"I know we're going to win, I just don't know how... The Difference in the game is gonna be Love." This is what Dabo Swinney, the winning Coach of the Clemson Tigers, told reporters in the post-game interview when asked what he said to the team at halftime of the National Championship football game last night. Of course, the team they beat was Alabama, the host State of the First Light Marathon which is the subject of this post, so I apologize in advance if you are an Alabama fan who thinks it's just too soon for me to be immortalizing the words of the Clemson coach... I promise I won't mention it again! Like most people, I believe, sometimes I forget the most important thing in any endeavor is Love and I need to be reminded. God surprised me with a big reminder of this on Sunday and I feel quite blessed to have been in just the right place to feel the Love! You are about to be introduced to 2 fine young gentlemen named Sudheer and Ajay through my encounter with them. They made my race, brought me back to basics, and helped me see that I'm exactly on the path I need to be on.
In the last post, I stopped typing so I could hit 'Publish' and go sleep a few hours in preparation for a long travel-marathon-travel sandwich with extra freezing, hold the fun. But after a mere 90 minutes of sleep, the door to my hotel room burst open and the lights came on. I groggily muttered something... I really don't know what- maybe "hey! hey! hey!" or something equally as articulate... and whoever they were went away. Finding out who that was, why they had come, and if they were really gone instead of just hiding there in the dark, weren't really nearly as high on my list of priorities as the other 90 minutes of sleep I desperately wanted to get, so without further ado, I fell right back into a dead slumber until 1:30 am and woke to find that no one had stolen my spandex- thank goodness! I got up, got dressed in the clothes I would end up wearing for the next 23 hours, then schlepped all my stuff downstairs and was across the still very icy parking lot, into my car, and on the way to Mobile by 2:05. The wind remained pretty stiff and I had a hard time bending like a reed in it since I was frozen solid in the 15 degree (before counting wind chill) night. I drank a 6 pack of bottled water and had a couple McDonald's breakfast burritos on the way (both may be found in many airports and towns around the globe) and stopped to pee/freeze a few times along the deserted road on the way (open bathrooms just weren't an option). I made it to Mobile at 5:15, that gave me 45 minutes till packet pickup (and hopefully race day registration) opened, so I laid back my seat and took another nap until 6 (gotta train to sleep when I get the chance). The volunteer gladly presented a paper registration and I was finally sure that I would be running a marathon for the first time since I was last sure of the same thing on Friday afternoon before the ice started in Mississippi... we see how that worked out, but gotta keep the optimism! It was a balmy 24 degrees at the start line, so I didn't have to worry about the cold... it certainly wasn't worried for me!
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT / LIFE & ENDURANCE TIP #1: Don't focus on the pain, but do focus on the good. Consciously doing so in all areas of life and endurance sports de-fangs pain and makes endurance so much more pleasant.
Without notice, and making me feel as if I were here in the deep South 150 years ago, the massive concussion BOOM of a serious cannon erupted, and we were charging off into Mobile, Alabama on foot. My race plan for this weekend hadn't changed, I fully expected to keep it very slow through the race and try to get as close to 6 hours as possible- maybe 6 1/2 if I could pull it off. I really wanted to know what that pace was like, on a road, without some massive physical infirmity, such as food poisoning or a dislocated foot, which had necessitated my previous road marathons at that pace. I was also ultimately curious what the day after a race at that pace would feel like- I was sure hoping the answer would be Marvelous! The first 8 or so miles of the race were pretty uneventful but pleasant. Even at my slow pace, I quickly caught up with a few old friends who started closer to the line than I did but intended to pace it even slower than me, and I also waved at other friends passing by who had decided on a more aggressive pace for the day. (Like fellow 777 Quester Lisa who carried an American flag on her shoulder and ran it in about 5 hours, quest or no quest!) This race is both marathon and half until about mile 8.5, then the 2 groups part ways for a few hours to be reunited again at the finish line. During these first miles, I did some customary people watching and noticed a couple of guys who had some of the tell-tale signs of first-time, 'just want to finish this', marathoners. There is a certain gait, a newness of the clothes, and an expectant tightness that seems pretty common among them in my experience. These 2 had it, and it made me proud of them already. If you are a marathoner, then you understand, if you aren't, then you should be and you'll get it then! Just like me in 2013, these guys weren't quite in shape for a marathon physically, even though they had trained, but they were mentally ready. They knew what they had bitten off was going to be damn hard, but they were doing it anyway and hoping it all would work out. What was even better is that they, like me, did not grow up in a running culture and they had decided to do their first marathon to exercise control over their bodies- in their case, it was about losing weight. They don't have any running role models to help them along the way, just a drive to do the impossible and guts to try. How do I know all this (and a whole lot more) about these 2 guys? Because they did me the biggest favor they could- they reached into my bubble and drew me out. Time to meet Sudheer and Ajay:
"Excuse me sir, may I ask what pace are you running?"
