75. A Lesson in Running

75. A Lesson in Running

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

A Lesson in Running

We may train or peak for a certain race, but running is a lifetime sport.
 ~Alberto Salazar

It was my first marathon. Philadelphia, November, 6 AM. The wind and the rain chilled me to the bone and the sun wasn’t yet out to warm up the air. The corral was full. Packed with runners standing arm to arm, jogging in place to stay warm. The starting horn would go off any second. You could feel the tension in the air. I was ready. I was twenty-eight and in the best shape of my life.

At least, I thought I was. Sure, I was fit. Even though I had only been running for a few months, I ran all the time and had run several races already. But none of them were 26.2 miles. The farthest I had run before was only fifteen miles. Still, I was young and cocky and I knew I could do it.

The horn went off and the race started. The crowd surged forward. A mob of running sneakers. It was exciting. The adrenaline kicked in and the weather became the furthest thing from my mind. I just concentrated on the cheers of the crowd and holding my own position amongst the other runners. I had no real finishing goal in mind, but when the crowd dispersed and I was settled into my pace I soon calculated that I could easily break four hours.

A few miles in I ran past an elderly runner. He must have been seventy years old and I was surprised he was even in the race. I was even more surprised that he was still ahead of me. He kept to the side of the road, his old legs moving one in front of the other, slowly but methodically. I passed him up without giving him a second glance or a word of encouragement.

As the miles wore on people were dropping out left and right but I kept moving. Fifteen miles came and went and I was on pace to beat four hours. Then, something strange happened.

I started to get tired. Very tired. It happened all at once. One second my stride was feeling fine, and then the next each step became harder and harder. My goal of four hours soon got pushed back to 4:10. Then 4:20. Finally, at about the 20-mile mark, I couldn’t run anymore. I had to walk.

I moved to the side of the road and plodded along. I needed a second wind, but it wasn’t coming. The rain was back. A cold rain soaking into my clothes and my sneakers. Now, people were passing me. I had hit the dreaded wall and there was nothing I could do about it but concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

Then, the elderly man passed me. He looked the same as he had earlier. Running at the same speed. As he passed, he looked over at me and smiled.

“Only a few more miles to go, lad. Don’t stop now!”

The thought of being beaten by a seventy-year-old man got me moving again. Like I said, I was young and cocky, and this little setback had only dampened my confidence a little. If I got moving I would be able to beat 4:30 and pass up that old man again.

So I moved up from a shambling walk to a shambling jog. The elderly gentleman had run ahead of me but I could still see him in the distance, moving forward at that same pace.

I spent the rest of the race trying to catch him, but no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t getting any closer. The finish line grew nearer, the crowds on the sidewalks got bigger and louder and that helped me to run faster and faster. Soon, I was running at a good pace with my second wind but the elderly man still stayed just out of reach. He didn’t stop at all. He just kept running and running.

He crossed the finish line ahead of me and I was soon to follow at 4:28:45. I never had such mixed emotions. I was proud and elated at finishing the marathon, but I was angry with myself for letting that elderly gentleman beat me. In the finishers’ tent, after grabbing a handful of bananas and some water, I tried to find him but he was gone.

It was only later on that I realized how much I admired him.

I’ll never forget that man. The senior citizen runner who put the cocky twenty-eight-year-old in his place. Some day I hope to be like him, running marathons in my seventies and passing all those first-timers as they struggle to finish. I’ll make sure to give them encouragement.

“Only a few more miles to go! Don’t stop now, lad!”

I know the real encouragement won’t come from my words, but it will come later when they look back on that race. When they realize that they have only just started their running careers. That the real test of a runner is not running for just 26.2 miles.

It is running for a lifetime.

~P.R. O’Leary

More stories from our partners