Monday, January 17, 2011

Purple and Pink: Marathon Reflections

I can check it off my list. Yesterday I ran my first full marathon, the Rock & Roll Marathon in Phoenix, AZ. It didn’t unfold exactly as I had imagined it, but it was still an incredible experience. The last sign I saw before the finish line read, “You are no longer just a runner. You are now a marathoner!” I’m not sure I feel like a marathoner, but it’s a cool thought.

Two some-what related incidents from the marathon made a lasting impression on me.

The first involved a number of participants running the race in purple tops. These runners participate in the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Team in Training” program and use their training and marathon run to help raise money for continued research on these devastating diseases. That alone is impressive—the physical training they endure for a cause that benefits others.

But it was the coaches in this program who really made an impression. They were an almost constant sight along the route, and they’d eagerly abandon the role of spectator each time one of their runners appeared. They’d run alongside their runners, inquiring about everything—how the runner was feeling, what the runner was thinking—and then offer an appropriate encouragement and word of advice for that point in the run. They were easily as excited by their runners’ accomplishments as the runners themselves. They worked to equip and empower individuals who ran to equip and empower others in much more significant struggles. These runners and coaches formed a community within the morning’s larger community of runners.

The second incident was both personal and fleeting. Somewhere around the 22-mile mark I hit a low point. I ran a strong first fifteen, and then I started to feel the presence of the proverbial wall—that point where a runner feels like he’s running the that day’s last steps. At seventeen, a pace group passed me. This was a bit defeating, but when a second pace group passed me at the 22-mile mark, I was really feeling defeated. (I know—it was my first marathon and finishing should have been my focus and source of contentment. It is, honestly!) I slowed to a walk and hung my head in frustration. About ten seconds into my self-pity party, a woman ran by me, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “You can do this.” I thanked her as she ran by. I never saw her face. I only know she wore pink and spoke to me on her way by. (If angels run marathons, this on

e had her halo concealed.) I wanted her to be right, and that helped me find the motivation and strength to finish.

Distance running is largely an individual sport that generates an often-gracious running

community. I find the dichotomy intriguing. The goodwill and genuine hope for someone else’s success is unlike any sport-related experience I’ve had. It enables me to converse with people 180° different from myself and to feel immediately like I know something about my fellow runner—more of an understanding than I sense when I meet someone from my profession or organizational affiliations. I’ll leave it to the social scientists to assess the validity of this sense, but evidence of its existence was on full display at yesterday’s marathon.

And I, thankfully, benefitted from it.

Lady runner in pink, whoever and where ever you are, thank you! The power of a pat on the back and an encouraging word should never be underestimated. I think the runners in purple would agree.