The Boston Marathon and facing my fears (and quieting my demons) was constantly on my mind the week of July 27, 2014.
The story starts like this, and I still haven’t figured out how it ends. >> Once there was a runner who lived with his family in Olathe, KS, who dreamed of running the 2016 Boston Marathon. In order to run Boston, he would have to run a qualifying marathon. As a 45 year old male, he would need a 3:23:00 marathon to be assured a spot. That is where he set his sights. And that would not be easy, even though he had a 3:14 marathon to his credit. Often, he asked himself why.
First, he figured that it was doable, achievable. It would be a stretch, but it was within reach. Qualifying outright for New York seemed impossible. For him, it would take a 2:58. That’s tough. And qualifying for the Olympic Trials he didn’t even consider. Not even when he was younger. But he wanted to join an elite group, this one, the Boston Marathoners. He had a romantic notion. He wanted to know (by experience) the esprit de corps even if it meant forgetting (for a while, or perhaps even losing) his joie de vivre.
Then he realized that it was a SMART goal. It was a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant (or result-focused), and time-bound goal. It was almost all of those things, and doubly time-bound. But was it really relevant? Relevant to whom? Was it “appropriate to the matter at hand”? What was the matter at hand? Perhaps it was significant. But it was not a goal that really mattered. It would not change the course of history or her story. But it was definitely a result-focused goal, not a process-focused goal. And perhaps that was the kernel of the problem, because, you see, this runner was process-focused. He loved process. <<
So here is how I worked out the relevance. Boston is about facing my fear of “not being good enough” and “not improving,” and to some extent it is about facing actual terror. It is my way of defining, redeeming, and living the American dream. I want to demonstrate that this way of life (this running life) is not only healthy, but also sustainable, honorable, replicable, and intrinsically rewarding.
One of my role models, a person who makes me believe that running is relevant, honorable and sustainable, is Bill Iffrig. When the first of the Boston 2013 bomb blasts went off, Bill Iffrig, 78, was within sight of the finish line. He got up with the help of some officers and finished the race in 4:03:57. At a Boston bombing memorial, Obama said, “Like Bill Iffrig… we may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we’ll pick ourselves up… We finish the race.”
From Runner’s World, July 2013, Iffrig described the day leading up to the bomb blast like this, “The day started good, a perfect day to run. I had trained good for the race, four solid months hitting 40-50 miles a week. I’d run Boston the year before, when it was so darn hot, and I just had an awful day. It took me over seven hours to finish that 2012 race. Well, last Monday felt as good as last year had been tough.”
At the end of the article, the journalist comments: Since he never considered not finishing you could say that his decision to take the hand of a race official, stand up, and finish the race was really no decision at all, but merely a reflex, little more than another impulse in a day ruled by one deliberate act and thousands of instances of chance. Or you might recognize that Iffrig had been training for nearly 80 years for this moment, accruing courage and endurance in workaday deposits. It never occurred to the three cops in the photo not to rush toward the fallen runner, and it never occurred to Iffrig not to finish what he’d started.
This guy was 78 years old. He ran four solid months of 40-50 mile weeks. The man is a running machine. He is what I want to become. Well, I’d settle for 20-30 mile weeks most of the time.
Then, the following year, 2014, there was Meb Keflezighi. He was already a hero of mine, but this just blew it out of the water. When asked if he was aware that 38 year old Americans were not supposed to win marathons, he said, “I didn’t get the memo. Age is just a number.”
After the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, Meb (the American from Eritrea) talked to Ryan Hall (the American from California and the current American marathon record holder). Meb said they needed to come back and win Boston. Win.
And an American had not won in 31 years.
I imagine him waking up every day for a year thinking about winning Boston. And his reason for doing it, which I would say is to redeem the marathon from the carnage of the terrorists, to make it a celebration of perseverance, to (as Meb said) “give the smiles back to Boston”. Before the race, Meb wrote the names of the four victims of the bombings on his bib. How many times did he think about saying these words after the finish? And I quote him, “My whole run is to run strong. Boston strong.”
Now that is relevant.
Here is the finish of the race and Meb’s celebration:
The commentator watching the race said, “Unbelievable! What can you say?” After finishing, Meb kissed the ground and screamed, bowed and waved to the crowd, crossed himself, and then broke down crying in his coach’s (Greg Meyer’s) arms. “Wow. It is beyond words. It is exactly what America and Boston needed at this moment.” And we got it from a naturalized American citizen from Eritrea (Africa), who ran his first mile in San Diego as a 7th grader because of a P.E. requirement. He ran it in 5:12 for an “A” and a t-shirt. He wanted the t-shirt more than the A.