"Huh? Uh, well, uh, about, uh 12:30 uh right now."
"How fast will you run the marathon?"
"Um, well, see, the thing is, I'm trying to, uh... hopefully 5:45 to 6 hours minimum- I really want to stretch this one out."
"Ok, that sounds good, may we run with you?"
And just like that, I had 2 companions for the rest of the race!
Sudheer (Above on Right) was the one doing most of the talking (a role which I would soon fill) and Ajay (Above on Left) was less talkative, but very personable. Turns out they are both family practice doctors from Jackson, MS who grew up in India. They had trained for the Mississippi Blues Marathon, but unlike most, I'd venture to say ALL, of the aspiring Marathon Freshman Class who expected to have their first one at the 10th annual running of the Mississippi Blues Marathon but got iced out, Sudheer and Ajay refused to be defeated this weekend. These guys did exactly what big braggart Dave Jones did, they drove to Alabama to try to register in person for the First Light Marathon!! They loaded up with another friend on Saturday evening and made it to Mobile just in time to beat the closing of the packet pickup/registration that night. Since they were race #'s 410 and 411 and I was #413, there was only one person who registered between them late on Saturday night and me early Sunday morning [I'll give a free Eternal Chill cooling towel to anyone who can prove #412 was a first-time marathoner!] Since I'm not sure how much about their lives they only wanted to share with me and how much they want me releasing to all 300,000 followers of my blog ;) I will just tell you a little bit about them and a little bit about our surroundings as we covered the next 18 or so miles. As the miles went by, Sudheer and I chatted shoulder to shoulder and Ajay hung just behind us. We celebrated every mile with Sudheer doing a muted Rocky-like hands-over-the-head, slow motion fist pump and we got a 2 thumbs up, elbows-out, groove from Ajay. To me, it felt like every mile was short, like really short. Those guys may have felt like I was pacing some Marine Drill Instructor double-time pace, but they didn't act like it. I told stories about some of the Maniacs and 50 Staters that I've previously mentioned in this blog. Sudheer shared the same type of giddy enthusiasm that I got when I first heard of what some of these people do. For me, after my first marathon, I remember learning about how many marathons and States George and Diane had done and I must've looked like my 3 year old daughter in a family picture this year- trying to physically hold down a smile with her hand. Sudheer told me along the way that hearing all the stories from me about what people can do made him unable to stop smiling. One anonymous Maniac, who we won't identify by name, rolled up on us and dipped into his pack to pull out a miniature bottle of liquor, gave us a cheers, downed it, then exchanged the empty bottle for a cup of Poweraid with a flummoxed aid station worker. Sudheer and Ajay were amazed. We all laughed. Then we talked a little about the event this same Maniac was advertising on his coat- some kind of North Pole Marathon (I don't remember the exact name, maybe Artic something). He said it was at true 90 degrees north (the official North Pole inhabited by Santa Claus), and the runners do so on the floating polar cap ice pack in the Arctic- unreal, just got added to my list! Somewhere along the line, late in the game, we came upon a table with a box of Dunkin Donuts, I proceeded to grab a chocolate frosted, cream-filled donut (not Boston Kreme, that would've been too perfect) and eat it. Sudheer and Ajay were again amused by the nonchalance of veteran back-of-the-pack marathoners. It is, however, hard to run and talk with a donut in your mouth, so my tour guide services were impeded by my donut eating... or was it the other way around? Throughout all of these funny little vignettes, I remembered my first marathon and how I had not eaten a cheeseburger or fries, nor drank a beer or soda for the 6 months leading up to it, then watching Diane eat that chili dog afterward while talking to George about which marathon he was going to do the next day. I remember one was going to Ohio and the other was going to some other State. I simply couldn't wrap my mind around it, it was silly, it was outrageous, it challenged everything I thought I knew about what the human body can do, what happens when we age, how we define athletes, and myriad other foundational beliefs. It looked to me like Sudheer was getting that same feeling on steroids, because he was actually introduced to these people on the course, had some of the greatest hits stories on tap, and it all seemed surreal as the miles were melting away toward his own previously lofty goal that he was actually achieving, with an old friend and a new, donut eating personal cheerleader and tour guide. The guy was pumped and I was pumped for him; we were both pumped for Ajay and it was getting real.
