The Houston Marathon and The Human Spirit

 

Howdy! I’m working on writing a book of stories and observations like these. Would you read it? Why or why not? It’s either that or another sophomoric, sardonic attempt at The Next Great American Novel. Cheers!

The human spirit is irrepressible. I’ve spent plenty of time thinking otherwise, laying on the floor or the couch seemingly feeling the earth’s orbit inside of my cranium, dizzied by the overwhelming realities of ultimately meaningless problems. Based on the more candid, autobiographical things I’ve read from fellow writers, some personality types are more prone to these cynical reveries than others. There are a lot of people on this planet, each one of them unique in their wiring and particular rendition of God’s image. You doubtlessly know someone who is so perpetually, effusively bubbly you wonder if they swirl lithium and cocaine in their morning coffee. And you also know somebody who seems to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, never looking quite at ease with themselves or the world around them no matter what’s happening. And lots of people in-between.

I spent this weekend among people who span the gamut of innate personalities, as most people do when they hang out with a group of fellow humans. But, there was something different about the atmosphere among this group of people. There was an infectious, overwhelmingly positive energy buzzing about us everywhere we went. The average level of commitment and determination amongst us was quite high. And this is an innate trait, but it is not dependent on personality type. We are born resilient and decide whether we want to accept or reject that reality. We can dedicate ourselves daily anew or shirk the triumph we’re born with in favor of despondency. This is something I think about often and struggle with even more, and is a large part of why I’m so into cycling and running. They are irrefutable physical reminders of our capabilities, measurable accomplishments of the intangible mental grit we use to get through days and across distant finish lines alike.

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And so Saturday night’s pre-race dinner was familiar to any endurance athlete; small, fixed menus filled with big plates of bread and pasta, some double fisting water and some sipping wine to take the edge off and ensure a decent sleep in spite of the very imminent alarm clocks. But it was also unfamiliar to me. Gone was the silent, somber sense of an upcoming challenge. In its place, a sense of pre-race victory. The room was so full of folks who were dialed in to that innate resilience in the human spirit that it felt like we had already finished the Houston Marathon even though it wouldn’t start for another twelve hours. I was at a table with Mark, an above-the-knee amputee who’s bound for Rio in 2016 to compete for the United States in Paralympic triathlon, and Ashley, the nineteen year old girl from small town Illinois who I’d be running with the next day. I was discussing training strategies for increasing wattage on the bike with Mark and talking about shooting guns with Ashley. In other words, just another casual dinner conversation. She and I were undoubtedly the most country people at the table; I recognized the .270 in the picture she pulled up on her phone from across a large round table. I should add, only as a very brief aside, that Ashley is blind. So were five other athletes in the room, who were all running the Houston Marathon the next morning. Two of them were gunning for times that absolutely slaughter my fastest marathon. Ashley was hoping to qualify for Boston, and silently had a goal that was a full fifteen minutes faster than the one she’d shared with me and Caroline, her other guide for the race. #relatable.

The first time I heard about a visually-impaired category for biathlon, I figured it was a mistake and they’d meant to say duathlon, which is two-thirds of a triathlon. But no. What Caroline said was what she meant: cross-country skiing and target shooting. It sounds so preposterous, but people laugh harder than I did when I first heard about it than when I tell them that they, too, could run a marathon or bike a hundred miles if they so choose. People believe that I am somehow fundamentally different from them, that I was born running and biking. I am not and I was not. I won’t even begin to pretend that these sports are the ultimate solution, but they are an at-hand example of the way in which we can all do the things we decide to, should we commit to them with a staunch faith that ignores the contrarian desires that will inevitably plague us along the way.

But back to blind people with guns. Something that might sound like a joke but certainly isn’t, which should be said of more dreams and goals that people quickly write off as unattainable out of some world-won cynicism. To spend five minutes with Ashley is to realize that she is keenly aware of the innate power of the human spirit, regardless of the hand she’s been dealt. She knows she can win if she plays her cards right, and she always seems to play her cards right. We discussed target shooting with various rifles and with unflinching seriousness I said that I’d guide her in biathlon, never mind the lack of snow in Texas. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Another blind runner, David, focused so much more on his granddaughter who was born with an incurable disease that it was very easy to forget that he’s run over forty marathons and from Seattle to Nova Scotia to raise money for finding a cure. You don’t have to put an asterisk on those accomplishments, or those of anyone else who was in the room that night. Everyone’s story was unique, but they all had a common theme—that this was about so much more than running or the typical clichés about disabilities and capabilities.

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Ashley, Caroline, and I took the starting line in the dark and chilly air and took off with one goal in mind—make sure Ashley qualified for Boston in her first ever marathon, all before her twentieth birthday. We started with some pep in our step to get out of the start gates. The visually impaired category got to start fifteen minutes before the rest of the twenty-something-thousand runners, which meant the first mile was eerily silent and empty, save for the amazing spectators and Elvis impersonators who were already lining the streets.  At mile 1.98, I spotted a vizsla puppy, which of course meant we pulled over to stop and pet it. After that, we didn’t stop or walk the entire time. The miles poured by and our photos look remarkably similar from the start line to the finish. When you’re hanging out with somebody whose spirit is so infectiously positive and evident at all times, it’s impossible to not smile. And when you smile for a full 26.2 miles, you beat your goal time by fifteen minutes.