For me, there is very little redemption in the conviction of the bomber. There is redemption in going out and running. We, the living, take the next step, moving forward in faith. We say the next word. We write the next chapter. We breathe in and out. And by doing so, we secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
In the interview right after finishing, Meb said “This is beyond running. We are resilient as runners. We wanted to change what happened last year. We wanted to bring the smiles back to Boston. I said to ESPN immediately after the bombings… I wanna come back and win this thing. It is what Boston deserves. I am blessed. God gave me the opportunity to do it. To be in the list of elite names. It is huge. This solidifies my career.”
While spelunking for Meb’s Boston finish image above, I drilled into some youtube and watched the finish of the marathon. There was some chatter posted. One person wrote, “He doesn’t look like an American to me.” Someone retorted, “Please keep your disease to yourself.” Amen. My wife pointed out that disease is dis-ease.
Then in the middle of my warm up for a Saturday long run, I heard “Mission” by Rush. I was laying on the floor, resting from a set of sit ups. It made me think of Meb and his drive (his dream) to win. It tells the truth about his dream and my dream. How they are the same and how far apart they are.
Here it is on youtube with lyrics:
Hold your fire – Keep it burning bright
Hold the flame ’til the dream ignites –
A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission
When I feel the powerful visions their fire has made alive
I wish I had that instinct. I wish I had that drive.
Spirits fly on dangerous missions. Imaginations on fire
Focused high on soaring ambitions
Consumed in a single desire
In the grip of a nameless possession- A slave to the drive of obsession-
A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission
Obsession has to have action-
Pride turns on the drive
It’s cold comfort To the ones without it
To know how they struggled- How they suffered about it
If their lives were exotic and strange
They would likely have gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane
We each pay a fabulous price, For our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision Is a dream with a mission…
I know there are secrets that set me apart from Meb. His experiences, abilities, and motivations. They come from a deeper well than mine. They set him apart. It’s cold comfort. But I have a scaled down version of his dream. And I want to walk in his footsteps.
Sometimes I feel like I am in the grip of a nameless possession. It is like instead of having a fever, the fever has me. It is a wrestling match with this dream.
Meb’s life has been exotic and strange – much more exotic and strange than mine. And both of us will pay a fabulous price for crossing the finish line, for our version of paradise.
“But a spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.”
If you have time, read this. Meb was nominated in 2014 for sportsman of the year by Tim Layden.
If you have time, watch this on youtube; it’s an interview with the WSJ. And look for the names of the Boston victims on his bib when they show the race.
American marathon legend Meb Keflezighi talks to fellow Boston marathon runner and WSJ sports writer Matthew Futterman about his historic win and the first Boston title for an American in more than 30 years.
In the interview, when asked how he has managed to compete for so long, Meb said “Drills and therapy. It’s a full-time job. I’m always doing something to better myself so I can compete against the best.”
How do you keep yourself from getting hurt in training? “As an older athlete, I have to take care of myself… My sponsors [PowerBar and Sketchers] have to allow me to be who I am… I am relaxed. I don’t have to prove myself… Now it’s just, you know, ride the wave.”
Referring to Nike, Meb responded on his sponsors, “I am happier and delighted to have the partnerships I have. Whereas before there were expectations… Last year, nobody [especially my sponsors] complained to me when I didn’t start Boston marathon. I was a spectator like the victims. I would have gotten, ‘How come you didn’t run?’… It’s just easy going. They like who I am. I like the products they make for me. I use them.”
Meb congratulated Matthew, the WSJ interviewer, who also ran Boston, on his “great finish.”
And I realized I want my family (my sponsors) to like me for who I am. So, first I should like me for who I am. I should smile at myself in the mirror. I should enjoy my body and the process of training. I should not beat myself up and scold myself (too much) for my imperfections and failings. I should stop trying to prove myself. What have I got to prove? Nothing. Then I should work on liking them for who they are. Then, maybe, if the WIND wills it, they will find some grace to like me for who I am. And they might even start to think that running is pretty cool.
But now I am getting ahead of myself. First, breathe in. Then, breathe out.
Repeat until you get it right.