We got to mile 22, which was the furthest they had ever gone in training. When they did it before, it took over 1/2 hour longer and they felt considerably worse. It finally started to set in that they really weren't going to quit and go home in disgrace, they both really were going to go home with marathon medals! At that point, Sudheer admitted that they had not been at all certain that they would finish the race, but they knew they had to try. He said, "My wife is going to be so proud of me." I wanted to cry. I didn't. But I may or may not be crying right now thinking about it. I mean, c'mon guys, how often do you get to say those words without sarcasm? That's an experience worth more than the price of admission, and you get a double feature too, because you also get to be exactly twice as proud of yourself.
I really just want to leave it at that, but I can't, because we haven't quite finished yet. 3/4 of a mile out, I can see the finish line off in the distance. I tell them, with all the gravity of the moment, "Go get your medals." Sudheer turns back to his friend and says, "Let's Go." They start trotting, then galloping, stiff knees and ankles limber up with the adrenaline, then they are really picking up the pace until they are giving it everything they have, which is a lot more than they thought they had. Ajay is running entirely upright and trying so hard that with each stride, the opposite forward fisted hand comes up above the level of his head like the WWF 'Bushwhackers' in the '80's. Sudheer is leaning a bit more forward and giving it the same all-out effort in a more traditional sprint as they push down the chute and cross the finish in what looked like a dead heat tie (from what I could see in my vantage behind them). Their friend, Krishna (Pictured Far Right Above)was there with a smartphone recording the big finish and the jubilation to follow. There were genuine hugs and real, heartfelt sentiments of accomplishment, gratitude, and happiness. I would've turned around and run back to the start if I thought I could experience that again, even by proxy. I've told you before, I'm not in it for the running. I hate to run. But I am in it for the accomplishment, the experiential learning, the subsequent toughness and the continual expansion of very personal outer limits that are earned through doing it. Those 2 guys have advanced their limits now and established a new benchmark by which they will judge many more things in life. I got to experience their triumph at a deep, personal level, right alongside them, and it yielded a feeling I want to experience again and again. This is, in fact, not the first time I've shared someone's first marathon. It's something I've had the honor to do with a few of my friends who each followed my example and decided to try to do marathons and wanted me to be there when they did. In each case, the race seemed physically less challenging and spiritually more fulfilling for me. I guess that is what Huey Lewis proclaimed as "The Power of Love". My new friends Sudheer and Ajay both thought that they got more out of the experience, running with me, than I did, running with them. That's just not so. If anything, we all created and shared a transcendent experience together and the whole miraculously became far more than the sum of its hearts.
If you are an experienced Maniac, 50 Stater, or otherwise interested endurance athlete and you want to share your ability to magically make miles disappear, teach kids or adults how to look at challenges the way you do, or otherwise want apply your talents to the severe challenges Host Communities face, let me know please. In the next post, you can read about our new affiliated charity called "Must Add Heart" and learn how you can make your races mean more to you and those around you, in and out of the race. Visit www.mustaddheart.com to get the primer!
Until then, I'm pleased to announce that the 3 of us finished in just under 6 hours. I then walked to my car and drove a little over 550 miles home to Kentucky, where I promptly shed my rotten running clothes, showered, and slept in my own bed. I woke up feeling essentially perfect, as if I didn't run or travel the day before. I now feel even more ready for the 777 Quest and look forward to the people I'll meet and the Love I get to feel along the way by making sure to remember the most important thing: If you really want to Win, you Must Add Heart.