What’s far more significant than the finish line and numerical accomplishment is the sense of camaraderie and teamwork present on a marathon course. From the first few packs of runners to pass us, which were the elite men and women on track to low-two-hour finishes, to the folks who we kept stride with later in the race, we received an overwhelming amount of encouragement. On the marathon course, every friendly word is returned and every step brings you one closer to creating something tangible out of a commitment. Whether being handed Kleenex and cupcakes from spectators or receiving encouraging mid-race visits from familiar faces, it felt as though the entire city of Houston and much of the national running/triathlon scene was with us in signs of admiring solidarity.

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And the same was true of every person on the course. If you’re running a marathon, everyone watching you or running with you is your friend. And we had friends make five hour drives simply to spectate and offer encouragement, and I’ve never received so many Facebook notifications or likes in my entire life as when I was tagged in photos with Ashley and Caroline. But that’s what happens when you surround yourself with people who have been honest about their failures and humble about their successes, and who, above all else, exude that belief in themselves that I keep alluding to. It was interesting to hear Ashley talk about herself in the context of her two sisters (who round out a batch of triplets)—let’s just say that most nineteen year old girls are not interested in running more miles than they are old, or setting any number of other ambitious goals. We could dive into a discussion about how much or little genetics play into all of this, but I found it to be quite affirming of the notion that, ultimately, attitude is something we choose. As someone who suffers from acute decision paralysis (it sometimes takes me five minutes to decide which strawberry preserves I want to buy), I’ll be the first to admit that making choices is not always easy. But it is something that we can do, that we do multiple times a day, and that we should be aware of when it comes to our attitudes and outlooks.

Back to running for a minute. To be in the midst of twenty thousand people striving for the same expression of the human spirit is one of the most energizing feelings in the world. Here’s the deal with marathons; they’re just one way to prove to yourself that hard work and belief in something pays off. So whether you want to get into knitting or hacking or watermelon seedspitting or backpacking, there’s a way to set a lofty goal and put in consistent work that will help you achieve it. So long as you don’t let the ambient noise of the world distract and discourage you.

It’s so easy to dismiss all of these grand stories as one-in-a-million examples of people who are simply much stronger and greater than we are. My friends don’t believe me when I say that they can run a marathon, too, or that it really isn’t easy for me. It’s not. Two days later, I’m still the most sore I’ve been in my entire life. But that soreness reminds me that I did something that sounds unappealing and ridiculous. And that when I sit down to work on a book or wake up in the morning with a fuzzy ringing in my head that tries to tell me that getting out of bed is pointless, what I am doing is not out of the realm of possibility. Some things come easier to some people than others, but that’s far from the point. We have to recognize that we are all succeeding at something that is not easy, even if it feels that way to us. You may think that the chords you effortlessly play on piano or the ease with which you learn a new coding language is par for the human course and thusly never pursue it more seriously. Neither of those things are easy for me. That won’t stop me from trying if I ever feel so inclined, but I think we’re as wont to reject ease as we are to reject challenge. I often assume that because what I’m writing hasn’t come with a great degree of agony and toiling and fifty drafts that I must not be doing a very good job, but that sort of thinking has a way of preventing us from ever reaching the second draft, let alone the fiftieth. One of the biggest disservices we do ourselves is compare, upwardly or downwardly, and assume that we are simply middling. It’s tempting to focus on the small picture, to wonder how someone picks out their marathon outfit if they can’t see, but in so doing you lose out on the important details about our collective abilities.

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Everyone is doing something extraordinary, however big or small it is and no matter the obstacles they do and don’t encounter along the way. When I reflect on my story now, I often talk about how signing up for and finishing Ironman Louisville probably saved my life. It reminded me that so many of us need absurdly extreme reminders that we can do this. From my first exposure to visually impaired triathletes to the double-amputee veteran who covered 140.6 miles using his arms to the seventy six year old man who told me mid-race, “I can either do this or sit on the couch ‘til I die,” I realized that I had finally found my people. We’re all just sick enough to call races that last several hours “fun” and all healthy enough that we can pick each other up and dig deep to offer some form of encouragement that steers us towards the finish line. To watch the human spirit at work is a wondrous thing. I think it’s why we like music and all other forms of art so much. Someone made that thing out of thin air and imagination and it tickles our fancies in implacable ways.

And so, when another blind runner, Jason talked about what running did for him as he came to terms with losing his vision, I almost started crying sitting at the dinner table. He described a struggle and a way to defeat it that resonated with me on a level I couldn’t have imagined. For him, vision was a relatively minor detail in the actual challenge at-hand. Running is a metaphorically rich endeavor that has countless physical benefits, but above all, it is a way to say to everyone around you that you can do this thing. So many of us imagine that losing our vision would be a crippling blow to our already tenuous wellbeing, but we aren’t giving ourselves enough credit. As I’ve been writing this, I’m also texting Ashley jokes at a rapid fire rate that rivals my high school flip phone T9 glory days. And, thanks to the encouragement of an amazing community and the individual benefits of all my endeavors, the real glory days have just begun.

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3 Comments

  1. John, you are an incredibly gifted writer! I love reading your blogs because your words seem to jump off the page to reach out and touch the very heart of the person reading it.

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