My son Jeff runs marathons. I don't know why. I will never understand why anyone would voluntarily run 26.2 miles. But he does it. Don't get me wrong; he's not one of those people whose goal is to run a marathon in every state or anything like that. He just likes doing it once in awhile.
I could understand it more easily when he was in school and running with a group of friends. The camaraderie of the cross country team lent itself to doing something like that. Encouragement came from several sources--teammates, coaches and the imaginative, playful pranks that they played on each other. A bond formed among the members, and no one was left out. Good runners and bad were all included in this all for one and one for all atmosphere of training.
Now, though, Jeff lives in Washington, DC and of the support systems of his youth have changed. Friends live in various states from coast to coast. Some still run, but it is known as a burn-out sport for even the most determined. Add to that the changes that life brings--jobs, commitments, marriage--and for many running falls into the realm of past experiences. But not for Jeff; he has consistently run long distances for the past 8 years. Occasionally another friend will train and Jeff will meet them in the city of choice and they will run together. But, more often than not, he runs alone.
Training for a marathon is intentional and systematic. It commences months in advance, beginning with three or four miles of running and building up to several, actually many, miles at a time. In good weather or bad, Jeff heads out, running through the streets and up and down the hills that make up the part of the city in which he lives. It takes strength, both physical and mental strength, determination and heart in order to train, especially as a lone runner. There is a running club to which Jeff belongs, but often their schedule doesn't jive with his other commitments. And so, alone, he starts off, free to determine his own route and establish his own pace. At the end of the training, he feels confident that he will be able to finish the race with the simple hope that he improves upon his previous time.
I am in awe of the commitment Jeff has made as well as the strength of his mental core. The discipline it takes is tremendous. For me, just being a spectator on race day is strenuous enough. My husband and I move quickly from place to place, trying to catch a brief glimpse of our son as he passes by the queue of spectators along the route. At the Chicago Marathon last year the weather was unseasonably warm and even spectators were overheated due to a combination of relocating, sun exposure and crowding. Stopping for a Jamba Juice was what saved us from certain dehydration. Hearing continuously wailing sirens and seeing speeding ambulances gave me pause and I began to worry as time passed and we had yet to receive the latest update on Jeff's progress. Certainly he was far behind his hoped-for pace, but was he healthy? Or would we eventually hear from a paramedic or hospital that he was one of the heat exhausted racers that had been anonymously admitted? These are the thoughts that go through a mother's mind.
We stayed put in our chosen spot and eventually saw him round the bend and begin the uphill struggle that was the beginning of end of the route. Relieved and proud of his accomplishment, our cheers and applause served as encouragement. They had already stopped the race at that point, and he was one of the last couple of hundred runners to finish the entire 26.2 miles. We were happy to see him finish. While his time was far from his best, it in no way detracted from what he had accomplished.
Running is only one small part of Jeff's amazing life, but it has contributed in significant ways to his outstanding character. He has learned discipline: to challenge himself and overcome adversity even while in the midst of tremendous obstacles. He has learned to revel in his success humbly and to accept defeat graciously, without whining or blaming. No doubt other decisions and accomplishments have contributed to his character as well. Each piece of the puzzle contributes to the entire picture. Running is just one piece, albeit a colorful one. While I still can't understand his commitment to it, I am proud that he has learned to set a goal and work towards its completion.