge diet of shallow priorities and empty achievements.

At 6:59 a.m., robins chirped at the dawn warming the east wall of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. Runners surrounded me in shirts listing the various types of cancer research for which their runs would raise money. A hush settled when the announcer requested a moment of silence for three runners who died as they trained for this very race. A family milled in a group, all wearing shirts labeled “Team Lizzie” in memory of a teenage girl who inspired an annual run. A family a few blocks down the course was erecting a sign showing a boy who died young. It read “We use the pain as fuel for our journey.”

Heroes both real and pseudo meet on the Lincoln Marathon sidelines as Team Lizzie passes by.

Even if I turned and went home now, the months of training had been worth it just for bringing me to share this moment with these people.

Running has long carried deeper emotional dimensions than other sports available to weekend athletes. Perhaps it’s the pursuit’s irreducible nature. Skill plays a small role in your achievements as a runner, even if your goal is as lofty as finishing a marathon. At the end of the day, anybody with perseverance and discipline (and reasonably healthy knees) can do it. Family and friends may support you, but in the end, you’ll find the goal only through your own legs and will. On the long trail to your chosen distance, you will inevitably redefine your limits and scour away the complacency stacked in deep drifts over your mental reserves. Runners wear shirts with slogans like “I can. I will. I am a marathoner” and “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” You’d laugh at this stuff if it showed up in the Thursday-night softball league, but in a race, you nod knowingly.

Running, like some kind of mythical healing pool, draws those with emotional afflictions. While they may not be able to reverse the cancer in their loved ones, restore the leg they lost in the war or bring back their spouse, they can triumph over a set length of asphalt. So they go running, packaging their frustration into the shape of a given distance they can measure out, train for and ultimately subdue. The sacrifice demanded by distance running is cathartic and purifying, like laying a hot iron on a wound. It’s the opportunity to show that if the ones you love must suffer so much, the least you can do is take on a little travail of your own, sharing in some small share of what they feel, suffering exhaustion to show your empathy. With that mindset, it comes very naturally for runners to link causes to their runs both to justify such extraordinary effort, and, as the sign said, to fuel it. Quitting a race before the finish isn’t failing in a sporting event; it’s dishonoring all your past sacrifices and those of the people you represent.

Those making a comeback from some major blow regularly choose running as their crucible, too. For some, a long race is one of the hardest things they can realistically take on, making it an ideal arena in which to publicly slay a personal dragon. It’s an act of private heroism for many people simply to get themselves to work or live independently. But to cross a finish line is to put all that excruciating everyday effort into a statement anyone can recognize.

This makes running something of an oasis in suburban America, a world purpose-built to virtually eliminate struggle. Outside of disease or car accident (and even those are statistically rare), very few real threats haunt most Americans. But because human beings instinctively crave adversity to keep from going stale, middle-class Americans elevate the mundane to the status of epic struggle. This is why sportscasters speak of athletes as “warriors,” housewives crack in the pressure-cooker of choosing their new home’s color palette and anybody at all cares about who’s breaking up with Jennifer Aniston.

So for those of us who don’t go to work wearing camouflage or surgical scrubs, finding displays of true courage takes some searching. But in running, they’re as common as GPS watches. At any marathon, you literally just need to lift your eyes to see grit on display because the first athletes out of the chute are always the wheelchair racers.

If you so much as dabble in running, you’ll get swept up in a wave of people with higher callings. Years ago, one of my co-workers tackled his first marathon through Team in Training, which provides pro coaches to runners who raise money for medical research. Midway through training, when the rookie runners were losing momentum, the coaches brought in kids suffering from diseases the runners were helping to fight. The runners’ fatigue evaporated.

When another co-worker named Karl watched his brother-in-law’s descent into Alzheimer’s, he applied running to the problem. Karl ran and walked loops around a small gym for 24 hours to illustrate the mental cage Alzheimer’s sufferers live in. I spent an hour circling the gym with Karl, counting his laps so donors would know how much to give.

At the 25.2-mile mark, my cousin Jason grabs a new shirt in preparation for running "The Big Sugar Mile."

In 2009, a couple of weeks before my cousin Jason was set to run his first marathon, one of his old college buddies nicknamed Big Sugar dropped dead unexpectedly. On race day, Jason’s IT bands started to fail, producing searing pain in his hips. Hobbling toward the half-marathon mark, he considered tapping out, but he pulled out a picture of Big Sugar, studied it and pressed on. At mile 25.2, his family tossed him a shirt with Big Sugar’s name on it so Jason could pull it on and finish in his friend’s honor.

But it doesn’t even take epic distances to discover running’s soul. My wife recently ran in a 5K that opened with the national anthem sung by a young man with developmental challenges. He stepped forward wearing cowboy boots, a big buckle and a long-sleeve Western shirt plastered with the Stars and Stripes. He read the words off a karaoke machine as he sang, sometimes racing ahead of the taped music, sometimes falling behind. I imagined Anthem Man, as I labeled him, practicing all month and carefully–proudly–laying out that shirt on his bed the night before, thinking about race day. I imagined his mom tugging his color straight and wiping her eyes before he stepped up to the mike. Many people say Whitney Houston’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner before Super Bowl 25 was the greatest ever. They haven’t heard Anthem Man sing it.

It would be a stretch to say I’ve attached this much significance to my own running. I do it mainly as an antidote to the soft life of an office worker. It’s a pursuit with a bottomless appetite for all the energy I can throw at it. But there is, even now, some altruism to my running because my kids come along to races. My girls have yet to set foot in the Magic Kingdom, a pro sporting event or a movie theater. But they’ve hung around the start and finish lines at 10 races in the last 2 years, rubbing shoulders with stories like the ones above. And in the role-model race, I’d say that means they’re off to a pretty fast pace.

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