59. Extreme Corps Marathon and Stars

59. Extreme Corps Marathon and Stars

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Extreme Corps Marathon and Stars

Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.
~Oprah Winfrey

“I’m running the Marine Corps Marathon!” my husband announced at dinner.

I shot back, “No, you’re not!”

Mark, my husband of eighteen years, snapped back, “Oh, yes, I am and that’s final!” He spoke like a Marine Corps drill sergeant.

Our family had barely recovered from Mark’s last attempt at a marathon, which took months of preparation. The night before each run, I strategically placed nourishment along the course: bottles of Gatorade hidden behind telephone poles; PowerBars stored underneath rocks; and water bottles perched alongside road signs — all in an effort to get my husband to his next “extreme” goal.

Mark’s recent announcement came just as we sat down to dinner. Jon, our younger son, folded his hands tightly and prayed, “Dear God, please help Daddy win this time!” He heaved a sigh of relief and shoved his spoon into the bowl of mashed potatoes.

Why was I dragging my feet? Didn’t I know how important this was to my husband — sort of a mile marker before he turned forty? But it was his goal — not mine — and now we were all going to pay the extreme price in training for the event.

Mark explained that this time would be different: Oprah Winfrey was running the Marine Corps Marathon with him. My eyes lit up. A chance to see Oprah run… that was worth it! Suddenly the whole idea of a marathon changed. No longer did I see tedious training runs before the big event; I saw an opportunity to rub elbows with a star. Could it be that I was actually going to get an up close and personal look at one of my favorite television celebrities?

For days — no weeks — we marked red “X’s” on the calendar as each run brought us one “step” closer to the Marine Corps Marathon (and Oprah Winfrey!).

Jon — who was seven years old at the time — asked, “Is Daddy really going to run with O-pah?”

I guess he heard me talk more about the “star” than his dad’s participation in the event.

Carefully forming my words, I said, “No, your dad will be running in the same race with Oprah, but they won’t be running together. Do you understand?”

Jon nodded his head “yes” and ran upstairs to play video games.

The following week, Mark continued with the planned schedule for the 20-mile run (the final “leg” of the journey before the actual event). I placed nourishment under rocks; Gatorade behind lamp posts, and once again hid behind trees to make sure no one took the precious contents before Mark could retrieve them. Twenty miles would serve as the last endurance test before the race.

The morning of the marathon, we packed up the car and hit the Capital Beltway before 5:00 AM for the three-hour drive into Washington, D.C., where the race was being held. There were legions of cars, newspaper reporters, and a mammoth entourage for Oprah.

What we hadn’t planned on and what we couldn’t have anticipated was the uncooperative weather. A slight chance of rain turned into a torrential downpour. We sloshed through inches of mud — on the once grassy turf — as we waited in long lines to register. We had one pink umbrella, a soggy blanket (reserved for Mark), and an already drenched rain poncho (size extra small). Mark positioned himself with the other runners while we waited for the “star” to appear.

Jon tugged on my coat and asked, “Mom, can we go home now? I’m tired!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the race hadn’t even started yet!

I hugged him tightly and said, “No, honey, we came to see your daddy run in the big race — remember?”

“Nuh-ah, you came to see O-pah!” he shouted defiantly and scooted away.

No sooner had the words left his mouth when I caught a glimpse of Oprah exiting her trailer, along with her trainer. I jockeyed for position to snap a picture, but it was futile. The runners merged into one big blur for the start of the race.

I stood on a tree stump to get a better view and caught a glimpse of Mark near the middle third of the formation. He was shivering. He stood for two hours in typhoon-like conditions with no protection except for a pair of flimsy running shorts and a T-shirt. Before I could make my way to Mark to tell him it was okay to turn back, the shot was fired to signal the beginning of the race.

We cheered on every wet, soggy, and mud-drenched runner as they passed by — giving shouts of praise, “Great job… keep going… don’t give up!”

As the runners entered the first half of the race, we headed for the bridge closest to the finish line hoping to catch a glimpse of the star runner — Oprah — and her entourage. My older son, Jeremy, grabbed onto my soggy coat sleeve and shouted, “Mom, there she is — there’s Oprah!”

I couldn’t believe it. My husband was running alongside Oprah and they were talking!

Jon turned to me and said, “Mom, I thought you said Daddy wasn’t running with O-pah?”

I was shocked — stunned really!

“What’s he saying?” Jon asked.

“I’m not sure, but I think we’ll find out later,” I said.

Soaked and drenched, Mark made his way to the 20-mile mark. We shouted as he passed by, “You’re almost there… don’t give up!” And then suddenly Mark turned and started running off course and into the crowd.

“No, Mark, you’re going the wrong way… go back, go back!” But he kept running toward us — shaking his head — signaling defeat.

“Don’t give up… you’re almost there!” I screamed. I pointed to the street and waved my hands, “Go back!”

Jon clutched my raincoat and whispered, “Mom, I think Daddy’s lost!”

“No, honey, he’s just confused; he’ll be fine,” I countered.

It was no use. Mark had surrendered. No amount of shouting was going to change the outcome. Mark stared right through me — glassy-eyed and dazed. That’s when I realized he was in a state of hypothermia. His legs cramped up and finally gave out underneath him.

A wounded heart is so much more difficult to heal than a blister on the foot. We watched as Oprah crossed the finish line and the shouts of glory rippled through the crowd — as if for a soldier coming home from war.

We gathered up our rain-soaked blankets and headed for the car. “Sorry, guys. I disappointed you,” Mark said in defeat.

“No, Daddy, you won!” Jon shouted.

Jon pointed to the set of dog tags that Mark wore around his neck for security purposes. On one side were the words “Never Give Up” and on the other side was our cell phone number in case of an emergency. In Jon’s eyes, his daddy had won the race!

My eyes were brimming with tears as Jon hugged Mark. Tears fell in a steady stream as I melted into the arms of my wounded “soldier.” I took the dog tags from around Mark’s neck and clutched them in my hand.

Jon grinned broadly, and with his green eyes shining, he said, “Daddy’s a star, right Mom?”

“Yes, Jon, you’re absolutely right — an extreme star!”

The human spirit is an amazing thing — especially in the heart of a runner. Mark never surrendered to defeat. Three weeks later, he ran the Harrisburg Marathon in Pennsylvania in 4 hours and 17 minutes. It wasn’t the “Marine Corps Marathon” that he had hoped for, but he did it — he never gave up. And in one little boy’s eyes, he was already a winner!

~Connie K. Pombo

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